Holiday Event Venues Offer Unique Settings, Themed Events
The Party Line
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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]