Running Dinner Planner


Sometimes called a Progressive Dinner or, more recently, a Safari Supper, a Running Dinner is a dinner party with successive courses prepared and eaten at the residences of different hosts. Usually this involves the consumption of one course at each location, and the intent is for the participants to meet as many new people as possible. 

The intent of a Running Dinner is for the participants to meet as many new people as possible. This implies that a seating arrangement needs to be found in which as few people as possible meet more than once. With events involving 15 or more houses, 30 or more participants, and 3 or more courses, designing such a perfect arrangement is notoriously difficult and often even impossible. Indeed, doing this by hand typically involves spending a lot of time planning and is almost guaranteed to yield a suboptimal result

The app is designed to help in all aspects of planning a Running Dinner, such as making and evaluating a seating arrangement, and preparing invitations. There are three steps involved:

a)    Provide a list of Participants and participating Houses.

This can be done by using the iPhone’s AddressBook, or by providing the data in the form of a Comma-Separated-Value list. The easiest is probably to use our Cloud services to copy-paste a table from Excel to your web account.

b)    Design a seating arrangement. 

Making a plan which House will serve which Course, and which Participant will eat where, can be done interactively in a Graphical User Interface (GUI) by dragging Houses to Courses, and Participants to Houses.

In this process, the GUI automatically keeps track of and displays how often people meet, so that the user can try and reach the best seating arrangement. In the background, the app is also searching for the best arrangement. Once found, these optimised arrangements can be inspected for their quality so as to compare them with a user’s own design, but their details can only be accessed as a paid-for feature. 

c)    Generate PDF invitations.

Once all Participants have been assigned a seat in all Courses, the app offers mail-merge functionality as a paid-for feature, with which custom-designed PDF invitations can be generated.

At minimum, the Planner needs a list of names of the participants, and the addresses where they live. That’s all. These can of course be fake if privacy worries you, but they should be ‘real enough’ for the Dinner’s participants to make sense of. With that, a seating arrangement and personalised invitations can automatically be generated within minutes by clicking just a few buttons - see the short tutorial. If you want more control, you can make use of all the bells and whistles the App offers, such as specifying the number of courses, seating capacities of houses, preferences for serving a specific course, who serve as hosts,  dietary requirements, preferences for certain people to avoid or stick together with other people, and even what should be considered a ‘good’ arrangement in the first place and how the optimisation should work. Just about anything you can think of in relation to planning a Running Dinner seating arrangement, the app can help with. For most cases, though, a list of names and addresses is enough, and the process only takes minutes thanks to the computing power of your own iPhone or iPad.

An ideal seating arrangement is one in which no two people meet more than once. Creating such an arrangement is not always possible. For example, it’s easy enough to divide 36 Participants equally among 6 Houses serving an appetizer, and to divide them equally among 6 other Houses serving the main course, all without anyone meeting anyone else twice. It’s already a lot harder (but possible) to do the same thing for the dessert, but it is proven to be impossible to add a fourth Course to that list: with a fourth Course, at least 2 people are bound to meet at least twice. The question on whether or not an ideal arrangement exists for a given number of Participants, Houses, and Courses, finds its mathematical origin in the so-called Kirkman’s schoolgirl problem. The problem is closely related to Sudoko, the ever continuing search for Mutually Orthogonal Latin Squares of high order (see also the 36-officer problem), and mathematical field theory. The Running Dinner Planner uses such techniques in combination with optimisation routines to calculate an ideal seating arrangement if it exists, or something close to it if it doesn’t.

There is no known algorithm that always leads to an ideal – or even the most optimal – seating arrangement. Even if there was, additional factors such as male-female ratio at tables, houses that only want to serve a particular course, meetings between people that don’t like each other, seating capacities, or requiring that certain individuals (such as hosts) are present in a certain house serving a certain course, all further complicate the matter. The app takes all this into account by way of a penalty system that scores a seating arrangement based on these factors, and hunting for the lowest total penalty. By adjusting the penalties, the user can steer the optimisation into a direction that minimises the chance undesirable arrangements result. The paid-for optimisation tries to achieve the best arrangement both by starting from scratch as well as from the most recent user-defined arrangement.

Yes, you can. There’s two ways of doing that: 

  • From the Invitation screen (see step 11): use the mail-button ( Envelope ) in the bottom of the screen.
  • From the Planner screen (see step 10): once you have created a seating arrangement, you can select any Course or Table and subsequently click on the Information Banner. This will display the details of the Course or Table you selected, and feature a “Populate by CSV” button. Pressing this button allows the user to load (part of) a seating arrangement into the Planner, but also pops up a screen that displays the current seating arrangement for that Course or Table in terms of “ShortNames” of the seated individuals and “ShortAddresses” of the houses involved, together with a legend giving the full details of those ShortNames and ShortAddresses. At the top of that window you’ll find a number of buttons, including a copy ( Copy ) and a mail ( Envelope ) button. These buttons can be used to either copy-to-clipboard or mail the entire arrangement, not merely that part pertinent to the Course or Table you’re investigating. See also tutorial on cloud services in the Tutorials section. (Note that, in order to access details of auto-generated solutions, a Full Assist mode has to be purchased).

Yes, the Planner app can be installed for free, and setting up and using an account also costs you nothing. You can use its powerful graphical user interface (GUI) to make your own seating arrangement, and the Planner will check the quality of your plan on the fly, all completely free of charge. That said, we are confident that you will want to use the Planner’s sophisticated algorithms to make a seating arrangement for you, since it is very time consuming to make an arrangement where as few as possible participants meet more than once - and isn’t that what a Running Dinner is all about? For example: finding an arrangement for 16 people, 16 houses, and 4 Courses, where no-one meets the same person twice, is guaranteed to take you many hours - if you find a suitable arrangement at all. The Planner can do this within a few minutes - and generate personalised invitations to boot. In fact, the Planner will show you the seating arrangement it found before asking you for a small investment to unlock the details of the arrangement, so you’ll know up front what you’ll be paying for.

The Planner obviously needs names and addresses to make a seating arrangement for you, and to generate personalised invitations. They can be ‘fake’ names and addresses, if privacy worries you. We recommend, of course, that you choose names that make sense to the participants of the Dinner. If you’d like the Planner to also automatically send these invitations to the participants, you’ll have to provide their e-mails as well.  If you want to do this yourself: no need to provide e-mails. Whatever you choose to do: other than using your data internally to do what the Planner promises to do, the app doesn’t do anything with it. To avoid any confusion: your data is not shared with any 3rd party. See also our Privacy Policy.

Yes, and no. If you want certain participants to stick together (‘couples’) while others move around by themselves (‘individuals’), you can force the Planner to try and honour that requirement by defining a Special Relation (see step 3), give it an appropriate name (e.g., ‘couples’), and assigning it a negative penalty by dragging the appropriate slider all the way to the left. You can then specify in step 8 the people that have this Special Relation with each other, i.e., which individuals should be treated as ‘couple’. The Planner will then attempt to stick these individuals together, if at all possible. That said, it is not guaranteed that this will always be the case, as many other factors play a role. We are currently working on an update that will make it possible for certain individuals to always move together. Watch this space!

Most certainly. Just provide a list of restaurants instead of houses in step 1 (Persons and Houses) - see also the ‘2 minute tutorial’ the Tutorials page on how to use MyPlanner to do that in the most convenient way. By listing a Participant on the same line as a restaurant, the Planner will consider that Participant to be a ‘host’ of that restaurant, but that has no effect on the planning if you set the ‘nr of hosts required to be present at a Course’ to  zero in step 2 (Course definition). The planner will then simply not require that particular Participant to be present at that particular restaurant - although (s)he may of course happen to end up there when the seating arrangement is optimised. If you’re using the same restaurant for multiple Courses, we advise to list that restaurant multiple times under a slightly different ‘address’ (e.g., “Eat at Joe’s - starter” and “Eat at Joe’s - dessert”, etc.