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Holiday Party Planner

Holiday Party Planner

What’s on the Menu?

By Manon L. Mirabelli

Ralph Santaniello

Ralph Santaniello says the Federal fits the bill as an upscale, special-occasion restaurant and also as an affordable, sociable spot.

Monica Guarneri has seen a noticeable trend in party planning — specifically, parties outside the home.

And that’s good for business at Shortstop Bar & Grill in Westfield, where Guarneri is executive chef and co-owner alongside her parents, Nabil and Julie Hannoush.

In the 10 years that facility has been open, she explained, more people are choosing to host parties in public rather than private spaces such as homes and offices, a trend driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. To accommodate that demand, Shortstop offers a newly redecorated, 3,000-square-foot banquet room that can hold 25 to 100 people.

“A lot of people don’t want to worry about having people in their homes,” Guarneri said. “What attracts clients is the ease and comfort of having someone else do the work for them so they can enjoy the party.”

While the space is tastefully appointed, she added, those hosting parties may opt to decorate the room to their liking to create a custom experience. “We are the go-to spot for several business clients. We offer convenience, consistency, and a private atmosphere.”

The holiday season is traditionally a time when employers celebrate their employees’ contributions to a successful business year with festive gatherings, and Western Mass. has no shortage of distinctive venues of all sizes, from the Berkshires to the Pioneer Valley.

One of the most notable local venues is Springfield’s world-renowned Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which has the capability to host events of all sizes, intimate to large-scale.

Chelsea Johnson, manager of internal events for the Hall of Fame, said most businesses begin booking their holiday parties in the summer, and those that return regularly begin planning for the following year immediately after their parties.

“We are the go-to spot for several business clients. We offer convenience, consistency, and a private atmosphere.”

“It’s definitely a unique venue,” she said. “It’s not your standard banquet hall.”

Indeed, it is not. Party planners have a wide range of options, including Center Court, which typically accommodates 500 to 800 guests; the Theater, which holds 100 to 200 people; and the Boardroom and Hall of Honor, both more intimate spaces that can accommodate 50 to 100 guests.

Johnson said the Hall of Fame is an ideal venue for holiday parties because of its proximity to major highways, plenty of free parking, and free on-site valet service, to name just a few reasons.

“We are the premier location for events of any size or type in Western Massachusetts and New England,” she added. “We have more than 80,000 square feet of flexible function space, and each year we host hundreds of local and global corporate meetings, award dinners, private socials, and internationally televised events.”


Go West

Party planners seeking a more intimate venue a bit farther west might find the traditional elegance of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge an ideal location for a quintessential New England holiday experience.

Tim Eustis, director of Sales and Catering, said the storied eatery can accommodate 65 to 120 people and can customize space to suit every party, and companies who hold holiday events at the Red Lion can expect “a warm space, good food and drinks, and excellent service.”

The Red Lion’s Hitchcock Room

The Red Lion’s Hitchcock Room is the historic inn’s most spacious banquet option.

“We’re very good at throwing parties,” he noted. “We have the Hitchcock Room, the main dining room, front and back dining rooms, and part of the lobby.”

One local business-client stalwart for the Red Lion Inn, Eustis said, is the Jane Iredale international cosmetics company, as well as U.S. Rep. Richard Neal’s annual gathering for staff and friends.

“Congressman Neal’s parties are one of our favorites to plan and be a part of,” Eustis said. “They have a great team.”

Back in the Springfield area, the Federal is a historic site in Agawam that has become synonymous with excellence in fine dining.

Owners Ralph Santanielo and Michael Presnal strive to integrate the white-linen elegance of a bygone era with a fresh and innovative, ‘new American’ cuisine. “We rely on strong Italian and French influences to inspire the contemporary culinary style of Chef Presnal in dishes such as his red beet risotto, burnt tangerine glazed cod, and white-chocolate panna cotta” Santaniello said.

One big advantage of hosting a holiday event at the Federal, he added, is that the space is “dressed up as a special-occasion restaurant, but is sociable and affordable enough for every occasion.”

For those who choose to have the Federal cater their events off-site, parties from 15 to 300 can be served from a menu of specialty items.


Beyond the Table

Some venues offer more than a meal experience. Not unlike the Basketball Hall of Fame, but on a smaller scale, Shortstop also offers an interactive party experience with indoor batting cages to encourage mingling and hands-on fun.

“The batting cages are a great icebreaker,” Guarnieri said. “They make it easy to make conversation and make the party more interactive.”

Shortstop provides all food and beverages in party packages and may include chef-made desserts, though guests are also welcome to bring in their own desserts.

Speaking of the Hall of Fame, that venue provides local businesses with a one-of-a-kind party facility where guests can enjoy an interactive experience shooting hoops and touring the museum.

Johnson noted that Max’s Downtown is the exclusive caterer for Hall events, ensuring that visitors will enjoy a gourmet dinner experience in addition to a fun venue.

She noted that two of the biggest local companies that utilize the spot for their holiday parties are Advanced Manufacturing in Westfield and the Sarat Ford group, which includes Enfield Ford, Ford of Northampton, and the flagship Sarat Ford Lincoln in Agawam, for a total of more than 250 guests.

Jack Sarat, president of the auto group, said 2022 was the company’s first year at the Hall of Fame, and it was a great choice enjoyed by employees and their families. “Everybody had a great time. The food was excellent, and the venue is excellent. They really did a great job. A lot of people had never been there. It was a lot of fun.”

The Sarat patriarch said the company has used quite a few banquet facilities throughout the years it has been in business, but the Hall of Fame provided one of the most memorable parties.

“Overall, we had such a great time last year. They really sold us, and there was no reason not to go back this year.”

Holiday Party Planner Special Coverage

It’s Become a Venue of Choice

Suzy Fortgang

Suzy Fortgang in the Yellow Barn at Valley View Farm.


Suzy Fortgang says it took four full years to acquire the horse barn on the grounds of the Berkshire Hills Music Academy in South Hadley, disassemble it, and put it back together at what is now known as Valley View Farm in Haydenville.

“We were looking for a barn, we found it, and we took it down piece by piece,” she recalled. “It was a laborious process; every piece, some of them 40 feet long, was tagged, taken apart like a LEGO, and moved … luckily, we had drawn a good diagram so we could put it back together.”

And when asked about the price tag for doing all that, she said simply, “I don’t want to think about it; I never wanted to add it up.”

But she thinks often about how that cost, and all that hard work, were certainly well worth it.

Indeed, what’s known as the ‘Yellow Barn,’ built by the son of silk magnate William Skinner for his daughter, has become the centerpiece, — figuratively, but also quite literally — of a multi-faceted operation at the farm, shaped over the past several years by Fortgang and her husband, David Nehring, and especially its thriving weddings and events business.

“It was a laborious process; every piece, some of them 40 feet long, was tagged, taken apart like a LEGO, and moved … luckily, we had drawn a good diagram so we could put it back together.”

Fortgang, a psychotherapist by trade, said the venue hosts roughly 80 weddings a year, in addition to a variety of other events, from fundraisers for nonprofits to retirement and birthday parties to a few holiday gatherings, with the obvious goal of doing more of all of the above.

The site has become an increasingly popular venue for weddings, drawing couples from an ever-wider geographic circle, but especially from across New England, New York State, and, increasingly, New York City.

Indeed, as she talked with BusinessWest, Fortgang recapped a wedding the previous weekend involving a couple from Brooklyn, with most family and friends coming from in or around Gotham.

“They don’t get to experience this much — being outdoors and being in nature and eating local food,” she said, referring to the broad experience that Valley View provides. “It’s a gift that you can give to your guests.”

Valley View

Valley View is a working farm, but also a true destination and venue for many different kinds of events.
Photo by Aleksandr Verbetsky

Indeed, those hosting these events — and those who attend them — are treated to a site that blends scenic beauty with some history, especially in the form of that barn (more on that later), hard cider (another important piece of the business plan), and some spectacular views.

“We now make a living hosting weddings and other events,” said Fortgang, adding that this component of the business started coming together just seven years ago. “And I think we’ve risen to become one of the most popular venues in New England.”

As noted earlier, this is, indeed, a multi-faceted operation. Fortgang and Nehring grow a number of crops, from apples and peaches to blueberries and a variety of vegetables. They also produce maple syrup, raise chickens and sell eggs. And several years ago, they started making hard cider and eventually opened the Muse Cider Bar, a destination unto itself that is open to the public on nights when there are no events.

“We now make a living hosting weddings and other events. And I think we’ve risen to become one of the most popular venues in New England.”

For this issue and its focus on holiday party planning, BusinessWest visited Valley View Farm and gained a full appreciation for how it has become a true destination, and in many different respects.


Story Material

Getting back to that barn…

It’s not just the painstakingly laborious process of taking it down and reassembling it that makes its new home and purpose so significant, although that’s a remarkable story in its own right. It’s also where it’s located.

Indeed, the farm now sits just a few hundred yards from where the original Skinner silk mill was located in Haydenville, then known as as the Unquomonk Silk Company. That mill, which was uninsured, was destroyed by the Mill River Flood of 1874, with Skinner eventually rebuilding in Holyoke in what became one of the best business comeback stories ever recorded.

“It just felt right to bring it back to Haydenville,” said Fortgang, adding that the barn had been condemned and was due to be demolished by Berkshire Hills when she and Nehring, who previously owned a small engine-repair shop in Northampton, stepped in to rescue it.

That was a few years after they had acquired the property in 2013, outbidding, by a dollar, a developer who planned to build condominiums on the site.

“We bought it with the intention of farming,” she recalled. “We wanted land … we both loved the outdoors. He wanted to farm — he grew up on a farm.”

Originally a dairy farm but also an orchard, the property had not been farmed for many years, she went on, adding that they gradually added facilities, crops, and revenue streams. The farm is now home to more than 250 fruit trees, including vintage apple trees with heirloom varieties. Maple sugaring and cider production were soon added, and while doing all that, Fortgang and Nehring conceptualized and advanced a secondary plan to convert the property into an events venue and destination.

The Yellow Barn at Valley View Farm

The Yellow Barn at Valley View Farm, carefully deconstructed and put together at the scenic property in Haydenville, has become a popular wedding venue.

“When we bought the land, it was in my mind to do all of this,” she said, gesturing with her hand to indicate everything from the main event space to a smaller barn converted into a pavilion, to the cider bar. “Because I interviewed all the farmers, I knew about how to make a living farming, and I couldn’t quite figure out how to do that without the history and the infrastructure.”

And the Yellow Barn become the focal point of that plan.

Featuring high ceilings, huge windows to let in sunlight and moonlight, and tables and chairs fashioned from boards from a secondary floor, it is open for events year-round — it’s heated and air-conditioned — and blends history and culture with today’s conveniences.

“It has all the amenities of a modern venue, but it also has the history and charm of being an old horse barn,” said Fortgang, adding that it also features some unique spaces, such as the ‘Love Nest.’ Located on the second floor of the barn, it’s a private suite, decorated with antique furniture collected by Fortgang’s parents, that is used for photos, hair and makeup, and as a “romantic getaway.”

This blend of old, new, and historical, coupled with everything else on the property, from the views to the horses grazing in the nearby pasture to the hard cider, has quickly made Valley View a destination of choice for couples looking a different kind of wedding venue.

Fortgang said that perhaps 30% of the weddings involve people from this area. The rest are from across New England and New York and well beyond, making tiny Haydenville what could be considered a destination-wedding spot.

“We’re happy to get to know more people and share this beautiful place with them. This has become a place to come and celebrate … and we know how to throw a good party.”

Indeed, wedding parties and guests will often stay a night or two in hotels in neighboring Northampton and other communities, making Valley View an economic engine of sorts.

“They all stay in Northampton, they take a bus up here, and they spend the day here,” she explained. “Sometimes it’s kids who grew up here, but now they live in other parts of the country. We have New Yorkers, we have a lot of Brooklyn couples.

“Couples these days … when they’re looking for this aesthetic, they get on the internet, and they’re considering Vermont and Maine and Rhode Island, and all of New England, really,” she went on, adding that their search now often ends in Haydenville because of word-of-mouth referrals and the venue’s strong track record for excellence.

Indeed, 2024 is essentially sold out as far as weddings are concerned, she said, while bookings for 2025 and beyond are quite solid. The venue generally does three each weekend, with the pace of business slowing in the winter months, obviously.

Beyond weddings, Valley View also hosts different kinds of private functions in its various spaces — the Yellow Barn for larger gatherings, as it can accommodate up to 200 people, and a pavilion and patio (moved from the historic Hemenway Hill Farm a few miles away) and Muse Cider Bar for smaller functions.

It has hosted wedding anniversaries, bridal and baby showers, nonprofit fundraising events, retirement parties, family reunions, and some holiday parties as well, said Fortgang, adding that the business plan calls for building this side of the operation by creating more of those word-of-mouth referrals.

“We’re happy to get to know more people and share this beautiful place with them,” she went on. “This has become a place to come and celebrate … and we know how to throw a good party.”


Bottom Line

During COVID, when the wedding business screeched to a halt, Fortgang and Nehring still managed to put their facilities to use, creating a cocktail bar, called the Farm Bar, in the Yellow Barn, and actually handing out drinks through the windows to visitors from across the region — many of them desperate for something to do — before eventually moving the operation outdoors.

“It became a thing,” she said, adding that the farm became such a popular gathering spot for the public, it was decided to open the Muse Cider Bar on nights when there are no events.

“We’ll have a food truck down there and serve cocktails and cider,” she told BusinessWest, adding that this is just one of the ways in which Valley View has gone from being a celebrated part of Haydenville’s past to being a huge part of the community’s present and future.

And a destination — in every sense of that term.

Holiday Party Planner

Many Ways to Celebrate

Lynn Kennedy says the Log Cabin, Delaney House, and Log Rolling catering services have something for every business during the holiday season, no matter their size. 

Companies have long celebrated the hard work they’ve done over the course of the year with a holiday party. Whether hosting a small gathering or a large corporate bash, plenty of restaurants, banquet facilities, and caterers in the Western Mass. area are willing to get the job done each year. Although these parties have been popular for decades, owners and managers say trends are always changing in how people want to celebrate the year and ring in a new one.

Lynn Kennedy says one of the most common things she hears from employers booking holiday parties is that they want to do something special for the people that work for them.

“This is something people don’t want to do halfway,” said Kennedy, director of Sales and Marketing at the Log Cabin. “They want to go all in because they realize it’s the best way for them to show their employees the appreciation they deserve for a lot of hard work that they put out there.”

While end-of-the-year holiday parties have long been a tradition for companies of all sizes, employers are finding new ways to show employees their appreciation this season.

Aside from the traditional but enjoyable small group parties and restaurant reservations, companies are going above and beyond to make sure all employees are able to join in the celebration, no matter how big the organization may be.

The Log Cabin offers a wide array of options for holiday parties, including small-group holiday parties that are always a hit. Indeed, the facility is hosting a total of six this year, as opposed to the usual four or five, because of how popular they are.

“This is something people don’t want to do halfway. They want to go all in because they realize it’s the best way for them to show their employees the appreciation they deserve for a lot of hard work that they put out there.”

The Starting Gate at GreatHorse is another popular venue for small-group holiday parties, including a Breakfast with Santa, a Holiday Dinner Dance with the Clark Eno Orchestra, and the annual Holiday Luncheon with Dan Kane & Friends.

Cathy Stephens, director of Catering Sales, says these events are affordable options for small to mid-sized companies looking to enjoy a festive night.

“It is cost-effective for the smaller and even the mid-size companies to host their holiday celebration at venues that are providing live entertainment and a festive menu that satisfies just about everyone,” she said. “It also provides the opportunity to network with other local businesses.”

In addition to Center Square Grill, Bill Collins recently opened another restaurant, HighBrow, in Northampton.

There is no shortage of businesses in the Western Mass. area, and all have their own preferences as to what kind of gathering will appeal to their employees. This encourages restaurants like Center Square Grill to expand their options and accommodate unique requests.

Owner Bill Collins says he does his best to work with any request, no matter how big or small, and often does so himself to make sure everything goes smoothly.

“What makes this restaurant stand out is that the owner is on deck,” he said, adding that General Manager Kim Hulslander is also frequently involved with booking parties. “If you want to call and work with me, you’re going to get me on the phone. You’re in ownership’s hands when you’re booking an event with us, and we see it through to the end.”

The holiday season poses a strong business opportunity for restaurants and banquet facilities, but it is also a great time for caterers.

“We have people who book at the end of the prior year. Once their holiday party finishes, most people, within a week or two, are booking already for the next year.”

Nosh Restaurant and Café in Springfield may be fairly small on the inside, but its catering business is booming, and uses creative food and elegant edible centerpieces to stand out from the competition.

“I think our food is super creative, and we present it beautifully,” said owner Teri Skinner. “It’s important to be creative in how you present the food, the taste, and the flavors. It’s really what a catering company is built on.”

These caterers are seeing a lot more business around the holidays over the past few years for a number of reasons. For this year’s holiday party planning issue, BusinessWest spoke with local restaurants and caterers about these changing traditions and how they strive to stand out among local competition.

Teri Skinner, owner of Nosh, says it’s important to be creative when it comes to food presentation.

Keep Them Coming Back

When Missy Baker at Arland Tool e-mailed Skinner to set up the company’s annual party, she sent just five short words: “all set for the 24th?” Skinner responded, “yes, we’re all set.”

That’s because this is the seventh or eighth time Skinner has hosted Arland’s annual party, and she knows exactly what they like and need.

“It’s great for the customer because they know I’m going to be there, they know the quality of food, and it’s great for me because I know how much they eat and how long it takes,” Skinner said. “It’s a very precise job that we can control very well.”

These kinds of relationships are not uncommon for restaurants and caterers, and it’s often the unique experiences customers have that keeps them coming back year after year.

Collins noted that a loyal clientele books parties at Center Square Grill every year.

“For us not being a big corporate chain, I just try to go above and beyond for the customer,” he said. “It’s worth it for me to do that to try to build in the business year after year.”

Some sites, like the Log Cabin, are so popular that regulars will book their next annual event just weeks after they enjoy their party this year.

“There are a lot of companies where their business is heaviest during this season, and it doesn’t make sense for them to actually have the celebration before Christmas, so they do it as a type of new-year celebration.”

“We have people who book at the end of the prior year,” Kennedy said. “Once their holiday party finishes, most people, within a week or two, are booking already for the next year.”

This mainly includes the larger parties that rent out big rooms at the Log Cabin for 300 to 400 people, like Tighe & Bond, Florence Bank, and PeoplesBank.

Because of the desire for a smaller, more intimate setting, Kennedy says the company’s Delaney House, where several rooms can fit 15 to 50 people, is also jam-packed during the holidays. Whatever the booking party’s size, she has seen an increase in catering over the last few years, which she credits partly to a changing workforce schedule.

“A major component of that is work schedules because you have first and second and third shifts of people,” she said. “Heads of businesses are really trying to figure out a way to incorporate their entire workforce in a holiday celebration and not just limit it to a particular time.”

These multi-shift businesses include news crews, manufacturers, and even hospitals, where it is nearly impossible to get everyone in the same room at the same time. This is where Log Rolling, the catering service for Log Cabin and the Delaney House, comes in handy.

“They’ll come in and ask us, ‘can you set up a breakfast for our morning crew? Can you set up a lunch for our afternoon crew? Can you set up a dinner for our evening crew?’ so everyone is kind of being hit at a different time and everyone gets to enjoy that holiday experience,” Kennedy said.

Making Spirits Bright

Caterers aren’t the only ones bringing unique styles to holiday celebrations. At Center Square Grill, Collins says customized packages are available for parties of any size, including both food and décor.

The restaurant offers packages for private dining that start at $20 and typically go up to $45 per person, although that isn’t the limit. Lower packages might offer unlimited alcoholic beverages with an entrée choice and a salad. With the $45 packages, everyone is greeted with a glass of champagne and gets an appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert.

Collins also said he can arrange rooms in a variety of ways, with everything from decorated tables for a sit-down dinner to cocktail tables for a more casual night out.

“What’s unique about us is that you can come here casually, or you can come here dressed up, and you’re not going to feel bad in either direction,” he said. “We want you to be comfortable coming in for a burger and a beer or filet, oysters, and a bottle of champagne.”

Perhaps one of the most important parts about a holiday party is the quality and presentation of food, Skinner said. From everything from the plate the food goes on to the way the food itself is presented itself, Nosh puts together each “edible centerpiece” with with care.

“We call them edible centerpieces because they’re so beautiful when they go out,” she elaborated. “That’s how we build things here. We want them to look gorgeous and taste great, so that’s our goal at the end of the day.”

Cathy Stephens says events at Great Horse, including the holiday dinner dance and holiday luncheon, are perfect for businesses with a smaller budget.

More recently, Nosh catered a Halloween party for Northwest Mutual and provided edible centerpieces, appetizers, and a bartender dressed up for the spooky season.

Skinner agrees that catering has become more popular over the years and thinks a lot of people just want to feel comfortable and laid-back. “I think having it at home or at an office is relaxing,” she said.

Perhaps one of the most relaxing options all these restaurants have seen is the decision to hold off on a holiday party until the beginning of the following year to avoid the craziness of booking during peak season.

Kennedy says people normally book parties at the Log Cabin through the first few weeks of January, but some even book all the way into February.

“There are a lot of companies where their business is heaviest during this season, and it doesn’t make sense for them to actually have the celebration before Christmas, so they do it as a type of new-year celebration,” she said.

This happens frequently at restaurants in the area as well, and it’s the reason why Center Square keeps decorations up well into the new year so customers can still feel the holiday spirit even after the holidays are over.

In short, whether businesses are going with a new tradition or sticking with an old one, there is no shortage of options for holiday parties in Western Mass. — and banquet halls and restaurants say they’re happy to oblige.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

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


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

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]

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
Restaurants, Banquet Facilities Anticipate Busy Holiday Season

Ruby Meng

Ruby Meng says many companies pulled back on holiday parties during the recession, but they’re coming back now.

It was clear to Erin Corriveau that the corporate holiday party was back when a past client called to book a December get-together — in April.

“The days fly off — there are only so many Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights” between Thanksgiving and the New Year, considered prime holiday-party season, said Corriveau, catering and events manager at Lattitude in West Springfield. “We had a few people book very early — but you can never actually book a date too early. They do run out quickly.”

In fact, Corriveau said, Lattitude’s new banquet room — which opened last November and allowed the restaurant to handle much larger parties than before — was completely booked two months ago for every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evening in December.

“A lot of companies have been with us for many years — well over 10 years — and they tend to book year after year,” added Ruby Meng, director of sales at the Hotel Northampton, which has also experienced robust holiday-season reservations this year.

“We’re booked pretty solid on weekends, and weekdays are starting to get close. People are looking to do gatherings and holiday parties, and they’ve also inquired about holiday brunches, a little earlier in the daytime. It’s a creative way to capture more of their employees, who may be busy in the evening or on weekends.

“We’re doing pretty well,” she added, noting that many businesses pulled back on entertainment budgets during the Great Recession, but most are returning. “Companies are bouncing back. A few years back was tough, but we are seeing more companies opening up and being more generous, doing giveaways, raffles, things like that for their employees.”

Robin Ann Brown, director of sales at the Lord Jeffery Inn in Amherst, said holiday gatherings are popular, but not always under that moniker. “A lot of companies are calling them ‘annual events’ or ‘awards banquets,’ versus an actual holiday party.”

She said the industry hasn’t completely recovered from the drop in sales during the recession, simply because many companies that cut parties from the budget haven’t put them back in, even though times are better.

Still, according to Jennifer Marion, assistant director of events for the Willits-Hallowell Center at Mount Holyoke College, business has picked up this year, and companies are starting to spend more money.

“One party with a menu already confirmed for December is doing clams on the half shell, baked stuffed lobster … they’re definitely choosing more elaborate menus that, in the past, their budgets wouldn’t have allowed them to do.”

What’s also changing is what style of party companies are seeking out. For this issue’s focus on holiday party planning, BusinessWest looks into the current trends, and why this season has so many restaurants and banquet facilities feeling merry indeed.

Stand or Sit?

Most area facilities are reporting a definite shift away from sit-down dinners in favor of cocktail parties, food stations, and passed hors d’ouevres, which encourage people to mingle and interact.

“One of the trends we’ve been seeing is stations instead of a true-sit down — chef carvings, high-end hors d’ouevres, passed wine, passed hot cocoa with peppermint Schnapps,” Brown said. “And a lot of people are doing more chamber music or jazz bands than dancing music.”

“We’re getting both,” Meng said. “More people are starting to inquire about station packages, moving toward a cocktail style. People are getting a little more creative, too, maybe bringing in a comedian or activities to keep people entertained. And, of course, bands and dancing, those are a given.”

Added Marion, “we can do either a long cocktail party with a lot of hand-passed hors d’ouevres or stations, or do a bigger, full sit-down meal. Buffets are most popular right now; they give people more choices. But, if it’s a more formal group, they tend to go more with a served meal.”

Corriveau said it’s important to be flexible because of all the different party preferences in the business world — and at Lattitude, that flexibility extends to the site of the party.

“A lot of business parties are held on site, but we also do off-site deliveries and catering,” she noted, adding that the day and location of business parties often depends on the size of the company. “Monday through Wednesday, the crowd tends to be smaller businesses, versus the larger companies that tend to take up the weekend dates. Or, if businesses want a typical potluck lunch but don’t feel like getting dressed up and going somewhere, we can bring a holiday party to them on company premises.”

Like others we spoke with, Corriveau has seen a shift away from formal, seated dinners. “We used to do more sit-down affairs, and businesses can certainly do that, but more companies that are booking parties want their employees to enjoy themselves, to mix and mingle and socialize. We do a lot more of the social, passed-appetizer type of party. When you’re home having a Christmas party, everyone is moving around, and that’s the feel they’re going for. We’re still doing sit-down parties, but people seem to be moving away from that.”

Companies are also increasingly moving away from Saturday nights and asking for Thursday and Friday reservations, Brown said. “Family time is limited, so a lot of companies choose not to do it on weekend nights, so people can spend time with their families at home.”

Creating Traditions

With many of these trends consistent across the industry, how do the area’s many banquet facilities set themselves apart among fierce competition? In the Lord Jeff’s case, it’s emphasizing the facility’s embrace of the holiday season and its traditions.

“People gravitate toward the Lord Jeffery Inn because we’re an historic inn, and holidays have that historic tradition about it. The Lord Jeff speaks tradition,” Brown said, citing, as examples, a Sunday brunch with Santa, high tea on Saturdays, and carolers on Friday nights.

“Those are the traditions the inn has put in place since we renovated, and people have been very receptive. During the holidays, we’re extremely busy.”

The inn can accommodate both large and small gatherings, she added. “A lot of companies don’t have large holiday parties, so for parties of, say, six to 12, we’ll do smaller events in our beautiful greenhouse room, where you can see it snowing right on the roof, and fireplaces all around. When companies don’t want to spend money on large events, the greenhouse room holds up to 18.”

She said the nostalgic holiday appeal of the facility is reflected even in its twinkling seasonal lights, which are visible from the Commons in downtown Amherst, making the Lord Jeffery Inn an attractive option for parties of all sizes.

“Even if companies are not going to do a full dinner, they might take out the board of directors or top employees for a dinner for 20,” she explained. “They like the carolers on Friday, and the high tea. People drive over an hour to come to high tea; again, it’s a holiday tradition.”

Lattitude believes its new banquet facility is fast becoming a regional tradition.

“Prior to the banquet room, we had a smaller room, and we’d certainly get smaller holiday-party requests,” Corriveau said. “But since adding the banquet room last year, we’ve had our share of larger parties. We were full every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in December two months ago. People were calling early. We even had somebody book a holiday party this past April.”

The new space boasts a private bar, sandblasted brick walls, and steel beams, and is “very much a reflection of the restaurant,” she said, adding that it holds about 120 seated and up top 150 standing.

“A lot of people are just learning about it. It’s literally where Memo’s used to be in this building,” Corriveau said. “Unless they’re walking in it, they don’t realize it’s there. All of a sudden, they walk in and ask, ‘what is this?’ We do a lot of business parties, weddings, bridal showers, rehearsal dinners, bereavements, a lot of events. It’s warm and inviting. That’s the number-one thing people say when they walk into that room.”

Easy Pickings

Jen Marion

Jen Marion says the Willits-Hallowell Center can provide any type of party setup, but buffets are most popular right now.

Inviting is certainly a trait banquet facilities are aiming for, but so is convenience.

“We’ve done parties for a church group, insurance companies … parties ranging in size from 30 people to as many as 100,” Marion said of her facility on the scenic Mount Holyoke campus. “We have holiday packages, including hors d’ouevres, dinner, dessert, and coffee, and we’re happy to customize that for people with select menus and décor. You pick a menu and let the guests know, and we do the rest. It makes it easy in terms of planning. Usually one consultation appointment with me, and it’s over.”

Well, except for the actual party, that is. The season for celebrating is only beginning.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Party Planner Sections
‘The Castle’ Focuses on Details That Make a Difference

David Sarrasin

David Sarrasin says he aims to meet the dietary needs of vegans, vegetarians, gluten-free diners, and guests with food allergies.

People who aren’t familiar with Chicopee might be surprised to learn the city, and specifically Memorial Drive, is home to a large castle, complete with two towers and parapets that line the edge of its roof.

Large lanterns on the building cast light into a parking lot with enough space for 400 vehicles, and massive doors open into a 10,000-square-foot Grand Ballroom illuminated by sparkling chandeliers and an enormous stone fireplace that burns brightly throughout every season of the year.

This building, owned by the Fairview Knights of Columbus Council No. 4044, has an interesting history, said the group’s treasurer, Ronald Belair. He noted that what is now known as the Castle of Knights Meeting & Banquet House, which hosts hundreds of functions each year, was once a strip mall that was home to a number of small, but well-known businesses.

But over the past three decades, it has been completely transformed, and today events staged there include chamber of commerce functions, banquets, weddings, bridal showers, baby showers, 16th-birthday parties, quinceañeras, anniversaries, and church functions.

Businesses also use it for meetings that run from a few hours to three or four days. “Our facility has wi-fi connectivity and state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment,” said Belair. “The entire building is on one level and is handicapped-accessible.”

It has become a tradition for many groups to hold their holiday parties there, and they are often booked a year in advance by companies and social-service agencies alike.

“People come back year after year, and we also have five companies that wait until January to hold their Christmas parties,” said Sales Manager Sandi LaFleche, citing a growing trend. She added that Chicopee Savings, the Arbors, Shriners Hospital for Children, and Hulmes Transportation number among the firms that choose the Castle for their annual holiday gatherings.

The Fairview Knights of Columbus established the Castle as a separate corporation 25 years ago, said Belair, and went about creating something that would be unique.

“When it was formed, we wanted it to stand out, so we changed the entire façade of the building — we put turrets at each end of the banquet hall to give it the look of a real castle, and had the roof designed to look like a moat,” he said. “It is a very unique, elegant facility that is lavishly decorated, and we do our best to treat our guests like kings and queens.”

In addition to this unusual setting, he stressed that the castle emphasizes attention to detail and a willingness to go the extra mile to meet client requests.

For example, it’s not unusual for Executive Chef David Sarrasin to prepare gluten-free meals, along with dishes for vegans, vegetarians, and people with celiac disease at a function in which the other guests are all eating the same food.

“Over the past five years, a growing number of people have been diagnosed with food allergies or put on strict diets,” he said. “We are very conscious of taking care of the needs of our guests, and we want people to be able to come to the Castle, enjoy a meal, and not worry about getting sick, so our menu has evolved considerably over the years.”

Moat Point

What visitors to the Castle see today is the result of a long and slow process of evolution, said Belair.

It began when the Fairview K of C purchased the strip mall at 1599 Memorial Dr. 35 years ago. At that time, a large storefront, which had housed a Big Y, was vacant, but the mall contained many other tenants who had leases that had to be honored. They included Giovanni’s Pizza, Dress Barn, Ray’s Hardware, Lewis & Clark Drugstore, Ray’s Barber Shop, and Rip’s Lounge, which was a popular watering hole frequented by those stationed at nearby Westover Air Force Base.

“The K of C purchased the mall to be its home — we moved from a very small facility on Montcalm Street into the space that had been occupied by Big Y, and over time we slowly renovated it to accommodate our own functions,” Belair said, noting that it was the organization’s third move, and after the former supermarket was gutted, two halls and a large kitchen were created in the space.

As the leases expired for neighboring tenants, the K of C slowly took over the empty storefronts, and Lewis & Clark and Rip’s Lounge were converted into a members’ lounge and meeting facility. As more space continued to open, again due to expired leases, the K of C allowed charitable organizations, ranging from its own youth association to Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, to use it free of charge.

“But as time went on, a growing number of organizations began to contact us because they wanted to host functions in our hall,” he went on. “So the K of C formed a for-profit corporation that we called the Castle. It allowed us to provide services to the general public.”

At that point, the K of C hall was typical of what people would expect to find at a similar organization. “It had been used for our functions, and featured a wagon-wheel chandelier and red carpeting, which were popular at the time. Although it was attractive, we needed to bring it to another level,” said Belair, adding that the Knights wanted to provide an atmosphere that could compete with other banquet facilities.

Ronald Belair, with Sandi LaFleche

Ronald Belair, with Sandi LaFleche, says the building’s castle design was intended to make it stand out.

So, in addition to changing the façade of the building, an elegant interior with a more formal ambience was designed, which included large, crystal-style chandeliers. Space was also designated and used for offices, bathrooms, and storage and stock areas.

Eight years ago, a second major renovation was completed, which included new carpeting, dance floors, soundproof walls, drapes, and tastefully decorated restrooms that can accommodate up to a dozen people.

The Castle, which leases the space from the K of C, can accommodate groups of 40 to 700 people, and two functions can be held at the same time, thanks to soundproof room dividers.

“We have some of the largest dance floors in Western Mass., and each hall has its own bridal suite, which can also be rented separately for small, corporate meetings,” Belair told BusinessWest. “The rooms are large enough to accommodate live bands, and each hall also has its own stage for entertainers. We also have three large, full-service bars, and groups can choose a cash bar or from a variety of open-bar options.”

Belair said the Castle also boasts its own in-house florist, Flowers by Rebecca. “She is always available to create special items or honor special requests for weddings or wedding parties,” he said. “But our hall is decorated for every season, and we have floral displays on the walls as well as the mantel of the fireplace, which allows clients to save money if they don’t want something custom-tailored for their event.

“We also have a vast array of linen colors and chair covers,” he continued, adding that a full-time sales team, banquet manager, executive chef, and four additional cooks, as well as kitchen staff, make it possible to please every guest.

Focus on Food

Sarrasin is known for his artistic creations, which include ice sculptures of swans, enormous baskets, and even a Waterford crystal egg. They take hours to complete, but an equal amount of time is spent preparing unusual international cheese platters and fruit and vegetable crudités, as well as antipastos that are up to 4 ½ feet long.

“We also create rustic displays with different types of bread, cheese, and antipastos in baskets and on platters,” he said. “The presentation of food is very important to us, and people often tell us they have never seen anything like our food displays anywhere except on cruise ships. It’s what I wanted to do — create something to set us apart from everyone else. I wanted to create a ‘wow’ factor because it’s needed in this industry.”

The menu features a vast array of choices, although the main fare is French nouveau cuisine. “We offer buffets with carving and pasta stations as well as sit-down dinners and luncheons, with entrees that range from chicken dishes to beef Wellington, prime rib, and filet mignon, as well as our popular Castle cordon bleu and scrod,” Sarrasin said.

There is also a vegetarian menu, and it is not unusual for the kitchen staff to accommodate special requests, whether it is an ethnic food or a dish normally not on the menu. Ethnic dishes that have been requested and prepared include paella, kapasta, pierogies, and galumpkis.

Generations of people have worked at the Castle, and many started in the kitchen in their teens. Sarrasin said he creates a learning environment that allows his entire staff to work in any aspect of food preparation. “I try to share everything I know, and many employees have taken their experience and the knowledge they have gained here and gone on to become chefs or managers at other facilities.”

Events held there range from joyous to somber, but it is a popular setting for weddings, and LaFleche said about half of the brides who hold their wedding receptions there get married on the premises. “They often set up arches with flowers and have their guests seated in aisles or at tables,” she noted. Other affairs include beer and wine tastings as well as a variety of fund-raisers.

“The South Hadley Police Assoc. holds an annual comedy night here, and the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce and Holyoke Catholic High School host a lot of functions at the Castle,” said Belair. “The FBI recently held an awards banquet here, and J. Polep Distribution stages frequent seminars in the meeting hall.

“Because we’re not owned by an individual, we can offer the community a lot at a reasonable cost,” he went on. “We keep our prices modest while providing a superior product, and all of our profits are channeled back into the facility.”

Successful Venture

Although the Castle offers many amenities, one thing that makes it different from many other area banquet facilities is that it is governed by a board of directors who are all members of Fairview Knights of Columbus Council #4044.

They generously donate their time to serve on committees connected with the Castle, and the K of C uses it to host its own events, such a Valentine’s Day party and New Year’s Eve celebration, which are open to the public, along with monthly spaghetti suppers. The facility also hosts a free, annual Thanksgiving dinner that provides meals to more than 3,800 needy or lonely people, which earned it the International Family Service Award from the Supreme K of C in San Antonio, Texas last year.

Overall, the venture created more than two decades ago has been heralded as a success, earning recognition and praise from businesses, social groups, and families who return time and time again.

“The combination of a diversity of options, our location, and the consistent, high quality of our food are keys to the Castle,” Belair said.

Holiday Party Planner Sections
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]

Holiday Party Planner Sections
Explosive Growth Fuels a Building Boom at Lattitude

Jeff Daigneau

Jeff Daigneau says creativity and hard work have helped Lattitude grow, to the point where the restaurant thrives even during the challenging Big E weeks.

Jeff Daigneau doesn’t know how many times he’s told the story. But he does know that it never gets old.
He was referring to what has become local culinary legend of sorts, the saga of how the most unlikely, but now the most popular, item on the menu at his restaurant, Lattitude, came to be.
“I messed up during the Big E in 2008 and dropped a bunch of brussels sprouts in the frialator,” said Daigneau, owner and chef at the establishment on Memorial Avenue in West Springfield, directly across from the fairgrounds. He put what came out of the frialator on the bar for consumption — and they didn’t last long.
“Now, they’re the hottest thing going — everybody’s serving them,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the vegetable that so many people love to hate has become his eatery’s signature appetizer — and an unofficial logo of sorts.
Indeed, the vegetable now adorns the back of his business card and the company’s letterhead, and it will soon be on T-shirts to be worn by the staff.
No one calls Lattitude the ‘house that Brussels sprouts built,’ but they might as well — it’s not much of an exaggeration. But the house was actually built by creativity, patience, and perseverance, and because all three have been exhibited in abundance, the house is getting bigger.
Much bigger.
The restaurant, which sits in the middle of what was a large, multi-tenant building that Daigneau now owns, is expanding in several directions within that complex. An outdoor patio bar featuring live music was added this summer on the west side of the property. Meanwhile, an 80-seat banquet facility will open in formerly vacant space on the east side of building in mid-November, and a new, much larger bar area, to be created in space formerly occupied by Memo’s restaurant on the west side of the building, is in the design phase. In the original restaurant, space is being reconfigured, and private meeting rooms are being expanded.
The ambitious series of undertakings, highlighted by the recent installation of a new ‘Lattitude’ sign made of brushed copper, could be called a testimony to the power of fried brussels sprouts. But it’s more of an indication of how the restaurant has become a fixture only a few years after barely surviving its first fall in the shadow of the Big E (more on that later).
“It’s really flattering that people think that much of us,” he said, noting that his experiences to date have been a giant learning curve. “I’ve been doing this since I was 13 years old; I’m 36 now, and every single day I learn something new.”
For this issue and its focus on holiday party planning, BusinessWest looks at what Daigneau’s learned, and how he’s applied those lessons effectively enough to make Lattitude one of the region’s more intriguing business success stories.

Keep the Party Going

Lattitude added an outdoor patio bar this year

Lattitude added an outdoor patio bar this year, where patrons can enjoy live music.

Retelling another story he’s related often, Daigneau said that, during his first fall on Memorial Avenue, he decided to stay open during the 17-day Big E when most all other restaurants in that area shut things down.
They close because the exposition has a tendency to drain traffic from such establishments rather than create it. Many long-time patrons of those eateries also decide they’re not going to fight Big E traffic and dine elsewhere instead.
Daigneau’s decision nearly put him out of business, by his calculation, but the experience provided an important lesson. Today, instead of trying to compete with, or simply survive, the Big E, he is effectively partnering with it. At least that’s the term he uses.
Elaborating, he said he’s learned how to cater his menu and his entertainment to the two primary constituencies at the Big E — visitors to the show and the vendors who often arrive days before it opens and are still packing up long after it ends.
The key to mastering the Big E, said Daigneau, has been a combination of offering a more relaxed atmosphere during fair weeks, especially for vendors, and offering a variety of live bands, food and drink specials, and promo nights, as an extension of what’s already going on over at the Big E.
“I’m not going to get everybody, so I put posters in the windows for events we’re going to have,” he explained. “I try to do things that would bring people in the door.
“I’m not stepping on anybody’s toes,” he went on. “The vendors just want a place to get out and get something to eat, because otherwise, they’re cooking in their campers.”
This imaginative approach to navigating through late September is just one element in Daigneau’s success quotient. And it’s part of a larger operating philosophy of listening to customers and potential customers and giving them want they want — even if, in the case of those Brussels sprouts, they didn’t know they wanted it.
And in recent years, what he consistently heard from patrons is that they want more — as in more space, more options, and more venues for different types of events.
The elaborate renovations and new building initiatives are designed to meet all those needs.
As a lessee, Daigneau had to look at the unattractive yellow stucco plaster on the outside of the building, but now the contemporary-style improvements have made the choppy architecture look like a cohesive city block, he said, which matches the elegance and creative quality of what’s happening inside.
The entire east side of the building is being renovated for banquets; the bathrooms are moving to the west side, the dining room will be expanded to accommodate 120 people, and two new rooms, for up to 12 and 30 patrons, respectively, are ready, or will be, for the holidays. The small, cramped kitchen was expanded recently, and a new catering kitchen is under construction.
“Our off-site catering is going to explode with that new kitchen,” said Daigneau, noting that what started as a few scattered requests for Lattitude menu items has morphed into a solid business opportunity with enormous potential.
The same could be said for banquet, or large-party, business, said Jamie Cardoza, Daigneau’s event specialist. “People were asking for larger venues, and we had to essentially turn business away,” she said.
Daigneau said there were enough of these requests to inspire the new banquet facility. “We had guest requests for parties of 50, 80, or 100,” he noted. “And it just grew into, ‘well, I own the building now; what do we want to do?’”
Plans for the rest of the building, specifically the old Memo’s area, are in the process of being designed. Daigneau said the second floor of the building will remain his office area and won’t be leased out.
While Daigneau’s original plan was to do all the work at once, he ultimately opted to phase it in, a decision that, in retrospect, has worked out well because disruption has been controlled and the impact on the overall business has been minimized.
And in a way, the new look and feel of Lattitude is consistent with Daigneau’s philosophy of continuously changing and reinventing to keep things fresh.
Indeed, while other restaurant owners and managers are loath to remove an item from the menu, Daigneau is fearful of letting his menu get stale.
He said the typical response from his staff when he changes up the menu is, ‘are you out of your mind?’
“But if you’re not moving and shaking and you’re not changing things up, people are going to get bored, and things are going to get stale,” he explained. “The menu has to change, and the staff has to stay fresh, or there are a million opportunities for our customers to go somewhere else.”
One dish that has to make a seasonal appearance every year is his pumpkin ravioli with seared scallops and walnut sage cream sauce.
“It’s the most popular dish we’ve ever done, and it’s one of those things I just can’t take off, and if I do, I get threatened,” he said with a sardonic smile.
It’s the same look he gives his staff when he tells them what he has in mind for his popular dinner series on the third Monday of every month, an event that offers a five-course dinner, with a different cocktail paired with each course.

Room For Dessert
Late last month, Daigneau served as the ‘celebrity professional judge’ for a Big E bread and dessert contest featuring creations fashioned from Fleischmann’s yeast.
That assignment speaks not only to his new outlook on the Big E as partner, not competitor, but also to just how far he has come in five years — from a chef with a dream to an entrepreneur with a dining destination in the midst of exploding growth.
The brussels sprouts on his business card have become a symbol of that success, and so has the new sign over his door.
“It’s finally gotten to the point where I can look up to that sign and say, ‘you know what? I did OK.’”
Actually, much better than OK.

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected].

Holiday Party Planner Sections
Sláinte Draws Restaurant Patrons — and Parties — to Holyoke

Debra Flynn, right, and Jake Perkins

Debra Flynn, right, and Jake Perkins say Sláinte’s party business has taken off beyond their initial expectations.

Debra Flynn owns two successful restaurants and knows her way around a wide variety of food. So what does she like to order when she eats out?
“My favorite food on the entire planet, when I go out, is Caesar salad and nachos. That defines a fun restaurant, and if they don’t have it, we’re not going back,” said Flynn, the owner of Eastside Grill in Northampton and part-owner, with Jake Perkins, of Sláinte in Holyoke.
“When we started,” she said of opening Sláinte earlier this year, “I told Jake we have to have the best nachos in the world — and they are.”
If those nachos —  loaded with toppings and also available ‘cowboy style’ with barbecued brisket — don’t sound like something Eastside would serve, that’s intentional.
“We’re not trying to be something we’re not,” Flynn said. “We’re not a high-end restaurant, and even though we’re attached to Eastside, we didn’t want Eastside food here. To have two restaurants within 10 minutes of each other serving the same food serves no purpose. I wanted this place to have its own identity, but people realize we believe in concepts like quality and service at both places.”
Sláinte (pronounced ‘slahn-cha,’ an Irish greeting meaning ‘your good health’) opened on the site of the former Eighty Jarvis restaurant, which used to be O’Meara’s, which used to be Broadview — which is where our story begins.
Flynn was in her early 20s when she first discovered Broadview on her first date with her future husband, Kevin. Perhaps because of that emotional connection, she had long had her eyes on the property, and when Eighty Jarvis closed, she felt the time was right to make a move.
“I was approached because someone knew how much I really wanted this property,” she said, but she wasn’t prepared to go it alone, so she turned to Perkins, her executive chef at Eastside Grill. “I knew how much Jake wanted to go on to the next level. And I felt comfortable with him; he has the same values I do when it comes to work.”
“We do work well together,” Perkins added. “We have slightly different styles, but they mesh well.
“We wanted a fun, comfortable place,” he continued, “and I really liked the idea of having a banquet room upstairs for parties. We don’t have the space for it at Eastside, but here we have a huge room up there.”
Downstairs, he added, “we keep it comfortable for everybody. It’s a lot of fun, and we want the food to be approachable and the atmosphere to be comfortable. It’s a good spot.”
Despite the name, Sláinte is not an Irish restaurant, he noted. Rather, “it’s an homage to the Irish heritage of Holyoke.”
Flynn laughed when the pronunciation issue arises. “Some of my friends call it Slanty — ‘hey, we’re going to Slanty tonight,’” she said. “But I don’t care, as long as people come.”

American Style
So, what is the menu like? Favorites range from appetizers like fried pickles and cod fritters to entrees like fried chicken, lamb shank, filet mignon, with a selection of burgers, sandwiches, and salads thrown in for good measure.
“Everything is made from scratch here,” Perkins said, from appetizers to desserts, salad dressings to pastrami.
“We use pork belly for bacon — everything is cured from scratch. There are no processed foods here,” Flynn added. “You’re not going to get processed pastrami or turkey here.”
Besides the fresh food, Flynn and Perkins are aiming for a certain casual vibe, not unlike that of the old Broadview. “It was fun — great wings, great sandwiches … it was a great place to go, a place where everyone went in Holyoke, where everyone knew everyone,” Flynn said.
With that in mind, “we were going for a warm, inviting feeling. We added more TVs so people can watch sports, any type of sports. And we have a 60-inch TV outside so they can be outside and watch TV, too.”
Flynn said the outdoor patio and bar is “to die for,” and bands play there on Wednesday and Sunday evenings during the warmer months.
But she and Perkins are equally proud of the upstairs banquet facility, which holds up to 100 people for cocktail parties and sit-down dinners. Sláinte has hosted baby showers, rehearsal dinners, and a host of other parties, including one wedding reception. The space is also ideal for breakfast meetings, and is equipped with audio-visual equipment for business functions.
“We’ve had surprisingly brisk business upstairs,” Perkins said. Flynn added that her connections in Northampton and Springfield — where she was general manager of Café Manhattan and the Colony Club earlier in her career — certainly haven’t hurt.
“It has been overwhelmingly successful. I was not expecting it to be as successful as it is this soon — it’s only been six months,” she said. “People remember me from the Colony Club and Café Manhattan.”
A location that effectively straddles Hampden and Hampshire Counties, just two minutes from I-91, doesn’t hurt, she added. “And the Northampton business community has been extremely positive in this new venture. A lot of people were like, ‘are you sure you want to do this? Why take on so much more work?’ But they come out and support me by coming here — I’ve had a few events from Northampton here.”

City on the Rise
Perkins said the goal has been to create an inclusive environment that draws customers back again and again. Flynn said she’s happy with business so far.
“I want to say it’s because of our quality and the service we provide and the friendly atmosphere,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s my philosophy. That’s the way you keep them coming back.
“This business is not about us; it’s about the customer,” she added. “You can never think it’s about yourself; you have to listen. It might pain you, but you have to listen and do whatever you can to make people happy, because if they’re not, they won’t be back.”
She and Perkins both live within a half-mile of Sláinte, and they believe they’ve opened a restaurant and banquet hall in a city that’s clearly on the rise.
“I’m proud to be in Holyoke. I believe Holyoke can come back,” she said. “It has a lot of the same qualities as Northampton, and the architecture is gorgeous.”
Added Perkins, “as businesses move into town, that’ll bring even more businesses in, and it kind of builds on itself.”
“We want to help set the tone,” Flynn continued, “so people say, ‘if they can do it, we can,’ and people will start to say, ‘wow, Holyoke has a lot to offer.’ Look at Northampton in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and look at it today. It can happen. You’ve got to believe it — and work hard.”
She said Eastside benefits from the walkability of its downtown Northampton location, where the streets teem with pedestrians. But Sláinte has its own advantages. “We’re right off the highway, and the people of Holyoke have been very supportive of us,” Perkins said. “It’s been fantastic.”
Flynn agreed. “We’re part of two really great towns. How lucky are we?”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Party Planner Sections
And for Banquet Managers, that Means Creating Opportunities

Rachel Voci, banquet manager at Tekoa Country Club

Rachel Voci, banquet manager at Tekoa Country Club

Andrew Calvanese, partner with his sons Vinny and Donald at the Storrowton Tavern in West Springfield, can remember a time when the holiday party season was literally booming.

“The ’80s were just incredible,” recalled Calvanese, who was then managing Suffield Country Club, noting that money was seemingly no object, and budgets were nonexistent.

To say that the times have changed would be a huge understatement.

“Today, we deal with some pretty big companies, and they are really watching how they spend their money; they are definitely budgeting,” said Calvanese, who fully expects that trend to continue this year, although he remains optimistic that more companies will be in a mood to party.”

Peter Rosskothen, president and CEO of the Log Cabin and Delaney House, takes a similar outlook. He said 2008 and 2009, the height of the Great Recession, were the worst years he’s seen in terms of holiday-party spending. Things have improved a little each year since, and he’s hoping that trend will continue.

Summing things up, he said he’s not wasting time pining for a return for those free-spending days in the ’80s; he’ll settle for what he called stability.

“It’s my hope that this year will get us close to where we were before the ’08 and ’09 disaster,” he told BusinessWest, “but I’m not so sure we’ll get there.”

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen says 2008 and 2009 were bad years for holiday-party spending, but things have improved steadily since.

His guarded optimism is reflected in the results from the latest annual survey of corporate America’s holiday party plans conducted by Amrop Battalia Winston, a leading global executive-search firm, which conducted the survey among a cross-section of 120 companies.

In 2011, 26% of U.S. companies did not hold a holiday party, up 5% from the year prior, and nearly half cited budgetary issues as the reason why. Analyzing those numbers, Dale Winston, Amrop Battalia Winston’s chairwoman and CEO, said, “there was uncertainty about the speed of the recovery in 2010; that has been replaced by the certainty that the recovery has a long way to go.”

For this issue and its focus on holiday party planning, BusinessWest talked with area banquet-facility owners and managers about their expectations for the season ahead and the factors that will determine just how wonderful this time of the year will be for them.

Sign of the Times

Overall, the facility managers we spoke with say they’re enjoying a steady year thus far, and, in some cases, better than steady.

“Right through January, right up to now (post-Big E), to the end of the year, our banquet business is excellent,” said Andy Calvanese, noting that the family has noted consistent growth since they acquired the landmark nine years ago.

Offering a total of six room options, the largest being the Carriage House for 350 and the smallest, the Tavern, seating 35, Storrowton is one of the oldest establishments in the area; portions of the buildings date back more than 200 years.

Meanwhile Patrick Gottschlicht, owner of Munich Haus in Chicopee, has battled back from the Great Recession and a devastating fire in a neighboring apartment complex to record a few solid years.

And at Tekoa Country Club, banquet manager Rachel Voci, starting from what amounted to scratch after the facility changed hands in 2009, has amassed a solid book of business. She’s built her corporate and wedding business to 98 bookings this year (not counting golf outings) in her 400-seat Berkshire Room and 200-seat Westfield Room, and with recent interior renovations, she aims to establish a new reputation, and is looking forward to improving her numbers this holiday season.

But as the leaves start to turn, there is still a huge dose of uncertainty about will happen during what has historically been a very important — and lucrative — time for banquet-facility owners.

Much of that uncertainty has to do with employers, their appetite for spending at a time when the economy could go either way, and the level of importance they attach to employee morale.

According to the 2011 Amrop Battalia Winston survey, for more than half (53%) of all companies that were still planning on holding a get-together, employee morale was the reason.

In this environment, said Voci, banquet facilities have to work with employers and become partners in staging their events, providing value for the dollar and, in some cases, some imaginative ideas on how to make the event meaningful and memorable.

At the same time, the pressure is on banquet managers to help all kinds of potential customers with limited budgets — and increasingly, that means groups of employees.

“Over the last few years, companies have cut back on corporate parties, and I see more people planning their own little gatherings,” Rosskothen told BusinessWest. “So a group within a company goes out and has dinner.”

Envision the sales team or the IT division of a company having its own special get-together, and everyone pitches in to pay their way. Both Calvanese and Gottschlicht see the same trend and will work with budgets for even the smallest of groups.

Voci added that some of those small parties will join what is now an increasingly common event, the small-group holiday get-together, which enables small companies or departments within bigger entities to enjoy the look and feel of a full ballroom.

Group Effort

Another challenge and opportunity for banquet managers, said those we spoke with, is the need to move quickly and help those last-minute event organizers, and there are many of them.

“Across the board, last-minute planning is much more common than ever,” said Rosskothen. “Information technology allows us to be last-minute, we can communicate with our employees last-minute, and I would not think anything of somebody calling two weeks before and planning a party.”

But another trend that Rosskothen would like to see more of is the use of the holiday party as morale builder and vehicle for saying ‘thank you’ to employees, many of whom have suffered in various ways because of the economic downturn.

“I’ll speak as an employer,” said Rosskothen. “I think finding ways for us to acknowledge our co-workers is always going to be normal, and the holidays are one of those times, and if financial means allow, we should do something for our employees.”

What that ‘something’ is depends on each decision maker, and that individual should put some time and attention into their work, he continued.

“They have to put effort into it … don’t just make it a two-minute phone call,” said Rosskothen. “Think it through, plan it well, and make it worthwhile, especially since resources are tight.”

Voci says she works with clients to brainstorm, and even the smallest touches, such as a signature drink for the night in lieu of a costly open bar, will help to personalize the event and show effort on the employer’s part.

Gottschlicht will offer employers his new authentic German Biergarten, which seats 160, an addition to the 200 for the second-floor banquet hall. After the apartment-house fire next door last year that nearly consumed the Munich Haus, Gottschlicht purchased the cleared lot and created a unique Biergarten with long benches, a bandstand, and large tents and a large bar that he’s not yet sure will be year-round; he’s still working out the kinks.

“But if anyone wants to do an Oktoberfest-themed holiday party, we have heaters, and we’ll try it, and we have accordion players we can provide as well,” he laughed. “It really depends on the weather.”


Decking the Halls

Andy Calvanese has had a successful year at Storrowton Tavern

Andy Calvanese has had a successful year at Storrowton Tavern and is hopeful for more of the same come this holiday season.

“I see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Calvanese. “I think the economy is starting to turn, and I always remain open-minded; after 50 years, I’m still learning. I also think companies are going to be wiser; it’s OK to spend, we all spend, we all get extravagant once in a while, but not all the time. I think that trend is gone.”

Rosskothen agreed. “Holidays will be tough for a long time until we forget about these times,” he said, noting that hope for the future is still something to celebrate. “You have to find a balance.”

With the memories of the over-the-top ’80s and visions of sugarplums (sort of) dancing in their heads, owners and managers of area banquet facilities have come to the realization that times have changed, and they’re likely to be this way for the foreseeable future. In this environment, they have to create their own opportunities and make the most of them.

If they can, this holiday season might become something approaching wonderful.


Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Party Planner Sections
New Ownership Has Ambitious Plans in Place for Chez Josef

Marc Sparks

Marc Sparks has worked his way up the ladder from waiter to operations manager, and now to owner of Chez Josef.

Marc Sparks, the new owner and general manager of Chez Josef in Agawam, has a saying for his staff during the vital and busy prom season. “A prom is not just a prom; it’s a room of future brides and grooms.”

But that saying could also be refashioned to fit his new position. It would go something like this: ‘a waiter is not just a waiter; he or she could be the owner of the company someday.’ And that would fit the story of Sparks’ life perfectly.

On July 2 Sparks, through his new hospitality-management company, finalized acquisition of Chez Josef from the Skole family, thus beginning a new chapter in his intriguing career in the hospitality business, one that started in 1990, when he was a waiter in the main ballroom, aptly named the ‘Allan Room’ after Allan Skole, one of three founders of the complex.

“It’s been an exiting ride,” said Sparks of the acquisition process and subsequent developments and strategic initiatives. “Our vision is to grow this business, to honor where we came from, and look forward to the future.”

His obvious pride for his place of employment for nearly two decades is matched only by his respect for the Skole family, who, starting in 1969, built and managed one of the first-of-its-kind banquet halls in the region.

“Allan and Ron [Allan’s son, who passed away in 1999] were visionaries in this business, and they showed me the ropes,” said Sparks. “It’s why I say we honor the past and look to the future.”

The banquet hall, which has been long known as a grand location for weddings, proms, gala fashion shows, and corporate events such as the Super 60 and Pynchon Awards, will soon be given an extensive facelift, said Sparks, adding quickly that, while the look may change somewhat, what won’t is the facility’s dedication to customer service — and being on the cutting edge of change in this highly competitive business.

For this issue’s holiday party planner and focus on area banquet facilities, BusinessWest talked with Sparks about his entrepreneurial gambit and how he intends to make the past prologue for this Agawam landmark.



In 1991, Sparks was attending UMass and working his way toward a degree in Psychology. He applied for work at Chez Josef as a bartender, but the Skoles talked him into waiting tables, and he caught the hospitality bug.

He would stay with the company, taking several titles, and eventually operations manager. Throughout his tenure, he said he carried out his various duties as if he had a “vested interest” in the company, and admitted that, if the opportunity to acquire the facility ever came about, he would work to find some way to make it happen.

And in 2010, those pieces starting falling into place.

“I said to the Skoles, ‘if there is ever an opportunity to step in and purchase’ … and that started the ball rolling,” he explained, adding that the progression was a natural one, due to his many years there. The parties explored options together, and the result, said Sparks, was a transition as seamless as possible.

And a big reason for this is the staff, he said, noting that many, like him, have modest beginnings and long tenures with Chez Josef.

For instance, Executive Chef Marcel Ouimet has been with the company for 42 years, and started as a dishwasher. Anne Wright, second in charge in the kitchen, has 30 years with Chez Josef, as does Edmond Flebotte, executive assistant and purchaser. In comparison, Robin Wozniak, director of sales and marketing, is a relative newcomer, having started just five years ago.

Sparks noticed something in Wozniak, who soon rose up through the ranks, just as Sparks had done, and became a trainer and supervisor. But it was a bit iffy at first, he admitted.

“The first day, I wasn’t sure she was going to make it, but she proved me wrong,” laughed Sparks. “There’s a lot of longevity here; people don’t leave.”

As this experienced team takes the landmark into a new era, one of the keys to future success, said Sparks, is to change with the trends in the industry. But this is something it has always been able to do.

“Chez Josef has historically been a trendsetter, in my opinion,” he told BusinessWest. “We will continue that mission though research and attending trade shows around the country.”

This trendsetting began with Allan Skole in the late ’60s, when standalone banquet houses were a rarity. In fact, most get-togethers, such as proms, happened in the gym at the local high school, and wedding receptions were smaller or held at the local country club. Skole, a classically trained culinary artist, and two partners were pioneers with their concept for Chez Josef, named for one of the partners.

“Even with pioneering this facility, the way that Allan designed the building is brilliant,” said Sparks, adding that the center hallway in the middle of the building that guests never see is a sound-dampening feature to keep the clatter of the kitchen from the guests. Oversized bars were also unique for that time, as were the two grand curving staircases, reminiscent of southern mansions.


Fare Game

Sparks said he plans to continue this pattern of trendsetting. His plans are to remain on top of every new wrinkle and curve in the banquet business, and he’ll get to customers’ hearts through their stomachs.

“Everybody is a foodie,” he explained. “With developed palates, you really have to be on top of your game to wow your customers.”

He noted that banquet cuisine is now a global experience, and the fare is a result of East meets West. But the way in which the food is served is also changing.

“There are more chef-attended ‘action’ stations, small-plate and sampling stations, and not sitting down to a four- or five-course meal,” said Wozniak. “Even brides are looking for the action stations; they want the interaction, the camaraderie, and the socialization.”

Sparks and Wozniak both see multiple reasons for this shift from sit-down to stand-up, and number one is the ability to more readily network. Station fare also allows clients to be more creative with the menu while maximizing often-limited budgets.

But keeping up with all that’s new will require due diligence.

“We made a decision, as a company, to constantly reinvest in our staff, in tradeshows, food shows, classes, seminars, and the annual Catersource Conference & Tradeshow in Las Vegas,” said Sparks. “Our job is to be cutting-edge, with the Chez Josef spin; we call it the ‘Chez Josef experience.’”

And that ‘experience’ is in a seemingly constant state of change, he went on, because that is the way things are in this industry now, as the Internet has made clients more savvy about trends and products, while technology makes this almost a 24/7 business. As a result, the pace of the hospitality industry has accelerated, and in many ways.

“I share with my staff that we are in a time like no other; it’s real-time information,” said Sparks. “Brides, clients, they all want accessibility, they want to know what’s going on, and we are linked remotely, in the field, in real time.”

Wozniak said Internet-educated clients are ever-more demanding, which poses both challenges and opportunities.

“They have a definite vision, so we need to meet and exceed that vision,” she said, adding that there are obvious rewards when they do. “All this encourages us to think outside the box.”

Sparks calls this personalized process “active listening as a team,” and said that, of 20 proposals received per week, half are customized, a number that continues to rise.

As the close-knit team works to build the Chez Josef of the future, a new catering arm called Chez Gourmet is being added. It will offer full-service catering, from dinner or holiday pickups and deliveries to 10-person luncheons, said Wozniak.

“We’re rebranding ourselves and growing this business,” added Sparks.

Also on the horizon is an extensive, multi-faceted renovation effort, with the first aspects of that initiative due to be completed next spring, said Sparks, adding that the facility plans to have one capital project going on every year.

“And we’re committed to working with local contractors who are willing to work in off times, overnight, so as not to interrupt business.”


Giving Back, Moving Forward

One of the other commitments Sparks has involves giving back to the community.

For two full days just after the June 1, 2011 tornado struck the Greater Springfield area, Chez Josef chose to take on the task of helping to feed a few hundred people breakfast, lunch, and dinner at a local church, allowing the women who had started the process a few days to rest.

And during Hurricane Irene, the staff worked with the American Red Cross to deliver food to a few of the elderly-housing units in Springfield, said Sparks, adding that assistance to area nonprofits, in the form of special pricing for fund-raising events, is ongoing.

“One of my thoughts when taking on this role is that we have to give back till it hurts,” said Sparks. “It’s our task to give back and build relationships, and that’s one of the reasons this [ownership] transition has gone so smoothly.”

It’s all about teamwork, and there are no short cuts, added Sparks. “I tell my staff, ‘we wouldn’t cut corners on your day; don’t do it on someone else’s.’”

This is one of many sayings, or operational philosophies, that have guided the company for more than 40 years, he noted, while getting ready to get back to work. And they will continue to guide it through this next chapter in a storied history.


Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Party Planner Sections
After Extensive Renovations, ‘the Jeff’ Is Again Open for Business

Robin Brown

Robin Brown, standing in the wine-tasting room, brings years of culinary and hotel-management experience to the newly renovated Lord Jeffery Inn.

Robin Brown, director of sales and catering for the Lord Jeffery Inn, located just off the Amherst Common and part of Amherst College, is still trying to master the proper way to say the name of this community.

That would be the way residents pronounce it: phonetically, it’s Am-erst — the ‘h’ being silent. She’s working on it and making considerable progress, though she admits that she can’t quite bring herself to call the inn by the name most in Amherst do: ‘the Jeff.” (The inn, like the town and college, owes its name to Lord Jeffery Amherst, best known as one of the victors of the French and Indian War.)

“I still just say it all out: Lord Jeffery Inn,” she said with a laugh. “I’ll get the ‘Am-erst’ soon; I’m practicing.”

Coming from the eastern part of the state, she brings 30 years of sales and catering experience to the Jeff as the second employee hired, just after General Manager Robert Reeves, during an extensive renovation that closed the landmark for an extended period.

The historic inn is owned by the Amherst Inn Co., an affiliate of Amherst College, and managed by the Waterford Hotel Group, and is a member of the Historic Hotels of America. The three-year, $14 million overhaul, the most extensive rehab since the facility opened in 1926, was completed late last year, and the inn reopened on Jan. 5.

Brown arrived in April 2011, enabling her to start her wedding and event sales from a clean slate. “I was temporarily put up in the dorm building, and this area [a new patio with perfectly set pavers that lead into the new, 160-seat ballroom] was a mud pit, and I had to walk across the boards to the door with my hard hat on,” she said. “I was literally booking weddings off of swatch boards, carpet samples, and artists’ renderings. I’d put hard hats on brides and bring them to the parking lot.”

She said she couldn’t bring the brides in, largely for insurance reasons, but, more importantly, because they tend to be very emotional.

“I would never have sold a thing,” Brown said, adding that, despite the handicaps, she did manage to sell the inn to those brides-to-be; this first full year, the Jeff will host more than 26 weddings, and her goal for 2013 is 40. Meanwhile, she has booked many other events as well.

It’s been a solid comeback for the landmark, which was closed but certainly not forgotten in the Amherst community. “I’m sure that there were some who wondered … but we’re open now, and look how elegant it is.”

For those who are fans and followers of the inn, gone is the darkness of millwork, the dated hotel rooms, and the musty smell. This elegant new Lord Jeffery Inn is everything an historic inn should be: a showcase of 1920s architecture, but with a present-day flair. For this focus on the holiday banquet season and local meeting facilities, BusinessWest takes an up-close look at the stately inn to see how the new fits very comfortably within the old.


Up the Ladder

Brown brings an intriguing résumé to the Jeff.

“Right out of college, I was working in the kitchen of the Ritz [now the Taj] in Boston — it was awesome,” she said, adding that there were many interesting career stops even before that. “At 15, I was a private, personal chef for a Virginia brewery company, at their summer home in Maine. The woman [owner] said, ‘no 15-year-old can meet my standards,’ and I said, ‘then let me work for you for a week, and if what you said is true, then don’t pay me,’ and a week went by, and she gave me a 50-cent raise.”

With degrees in Culinary Arts and Food & Beverage Management, she loves, and knows, a catering kitchen inside and out. And she and Dino Giordano, the executive chef, also know they are lucky to be a part of an inn and banquet facility that is literally brand-new, or at least as much as possible to stay within the Historic Hotels of America designation.

“I drive to work each day, and I still can’t believe how lucky I am,” said Giordano, as he looked at the kitchen, one of three at his disposal. “I’m used to hot and small, and this … this is just phenomenal.”

In addition to two full-size kitchens and one smaller one, 49 hotel rooms and suites were completely gutted, said Brown, adding that there is now a wide selection of room choices, with deluxe rooms coming with a sun porch.

And the meticulous attention to detail is apparent. Brown showed BusinessWest a variety of suites that have completely new bathrooms, but look as they would have in 1926. The bridal suite is one of Brown’s favorites. “Our brides can look out over the lawn and tent to see their guests arrive,” she said.

And many brides will continue to watch guests arrive for the entire event. It’s a definite trend Brown has seen, called the ‘on site’ wedding, where the ceremony and reception occur on the same grounds. “Years ago, you were expected to get married in a church,” said Brown. “Now, there is more creativity and freedom.”

And the layout for this new trend, as well as traditional weddings and corporate events, is one reason for the specific additions and their locations in the the Jeff.

Brown explained the extensive restoration to the property, noting that it includes additions to a 2,360-square-foot ballroom on the site of the former tent area. The ballroom roof is now a posh rooftop deck complete with a 30-foot-high outdoor fireplace. The newly positioned tented garden area offers a 40-by-80-foot tent that will seat 180, and is open from the end of April through October.

But one of the key elements to the entire renovation, said Brown, is the focus on environmental sustainability that features amenities such as organic bath products, an extensive recycling program throughout the inn, and the distinction of being one of the Pioneer Valley’s greenest hotels.

“We’re a green inn,” she explained. “The college has a definite commitment to sustainable design, so the owners are seeking LEED certification per their incorporation of several sustainable features such as 50 geothermal wells, which are each 500 feet deep and will provide environmentally friendly heating and cooling to the facility.”

The renovations, she continued, include more than $1 million in energy-efficiency improvements, most of which guests will never see, but all of which retain the historic look of the building. In addition, none of the elegant millwork was altered.

Once guests appreciate their first introduction to the newly painted inn — which is now white, as it was when first opened, according to Brown — the delightful aroma of farm-to-table cuisine is where she and Giordano feel they’ll capture even more fans.


Soups On

Stepping into the new 30 Boltwood restaurant, the former Boltwood Tavern, is like stepping into a contemporary wine-country kitchen. The dark paneling has been replaced by soft natural colors, the wooden tables and chairs replaced by comfortable and stylish booths, and a chic, new curved bar, a large fireplace, and contemporary chandeliers combine today’s designs with traditional New England architecture.

The restaurant offers a private, eight-person dining area, a 16-person greenhouse room with views to the stars at night, and a small wine room. The description of this new restaurant is the latest buzzword in the culinary world: ‘farm table’ or ‘farm-to-table cuisine.’

“Everything we do, we try to get locally first, and we are a part of CISA [Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture],” Brown told BusinessWest. “And certain times of the year, our chef will go to the farmers market on Saturday, with the clients that have the inn’s Farmers Market Package, and he shops with them and cooks for them.”

While the new restaurant is open for all meal periods, Brown said, one feature is the traditional Sunday brunch.

Giordano, hand-picked by the Waterford Hotel Group and classically trained in New York City, has a flair with gluten-free and vegetarian dishes, Brown explained.

“We’re working on our signature dishes,” added Brown. “We don’t want to just jump out of the gate and say we have a signature dish.” To that end, she and Giordano are looking for staff and guests to help identify their favorites.

And as the holidays approach, the institution of the farm-table menu will be coupled with new traditions, Brown said, that the inn hopes the community will accept. She points to Breakfast with Santa on Sundays leading up to Christmas, Holiday Tea in the library on December Saturdays, a giant gingerbread house in the new foyer, and holiday carolers outside the inn on specific nights around the holidays.

Overall, the Lord Jeffery Inn is creating new traditions on many levels.


Welcome Mat

Stepping her toes deeper into the Amherst area, Brown is serving with the Amherst Chamber of Commerce board on the programming and ambassador committees, and also serves on the newly formed Regional Tourism Council for Hampshire County, which helps to brand the county.

And while becoming more involved in the community, she is, as she said, making definite progress with pronouncing the town’s name like a local.

She still won’t call her place of employment the Jeff, but by whatever name it’s known, the inn is back, once again assuming a position of prominence in this proud community.


Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Party Planner Sections
Restaurants, Banquet Facilities Optimistic about Upcoming Party Season

Center court at the Basketball Hall of Fame provides one of the region’s unique party environments.

Center court at the Basketball Hall of Fame provides one of the region’s unique party environments.

The past several years have been up and down for venues that host corporate holiday parties. On one hand, the recession has affected companies’ celebration budgets, yet most employers still see value in thanking their staffs for a year of hard work. As a result, area party bookings have largely remained steady, although many companies have scaled back on their size and cost. Still, restaurants and banquet facilities say the early signs are positive that the end of 2011 could be a merry season.

Early October is when things finally settle down on Memorial Avenue in West Springfield. For Jeffrey Daigneau, who’s busy booking holiday parties at his restaurant, Lattitude, they’re just heating up.
“We’re getting calls now. We probably have 15 or 20 parties already booked,” said Daigneau, who spoke with BusinessWest the day after the Eastern States Exposition — which dominates his street and hinders business for two and a half weeks — ended its 2011 run. “We haven’t gotten many calls with the Big E going on, but our busy season really starts today.”
Other restaurant owners and banquet-facility managers are reporting the same. So far, they say, business is looking up.
“Many companies feel parties are very important,” said Joe Stevens, owner of Hofbrauhaus in West Springfield. “They want to say thank you to their people who have been with them year-round — and we’re grateful to have them.”
He noted that the majority of companies that have booked parties have returned. “They want this certain Friday, this specific Saturday; usually, as they’re leaving, they say, ‘see you next year,’ and we just put them in the books.

Joe Stevens, with his wife, Liz

Joe Stevens, with his wife, Liz, says his holiday-party business at Hofbrauhaus has been bolstered by repeat customers.

“We’ve been blessed over the years because this place has been here since 1935, and most of our customers that have had Christmas parties over the years have stayed with us,” he added.
Newer venues are optimistic about a strong season as well, including Mill One at Open Square in Holyoke, which offers exposed brick, hardwood floors, and not much else in the way of permanent décor, allowing party planners to design their own night.
“It’s a beautiful facility from the 1800s,” said Michelle St. Jacques, property manager of Open Square. “It’s a blank slate, so we let people know that their event can be how they want it to turn out, without having the carpeting or wallpaper interfering with that.
“In addition, we have a selection of caterers to choose from, or you can choose your own, as long as they’re licensed and insured,” she continued. “We try to cater to individual wants. People can design their parties themselves in a very unique venue. They enjoy the fact that there are no set decorations that could interfere and conflict with their decisions. On the whole, people love it.”
For this issue, BusinessWest talks to several area dining facilities to get a feel for how they’re marketing the holiday season to area companies — and why they’re feeling good about the prospects so far.

They Shoot, They Score
“Right now, things are starting to pick up for the holiday season. We already have some bookings for December,” said Josh Belliveau, corporate event manager at the Basketball Hall of Fame.
That’s good news after a stretch of years in which employers across the U.S. have scaled back such late-fall, early-winter shindigs. According to Amrop Battalia Winston, a global executive-search firm that tracks a number of business trends, last year reflected the worst holiday-party slump in 22 years, with 79% of companies conducting some kind of celebration — lower than even the 81% figure recorded in both 2008 and 2009, at the peak of the recession.
Belliveau said it helps to be able to offer partygoers an uncommon experience.
“If you book your holiday party at the Hall of Fame, it’s a unique venue,” he said. “Our guests have many options — to tour the museum or do some additional fun things, like a scavenger hunt, shooting contests on center court, music, and dancing. We can even do [an electronic] sign outside the building, welcoming guests of that company. That makes it personal to employees who are attending. We think our facilities have the ability to provide that special atmosphere.”
Belliveau has booked a range of different groups, from formal sit-down dinner receptions to social receptions on the court, with hors d’ouevres, interactive play, and DJs and bands. “It’s a social atmosphere.”
Evan Mattson, controller at Tucker’s restaurant in Southwick, has seen the same variety of celebration styles.
“We do sit-down parties, we do station parties, we do buffets — we host all kinds of different parties,” said Mattson, adding that the facility handles gatherings of all sizes — “20 on up to 150” — and also conducts functions off-site when desired. Of all the options, he noted, “I think the station parties are becoming more and more popular.”
Stevens said there isn’t much Hofbrauhaus can’t do when it comes to party planning for groups ranging from less than 10 to more than 300. He noted that the facility hosts both formal sit-down services and cocktail parties with food stations and a cash or open bar.
“I’d say most people enjoy being served, getting waited upon, especially when it comes to the holiday season and businesses saying thank you to their staff,” he told BusinessWest. “Personally, I prefer a party where you can move around; I’m big into food stations and passed-around hors d’ouevres. I like to see people and circulate and not be confined to a certain table. But that’s just me.”
St. Jacques agreed, noting that many companies are getting away from sit-down dinners, and not just for budgetary reasons. “They realize there’s more interaction when people are getting up and getting food, passing by other guests, and that seems to be the trend, from what I’ve seen.”
She said Open Square is a good option for people who have very specific catering needs. “They can provide the food they like; some people like ethnic dishes and have to go to a certain caterer. You can’t get that at some facilities with their regular banquet staff.
“I think our venue is good because you can pick a theme and set the food choices,” she continued. “If you want to have an hors d’ouevres party, those are becoming popular. Cocktail parties are a nice holiday option without breaking the bank. That can be a good choice in this economy.”
Lattitude is making some improvements to enhance its party offerings, Daigneau added, including making the ‘wine room,’ where many functions are held for groups of 15 to 20, two to three times bigger; that renovation will be complete before the December rush of events.
But he said smaller parties are more common these days than large ones. “We do big Christmas parties, but what I’m seeing is parties of 25, 30.”

Looking Up?
That reflects the trends reported by Amrop Battalia Winston last year (this year’s survey won’t be released until November). In 2010, 28% of companies responding to the survey said their parties had become more modest — on the heels of the nearly half (49%) that downsized in 2009. Meanwhile, only 11% intended to hold more lavish parties.
In addition, company parties have increasingly become an employees-only zone. Only 26% of surveyed businesses planned to include family members, while 5% intended to invite clients and friends. The 69% of parties labeled employees-only was up from 52% just four years earlier.
Of those employers deciding to forgo having a party altogether, 55% said they did not consider it appropriate in tough economic times, compared to 27% who said a get-together just wasn’t within their budget. On the other hand, 37% of those having a holiday party said the primary reason was to celebrate a good year, 33% cited employee morale, and 29% said they wanted to project optimism about the future to clients and employees.
If holiday parties are, indeed, reflective of the economic mood, area restaurants and banquet facilities may be reporting some good news for the region overall.
“Some companies have done very well,” Stevens said. “Some have downsized their parties, but others have actually gotten too big for us; they can’t do their parties here anymore because they passed the 300 mark. It runs the gamut.”
Mattson said he’s optimistic about 2011 as well.
“They’re booking now. We have several booked already for December,” he told BusinessWest, noting that, even in a sluggish economy, many employers still want to thank their employees by making merry at what they hope will be the most wonderful time of the year.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]