Air Force Protocol
from 'Til Wheels are Up'
"Careful planning is the key ingredient to successful entertaining."


Entertaining can be as simple as meeting someone for a cup of coffee to having a formal dinner or reception. There are many reasons for entertaining: To honor someone or some organization, to meet new people, to thank someone, or to repay hospitality.

In this chapter we explore the many different kinds of social events you may be asked to plan and execute. In some cases the discussion unavoidably overlaps with topics covered elsewhere. When appropriate, we've referenced other chapters that cover topics in more detail where we've just touched on them here. A special word on funding the events discussed: Chapter 2, "Funding Protocol Events" 'Til Wheels Are Up!' ) briefly discusses the various sources of U.S. Government moneys that sometimes can be used to support certain protocol events. You need to review this chapter carefully as well as the applicable Air Force Instructions governing use of these funds. We mention it once here to avoid numerous parenthetical references to Chapter 2 throughout this chapter on entertaining, simply because the subject comes up so often.

Many believe arranging social functions and related entertainment is where the "rubber meets the runway" for protocol officers. Done properly, planning and executing social functions can be some of the most rewarding work you'll do in protocol. Read and enjoy!

"The world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork."
Oscar Wilde

Formal Dinners - informational background

Table Seating.

There are many factors you'll want to consider in seating guests at the dinner table. (Assigned seating is the norm at formal dinners.) At official dinners, seating is typically by order of precedence of the guests, see Chapter 8,
Protocol Order of Precedence. At other than official dinners, you'll want to consider factors such as congeniality of guests, personalities, do they have something in common, did they maybe sit next to that person at a dinner another time so put someone else next to them this time (this happens a lot to our local general/flag officers and spouses -- they are the "top" military people so they end up always sitting next to the "top" civilian people even at functions downtown). See Chapter 10, Table Seating and Arrangements, for suggestions.

Note that it is a good idea to provide the hostess the table seating plan a day or two ahead of the dinner. Include nicknames/"go-by" names, and official positions (if applicable) or all guests seated at the head table.

Dinner Conversation.

The "rule" is you must spend time talking to people on both sides of you whether you find them interesting or not. Business shouldn't be discussed unless everyone is involved in the same business. Politics, finances, and religion are not suitable topics. And don't talk at length about yourself or continually about any one subject -- BORING! Current events, sports, hobbies, cultural matters, friends you may have in common, are all good subjects.

Smoking Manners.

Get the approval of your host and the other guests before "lighting up". A considerate host will show guests to a patio or porch outside if they don't allow smoking in their home or at the club/restaurant, if they have a no smoking policy. Never smoke during the meal. After dessert, you may smoke. Don't smoke in a restaurant unless you're in an approved smoking area and others are smoking also.

Centerpieces and Decorations

Centerpieces can be made of a variety of things -- fresh flowers, fruit, greenery, candles, silk flowers (don't get them too close to the candles!!!), glassware, etc. Diners should always be able to see over the centerpiece.

If your dinner is at the club or a restaurant, be sure to ask about centerpieces and decorations. If funds are not available, many times the catering manager can help with some innovative ideas. Another idea would be to check with the officers' wives club to see if they have any decorations they'd be willing to share or make.

At the very least you should try to have a fresh floral centerpiece on the head table.

Receptions - additional information

Preceremony Coffee. - additional information

Farewell/Welcome/Community Leader Receptions. - additional information

Informal Dinners Off-Base - additional information

Newcomers' Receptions.

At a newcomers' reception, all newcomers, their spouses, directors and spouses, and the commander, deputy/vice commanders and spouses attend. There is a receiving line consisting of the commander, deputy/vice commanders and spouses. Prepare name tags for all attendees for this type of function. Light refreshments and beverages (non-alcoholic) are authorized from SM&W funds. Newcomers' receptions are normally held at the end of the day. Flag set-ups are appropriate.

Other Social Functions

Commander's Calls.

Commander's calls are usually held quarterly and are an opportunity for the commander to get together with everyone and pass on his policies, any important information, and kudos. Refreshments are limited to "light", but this is the one occasion when we are allowed to provide beer with SM&W funds. If your organization is small enough, try to have everyone at one commander's call and alternate between the officers' and NCO club. You may be asked to arrange for guest speakers, reserved parking, and other administrative details. Flag set-ups are appropriate. Your commander may also use this forum to present decorations or promote people. If so, see Chapter 16,
Other Ceremonies


A brunch, as the name tells us, is held between breakfast and lunch, usually closer to lunch. The menu includes a combination of breakfast and lunch selections. Food is usually set on a buffet table but can be served if you have a smaller group; however, the table is not as formally set as at a regular breakfast or lunch. You may want to include the ending time on your invitation so your guests will know when they're expected to leave. Brunches are usually casual or informal.

Afternoon Teas.

Teas can be given to honor the spouse of a visiting DV, to welcome a new commander's spouse, or for whatever you like. Invitations are only required for a formal tea; telephone invitations are recommended for informal teas. Tea sandwiches and a variety of sweets are usually served. In the winter, bite-sized hot appetizers may be served but usually the tea sandwiches are cold, light, and delicate.


Barbecues are an informal way to entertain either a small group or a large group. There needs to be a chair or comfortable place for everyone to sit (even if it's a bale of hay!). The meat dish is prepared on a grill. Cocktails may be served, but it is not necessary to have heavy hors d'oeuvres -- just potato chips, pretzels, nuts, etc. The remainder of the meal is prepared ahead of time and brought out and set on side tables when the meat is ready. And don't forget the condiments -- they need to be set out in a convenient location for the guests to help themselves.

A variation on the "serve-yourself" plan is to serve "family style" at the table. In that case, the food is passed around on plates from guest to guest.

Decorations to go with your theme are a nice touch -- as mentioned above, bales of hay, hurricane lamps, checkered tablecloths, cowboy hats and scarves. Obviously, the dress would be casual -- and be specific on your invitation: "Western Casual".


Icebreakers are usually held the first night of a meeting or conference. Heavy hors d'oeuvres are served (and a conference fee charged in this case) so the guests do not have to plan on having dinner afterward. The atmosphere should be informal. Be sure to prepare name tags as many of these people may not have ever met before. As protocol officer, be prepared to make introductions and make sure guests have a chance to meet and socialize with the host. Be particularly attentive to guests standing off by themselves -- get them involved by introducing them to someone or visit with them yourselves until you can get someone else in the conversation -- your boss would be an excellent candidate!

Things to Think About for All Socials


On some occasions it is desirable to have professional entertainment. Entertainment is recommended if you have a particularly long social function planned with many people in attendance. Holiday parties, retirement dinners, farewell receptions and dinners are all functions at which you may want to schedule entertainment. If you are planning entertainment for a foreign DV, the entertainers should be American. Many foreign visitors are very interested in learning about our country.

"Music is an international language and can be enjoyed whether the language of the host country is understood or not."
McCaffree and Innis

Forms of entertainment to consider would be a pianist or guitarist for background music during a reception, or even a jazz combo (nothing too loud so guests are unable to converse without "yelling" at each other). Consider continuing the pianist or guitarist through the dinner hour also.

For after dinner, never schedule any program for more than 30 minutes -- you lose your guests' attention after about 40 minutes -- and you'll probably need time for presentations, also. After dinner considerations would be an actual "show" put on by an orchestra and singers, dance music, etc. Be sure to properly introduce the group before they perform. Also they need to have a room to dress and relax in before their performance and during a break if you're having some type of music all evening long. Plan snacks for them. Also remember to treat them with respect. Check with the group leader before their performance to see what kind of set-up they require, i.e., how many chairs. Let them know if they need to bring their own portable piano (and check with the club to see if their piano is in tune!).

See AFI 35-203, Band Program
, 10 May 94, for information on USAF bands and how to schedule them. We've provided the latest list of Air Force bands and addresses from the AFI at the end of this chapter. So, check your local military bases to see what might be available in your area.

Contingency funds can be used to pay for entertainment on a modest basis (if your ratios are right -- or you're entertaining certain foreign guests). So, keep your ears open and check out any combos you hear about through the local community. A good source of entertainment recommendations is your club manager or your local chamber of commerce personnel.

More on Name Tags, Place Cards, and Seating Charts.

You may not always want to use name tags at a dinner in a restaurant, but we recommend using place cards and a seating chart -- it just makes the seating process smoother. Make sure the host knows you're planning on using place cards; he or she may ask for open seating and you'll want time to pull the place cards off the table. If you are having a cocktail-buffet or reception and are using name tags, ask the restaurant to set up tables outside the door of the room so you can lay out the name tags alphabetically. Make sure you have enough protocol people there to assist guests with their name tags.

You need to get to the club/restaurant early enough to put out the place cards long before the guests start arriving. We also recommend arranging the place cards in order by table prior to arriving at the dinner location. That way you're ready to just put them down and don't have to puzzle over "who goes where". (Remember: separate husbands and wives, but don't separate unmarried couples!) See Chapter 10,
Table Seating and Arrangements.


As the protocol officer you need to know when and how to make introductions. You should never fail to make a necessary introduction -- but don't force one when it is not appropriate or convenient, i.e., don't interrupt anyone to make a "quick" introduction, wait until there is a break in the conversation. When you are going to introduce someone, make sure they have enough information to start a conversation and state the names clearly and correctly. If you're introducing someone to a group, get the group's attention, give the new person's name and give the names of the group in the order they're sitting/standing. If the group is very large, just introduce the person to a few of the people and don't worry beyond that. Always remember the person you mention first is the one you are honoring; i.e., General Smith, may I introduce you to Colonel Jones, Director of Public Affairs."

Hints for Remembering Names.

The Handshake.

Shaking hands is very important. It is the usual greeting for both men and women. Self-confidence and assurance are conveyed with a firm, quick grasp and shake. Valerie Grant-Sokolosky's CORPORATE PROTOCOL has some great information on handshaking and body language.


Guests may depart whenever they wish. The old rule of the guest of honor leaving first is now obsolete. The only exception is if the President of the United States is in attendance.

Thank Yous.

Thank you notes are necessary if you are the guest of honor. Otherwise, if you have thanked your host when leaving, a note is not required but is always a nice touch and very much appreciated. The thank you should be handwritten and sent within three or four days of the function.

Dietary Restrictions.

It is especially important that you know of any dietary restrictions in advance. Normally, a general/flag officer's secretary or aide will let you know if there are any (and make sure you keep a note of that) -- i.e., allergic to seafood, a milk intolerance, etc. It is very easy to ask a restaurant or club to substitute a meal for one person and not cause any embarrassment for that individual or the host. The substitution can still be taken care of very quickly even if you don't have advance knowledge.

Religious Dietary Laws to Keep in Mind.

Foreign Customs.

Be cognizant of foreign customs. Facial gestures and hand and arm gestures can mean a variety of things around the world. Here are only a few, not all inclusive examples:
  • Taiwan: Blinking the eyes at someone is considered impolite.
  • Australia: Winking at women (even a friend) is improper.
  • Greece and Bulgaria: A head nod means "No" (most other countries it signifies "Yes").
  • Middle and Far East: Pointing with the index finger is considered impolite.
  • Finland: Folded arms are a sign of arrogance and pride.
  • Fiji: Folded arms are a sign of disrespect.
  • China and Japan: Never present your hands palm outward or upward.
A wonderful source of the above type of information is the book DO'S AND TABOOS AROUND THE WORLD, edited by Roger E. Axtell. He has even included information on what colors of gift wrap should and should not be used for gift-giving in certain countries.

Menu Planning.

Check the menu to see what kind of variety there is and check the prices. It is normally easier for everyone involved to plan a set menu. Then there's no confusion as to "who gets what" and you don't need to use a "code" for the waiters/waitresses (i.e., a red star on the place cards for "beef"). Ordering from the menu, unless you have a small group, takes too long.

For a heavy hors d'oeuvres reception, select your menu items carefully. And check the cost of the items -- you want to have plenty of food and a good selection; so don't pick only the most expensive items (they don't go very far!). Also, include both hot and cold hors d'oeuvres.

For receptions/socials that will be paid with SM&W funds, you need to be especially careful with your menu choices. Some command policies are no more than $3.00 per person and
AFI 34-201 , states "no meal substitutes"; so watch out for what you order -- no sandwiches or heavy items that someone might consider a meal. And don't go overboard on meatballs, shrimp, chicken wings, sandwich trays, etc. Just one or two selections of that type of food combined with fruit and vegetable trays and a variety of chips and dips and other "light" items will keep you out of trouble.

Other Planning Factors.

We've provided a generic social checklist for social functions that may be useful to you. And, whatever you do, don't forget those invitations!

List of Air Force Bands and Addresses