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Is the Corporate Holiday Party Fading Away? Caterers Weigh In

 The Special Events informal survey shows that two-thirds of caterers say the corporate holiday party stays strong, but a whopping 87 percent say it has morphed into a new, more informal style.

As caterers wrap up the last of their holiday parties this month, Special Events presents their reaction to a provocative story in Bloomberg News stating that—for a variety of reasons—the corporate holiday party is fading away. The Special Events informal survey shows that two-thirds of caterers say the corporate holiday party stays strong, but a whopping 87 percent say it has morphed into a new, more informal style.

A total of 39 percent of respondents tell Special Events that their 2015 corporate holiday party business is on par with recent years. Some 46 percent say it has been better this season, while 15 percent say it has been worse.

Why Drink with the Guy in the Mailroom?

The Bloomberg article, published Nov. 30, says that despite an economic rebound, the corporate holiday party is fading away for a variety of reasons, including a crop of millennial employees who believe they have other, more fun options, and corporate hosts who are still gun-shy about the perception that they are throwing money around on frivolous activities.

Frank Puelo, head of New York-based Catering by Framboise, is one of the third of respondents who see the corporate holiday party fading away.

The huge company party for all employees is in the past, Puelo says. "The coveted event now is to be invited to your boss's home for cocktails. Companies that used to hold large events for 200 guests or more, now hold maybe three events for 25 guests each," he says. Many of these are smaller "department" events where two dozen guests who work closely together can come together for a drink with their direct supervisors and senior management.

"These are far more intimate events and usually take place directly after work--sometimes as early as 3 p.m.--at a private home or apartment. Some are merely cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, some contain a light supper. All are over by 8 or 8:30 pm at the very latest--even those that start at 6 pm. No company event lasts more than three hours now--and dancing is a thing of the past at these events," he explains.

Puelo recalls a conversation with a top-tier executive at a Framboise event who bemoaned the fact that he had to attend 11 work-related holiday parties. "It appears that the junior executive no longer feels he/she needs to have a drink with the mailroom guy, yet he/she appears to love the idea of having a drink with the senior executives or president," Puelo says. "I think we might be losing a bit of the spirit of the holiday season with this, and continuing a two-tier society."

Greg Casella, head of Catered Too in San Jose, Calif., notes that even though business is strong in his market, located in the heart of tech-centric Silicon Valley, the holiday party is fading away. "The trend here in Silicon Valley has been less holiday events in the past few years that are over the top, not due to economy because it is booming but they do so much throughout the year there is not a need for doing something so grand."

The Market Makes It

Indeed, in the eyes of catering leader James Kirsch, head of New York-based catering powerhouse Abigail Kirsch, notes that the whole question of event trends depends on individual markets—and sometimes, micro markets.

Kirsch believes the Bloomberg story has some merit—but his caveat: Markets vary.

"Manhattan is fine," he says. "We have not seen a big shift since we lost significant volume after the 2008-09 debacle, but things overall are fine." However, business is not uniform across the board: "Some companies have never resumed entertaining," he notes. "Westchester County, N.Y,. is very weak and has never rebounded," but in contrast, "The Gold Coast of Fairfield County, Conn., is fine—Stamford, Greenwich, etc."

CLIENTS, NOT CO-WORKERS Tony Conway, founder of celebrity catering company Legendary Events in Atlanta, has also seen in a shift in the corporate holiday party—from treating employees to treating clients instead.

"It's still not over the top—unless they are doing it for clients," Conway says. "And they are still cautions on the look and spend."

Budgets Don't Budge

Andrew Gerstel, CEO of Alexandria, Va.-based Windows Catering Co., notes the ongoing shift from sit-down dinners to stations, passed appetizers, and "fork food" buffets.

"They are less likely to spend on higher end foods such as tenderloin of beef, prime rib, lobster and lamb and sticking to more traditional holiday fare like turkey, ham, chicken and shrimp," he says.

And he warns that the last-minute client is here to stay. "I think companies are assessing fourth-quarter performance late in November and early December and then determining if and how they will be celebrating the holidays," he says. "This affects venue, menu selections, employees-only versus 'plus one,' as well as design and decor factors. Caterers have learned to adapt to these types of requests and must be able to act quickly."

Stacy Failing, special event producer with Los Angeles-based Good Gracious!, is fighting back against tight budgets.

"I've adapted a new way to sell the party with offering up-sell items to whet their appetite and show them how great the party could be with a bit more dollars," she says.

HEY, LET'S PARTY! Nathanial Neubaurer, executive chef and owner of Contemporary Catering in Los Angeles, bucks the sentiment that younger workers nix the classic holiday party.

"We are seeing the classic corporation parties fading away, with companies leaning more towards extra employee PTO [paid time off] or bigger bonuses," he says. "However, younger, 'more hip' companies are definitely doing holiday events, with more fun playful atmosphere."

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