Two-thirds of caterers responding to an online poll from Special Events this month say they expect to book less holiday party business this year than they did in 2008. Sixteen percent said they will book more, and another 16 percent said they will book a similar amount this year.
Caterers who have seen a drop in business tell Special Events that their revenue is down anywhere from 8 percent to 50 percent. "Thank God we maintained our private client base, as 85 percent of this year's holiday business was from this source," notes Richard Mooney, head of Los Angeles-based Kensington Caterers.
The corporate parties still going on this year tend to be smaller and less lavish.
David Casteel, executive chef and partner in Mitchell's Catering & Events of Raleigh, N.C., notes that his corporate clients are switching from "heavy cocktail buffets to more streamlined dinner or lunch buffets to get the costs down a bit." He also has seen clients offer "surprise" continental breakfasts for up to 1,000 employees this holiday season. Here, company management greets workers as they enter the building, offering them coffee and "grab and go" breakfast items.
A handful of caterers have seen a better year in 2009.
The holiday business at Tarzana, Calif.-based Someone's in the Kitchen should be up 40 percent in 2009 over 2008, says founder Joann Roth-Oseary. But she earned every penny of it. "The big turn came in September, "she says, "after eight months of hell and hanging on by our collective fingernails."
PROMOTING THE PARTY
Richard Groves, managing director of London-based Create Food and Party Design, didn't wait for business to come in this year; he sought it out. His company launched the "Say Thank You at Christmas" PR campaign in October, reminding corporate management that the payoff from a company holiday party far outweighs its relatively modest cost. "This got nationwide coverage in the press and on TV and may have helped the increase in numbers and bookings towards the beginning of the season," Groves notes. He predicts a 15 percent boost in holiday covers this year over last.
Melons Catering and Events, located in South San Francisco, expects this year's holiday party business to run 30 percent ahead of 2008. Director of sales Sheldon Sloan credits an improved public mood this year over last, when companies couldn't cancel events fast enough. "We found that overall, folks really felt the need to celebrate and get together," he says, "unlike last year, when the feeling was that celebrations and get-togethers were frivolous and wasteful."
And although last-minute bookings are a challenge, caterers are seeing more of them this year—an encouraging sign.
"The good news for us is that we have had lots of last-minute additions at the time when last year, companies were canceling events," notes Lee Gregory, executive vice president of San Francisco-based McCall Catering.
"We have been taking bookings for events with seven days' lead time this December," Groves notes. "The numbers rose from around 45,000 covers booked in July to over 60,000 delivered from the last week of November to the 23rd of December."
Leanne Pomellitto, owner of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Savory & Sweet Catering, is also seeing a welcome last-minute rush. "Ninety percent of the parties I am catering booked in the last four weeks," she says, and notes she was still getting calls only a week away from Christmas.
Although many caterers see a brightening picture, Greg Karl urges caution.
"We don’t project 2010 being much different than 2009," says the chief operating officer of Denver-based Epicurean Catering Co. "Many people in our industry have a lot of hope and that’s great, but think about being lean and mean and really looking at your strengths and weaknesses. The recession is going to change the way a lot people do business for years to come, and that will continue to affect our industry. Plan on how can you survive, grow and be profitable differently than you have done in the recent past."
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Photo by iStockphoto.com / © Michael Valdez