While we're not back to the glory days pre-2008, holiday party business is on the upswing.
Two-thirds of caterers responding to the latest online poll from Special Events foresee solid holiday party business this year. Some 39 percent of respondents predict 2011 holiday party business will be better than it was in 2010, while 28 percent say it will equal 2010. A total of 31 percent say 2011 will be worse than 2010.
REPEAT OF 2010
Lisa Richards, CEO of San Diego-based H Events, predicts her holiday party business this year will be on par with 2010, "unless there's a last-minute spurt." Indeed, even the menus that clients ask for will remain the same. "Nobody is very clever right now," she says. "They want the same holiday cuisine with a 'sparkly dessert.'"
But Richards finds some better news for the 2011 season: Clients this year seem to demand less discounting and therefore events will yield a better profit margin, she says.
Jim Kirsch, president and CEO of New York's big Abigail Kirsch Catering Relationships, agrees. "Holiday business is up marginally over last year," he says. "The big financial [companies] remain mostly on the sidelines." While his company is seeing a greater variety of events slated for December—including benefits and other corporate events—"The classic holiday party has not changed much in the last few years," he says. "It is still simpler than before 2008."
Debra Lykkemark, president and CEO of Vancouver, British Columbia-based Culinary Capers Catering, also says the upcoming holiday season will be on par with last year. To make the most of clients' budgets, "We have offered some less expensive ways for our clients to entertain," she notes. "One menu that we featured last year and will feature again this year is a lunchtime turkey dinner delivered hot with the fixings. This was popular with our corporate clients who decided to have a lunch in the office instead of having a more lavish evening event."
CELEBRATING BETTER BUSINESS
In contrast, other caterers are looking forward to a merrier market this holiday season—a lot merrier.
For South San Francisco, Calif.-based Melons Catering and Event Planning, the 2011 holiday season will be "the best year ever," says owner Ann Lyons. "We have managed to work with long-established social clients while getting some very large corporate events. It's a nice mix, and evidence that both sectors are alive--in spite of recent reports!"
Melons' upswing in business harkens back to the good old days of a decade ago, Lyons says, when clients didn't wait till the last minute to book their events. "Going back to before 2000 and 9/11 , the holiday season would start booking in the first quarter of each year," she explains. "That stopped and everyone was very late in booking. Now the trend is going back to how it was, and we started closing down dates in the first quarter again."
For holiday parties this year, Melons will turn to stations and offer a wide range of cuisines with a creative spin. "We are doing menus that feature a wider varieties of selections; Japanese-style yakitori, tonkatsu [pork cutlet] and chirashi ["scattered sushi"] stations are popular this holiday season," Lyons says. "We are featuring these lighter foods with more ethnic influences but nontraditional interpretations of these cuisines."
In a similar vein, the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel in Boston is seeing "strong" holiday party business, says director of catering Lyndsay Picciano, CPCE, CMP. "The most interesting trend we’ve seen is that the majority of our large holiday parties confirmed before Labor Day, when traditionally, booking happens after Labor Day."
In other trends, these parties won't be as big as in the old days—"200 to 250 guests, when in 2006-07 it would have been 800 guests," Picciano says—and these corporate holiday parties are all evening events. "There are even some large events on Mondays," Picciano adds, "which has not been the typical pattern of holiday parties."
Patrick Cuccaro is the veteran of four recessions, and "this last 'great' one had many of us believing that the big holiday party was lost forever," he says. But he adds, "Not so."
Cuccaro--who serves as general manager of Affairs to Remember Caterers in Atlanta and as vice chair of the Georgia Restaurant Association—says, "Advance bookings for events in the $25,000-plus range are up nearly 80 percent--not back to pre-recession levels yet, but closing in." He adds, "Total advance bookings are up nearly 20 percent in number of events and over 30 percent in dollars."
Barring a foreign debt crisis or other financial calamity, "We’ll be seeing larger parties with bigger budgets this year," Cuccaro predicts. "The overt luxury spend is still considered improper, but corporate marketing budgets are relaxing, and a renewed appreciation for true quality is beginning to gain traction."
Affairs to Remember will turn to the "club plate"—a small, highly composed plate of food is are easy to eat while standing—for holiday parties this year. As Cuccaro puts it, "Creative ways to control portions of luxe foods--a recipe for success!"
LOVING THE LOUNGE
The legendary Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., is also poised for a better 2011 holiday season, says spokesperson Alisha Mahon. To suit the shift to less formal affairs, the hotel has added its "Bar Nineteen 12" as the new venue for holiday parties.
"This venue allows us to hold 80 to 200 guests for a cocktail reception," Mahon explains. "Bar Nineteen 12 offers 'lounge' style seating, which is already in the space. This allows the client to save on their decor budget and use the savings on food and entertainment. Our chef has designed menus specifically for this venue that are innovative, fun and festive."
Holiday business is also looking better for the Fairmont Washington. "We have seen a definite increase in the number of holiday parties this year over last year," says director of catering Robert Mikolitch. "Companies are willing to commit to hosting a value-driven celebration this year for their employees."
The Fairmont has tweaked its holiday offerings to keep the value proposition strong. "We have been successful in modifying our beverage package, from hard liquor in past years to a beer/wine bar featuring one specialty drink," Mikolitch explains. "Passing desserts rather than a full-scale dessert station has also been popular. Comfort food menus seem to go with the times and are much more affordable as well. We have also offered affordable activities such as Wii stations and photo booths to add to the energy level. The advent of IPods and/or DJs has also helped provide value driven entertainment."
ON A ROLL
Denver-based Epicurean Catering will roll into holiday parties this year—literally. The company purchased a food truck in August and plans to offer it for both daytime and evening events.
"It can be a cheaper option as the setup and clean-up are a lot easier," notes marketing specialist Tara Reeb. "We can pull up 30 minutes before the party versus a two-hour setup, as well as less staff to manage buffets, etc." The truck can be outfitted with an oven and deep-fat fryer as well as a mobile wood-fired pizza oven.
KEEP ON CHANGING
Even as business appears to be improving, Cuccaro cautions event professionals to be ready to adapt.
"Even in the best of times, we caterers have had to reinvent ourselves," he says. "The life cycle of a typical great menu item in Atlanta is less than two years—it used to be closer to five. Any businessperson who failed to adapt to market conditions over the last few years is now a 'great friend who used to be a caterer.'"