A healthy 79 percent of caterers responding to the latest online poll from Special Events say they expect 2012 holiday party business to be as good as or better than it was in 2011.

Forty-four percent of respondents say that this year's holiday party business will be better than it was in 2011. Thirty-five percent say business this year will be on par with last, while 21 percent say 2012 business will be slower than it was in 2011.

For Atlanta-based A Legendary Event, "Bookings are running very much ahead of last year," says CEO and founder Tony Conway. "We now have 11 closed-out dates for December, and we have not seen that in years!"

Bookings are coming from both repeat clients and new ones, Conway reports.

Joann Roth-Oseary, founder of Tarzana, Calif.-based Someone's in the Kitchen, says that business is "still very last minute," but her team is ahead of last year.

For Windows Catering Co. of Alexandria, Va., fall business "has been trending up so far," explains marketing director Brianna Alcorn. "We have seen a lot of interest for December holiday parties from our regular clients, but still anticipate there will be plenty of last-minute business."

Most respondents are still somewhat cautious, using words such as "better" business versus "booming" business.

CULTIVATING CLIENTS

While some respondents say the uptick in business reflects more optimism about an improving economy, others credit their own marketing efforts.

The team at Windows sent out their marketing brochure—an elegant presentation featuring menus and color photography—two months earlier this year. "This has helped in getting our clients more focused on their holiday entertaining much earlier," Alcorn says.

Atlanta's Affairs to Remember credits a "fully ramped up" social media platform with boosting business this year. In contrast, "Last year, we had just begun our Facebook pages," notes director of sales and service Patrick Cuccaro.

Some caterers point to a welcome return of bigger events.

"We are actually seeing larger parties again in venues," says Stacy Zeigler, CMP, CPCE, director of sales for Atlanta-based Bold American Catering,"instead of just the small home parties."

Client budgets are also looking a bit bigger, caterers say.

LESS WHINE WITH DINNER

"Budgets are much better!" reports Mary Crafts, CEO and president of Culinary Crafts of Salt Lake City, adding, "There is less whining!"

Budgets "seem to be loosening up," Conway reports. "But they are still a huge factor. There is now always a budget!"

Corporate budgets in particular are "still very lean," Roth-Oseary says, but budgets for social events are growing.

Crafts points to a new mood for when it comes to menus.

"Clients are ready to try something new, to break out of the old beef and salmon," she says. "They are looking for creativity!"

SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME?

The brightening outlook at year-end could be a harbinger of a better year in 2013, some say.

"The big corporate event is back, but budgets at entry and mid-level are still value-oriented, though easing," Cuccaro says. "This type of market segmenting is indicative of better things to come next year. Usually the larger companies are the first to bounce back with their budgets."

The best way to boost business, caterers agree, is good old-fashioned client service.

"We have truly been pleasantly surprised this year," Zeigler says. "It seems like taking care of our clients even when they went through years of no parties or smaller parties is paying off."

RELATED STORIES FROM SPECIAL EVENTS

It's Holiday Party Time: Decor Can be Tried-and-true or Entirely New

Big Event Companies Forecast Top Trends for 2012-13

Kick-off to Holiday Party Season