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Holiday Party Planner

Holiday Party Planner

’Tis the Season

The Bellagio ballroom at MGM Springfield

The Bellagio ballroom at MGM Springfield is among the region’s newest option for parties and banquets.

Buoyed by a strong economy, these are good days for area venues that host year-end company parties — and any other type of event, really. But with so many options, it’s a competitive environment — one that has become even more so with the emergence of MGM Springfield on the scene. Yet, new players might also be boosting interest in party bookings in general, raising the fortunes of everyone who promises to bring fun and flexibility to the season’s many gatherings.

In the eight years since she opened her event-planning business, Tanya Costigan has seen plenty of changes in corporate party planning. In fact, launching her enterprise, Tanya Costigan Events, at the tail end of the Great Recession was a challenge in itself.

“There was definitely a downshift in the year-end parties, but I do feel like they are picking up a bit,” she told BusinessWest. “I think part of it has to do with some of the new venues that are here, like GreatHorse and MGM; these heavy hitters are playing a role in getting people excited. A friend of mine was looking elsewhere, and is now thinking about a client-appreciation event at MGM next month. So I think it’s triggering some excitement in the industry in general.”

Anthony Caratozzolo is certainly excited. As vice president of food and beverage at MGM Springfield, he’s been pleased with early bookings in the casino resort’s banquet space, which encompasses the Aria and Bellagio ballrooms and can host groups from 15 to 540 people.

“Each of the ballrooms comes fully themed out with holiday décor, and we have different menus to accommodate different groups,” he said. “If they want a more reception-style event, we can accommodate that. If they want a lunch or sit-down dinner, we can do a custom menu for that. We’re very versatile. All of our ballrooms can be broken into smaller rooms to accommodate smaller parties at the same time. Most places can’t accommodate different groups as well as we can.”

As an integrated resort, MGM arrived on the scene with the aim of raising the bar for entertainment and events of all kinds, including holiday parties, because attendees can move right from a party to the casino floor, the Commonwealth Bar and Lounge, a movie, bowling, ice skating, or shopping — not to mention staying overnight at the hotel.

Tanya Costigan

Tanya Costigan said she enjoys helping clients hone their vision for a broad range of parties and other events.

“Clients can also book extracurricular activities,” he said. “If they want a suite at Topgolf or want to go bowling, they can book all that with the catering manager. They just have to figure out what they want to do with their night.”

Like other event organizers who have spoken with BusinessWest leading up to the holiday season in previous years, Caratozzolo has seen a healthy mix of party requests.

“Every group is different. Some of the companies have been around a long time and tend to enjoy a formal, sit-down dinner, while the younger generations may enjoy a reception style — and both of these are built into our catering package,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of inquiries, and we’ve had some bookings.”

At a time when businesses seem to be investing in holiday parties, MGM offers another high-profile option that, at the very least, has people talking about how they want to celebrate the season and thank their employees.

Planning for Fun

Costigan told BusinessWest that sometimes a venue brings her in to plan an event, while other times the client hires her, and she might help choose the location. Describing her job as “planning, design, and management,” she has a role to play from the initial idea through the big day, helping everything run smoothly.

“I do everything from birthday parties and weddings to holiday parties,” she noted, with recent events including Square One’s annual tea party at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse, and the Link to Libraries gala at the Log Cabin.

“I might be doing the design, the planning … there’s a wide scope of things I do,” she said, noting, as Caratozzolo did, that clients are calling for a range of styles when it comes to social gatherings.

“It does vary, but I find that a lot of the people are going for the stand-up, cocktail-hour feel, with passed apps and drinks. Sometimes they do a fun, themed signature drink. And sometimes the holiday parties are not necessarily Christmas-related — I had someone do a year-end party that had the feel of a street carnival, but it was inside the venue. It’s not always winter-themed.”

Anthony Caratozzolo

Anthony Caratozzolo says many venerable companies still prefer formal sit-down dinners, while younger clients tend to opt for reception-style events.

Reasons for holiday parties vary as well, Costigan added. “I find a lot of them are for client appreciation, but, for example, I did the Keller Williams holiday party, and it was all of their different branches coming together and having a fun party. So I think sometimes it’s a bonding thing for the employees.”

Bistro 63 in Amherst has become a popular event site for area colleges and businesses, Event Manager Alyssa Blumenthal said. Business tends to pick up starting in October, not only with the approaching holidays, but because it tends to be a hot season for convention business — and those events tend to spur further bookings. “The end of October is the busiest time of year to receive holiday party bookings. We also get a lot of reunions this time of the year — high school and college.”

Because it easily transforms from a banquet space to a nightclub — often during the same event — many business owners in the area recognize it as a place where they can complement their party with an evening of dancing as well.

“That’s been fantastic; we’ve really been working on training the staff to cross-sell services,” Blumenthal said.

Bistro 63 is also known for its elaborate — and creative — cocktail program. In addition to a rotating list of custom cocktails, the venue creates unique concoctions for specific events. For example, attendees of the International Conference on Soils, Sediments, Water and Energy at UMass Amherst, which books an event at Bistro 63 each year, recently enjoyed a ‘sediment sour,’ which was made to look like dirt garnished with rosemary.

“The soil convention group is all middle-aged men, 40s and 50s, who come up to the bar with a smirk on their face, asking, ‘what smart-aleck cocktail do you have for us this year?’ And I’ll get them to try these ridiculously frilly drinks,” Blumenthal said. “We try to have fun with our events because so many people do associate us with the nightclub.”

Caratozzolo agreed that fun should be at the heart of any party.

“MGM is all about entertainment — that’s what we do, whether it’s an elaborate party or just a small get-together,” he said. “That’s what we’re good at, what we love to do; we work with clients to find out what they want. At the end of the day, they’re our guests, and every group is different.

“We’ve had large conventions, we’ve had expositions, we just booked our first wedding about two weeks ago, and we have small association groups — maybe bridge clubs or chamber events,” he went on. “We have all the capabilities to really do anything, because we’re MGM. We can open a lot of doors.”

Reasons to Party

Likewise, Bistro 63 hosts parties of all types — holiday events, corporate dinners, cocktail parties, rehearsal dinners, reunions, and more — ranging from small gatherings to large events up to 240 people. A large room can be divided into smaller spaces, including a covered deck outside.

“Last year we had the highest number of rehearsal dinners booked, and we’re super excited to continue that trend,” Blumenthal said. Also on the rise are companies hosting recruitment and networking events for students at the Five Colleges.

“We’ve hosted Google, PwC, Newell Brands, and some other regional corporations, as well as a handful school-sponsored events this year,” she added. “More than half our staff are students — UMass, mostly — and we love hosting these events because it speaks to the strength of the academic programs in the area, and it has directly resulted in increased business for our establishment.”

But holiday parties, too, have been on the rise, with bookings increasing each year as the economy continues to chug along, she told BusinessWest.

“Many companies had annual gatherings and stopped doing it for budgetary reasons, and have since put it back in the budget,” she noted, adding that Bistro 63 markets its flexibility and quick turnaround times to plan events — and that has become a key element in its growth.

Alyssa Blumenthal says being flexible and nimble with turnaround times

Alyssa Blumenthal says being flexible and nimble with turnaround times can lead to bookings that later become repeat customers.

“Those short-notice events have lots of times turned into annual events for us. Clients say, ‘maybe we do have the budget for a small dinner for our core team,’ then it goes really well, we provide service better than they expected, and they come back year after year.”

Costigan enjoys those success stories, too, like the recent Square One tea, which boasted a vintage golf theme.

“I love the design part. The planning and management are great, but the design is my favorite part,” she said, recalling the reaction of Kristine Allard, Square One’s chief development and communication officer, to Costigan’s initial designs for the event.

“When she saw my design board for what vintage golf means to me, she said, ‘oh my God, you climbed right into my head.’ It was amazing. I love that part — as well as installing the whole design, when they’re like, ‘this is great.’”

It’s a reaction any event planner or venue hopes for, when it comes to holiday parties or any other event — because it’s those reactions that keep businesses coming back, year after memorable year.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Party Planner Sections

Serving Up the Season

Banquet tables

Banquet tables await guests at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse.

By any measure, the holiday-party business is stronger than it has been since a decade ago, before the recession. Buoyed by a generally strong economy, companies are willing to invest in late-in-the-year gatherings for their employees and, sometimes, their families. But it’s still a fiercely competitive environment for banquet facilities, who have become increasingly creative and flexible in their seasonal event offerings, aiming to provide a memorable experience and drive crucial repeat business year after year.

As he spoke with BusinessWest, Peter Rosskothen was getting ready to meet a client planning a holiday party.

The message he intended to share? Don’t do what you did last year — even if you loved it.

“My main focus for that meeting is to motivate them and excite them about relying on our brains and expertise to create something a little different from last year,” said Rosskothen, who owns the Log Cabin and the Delaney House in Holyoke. “It’s very easy for somebody who’s working very hard to say, ‘we had a great party last year; let’s do the same thing again.’ But I think that’s a negative.

“The smart thing in the event business is to create something a little different,” he went on, so your staff, workers, and associates get a different experience. I think it gets same old thing, the same old Christmas party, gets boring. The more change you can bring into it, the more people look forward to coming.”

Indeed, many area facilities take pride in being flexible enough to handle different styles of events.

“Companies are usually looking for something business casual, but we also have events where they want to go all out, have a seated dinner with filets, followed a cocktail hour and ending with a DJ for the younger members of the office,” said Alyssa Blumenthal, event manager at Bistro 63 in Amherst.  “A lot of people know us as not only a bistro, but a pub, so we provide a seamless transition from formal events to lighthearted, business-casual affairs.”

With a stable economy and corporate profits on the rise, a national survey released at the end of 2016 showed that not only are more companies planning holiday parties this year, but many also expect to increase spending on those events.

In its annual survey on holiday-party plans (the 2017 survey has not yet been released), global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. found that 80% of companies planned to host holiday parties last year, while 21% were increasing the budget.

More than 66% of survey respondents said their companies were hiring caterers or event planners, up from 62% in 2015. In addition, 43% percent of companies were inviting employees’ spouses or family to attend, up from 31% in 2015.

Peter Rosskothen says he encourages repeat clients to change up their holiday parties from year to year.

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen says he encourages repeat clients to change up their holiday parties from year to year.

 

“Company holiday parties are a great way for employers to thank workers for a successful year. For employees, it’s a great way to meet and interact with co-workers and managers who are not part of one’s daily routine. If you happen to be attending the holiday party of a spouse or friend, it could be a great opportunity to network,” said John Challenger, the consultancy’s CEO.”

Rosskothen said his business certainly reflected the national uptick last year, and 2017 is shaping up to be as least as strong.

“We’re actively in the holiday planning season right now, definitely entering the core part of the season,” he said. “When people are coming back from summer vacations, they’re really focused on business, but by the time we get to October, they’re starting to focus on holiday parties and so forth.”

’Tis the Season

For many, if not most, banquet facilities, the holiday season — which typically extends through January, thanks to a growing number of businesses that move their company gatherings to after Christmas and New Year’s Day — is  key factor in the year-end bottom line.

“We do anything — baby showers, birthday parties, bridal showers, post-funeral receptions, corporate meetings, and holiday parties,” said Cathy Stephens, director of catering sales at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse in Hampden, noting that the facility is trying to ramp up its holiday-party schedule after a successful first season last year.

She said many holiday-party clients are leaning away from formal functions in favor of moving around and socializing amid food stations. “It’s not really a sit-down dinner, but more of a networking party.”

The Starting Gate will also host an elaborate buffet luncheon for multiple small groups on Dec. 12, reflecting a trend in the corporate party-planning world toward giving smaller companies a big-party experience for a budget price simply by combining groups into one event.

That will follow fall holiday events including a Halloween dance on Oct. 28 and a comedy night the Saturday after Thanksgiving, both aimed, again, at both the public and area companies looking to treat their employees.

The Log Cabin has hosted similar events in recent years, and this year is no exception.

“Each one is different; some are a little more elaborate, some a little less elaborate,” Rosskothen said. “Some people coming to a party really don’t want to dance, so we respond to that: ‘how about a comedy night, where you can socialize with co-workers and listen to comedy? How about a wine tasting, beer tasting, martini night?’ People find different things they can do.”

His team has been busy selling out most key dates on the calendar, both private and group events. “I think we do very well every year, and it will be that kind of year this year, too. Most of our key dates are sold out, and our group parties well on their way to selling out at this point. We’re optimistic we’ll have another good year — and happy about that, because there’s lots of competition in the market right now, so knowing people are loyal to us is a big deal to me.”

Blumenthal said Bistrol 63 is seeing a record level of event bookings, due in part to having a full-time event team for the first time in a long while. “That has definitely increased bookings. Someone is always here to answer questions.”

Flexibility is important to clients, she added, and companies tend to have a budget in mind. “The buffet option offers the most flexibility to customize the menu, especially for guests who don’t like choosing one dish.”

Bistro 63 emphasizes its unique custom-cocktail program, and, indeed many party guests look to unwind with a drink or two at holiday events. The Challenger survey revealed that 62% of holiday parties would include alcohol, up from the 54% in 2015. And that poses some risks.

“Serving alcohol can make for a more celebratory mood, but it also has pitfalls, especially for employees and their guests,” Challenger said. “Company parties are not necessarily a time to let loose.”

In the Party Spirit

TriNet, a national provider of human-resources services, surveyed employees at small and mid-size businesses late last year about how they felt about their company-sponsored holiday parties.

A majority (65%) of respondents said they planned to attend their office party, while 22% percent said they were not sure and 13% percent said they wouldn’t go. Meanwhile, 36% stated they are required or strongly encouraged to attend, while 48% considered it their choice.

Asked how they feel about the tradition of holiday parties, 37% said they were somewhat excited, while 28% said they were very excited. Only 5% of respondents showed no enthusiasm at all. However, despite the general enthusiasm, a large majority indicated they would trade a party for other perks. For instance, 73% would prefer a cash bonus, while 51% would favor office closure during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Given those options, only 20% would still prefer the holiday party.

Locally, both Stephens and Rosskothen said employees who have a good time at their holiday parties look forward to returning the following year, and their employers are willing to keep paying for the event.

“We’re getting repeat business from people who came last year,” Stephens said of spillover from the Starting Gate’s first holiday season in 2016. Others have experienced other events there, including weddings that incorporate the site’s sweeping vistas, and return for other events, like holiday parties, based on those good memories.

“The holiday business, specifically, is extremely loyal,” Rosskothen said. “It helps that we do things that smaller companies can join if they don’t want to be alone in a smll room, that we create something cool and different. We have created events with all kinds of variety, and companies can pick. Hopefully there’s something for everyone out there.”

The holiday-party business may not have returned quite to pre-recession levels — a trend that holds true nationally as well — but it’s close, he added.

“It’s definitely come back a long way. We see a lot of people trying to do something during the holiday, to tell employees they’re appreciated and bring the team together.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Party Planner Sections

Mixing It Up

Alyssa Blumenthal says many clients make use of Bistro 63’s outdoor deck.

Alyssa Blumenthal says many clients make use of Bistro 63’s outdoor deck.

Located at the edge of the UMass Amherst campus and central to the other Five Colleges institutions, Bistro 63 has done a brisk business in events for those schools, from department holiday gatherings to retirement parties to student events.

It’s an ideal space for the wildly divergent tastes of college students, faculty, and staff, said Event Manager Alyssa Blumenthal, because it easily transforms from a banquet space to a nightclub — often during the same event.

That makes for a memorable experience, she added, which often brings those undergrads back a little later in life.

“Many students come back to us later on,” Blumenthal said. “Five years after graduating, people are getting married, and we see them again when they choose to do a rehearsal dinner with us, when they want a nightclub-style party after dinner. We’re a venue that can provide any atmosphere you can imagine for a private gathering.”

Current owners Rasif and R.J. Rafiq bought Bistro 63 — the restaurant attached to the popular Monkey Bar at 63 North Pleasant St. in Amherst — from its original owner, who opened it in 1999. The brothers both worked there for more than a decade before taking over the business, learning every aspect of the operation. Today, the space hosts parties of all types — holiday events, corporate dinners, cocktail parties, rehearsal dinners, reunions, and more — ranging from small gatherings to large events up to 240 people. A large room can be divided into smaller spaces, including a covered deck outside. A 131-inch projection screen is available as well.

“We also love music,” Blumenthal said, referring to both live bands and DJs that frequently perform. “Atmosphere is important to us, and it really permeates every part of the restaurant.”

She noted that Bistro 63 has become a popular event site not just for UMass and the colleges, but area law offices, financial-services businesses, and a variety of others. Business tends to pick up starting in October, not only with the approaching holidays, but because it tends to be a hot season for convention business — and those events tend to spur further bookings. In fact, two weekends ago, Blumenthal welcomed three separate gatherings all booked by companies who attended a Bistro 63 event during last year’s International Conference on Soils, Sediments, Water and Energy at UMass.

“We’re really lucky to have some great, loyal customers,” she told BusinessWest. “At the end of the day, we love creating memorable experiences for guests with a personalized touch.”

Drinking It In

Nowhere is that personalization more evident than in the facility’s cocktail program.

“This is a Prohibition-style bar, known as a speakeasy, that sort of illicit atmosphere,” she said. “Our translation is using modern techniques on classic cocktails, putting our own personalized spin them. I’m not a cocktail drinker, but I will drink every cocktail on the menu; they’re not too sweet, but perfectly balanced. We make all our syrups in-house, squeeze all the citrus fresh to order.”

With that kind of reputation to uphold, the bartenders have a demanding job, she added. “But it shows in the quality drinks they produce. We have more than 250 craft and specialty spirits we can use, and the owners give the bartenders free rein to use our stock at their delight.”

Bistro 63’s location at the foot of the UMass campus

Bistro 63’s location at the foot of the UMass campus makes it a popular spot for party bookings by students and faculty.

While Rasif Rafiq focuses on food and events, R.J., who studied under master mixologists, specializes on the drink side and trains the bartenders.

“The interviews are intense,” Blumenthal said. “He’s the most stern you’ll ever see him. He’ll laugh and be casual with us because we know him. But during the bartender-training process, there’s no smile. He wants to make sure they’re at the top of their game. And it shows — guests know they’ve had an experience above par, something they’ve never had before. He’s a great mixologist who has trained the bar staff to be the same way.”

In addition to a rotating list of custom cocktails, Bistro 63 has been known to create unique concoctions for specific events. “For one event, probably my favorite bride of all time had this idea: she wanted to describe her fiancé, and wanted him to describe her, and she wanted us to make drinks based on those descriptions. It was like a lab test to see how well they knew each other.”

That sort of customization tends to spur repeat business, she added. Even the UMass soil convention requested a custom cocktail, which included elder flower liquour, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and vodka. “They’re having another one this year, and they want the same cocktail, but they want an additional cocktail as well. In five years, we’ll be running a fully customized bar for this group.”

It all stems from the philosophy that no two events are the same, and each should spring from a unique vision, she went on. “We try to bring it to life with those extra touches they weren’t expecting. It makes it more memorable in the end.”

As for the food, clients may choose from a number of appetizers, salads, entrees, and desserts, creating a custom package for their event. Those options — which may include anything from wild saku sesame tuna to rack of lamb ‘lollipops’ to truffle mushroom risotto — change throughout the year, not only for variety but to focus on seasonal ingredients.

“We definitely want people come back,” Blumenthal said. “At the end of the day, the customer is boss, and you want them to come every day if they could. We order from a lot of local producers and work with a lot of farms in Hadley. Why wouldn’t you? We have some of the best farms in the world, so we put those local eggs, local potatoes, and local meat on the menu.”

Keep Calm and Party On

Party planning, Blumenthal said frankly, can be difficult, and it’s easy to forget details like that guest who requires gluten-free options. So she aims to create a stress-free experience.

“If we can make a plan without you having to think about it too much, we’re more likely to book you,” she said. “We think ahead all the time; we have gluten-free and dairy-free food on all the menus.

“For every inquiry, we try to go the extra step, make your life easier, and make the planning process more straightforward and streamlined,” she went on. “We get repeat events because people like that personalization and like that we give them a plan straight off the bat. When they come back next year, we say, ‘this is the event order from last year; these are the updated menu items; do you want to keep the menu the same or try some new items?’ We don’t have people asking questions — we’re already anticipating their needs.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Party Planner Sections

The ‘Wow’ Factor

hallroof

Just over a year ago, the Starting Gate, the banquet component of the GreatHorse golf and lifestyle club, was merely studs on a foundation. But weddings were already being booked for the facility, said GreatHorse General Manager Bryan Smithwick, because those who saw what was done with the course and clubhouse understood that the same attention to detail would prevail in the banquet hall. And the view from the top of the mountain didn’t hurt, either.

As he talked about the Starting Gate, the banquet-facility component of GreatHorse, the exclusive golf and lifestyle club in Hampden opened in 2015, Bryan Smithwick drew a straight line to Disney.

Well … maybe it wasn’t a straight line, but he nonetheless got his point across.

“Disney World is out in the middle of a swamp, the middle of nowhere; yes, there are 10,000 interstates that lead there, but it’s still the middle of nowhere,” he explained, referring to the Orlando area that the entertainment giant chose for its massive developments a half-century ago. “But it’s a destination, a place people want to come to, and then come back to.”

And it is, or will be, like that with the Starting Gate, he predicts, acknowledging that this analogy is far from perfect, but for the purposes of this discussion, it works.

GreatHorse and its banquet facility are, indeed, off the beaten path. The road in front of the picturesque club has two lanes with a solid yellow line in the middle, and if you’re starting from virtually anywhere but Hampden, Wilbraham, East Longmeadow, or Somers, Conn., it takes a while to get to that road.

But when you get there…

This is where that Disney analogy comes in, said Smithwick, Greathorse’s general manager, adding that this facility is well worth the trouble of getting to. It starts with the view from the top of the hill and then out the windows of the Starting Gate, he told BusinessWest, and it continues with the hall itself, its large decks with retractable roofs and side panels, the on-site wedding garden, the extremely spacious bridal suite, the food, a ‘Cadillac golf cart’ to help get the bridal couple around, and … on he went.

As did Cathy Stephens, director of catering sales for GreatHorse, who, like Smithwick, said a number of constituencies are discovering this unique facility. They include engaged couples, meeting and event planners, business owners looking for a site for a retreat, holiday party schedulers, and more.


See: Banquet Facilities in Western Mass.


Opened just before the holidays last year, the facility started attracting clients when it was little more than studs on a foundation, said Smithwick. And the course and clubhouse then surrounding the building under construction — not to mention those stunning views (it was early fall by then) — were big reasons why.

“After having the opportunity to see the clubhouse, people felt confident that the same quality would be distilled into the Starting Gate,” he explained, adding that couples were putting non-refundable deposits down for weddings months before the structure was ready for occupancy.

The Starting Gate would go on to book nearly 30 weddings for 2016, a solid start, according to its managers, with 22 already on the books for next year, a few for 2018, and even one for 2019. But while weddings will be a major focus for this business, the Starting Gate is looking to host a wide range of events.

They include holiday parties — many are already booked for this December — as well as corporate outings, business meetings (the East of the River Chamber has already staged a lunch there, for example), and more.

Cathy Stephens and Bryan Smithwick

Cathy Stephens and Bryan Smithwick say the Starting Gate is off to a fast start in the region’s highly competitive market for banquets and weddings.

And while the facility boasts one-stop shopping as one of its assets, especially for weddings, as we’ll see later, management plans to complement this by marketing the Starting Gate in conjunction with nearby Sonny’s Place (in Somers), another venture owned by the Antonacci family, said Smithwick.

Sonny’s Place, a family entertainment center featuring everything from go-carts to ziplines to miniature golf (an elaborate laser-tag park is next), could serve as the site of team-building exercises, for example, with the Starting Gate as home for corporate meetings and dinner. Likewise, Sonny’s Place could host a wedding rehearsal dinner while the Starting Gate could be the site for both the ceremony and reception.

Such possibilities have already played themselves out, said Stephens, and more are expected in the future as couples, families, companies, and nonprofit agencies discover this remote gem.

For this issue and its focus on holiday party planning, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Starting Gate, inside and out, because that’s what’s necessary to grasp the proverbial big picture.

Optimistic View

As they offered BusinessWest a tour of the Starting Gate facilities, Smithwick and Stephens, who have done this countless times already, started in the bridal suite.

But most don’t recognize it as such, Stephens noted, because of its large size and amenities.

“A bride could literally spend her whole wedding day here, right up until it’s time to march down the aisle,” she said while gesturing with her hands, adding that some already have done just that. “It offers the bride her own space for the day.”

The bridal suite is the first opportunity for those taking the tour to say ‘wow,’ said Smithwick, adding that there are many others as the visit continues.

The wedding garden at the Starting Gate

The wedding garden at the Starting Gate, complete with stunning views, has already hosted a number of ceremonies.

They include the views from the aforementioned decks, which can be covered during the day and then opened at night to allow views of the stars; the wedding garden, which looks out on the scenery below; the grounds themselves; and the banquet hall (described by Smithwick as a “Colorado-resort-style venue”), which can seat close to 300 for a wedding and can be configured in a number of ways.

Eliciting ‘wows,’ not just during tours, but especially during the events themselves, is what the Antonacci family had in mind when it invested more than $45 million in what is now a Hampden landmark, said Smithwick.

Indeed, while much of the initial focus in the spring of 2015 was on the golf course — a stunning transformation of the former Hampden County Club track into one of the elite layouts in the Northeast — and the massive stone clubhouse, banquets and events were always intended to be a big part of this business, he explained.

Elaborating, he said while the club itself is very private — there’s a huge gate at the entrance at the foot of the hill — the banquet facilities are open to the public. Which means those attending events are treated to the same views — and most of the same amenities — as members.

This is how the Starting Gate is marketing itself, said Stephens, noting that these efforts have become quite aggressive through exposure in everything from regional and national wedding publications (and there are many of those) to media outlets in this region and well outside it, with a heavy focus on Boston, Hartford, and New Haven.

“We sell it for its view, the fact that it’s a gated, exclusive facility, it’s uniqueness, our innovative event planning, and our food,” said Stephens, noting that such efforts are already generating results, with couples from the Boston area, for example, booking weddings there.

But perhaps the best marketing tools available to the Starting Gate are word-of-mouth referrals and first-hand experience, she noted, adding that a good number of inquiries about the facilities have come from those who ventured past that aforementioned gate for an event a month, a week, or even the day before they picked up the phone or ventured onto the facility’s website.

While the views and specific amenities elicit the lion’s share of ‘wows,’ Smithwick and Stephens said the ultimate goal is to evoke them through the service and the experience, and the Starting Gate is earning those as well.

That one-stop nature of the facilities mentioned earlier is part of this equation, said Smithwick, noting the wedding garden has become a very popular site for ceremonies themselves — he estimates that 70% of the couples have chosento be married in the garden — leaving wedding-party members to walk only a few yards to get to the reception.

“You don’t have to get married off site and then get all your guests over to the venue, losing time in the process,” he explained. “You can literally do a 20-minute ceremony or a one-hour ceremony and then step 30 feet to the facility where you’ll be enjoying the rest of your evening.”

drive up the mountain to the Starting GateBut beyond convenience and those often-mentioned views, there is a focus on creativity and attention to details that has certainly helped the Starting Gate become a player in a strong field of competitors locally, said Smithwick.

“The ability to help a client envision what we can create for them is something we’re very talented at,” he explained, citing, as one example, a client who wanted to do a s’more station for a bar mitzvah.

“Obviously, we can’t build a fire out on the deck here,” he explained. “So we got creative and built a custom s’more station, a long table with a fairly skinny wooden box. At the bottom of that box we laid down bricks, and put sternos on top of the bricks. So the kids were able to enjoy this s’more experience without potentially burning the building down.”

There have been other examples of such creativity, he told BusinessWest, adding that the overall goal is to create events that are unique and memorable.

And when it comes to today’s young people and their weddings, this is a must.

“What people wanted 10 to 15 years ago from a wedding was something very much traditional,” Smithwick said, acknowledging that he was generalizing and didn’t want to do so too much. “When you look at the modern couple, the Millennial couple, which we’re dealing with a lot, they want something completely different.

“They don’t want to be just another number, and they don’t want to just have a filet being served on the table to their guests,” he went on. “They want us to create a robust experience for their guests to enjoy, and we’re able to do that. This isn’t a venue that you’re going to come to and have your traditional event.”

Stealing the Scene

Summing up what GreatHorse and the Starting Gate will offer those who choose it for an event, Smithwick summoned a word put to heavy use by those in this particular field — an experience.

To describe it, he relayed both his perceptions of a visitor’s thoughts and some of his own observations.

“It’s a magical arrival — you get to the gate, and you begin climbing, gaining altitude, and you end up on top of the side of this mountain,” he said. “You can see it all in the expressions of the wedding guests; as they make their way down from the parking lot, they stop at the first set of stairs, pause for a moment, and look out over the venue.

“This is not your typical wedding venue,” he went on, adding that this magic, as he called it, should help the Starting Gate make tracks in a highly competitive banquet field locally — and perhaps even draw some comparisons, from a business perspective anyway, to another company that uses that word in its marketing.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Party Planner Sections

The Party Line

Josh Belliveau venues

Josh Belliveau says businesses planning holiday parties are drawn to the unique atmosphere of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Anthony Barbarisi recalls the years when large companies would splurge on huge holiday parties for 1,000 employees or more.

The Great Recession put a damper on the holiday-party business in general, denting sales for banquet facilities and restaurants across the region. Those very large parties haven’t really come back, said Barbarisi, sales manager at Chez Josef. But, over the past several years, most other types of parties certainly have.

“The smaller groups are coming out in force,” he said, adding quickly that companies are not only booking parties again, but have become more creative and demanding. “Menus have become really interactive. It used to be that you sat down, got your steak, and the DJ played. Now, there are a lot more exciting options out there.”

As part of the International Caterers Assoc., Chez Josef strives to keep up with the cutting edge of industry trends, he added. “We follow very closely what’s trending in the Chicagos and LAs of the world, and we try to bring it here to Agawam. And there are some very exciting trends in cooking and parties.”

The main party trend, he said, may simply be a greater focus on quality and variety of food.


See: Banquet Facilities in Western Mass.


“We do plenty of holiday parties for companies that want to book our space for the evening, and we’re finding they’re replacing the party-favor aspect of it and using that portion of the budget to enhance the menus,” Barbarisi said. “We’re doing unique stations, like a Korean noodle bar, and a lot of phenomenal dessert stations, like sundae bars. One of the newest, hottest stations is a chocolate station — it’s over the top, with all sorts of homemade chocolate concoctions; the chefs like to get really creative and push that to the limit.”

In fact, he told BusinessWest, food stations are the hot trend in the past couple of years, taking the place of sit-down dinners and traditional buffets. “With stations, it takes the best aspect about buffets — you get to pick what you like — and breaks it up into small plates. The long lines are eliminated. Guests just love it; it becomes very informal. You’re up and about picking and choosing. A lot of times they’re chef-attended, and they’ll put your plate together for you.”

Josh Belliveau, corporate sales/event manager at the Basketball Hall of Fame, said businesses planning holiday parties are asking for the full gamut of options, from formal sit-downs to buffets to cocktail parties with heavy hors d’oeuvres. The Hall handles corporate events for businesses in Western Mass. and Northern Conn., ranging anywhere from 25 guests to 300.

Most bring in their own entertainment — DJs or live bands — but many access the facility’s in-house audio system. Meanwhile, Max’s Catering, the Hall’s catering partner, handles the food service. But what really draws many clients, he said, is the atmosphere, with parties hosted on center court, surrounded by basketball history.

“Coming here is convenient and safe, and I think it’s different from other places because of the location; it’s a unique place for guests,” Belliveau said. “We have a great product that we showcase, Max Catering has a great service that they showcase, and the location is ideal. Those things not only bring companies back, but then they spread the word about what we have to offer.”

Something Different

Speaking of unique facilities, when Vitek Kruta and Lori Divine bought the Holyoke building four years ago that would become Gateway City Arts, they saw something in the dirty, empty warehouse along the city’s canals. Now, the facility functions as an artists’ workspace during the day and an event space on nights and weekends, one with a decidedly artsy, funky vibe.

“We have three different large spaces, and we’re just about to finish a fully functional commercial kitchen; right now, our food is operating out of a tiny kitchen space. That will give us the ability to prepare lots of good food,” Kruta said. Meanwhile, he and Divine are opening a restaurant on the site called Gateway City Bistro.

Still, Gateway has been hosting events for some time — weddings, fund-raisers, concerts, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, memorial services, and more, including, yes, holiday parties for businesses.

“We’re constantly booking,” he told BusinessWest. “The demand is greater than we can actually handle at this point, but because we’re nearing completion [of the kitchen], we’ll be able to cover much more demand. We are looking at three or four events every week, at least, and all sorts of activities during the week.”

He said the calendar is well-booked into next year, and that the facility hosts corporate parties of all kinds — socials, cocktail parties, and sit-down dinners.

One of the event spaces at Gateway City Arts boasts a fully equipped stage with state-of-the-art lighting for concerts and other performances. Meanwhile, a patio Beer Garden and grill area provides an opportunity to host events outdoors as well, and the facility hosts a popular Sunday brunch as well.

During the week, the building is full of artists who rent studio space and shared resources, like woodworking and ceramics shops. “We have people here making jewelry, developing toys, puppeteers, painters, writers,” Kruta said.

Gateway City Arts’ outdoor Beer Garden venue

Gateway City Arts’ outdoor Beer Garden is one of several unique, funky spaces the facility offers.

That contributes to a specific vibe that appeals to companies looking for somewhere a little different for parties, he went on. “It’s very artistic — a big loft space in the old mills, and it’s very tastefully finished with art. People say it reminds them of Brooklyn or Paris or some other place. That’s what we had in mind when we developed this facility.”

He called Gateway a huge addition to downtown, drawing close to 20,000 people a year — some in unexpected ways.

“On St. Patrick’s Day, we had 500 state troopers here getting ready to run in the marathon. We fed them all and provided space for them to change,” he said. “We’re just a multi-function place; it can be used for so many different occasions. We’re definitely open to all sorts of events.”

For small companies looking for a big-party experience but lacking the budget (not to mention the head count), large, themed holiday parties for multiple businesses at once have become a popular trend at many venues in recent years, including Chez Josef, said Barbarisi.

“And it’s not just businesses, but clubs and even groups of friends — anybody who wants to put a couple of tables together, or just one table, and come out and celebrate the holidays. We’ve had some interesting themed parties the last couple of years that have been well-received.”

For instance, this year’s roster of parties includes a country Christmas event, with a western-themed menu and entertainment by local country band Trailer Trash; a Hawaiian luau event with a tropical menu, island décor, and music from Jimmy Buffett tribute band Changes in Latitudes; as well as a comedy dinner featuring a dueling pianist performance and interactive singalongs. For its New Year Around the World event, Chez Josef will treat participating businesses and groups to food stations featuring a wide range of global cuisine.

In contrast, Belliveau said the Hall of Fame focuses more on events for individual companies than multi-group parties. “We like to take that individual client and make them and their employees feel special.”

Bottom Line

Whatever the case — and the facilities who spoke with BusinessWest for this issue all offer something unique from the others — corporate holiday parties are certainly on the rise, and have been for several years now.

“It’s started picking up a little more,” Belliveau said. “It all varies — every company works differently based on how their year goes and what they’re able to offer. The economy is improving, but you just never know. But we have a good number of parties coming.”

It doesn’t even need to be an evening-long dinner, he said, as some companies are opting for cocktail parties that last a couple of hours and give their employees a chance to relax in a different setting.

“It just feels nice,” he said, “to recognize employees during the holiday season.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Party Planner Sections

Taste of History

Kevin Sahagian

Kevin Sahagian, Mill 1’s catering partner, uses seasonal produce from local farms.

Last year, Holyoke Medical Center transformed the event space in Mill 1 at Open Square into a winter wonderland for its annual holiday party.

Sparkling Christmas trees stretched toward the exposed beams on the room’s 12-foot ceiling, evergreen boughs nestled in deep windowsills that flank both sides of the room, and birch bark was wrapped around decorative centerpieces on every tabletop.

“It was beautiful. But you really don’t have to do much to this space to make it look amazing,” said Mill 1 Sales and Communications Director Maggie Bergin, adding that the natural elements in the building give the room character. “People really enjoy the atmosphere created by the exposed brick walls and gleaming maple floors. They set the stage for a holiday party, wedding, conference, or family gathering, while creating a stunning, neutral backdrop that can be customized to reflect almost any style. There is a quality to the construction that lends an elegance to events.”

Mill 1 is one of six buildings in Holyoke that make up the complex known as Open Square. It was a former paper mill, and architect and principal John Aubin began revitalizing the 19th-century structures in 2000.

Today, they contain office, retail, and light-industrial storage space, as well as the event space he carefully designed five years ago.

The impetus to create that area came from a confluence of factors: Pearl Bridal Boutique had opened in 2008 on the first floor, a liquor license was obtained for the café in the spacious first-floor lobby, and Bergin had been receiving frequent calls from people who loved the ambience of the renovated complex and wanted to know if Open Square had space that could be rented for an event.

She noted that 90% of the businesses in the complex are in Mill 4, and since the first floor of Mill 1 was focused on retail operations, it seemed like a natural place for Aubin to put his creative artistry to work. “He designed a custom bar made from cypress taken from an old, wooden water tank on top of the building. John tries to reuse elements in the buildings while giving them a modern look, so he had it dismantled and turned into a bar with pendant lighting and a matching liquor cabinet.”

The maple ceilings, beams, and brick walls were sandblasted, and the floors, which date back to 1846 when the mill was built, were refinished. In addition, a modern heating and cooling system was installed, and a partial wall was built toward the back of the space, which draws attention to the area often designated as a dance floor.

About 40 events were held there last year, ranging from corporate holiday parties, weddings, and fund-raising events to a lavish, 50th birthday celebration and a bat mitzvah.

an ideal setting for a holiday party

Brick walls and oversized windows provide an ideal setting for a holiday party.

The spacious lobby serves as an ideal spot for cocktail hours and a display of large panels titled “Between the Canals: The Evolution of a Mill Town,” created by Enchanted Circle Theater for a production of the same name, adds to the historic feel.

“We are also conveniently located — just a short distance from I-91, I-391, and Route 141,” Bergin said, adding that Mill 1 has parking for about 150 vehicles and is handicapped-accessible.

Menu of Choices

When the space first opened, people had to hire their own caterers. “But it was one more thing for them to do, so last year we began looking for a local partner,” Bergin said.

They teamed up with Kevin Sahagian, who owns Captain Jack’s Roadside Shack in Easthampton and Electric Café and Catering. He told BusinessWest he takes pride in the fact that he uses ingredients and produce from local farms, and offers a full range of options that includes buffets, formal sit-down dinners, and cocktail hours with hors d’oeuvres.

Sahagian said a growing number of businesses are choosing holiday parties centered around food stations, which allow people to mix and mingle as they move from one station to the next.

“Clients can select our imported and domestic cheese display that features wild mushroom paté with buttery croustades, or our vindaloo hummus with Armenian flatbread crisp. There are also seasonal options, such as butternut squash pakoras, turkey fennel meatballs with maple dijon dipping sauce, or roasted brussel-sprout chips,” he said. “Our menu includes traditional ethnic stations with Italian, Southern, and Asian offerings, but for more adventurous partygoers, we have a whiskey-rueben and root-beer station with petite corned-beef sandwiches, kosher pickles, potato-scallion pancakes, beer-braised brats, and kielbasa.”

Signature cocktails are also available, including a pomegranate rosemary punch and bloody marys created by partygoers at a bloody mary-cocktail shrimp station. Sahagian explained that guests can make their own cocktail and garnish it with shrimp, or simply enjoy the shrimp and cocktail sauce on its own.

“Buffet and plated dinners are always available, and a sample seasonal menu could include a salad of tempura parsnips tossed with mustard greens, creamy gruyere potatoes, port-wine-and-prune-braised brisket, and cider-doughnut bread pudding,” he suggested.

In addition to the food, Bergin added, Mill 1 prides itself on the quality of its linens, glassware, and silverware. However, decorating the space is left to the clients.

“We host quite a few weddings and during the holiday season, and many people put up Christmas trees as part of their décor,” she said, adding that Mill 1’s website contains a list of preferred vendors for those who don’t want to do their own decorating, or who need services like photographers, florists, live music, and more.

History and Tradition

Mill 1 has become a popular place to stage annual corporate holiday parties and other gatherings, and clients have included Veritech IT, the Jewish Federation of Springfield, O’Connell Development, and the Greater Holyoke YMCA, which held a fund-raiser in the space.

Traditions are created when companies return, but Open Square is a place where the past meets the present, Bergin said. “We are the only private operator left on the canal system generating our own electricity, which powers all of our buildings.

“People drive by these old mills and say they wish someone would do something with them. Well, we are here, we have done something, and we love this,” she continued. “When you have a party here, you are participating in the rebirth of Holyoke by actively supporting the city’s businesses and the reuse of a century-old, amazing building on its canals.”

Holiday Party Planner Sections

Tunnel Vision

The entrance to Union Station

The entrance to Union Station is one of the areas that underwent a complete renovation.

Outside of a stint in the military, Jeremiah Micka has worked at Union Station in Northampton since age 13. He knows every nook and cranny in the building, but will never forget the awe he felt the first time he entered the doors of the main area, which was built in 1896.

“I had never been in a room with 20-foot ceilings and such impressive lighting. But I always thought it could be something grander than a restaurant. It deserved to be a ballroom,” he said, adding that Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt made appearances there.

It took years for Micka to realize his vision, but today it has become a reality. Union Station has undergone a $1 million renovation, which preserved the historic interior, but revamped areas that needed improvement.

Micka began the work in November 2013 after purchasing the building, where he had been employed as a line cook, server, bartender, and bar manager. He contracted some jobs, but much of it was a labor of love, and he put in countless hours of painstaking effort to get things exactly the way he dreamed they should be.

Renovations included a new roof on the building, gutting the bathrooms and replacing them with modern fixtures, and installing new carpeting, a dance floor, and a tile floor in the hallway. The entranceway also received attention, and charm and utility were added with Goshen stone steps, brick pavers, stone walls, new plantings, and a curved handicapped ramp.

When Micka took the building over, the well-known Tunnel Bar in the basement of the building, and the Deck, located outside of the station, were doing well. But he knew the area that had been occupied by Spaghetti Freddy’s for years was an architectural gem, and he transformed the former restaurant area by focusing on its historic attributes.

“There was no doubt in my mind that this area would become our banquet hall,” Micka said as he sat in the newly created, 2,800-square-foot Grand Ballroom, pointing out its lofty ceilings, striking archway, enormous fireplace, buff-colored brick walls, and impressive windows.

“You could never replicate this,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he created a bridal suite that overlooks the Grand Ballroom where the bridal party can watch guests arrive before they make their entrance. “It’s extraordinary to see a bride and groom come through the archway. It’s a moment they don’t forget.”

Union Station, which reopened in August 2014, offers two banquet areas in addition to the Grand Ballroom. One is the Lounge, an historic space backed by a wall of intricate, stained-glass windows. “When this section of the station was built in the 1850s, it was used as a horse and buggy pull-up, as well as a train depot,” Micka said. “We just added a baby grand piano to the space, which has been refurbished and is fully functional. It was originally used in a jazz club in Northampton and is on a wheeled system so it can be brought into any space. People have already used it at different functions.”

UnionStationDningRoomAboveAfter repurposing the Lounge and transforming the Italian eatery into a ballroom, Micka focused on the rear of the building, which became the Platform Sports Bar. It boasts 21 televisions with surround sound, 110-inch projectors, and seating for almost 200 people. “During the winter, we have a disc jockey, and we have had wedding parties go into the bar and start dancing after the reception,” he said. People also frequent the well-known Tunnel Bar after events, and Micka has opened it early for group functions.

Although the Grand Ballroom and Lounge are rife with character, they have a more formal feel, and since Micka knew some people prefer to hold events in a casual space, he built the Blue Goose Room in the rear of the sports bar, where small parties gather and enjoy pub-style food and cocktails.

Diverse Offerings

Since Union Station reopened 14 months ago, 20 weddings and more than 100 events have been held in the ballroom, and an equal number have been held in the Blue Goose Room. There have also been numerous parties in the Lounge, including holiday gatherings for small companies, rehearsal dinners, bridal and baby showers, and more.

“When we say this place is unique, we really mean it. We are flexible and appeal to so many different people,” Micka said.

Duncan agreed. “When we give tours, we take people into the Lounge and the Grand Ballroom. Most of them love it, but if they don’t, we take them into the Blue Goose Room, which is exactly what some people are looking for. It’s advantageous to have three areas to hold events.”

Union Station is a landmark in Northampton, and last December, Amtrak’s Vermonter began stopping at a new passenger rail platform located just to the south of the building. “The track runs past the station, and children who come to holiday events can be seen pressing their face to the windows when the train goes by,” Duncan said.

The Lounge in Union Station

The Lounge in Union Station can seat 50 people and is a popular spot for small company parties as well as showers, rehearsal dinners, and other gatherings.

Micka added that the station is easily accessible. “People coming off of I-91 simply take a left, then a right a short distance down the road into our driveway. We own the parking lot and have 400 spaces.

“Northampton is such a perfect location for an event, as there is so much variety and culture for guests to enjoy,” he went on. “The town has 61 restaurants, and people who stay overnight can walk here from Hotel Northampton. And our Tunnel Bar was just listed on Buzzfeed as the number-one bar that people should see before they die.”

Food for all functions is prepared on site, and the chefs use as much local produce as possible. “I was born and raised on a fourth-generation, 60-acre farm in Northampton, so I know most of the farmers in the area,” Micka said.

Duncan said the menu was designed to be upscale. But although many choices certainly fulfill that criteria, with entrees such as surf and turf and New York strip steak, people can also choose chicken wings, spring rolls, quesadillas, and other items typically served in the Blue Goose.

But the variety adds to the flavor. “We have done lobster bakes, with mussels, clams, and corn on the cob,” Duncan said, adding that Union Station employs three full-time chefs, and one is dedicated entirely to banquets. “Everyone is looking for something different, so we are very flexible. At the end of the day, we want our customers to be happy.”

To that end, only one event is held at a time in Union Station, he added. “When you are here, you are our focal point.”

Shared Sentiments

Micka said people who enter the Grand Ballroom for the first time experience his initial reaction.

“People’s faces light up when they walk into it. It has so much character, and in most cases, it’s exactly what they are looking for,” he told BusinessWest. “This building has always been a major focal point in Northampton.”

Thanks to his vision, today people can make their own memories — and history — in a place deemed worthy of a visit by four American presidents.

Holiday Party Planner Sections

Work and Play

PartyPlannerDPartFor companies large and small, the annual holiday party is a highly anticipated event — a chance to reward employees while celebrating the season (and another year in business). It’s also a massive opportunity for restaurants and banquet halls, which report a very healthy pace of bookings for 2015. The style of party varies from one event to the next — with lunchtime and January bookings up along with more traditional times — but all are aimed at providing good food, relaxation, and healthy profits for the area’s culinary industry.

After a year of dedicated service to their employers, a holiday party isn’t too much to ask for, is it?

Increasingly, companies are agreeing, and with the holiday-party-booking season in full swing at area restaurants and banquet halls, 2015 is shaping up to be a particularly strong year.

“We have maybe one or two days left on weekends to book events,” Abaz Cacunjanin, manager of Terrazza at Country Club of Greenfield, said of his December schedule, adding that each holiday season since opening the restaurant — this will be its third — has been better than the last for bookings. “Last year was one of the best for the restaurant industry, and we’re doing well this year.”

Erin Corriveau, catering and events manager at Lattitude in West Springfield, has become accustomed to a holiday rush — a rush that often ends in disappointment for late callers.

“I started booking holiday parties last year; some companies, at the end of their party, sealed the deal on the date for the following year,” she said. “I booked a few more in February and March, and by early August, every single Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in December was booked for holiday parties on site, and we were booking into January as well. Right now, we’re working on filling up the Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays and the few Sundays that are left.

“People call in the summer and say, ‘I know I’m early, but I want to get ahead,’” she went on. “But you’re not early, even though it’s 90 degrees out and no one is thinking about Christmas. Companies that want a particular date are upset if they can’t get it, and one actually booked with us for December 2016 instead, which is incredible. You can never be too early in thinking about your holiday party.”

Joe Stevens, owner of Hofbrauhaus in West Springfield, also knows the value of repeat business around the holidays. “A lot of people come year after year after year,” he said. “They want a certain Friday, or a certain room. They’ll change their menus on occasion, but for the most part, they come back every year, or every two years. Others come in because we’ve won them over at the restaurant.”

That said, “the holidays are always good here,” he added. “The place decorates so well. I’ve been here 21 years, and we look forward to the holiday season every year. We’re going strong with party bookings this year, like we do every year.”

For this issue’s focus on holiday party planning — which also features profiles of three restaurants in unique settings — BusinessWest visited several establishments across the Valley to talk about what is turning out to be a merry season indeed.

’Tis the Season

Terrazza is one of the newer establishments in the region, opening in 2013 after a fire destroyed the clubhouse at the country club two years earlier. Cecunjanin and his brothers, who had previously operated Bella Notte in Bernardston, brought their Italian culinary sensibilities to the new eatery and opened it to the public for both regular dining and events.

“People don’t have to be so fancy here; it’s somewhere in the middle between fine dining and a nice restaurant you can go anytime,” he said. “We serve filet mignon along with wraps, sandwiches, and burgers, so it’s appealing to many people. A lot of people said an Italian restaurant would not be able to succeed here, but I beat my own expectations and certainly everyone else’s.”

Terrazza, which hosts gatherings from under 20 people up to 180, welcomes events ranging from weddings and class reunions to corporate events and holiday parties, he went on. “Much of my business is repeat. And, personally, I don’t take them for granted. We want to make a living through good food and kind service. We’re very people-oriented.”

That serves him well during the holiday party season, which introduces many first-timers to the restaurant, a benefit for any facility that welcomes company gatherings.

Terrazza’s Abaz Cecunjanin

Terrazza’s Abaz Cecunjanin says holiday bookings were strong last year and remain healthy in 2015.

That’s also true at Hofbrauhaus, where the party trend is toward sit-down dinners, which begin with a cocktail hour and passed hors d’oeuvres, followed by a three- or four-course meal and wine, then dessert, Stevens explained. “Some of them have gift giving; there are a couple of companies I really look forward to because their gift giving is so much fun. It’s a very festive atmosphere with music.”

At other establishments, like Lattitude, the trend is toward stand-up events.


Go HERE for a listing of the region’s banquet facilities


“Last year, we had a lot of plated events. This year, we’re booking a lot of cocktail stations with fun food, and employees are not necessarily sitting down for a formal dinner,” Corriveau said. “They want food stations and passed hors d’oeuvres and signature cocktails. For one green-energy company, we created a green cocktail. The trend is fewer formal sit-downs and more cocktail stations. It’s fun.”

That said, she added, buffets have become passé unless a company has a party catered on their premesis, in which case they’re more common.

One growing trend has seen restaurants host one event for numerous companies, giving small businesses an opportunity to experience a big-party atmosphere, with copious food choices and entertainment, on an affordable budget.

“That’s a great way to go for small businesses, and that’s what we mostly have around here,” said Deborah Snow, co-owner of the Blue Heron in Sunderland (see story, page 40), which hosts such a party each holiday season, in addition to individual gatherings for large and small groups in its various rooms.

“Most businesses in the Valley don’t have huge budgets for parties; they’re Yankees, and they’re frugal, which is great,” Snow said. “But business owners still want to give something to their employees in the way of a big holiday party, and this is one way to do it. We’ve also gone to other people’s locations to cater parties; that’s a big part of our success, too.”

Corriveau said Lattitude also brings the party to companies that prefer not to leave the office, or find it difficult to agree on a time for everyone, but still want to celebrate the season.

Erin Corriveau says Lattitude’s

Erin Corriveau says Lattitude’s prime December party dates were largely booked by August.

In addition, “a lot of people can’t do evenings or weekends, so they’re booking lunches, taking the staff out to lunch. They’ll either close early or take a big chunk out of the day to celebrate with staff,” she explained. “Work-life balance is a big thing, and a nighttime event might not work for all employees; they’re taking those needs into account and making a party work for as many people as possible.”

Giving Thanks

At their heart, Corriveau said, company holiday parties are a way to express gratitude.

“A lot of employers want to celebrate with employees and thank them,” she told BusinessWest. “Typically, the holiday season is considered the year end, so they’re thanking them for a job well done and their hard work throughout the year.”

For Cecunjanin, who took a chance on a new restaurant in 2013, the concept of gratitude takes on a different meaning — a more personal one — as he heads into a busy holiday season.

“You can work as hard as you want,” he said, “but any business needs a little luck, and so far, we’ve had luck on our side.”

That’s as good a reason as any to make merry.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Party Planner Sections

Farm Fresh

The Blue Heron

The Blue Heron offers a striking setting inside Sunderland’s 148-year-old former Town Hall.

The menu at the Blue Heron Restaurant & Catering lists more than 25 farms in Western Mass. that supply the Sunderland restaurant with fresh meat, produce, and dairy products. Co-owner Deborah Snow says that’s just an extension of what she learned as a child growing up on a farm in Ohio.

“I came from a food family — today they would be called foodies,” she said. “They were from agricultural backgrounds. I lived on a farm until I was 2; my parents were farmers who loved to eat good food. They had experimental tastes for that time, even though we didn’t have access to a lot of global cuisine back then. They were great cooks; my mother was a pastry chef.”

Though the phrase ‘farm to table’ hadn’t yet been coined, “that was the roots of my family; you ate what was fresh,” Snow went on. “It was all oriented to seasons. I don’t remember having tomatoes in the house if it wasn’t tomato season. My family wouldn’t eat corn if it wasn’t picked that morning. It’s just how I grew up.”

As a child, Snow fantasized about owning a restaurant, but chose instead to study art history and photography in college, aiming for a career in art and, in the early ’80s, landing a photography exhibition for the United Nations.

“But I’ve worked in the restaurant industry since I was 14,” she added, with an aunt and uncle who ran a diner and another aunt and uncle with a catering business. Years later, that experience led her to shift her career focus. “When you’re a struggling artist, you need to get money somewhere, and one day I said, ‘I can actually make more money in the food business.’”

Still, she found that the food world was no hindrance to her goal of being an artist — it simply represented a different kind of art.

“I found a great deal of creativity in being a chef,” she told BusinessWest, but she didn’t want to own her own business at first, working instead for a large catering company in Boston. “That’s where I feel I really grew in knowledge. The best teacher is just getting in and doing it.”

Her many different forays into the culinary world convinced her that her passion truly lay there, she explained, adding that passion is a must to succeed in such a challenging industry. “Everyone wants to be a chef until they understand how grueling it is. And the financial rewards are not like being an IT person. It’s not like creating code.”

After running a small restaurant in Boston, she moved to Western Mass. and worked as the prepared food manager at Bread and Circus, then took catering jobs with Amherst College and Northfield Mount Hermon School, where she met her eventual partner in business and in life, Barbara White.

Taking the Leap

White took a similarly circuitous route into food service. She began her career as an elementary-school teacher, worked in an alternative school in the 1970s for a few years, moved to Massachusetts, and ran community-based mental-health programs for teenagers. At Northfield Mount Hermon School, where she worked first as a campus dean and later as director of parent programs, she decided to launch a catering business with Snow, which led to the Blue Heron.

“She was an educator and administrator, but she always had this desire to be in the hospitality business, so that’s what we did,” Snow said, adding that the restaurant initially opened on the banks of the Sawmill River in Montague in 1997 and quickly caught on with the dining public.

Deborah Snow

Deborah Snow says the Blue Heron was focused on locally sourced food long before it became an industry buzzword.

“People thought we were crazy,” she went on. “There’s a bookstore there whose motto is ‘books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.’ And we were not easily found — but we were successful. As one baker who was interested in doing business with us said, ‘if you’re successful here, you could really be successful anywhere.’”

With the customer base growing, Snow and White went looking for a new, larger location, and found an ideal spot in the Old Town Hall in Sunderland, which had fallen into disuse for almost a decade. After purchasing the property from the city for $1 and undertaking an extensive remodeling job, the Blue Heron reopened in 2004.

“It’s a great thing that towns are willing to do that with buildings that are burdensome to them,” Snow said. “It’s an old public building, and we found a way to reuse it. It was getting damaged, and there were leaks, and it was obvious the town didn’t want to keep it. We fit the profile of what they wanted to see — something that would increase their tax base and also bring people to the area, which we do.”

Built in 1867 to house the Sunderland town offices and grammar school, the building has served myriad municipal functions over the years. The first floor and basement were remodeled in the 1940s, but the second floor retains its original construction, including the Great Room’s pressed-tin walls and ceilings.

To White and Snow, the building was a satisfying challenge, since they already shared a love for old structures. “Barbara and I live in a house built in the late 1820s, early 1830s, and we’re in the process of working on that,” Snow said. “We love the character of an old building; we love the reuse.”

She talked with BusinessWest in the bar area, which used to be a small basketball court that doubled as a function area for various town activities. “Customers say, ‘I used to play ball here, and my daughter did ballet upstairs.’ We hear wonderful stories.”

Now, the partners are hoping to create new memories for diners through fresh, eclectic food in a striking, historic setting.

“Our motto is ‘globally inspired, locally sourced.’ I traveled a lot as a photographer, as did Barbara.” Her experience with the UN led Snow to the Middle East and Far East, where she always sought out local cuisine, not fare aimed at American tourists. “They really opened their hearts. I wanted to create food from the tastes I had around the world.”

When the Blue Heron first opened, however, exotic ingredients were harder to find than they are in 2015, when even the most Americanized grocery stores carry a wide range of Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern sauces and spices. However, while the ‘globally inspired’ aspect of their philosophy has evolved with the greater choices available today, the ‘locally sourced’ aspect was strong from the start.

“The meat for our burgers comes from Foxbard Farm, 20 miles away; it’s all grass-fed,” Snow said. “We go that extra mile and spend more money on all our meats than many restaurants. We’re not only doing that now; we were the only ones doing that when we opened. That’s our commitment, and for us, that never changes.”

It also provides incentive to change the menu seasonally; rather than tomatoes and corn and berry-centric desserts, the fall and winter will see increased usage of potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, and kale.

Moving On Up

While she no longer cooks on a nightly basis, Snow remains active in designing the menu, and she relishes the challenge of party bookers who request traditional ethnic dishes, from Indian to Mexican to Chinese.

“I love all those foods,” she said. “For one wedding, the groom was from India, and the bride was from around here. They wanted me to do a lamb biryani. I hadn’t made it before, but I studied, went out and tasted some, and made it for their wedding. They said it was the best they’d ever had.”

That kind of response, Snow said, is gratifying, and begins with a philosophy that fresh, local food beats freezers and powders — and it has helped her and White carve out one of Franklin County’s tastiest success stories.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]