At the end of the first quarter of 2011, the biggest caterers are seeing a welcome boost in business--notably in the corporate sector--though they still must keep a lid on costs. The insights come from top caterers listed in the fourth annual edition of the Special Events' "Great, Big Caterer" list.
Taken as a group, the 25 caterers profiled this year by Special Events represent a $646 million business, and they predict a bump in revenue this year of 4.9 percent over 2010.
"We have been waiting for 2011!" says Liz Neumark, founder and CEO of New York-based Great Performances. " We are seeing the return of the corporate customer in a wide range of event types--product launches, business cultivation, cocktail parties and more."
Across the country in Los Angeles, Along Came Mary's associate general manager, Beth Norber O 'Sulllivan, agrees. "Business is up across the board, but especially in the corporate sector," she says. "Budgets have freed up and corporations are spending once again. That said, we’ve done more sit-down gala dinners this year than ever before, so I think that’s a sign that people are still out there trying to raise cash."
Notes Greg Karl, president and chief operating officer of Centennial, Colo.-based Epicurean Catering Group, "We actually had a record first and second quarter this year. In Denver, the wedding and gala/fundraiser business didn’t drop off too much. It is corporate events that are back."
MORE MONEY, MORE CONFIDENCE
Most caterers queried think the boost in business is a mix of improving economic conditions and clients who are more confident about the future.
"I think the social market improvement is due to a more confident client base and, to be honest, they are tired of holding onto to their money waiting for the other shoe to drop," says John Crisafulli, head of San Diego-based Behind the Scenes Catering and Events. "Many seem to have truly missed the social aspect of entertaining, and despite the sluggish economy have chosen to entertain again."
As for corporate clients: "The corporate market seems to be coming back and spending more as businesses are now running much more lean in their workforces and have much greater expectations and responsibilities placed on their employees," Crisafulli adds. "This has resulted in record profits for some of the larger corporate clients, and they realize they need to spend some of those profits to keep their employees and clients happy."
Corporate clients are also returning to events as business tools, some caterers say.
For Orlando, Fla.-based Puff 'N Stuff Catering and Events, business is rebounding in all sectors. However, its "most significant growth" has come from its corporate accounts, according to president and owner Warren Dietel. "We attribute this rebound to our clients' return to product marketing and relationship development, as both offer significant event opportunities," he explains.
Stewart Glass, president of Catering by Michaels of Morton Grove, Ill., agrees. "Meetings, training sessions, and employee- and customer-appreciation events are making a serious resurgence," he says. "These are probably up 30 percent to 50 percent--which is not difficult, as we found that the entire bottom had fallen out of that market."
GET OUT AND MARKET
The business improvement for some caterers comes from their efforts to market themselves better to new client segments.
The wedding market "is our fastest growing segment," notes Aaron Evans, vice president of sales and marketing for Dallas-based Eddie Deen. "I think that the wedding market has always been there; we just didn't do a good job of positioning ourselves in the mind of [that] buyer through diverse products and services." The company has addressed that problem by promoting its downtown Dallas venue Edison as a wedding site.
But it's also vital to take good care of clients already in the fold.
"I think that an area that some caterers may have missed focusing on during the recent economic turmoil was developing and nurturing relationships with their existing top clients," notes Debra Lykkemark, CEO and president of Culinary Capers Catering, with operations in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Beijing. "That was a real constant in our marketing and planning during the lean times."
KEEPING COSTS COOL
While some caterers are beginning to relax the stringent cost controls that kept them afloat during the worst of the recession, others are still cautious.
The team at Atlanta's A Legendary Event worked together to cut nearly $1 million in expenses to weather the recession. And while CEO Tony Conway, CMP, says he is now able to "loosen up a little," he continues to run a tight ship.
"It was a really good lesson that many of us needed to learn," he says, "and still should practice."
Indeed, many caterers are approaching the welcome bump in business with both relief and caution.
"We’ve had a wonderful first quarter but we aren’t going to take that for granted for the rest of the year," O'Sullivan says. "Parties are still booking last-minute--later than ever--with smarter budgets and the types of budgets we saw during the recession. We still need to be wise about our choices, both operationally and at events for our clients."
Next week, top caterers describe the menus that selling best in 2011.
For the complete list of caterers, see the May-June issue of Special Events.