Caterers and venues show cautious optimism about 2009 holiday party business, with 72 percent predicting that they will have the same or better business this year than they did in 2008. Twenty-nine percent of respondents say that holiday party business will be worse this year than last.
Chicago-based Finesse Cuisine is "gearing for a robust holiday business," says owner/president Jon Wool. "Many social and corporate clients who scaled back in ’08 or cancelled altogether are reserving dates and are expressing relief and optimism."
But since last year was so tough, any improvement is a step up from dismal, some caterers say.
While London-based Create Food expects business this year to be on par with last, "Last year was very difficult from September onwards, with 15 percent of events cancelled for the holiday period in October and November," notes company leader Richard Groves.
Even so, he sees signs of life. "Three months ago we were 50 percent behind where we were at that time in 2008," he notes. "Now we are only 20 percent behind this week in 2008."
But other caterers point to continued softness in the market.
"One of our clients is having an employee volunteer day in lieu of a party, where the employees will provide volunteer work for selected nonprofits and charities," notes Sheldon Sloan, partner and director of sales for South San Francisco-based Melons Catering. While some clients are going forward with the same party budgets they have in the past, others are opting for "low-key" events held in their own offices versus renting a museum or other party venue, he says.
"Companies that may be doing well don’t want to appear lavish," Sloan says, "and if they have had any layoffs this year, they don’t want to send the wrong message, so they are either cancelling or scaling back."
Indeed, "low key" is the watchword for 2009 holiday parties.
While Atlanta-based Bold American Events & Catering expects to handle the same if not more parties this year than last, "Our average check has certainly taken a dip," says director of sales Stacy Zeigler. "Our clients are no longer looking for the 'wow factor' or something 'over the top.' They are focusing on the meat-and-potatoes part of the party--literally! No passed hors d’oeuvre, limited entertainment and very limited decor. They want to thank their employees in a very low-key way."
Caterers can cope with lower budgets, according to Lynn Rivera of Minneapolis-based Mintahoe Hospitality Group, by offering well-priced, inclusive packages. "Clients are ready to spend," she says."But be prepared to have a 'Fair Deal Recession Menu' with unique entertainment packages. The trend is bundling of services with hot value pricing!"
Client demands for low-cost menus can bring their own challenges. "Magazines keep telling them that hors d’oeuvre receptions are the way to go, with little bites," says Lynn Pomellitto of Savory and Sweet Catering in Sunnyvale, Calif. "The problem is when I quote out a menu with 15 different hors d’oeuvre, it is more. It is hard to explain that these little bites are more expensive per person or per piece because they are more labor-intensive to make than, say, chicken piccata and orzo rice pilaf."
Casual presentation rules the day. Trends for 2009 holiday parties include "simpler fare, small plates, progressive dinners, wine evenings and chef’s interactive evenings," Wool says. Even so, "Clients wish to maintain the highest level of service and quality cuisine even when offering the more casual."
Create Food Ltd. and its event partners have created a "say thank-you at Christmas" campaign, Groves notes, which encourages corporations to continue to hold parties and events to thank staff and clients at the end of a very difficult year.
"Negative press coverage of corporations, especially banks bailed out by the government, has made these firms very nervous about holding these events," Groves says, "and we are trying to convince them that an event this year to thank the staff that are left or clients that have supported them through difficult trading period are worthy of and should be thanked."