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A Season to Be Jolly

Holiday Business Looking Up for Restaurants, Banquet Halls

The wine-cellar room

The wine-cellar room is just one of several intriguing and festive settings at Chandler’s.

December is a cheerful time at Storrowton Tavern.
“The entire tavern is pretty much decorated from the day after Thanksgiving,” said Vinny Calvanese, executive chef of the restaurant on the grounds of the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield. “And we have carolers — the same people we’ve had every year since we’ve been here. They go through the entire tavern and sing, room to room, which seems to be a big hit.
But, more importantly, the holiday season is an important time — not just at Storrowton, but across the dining and banquet industry, as companies of all sizes take a breather from the stresses of the year and set aside a night to celebrate with their employees.
“When the recession was in full swing back in December 2008, companies across the board were scaling back on holiday events in light of economic constraints, or cancelling them altogether, deeming the celebrations either needlessly extravagant or highly inappropriate in the wake of layoffs,” notes Lauren Matthews, a writer for event-planning website BizBash. “But last year, it seemed that the corporate holiday party scene was returning to normal.”
She cites a study conducted by executive search firm Battalia Winston, which reported that 91% of companies polled had a Christmas party last year, the highest percentage in the past six years, while a poll by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 72% of respondents attended a company celebration last year, up from 68% in 2011 and 61% in 2010 and 2009.
“For us, it’s always a busy time,” Calvanese said. “We have five function rooms, including one, the Carriage House, which can hold two functions at one time. The holiday season is basically always busy. We still have room, but it seems like a lot of people are booking more ahead than usual this year.”
Ralph Santaniello, general manager and proprietor of the Federal in Agawam, reports the same robust outlook. “We’re working on our 12th year here, so we have a lot of repeat business,” he said. “A lot of parties were booked the minute after last year’s party ended. We’re right on par with where we were last year.”
For this issue and it’s focus on holiday party planning, BusinessWest checked in with several area restaurants and banquet halls to get a feel for how holiday bookings are coming along. For the most part — at least compared to the peak recession years — companies are looking to celebrate the season, and in a wide variety of ways.

Ups and Downs
Not every facility is reporting the same level of sales. For example, “two years ago, we were fine, and everyone else was struggling,” said Sandra LaFleche, sales manager at the Castle of Knights in Chicopee. “Well, I’ve been here 21 years, and this year is the quietest year we’ve seen.”
Bookings remains solid for December weekends, however. “Right now, we have most of our Saturdays and Sundays booked around the holidays,” she noted, adding that weekday bookings have been somewhat more discouraging.
Amy Bombard, sales manager for Max’s Catering, which handles events at the Basketball Hall of Fame, paints a similar picture. “I think [business] is going to be a little less than it has been,” she said. “Last year was a good year, previous years were not so great, and this year it’s looking like a little less as well.”
Other facilities thrive off the holidays every year. “It’s a high-volume time for us,” said Kristin Henry, assistant general manager at Chandler’s Restaurant at Yankee Candle — a retail destination well-known for celebrating the Christmas season. “People are looking to book parties from November into January.”
January has, in fact, become an increasingly popular time for holiday parties, particularly for companies that are very busy around the holidays — the restaurant industry, for instance. “We have our own holiday party in February; it makes sense,” Santaniello said. “So we do see some of that, but the most important dates are always the weekends in December. The Fridays and Saturdays for the first three weeks of December are always the first to fill up.”
He noted that years when Christmas falls midweek (it’s a Wednesday this year) add an additional weekend to those much-desired dates, since companies tend to avoid throwing parties too close to the holiday itself.
As for the type of party customers are asking for, the sky’s the limit.
“We offer banquet-style dinners with plated entrees, and then we do dinner stations or a buffet, for lack of a better word,” Santaniello said. “We’re also doing a lot more cocktail-type parties; people want circulating hors d’oeuvres or stationary hors d’oeuvres. They want to have people moving around and mingling — that’s always fun. People want a less formal atmosphere, and a cocktail party gives you that.”
Calvanese said Storrowton offers a similar variety. “We have sit-downs, we have buffets … a lot of people, for the holidays, actually prefer to go the sit-down route, rather than the buffets. But we also do a cocktail menu, and hors d’oeuvres parties as well. Plus we do a lot of lunches for older groups, like church groups, people who like to come in during the day.”
Whether it’s large banquets or smaller dinners, “we’re pretty busy during December,” he noted, adding that repeat customers are a big part of the facility’s success. “One business, they actually booked with us the first year, and they rebooked 10 years ahead. They’re a rather large group, and they like a specific date, so they get the same Saturday every year.”

Festive Fun
Bombard is among those seeing a gravitation toward more casual events. “I think people are moving more toward cocktail receptions. We’re trying to make it a more social event as opposed to formal dinners.”
LaFleche said customers’ preferences at the Castle of Knights have been running about 50-50 between plated meals and buffets. “It’s a good mix across the board.”
Henry noted that Chandler’s boasts a number of different rooms to accommodate different sizes and styles of parties. “We have private rooms Thursday through Sunday, and we do section off parties in the main dining room, or sell out the entire dining room, for larger parties. And we have three smaller rooms in back of the restaurant: the wine-cellar room and two smaller rooms, the vineyard rooms, for people looking for private spaces.”
She said the restaurant has revamped all of its banquet menus and is offering new menus for the holidays as well. “We do cocktail parties, and we have stationary setups for food. Some [companies] do formal sit-down dinners, but have an open or cash bar for an hour or two prior so people can mingle.”
One of Chandler’s most prominent draws is the Christmas theming that Yankee Candle sets up year-round, but especially highlights during the actual holiday season. That includes Christmas trees in the main dining room and some of the smaller party spaces, as well as ribbons on the wall sconces and a host of other decorations.
“When you’re coming through the door, everything is candlelit, which really does set the stage,” Henry said. “At Yankee Candle, once October ends, everything is lit up at night. Santa is a huge presence here, and they expand the store hours so it’s open later.”
As for Chandler’s, “we also do a dinner with Santa here, where kids can come and eat with Santa. That has always been fun.” Meanwhile, “we’d like to showcase our patio this year in the evening, too, which we really haven’t been doing in the past,” she said, noting that the area is also decorated with holiday lights, while a chiminea provides some heat.
Calvanese said the holiday décor at Storrowton is something customers enjoy, and this year, it seems they’re getting in the mood early. “Normally people will wait, but this year, people want to make sure they get their space, so we’ve been getting calls for Christmas parties, even in the summer. It’s first come, first served with us — you book the date, you’ve got it — and some people who are waiting might not have an ideal night left.”

Scaling Back

A holiday party survey conducted last December by BizBash and food delivery website Seamless indicated that, as the economy slowly recovers, companies increasingly see year-end festivities as an important part of employee productivity and morale.
Of the 1,500 event-planning professionals who took the survey, 67% reported improved team dynamics as a direct result of office holiday parties, and 75% said such events help improve office friendships. “Still,” writes Matthews, “while many companies are hosting holiday gatherings again, the recession has effected a lasting change in what those events now look like, with hosts valuing smart spending over freewheeling excess and designing more thoughtful affairs.”
Santaniello can vouch for that. “I wouldn’t say people are going crazy with their budgets,” he said. “We took a huge hit in 2008 and 2009, but we’re seeing it come back a little bit now. Companies are coming back.”
Sounds like yet another reason to celebrate.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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