Since the last quarter of 2000, it's been called sluggish, weak, slumping, limping and lumbering. What is "it?" The U.S. Economy, of course. With the stock market taking more dips and turns this year than Disneyland's "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," consumers and businesses have felt, at times, cautious, depressed and scared, to downright confused, to guardedly optimistic.
A Labor Department report released in June notes that American workers' productivity, a key element of prosperity, posted its worst quarterly showing since 1993. And a monthly poll by Blue Chip Economic Indicators, also published in June, reported that "The U.S. economy should manage to escape a full-blown recession, but its growth is meager and it is skating on thin ice."
Meanwhile, Steve Reitter, director of customer service for Encore Party Rentals in Hudson, Mass. proposes a slightly different take: "Remember that old story of the hot dog vendor by the side of the road? His business was great until somebody said, 'Don't you know there's a Depression on?' And he stopped advertising and his business started failing. You have to ask yourself, are people talking themselves into or out of a bad economy? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy?"
Here, professionals from numerous segments of the special event industry offer their take on the state of the economy and its impact on the world of special events.
"Hesitation was certainly the watchword for the first six months of 2001," says Tom Gifford, vice president of Los Angeles-based Abbey Event Services. "If people didn't need to commit to spending the dollars, they didn't. All the planners and caterers we've talked to agree that business just seemed to suddenly drop off during the first half of the year." It wasn't until the anticipated Hollywood writers' strike was averted that people "stopped holding their breath," Gifford says. He notes that operators he knows generally cut back wherever they could during the first two quarters of 2001, and currently expect to see growth for the remainder of the year.
"In the corporate sector, we're seeing meetings that are smaller and not as elaborate," notes Edie Layton, corporate director of catering and conferences for the Ritz Carlton Hotel Co. The Atlanta-based upscale hotel chain has 50 properties located around the world. "The big incentive programs are just not coming together this year. But the social market is booming, everything from teas and galas to bat mitzvahs and weddings."
"I have seen my clients lay off their staffs," admits Andrea Michaels, president of Los Angeles-based Extraordinary Events. "When that happens, they need more outside help from companies such as mine."
When times are bad, Michaels says, two things become more necessary: emphasizing employee morale with recognition events, and using events as tools to market company brand and deliver specific messages. "Using meetings and events to accomplish these becomes necessary, and, in essence, bad times are good times for us. We have had an exceptional first half of the year."
Good evidence that the economy has been wobbling is the change in ordering style seen by many vendors. "Price was no object for one client when they started their planning six months ago. Now, they're looking closely at the bottom line," says Encore Party Rental's Reitter.
Moshe Aelyon, president of Mosaic Events in Westport, Conn., says he sees a trend among corporate clients toward "perceived value." "People are managing their budgets more carefully. They are not altering the budget, but are very aware of the perception of wasting money. A client recently opted not to do a logo on napkins. They still wanted perfection, but didn't feel it necessary to be lavish."
The upside of recent economic sluggishness, Aelyon says, is that "it's weeded out clients not ready to use planners, and the clients coming to us are certainly more precise and more intelligent about how they want to spend their money."
Special event professionals across the country point to the crash of many high-tech and e-commerce businesses as one cause of declining revenues. "The dot com market over the past two years really accelerated some people's business," contends Jim Choura, of Long Beach, Calif.-based Galley Catering. "If you quoted a price of $20 to these folks, they asked you to bump it up to $40. We estimated $89,000 for a flower bill for one dot com company and they said, ‘Oh, make it bigger." Today, Choura notes, many of these same big-spenders find themselves in bankruptcy court or on the auction block.
Susan Kidwell of Stuart Rental, located in Sunnyvale, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley, agrees that last year was one of extravagant events for dot com companies.
"We were simply reactive to the market, overwhelmed with calls for information," she says. "This year, we're proactive, reaching out for the corporate customer. We're optimistic that as we move into fall, a lot more corporate and social events are shaping up, especially with the launch of the symphony and opera season in the fall."
The economic slowdown has proven a blessing in disguise for many event producers, such as Bravo Productions of Long Beach, Calif. The company experienced a 30 percent decrease in the first and second quarters, reports partner Greg Jenkins, but, he says, "it taught us some valuable lessons in the process. We found some clever ways and opportunities to market our business, such as joining major convention-and-visitors bureaus throughout Southern California, a scenario we may have put on the back burner indefinitely during better economic times."
Event designer Billy ButchKavitz of Blackfield & ButchKavitz in Los Angeles, which has produced everything from weddings in Philadelphia to Emmy Award parties in Beverly Hills over the past year, says, "Taking good care of your current customers will always pay off no matter what the economy is doing." He adds that he and partner Pamela Blackfield "know some designers who gouge clients for corporate events because it's a one-time deal. But when you offer good quality and detail at a fair price, the customer rewards you with their loyalty, recession or no recession."
Don't neglect the opportunity to mine your existing market as a measure against continued economic slowdown, says Phyllis Marshall, president of foodservice consultancy FoodPower in Costa Mesa, Calif. "One of my restaurant clients, the Blue Agave in Yorba Linda, Calif., recently sent out simple thank you notes to their current catering customers. The results were phenomenal, more than doubling their catering orders."
The economic downturn and subsequent budget cutting have served to inspire special event producers and vendors to be more creative without compromising quality, says Jim Horan, president of Chicago-based Blue Plate Catering. "Clients have called to tell us that they can't do something because of the budget. Instead of canceling an event because they can't match what they did last year, we go into action helping them create something they can be happy with using the budgetary resources that are available to them."
The good news about the economy, Horan says, is that "we're all in the same boat. During the last half of 2001, the question is who's going to work harder and be more creative to accommodate the client?"
RESOURCES: Abbey Event Services, 818/569-3838; Blackfield and ButchKavitz, 323/461-5232; Blue Plate Catering, 312/421-6666; Bravo Productions, 562/435-0065; Encore Party Rentals, 978/562-0022; Extraordinary Events, 818/783-6112; Galley Catering, 562/426-0555; FoodPower, 949/646-3206; Mosaic Events, 203/221-7575; Ritz Carlton Hotel Co., 404/237-5500; Stuart Rental, 408/734-9966