Special Events

HOLIDAY PARTY BUSINESS: BOTH NAUGHTY AND NICE

Throughout the industry, special event pros report a mixed bag from Santa Claus this year, as corporate holiday parties boom for some, but fall short for others.

"Our holiday party season has been phenomenal," notes Sally Webb, head of London's The Special Event Co. (www.specialevent.co.uk), "the best we have had since well before 9/11. I definitely feel there is a mood of optimism amongst clients this year, and a better sense of stability in the jobs market, which means that companies are not afraid to be seen to be spending monies on employees." Her company just completed a holiday party for 2,000 employees of a major Japanese bank, putting them through 20 different challenges and rewarding winners with "gold nuggets" that could be traded for prizes.

Also forecasting happy holiday business is New York's Gotham Hall (www.gothamhallevents.com), which reports a 40 percent boost in bookings over last year, and is "already getting inquiries for December 2005," according to managing director B. Allan Kurtz. Similarly, Universal Studios Hollywood ( www.universalstudioshollywood.com)in Los Angeles is seeing a "record year" for bookings, notes director of special events and convention sales Evelyn Taylor. "The majority of our holiday events were booked by August."

Low unemployment in the local area and an exciting new expansion have added up to better holiday bookings than last year for the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego (manchestergrandhyatt.com), according to director of convention and catering services Brian Comes, CMP. "We had to turn away business on the prime Friday and Saturday nights." He notes that the "winter wonderland" theme is strong, with companies quick to spring for entertainment. The biggest corporate worry? Spirited consumption of spirits. "The companies continue to be conscious of alcohol consumption by limiting the amount of hosted alcoholic beverages and providing non-alcoholic beverages late into the evening," he adds.

This holiday season is cooking for San Francisco Bay Area caterer Paula LeDuc (www.paulaleduc.com), which is seeing more business and larger events this year over last, according to vice president Lauri Dorman. The softening of business from tech-heavy Silicon Valley is being offset by stronger convention business, she notes. Although she describes budgets as "somewhat better," the caterer keeps revenues strong via lounge events featuring dessert buffets and specialty cocktails such as the pomegranate martini.

WHERE'S SANTA?

In Atlanta, catering company A Legendary Event (www.legendaryevents.com) founder Tony Conway says holiday business is up 15 percent this year over last, and "we are actually back to [our] revenues before 9/11 on our holiday events, so we're very pleased with that." This season's events include plenty of seated four- and five-course dinners, Conway notes, along with "open house" brunch events at which children are welcome. What's missing: "The typical 'Christmas' theme," Conway reports. "No visits from Santa this year at any of the holiday parties!"

Patrick Cuccaro, general manager of Atlanta's Affairs to Remember Caterers (www.affairs.com) points to a steadily growing lead time in booking events. "While we have seen our business increase steadily over the past two years, the trend towards earlier booking is new and represents more confidence in the corporate decision-making process," he notes. For a party for an insurance company on Friday, Cuccaro's team will create a fancy feast including smoked duck profiteroles brushed with a honey-chile glaze, lobster cake "margaritas" (lobster cakes nestled in a bed of greens served in a martini glass), along with seafood displays and carved meat stations.

But some event pros are finding coal in their stocking. A Philadelphia hotel that prefers to remain anonymous says corporate holiday business is off 40 percent from 2000 to 2004. Since 9/11, "corporations have downsized their parties and have for the most part kept them smaller and more conservative," the director of sales and marketing reports.

BUDGETS DON'T BUDGE

While few others interviewed by Special Events Magazine for this article point to such a dramatic drop-off, many note that budgets seem to stick at the same level they have for the past several years, sometimes even when guest counts are higher.

"Budgets have remained exactly the same, while our number of employees and expectations are higher," notes Eileen Buser, manager of special events for New York-based Major League Baseball (www.mlb.com). Next week, she will host her holiday party at the Rock Center Café at Manhattan's Rockefeller Center, renting the famed ice rink for employees to skate for two hours. "It is a magical setting, and has allowed us to create a wholesome, fun activity for our guests that never fails to put us in the holiday spirit," she says.

Minneapolis-based financial services firm GMAC-RFC (www.gmacrfc.com) makes its holiday party do double-duty as a motivation tool, scheduling it after New Year's Day following the annual kickoff meeting for all associates, according to convention and expositions manager Damon Schoening. "The budget will be slightly larger due to the usual price increases only," he notes.

"We are about the same as far as revenue, however we have more smaller parties--100 to 300 guests--rather than the 600 to 1,000 that we had last year," notes Syd Sexton, president of Denver's Gourmet Fine Catering (www.gourmetfinecatering.com). "The larger parties seem to be going to the all-inclusive hotels to avoid the costs associated with off-premise," such as rental and space issues.

NOTING THE NEWS

"Most [clients] waited till after the [U.S.] elections to call and confirm," notes William Allen, director of operations and logistics for Raleigh, N.C.-based Mitchell's Catering and Events (www.mitchellscatering.com). Along with parties with a Nutcracker theme, this year Mitchell's created a sly salute to the 1950s, including a buffet of cheese fondues and cocktail weenies centered around a shiny aluminium tree, along with retro "presents" including Lincoln Logs and the game "Candyland."

World events are putting a damper on some events. "Booking about same amount but it is coming in moment by moment," notes Joann Roth-Oseary, founder of Someone's in the Kitchen (www.sitk.com). "With the war going on, going back to normal seems far away. What we see on the news nightly really affects how people feel day to day."

Linda Higgison, head of Washington-based The TCI Companies (www.tcico.com) says that such uncertainly colors the corporate party. "The average corporate executive could go to a gala or two or three any night of the year in D.C., so a holiday party needs to look and feel different," she explains. "Holiday parties had started going downhill before 9/11 and to date have not increased, but not due to 9/11. They have just changed in nature to be more community-minded instead of company-specific." Her own company's team will go to a community kitchen to serve meals to the homeless for four hours before heading off to an informal luncheon.

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