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Life of the Party

The Return of the Holiday Get-together
Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen says the key to a good party is to add something unique, a personal touch.

With economic stability slowly returning to the marketplace, an excellent way for businesses to express that optimism lies in staging an annual holiday party. Banquet facility owners report that, after a down year in 2008, many companies are ready to party again — but while still keeping a keen eye on the bottom line.

Peter Rosskothen said that he’s a “bit of a radical” when it comes to making a good party.

Co-owner of the Log Cabin and Delaney House in Holyoke, Rosskothen said that “a good party is one that adds a personal touch to it, something unique. Just saying, ‘I’m going to serve you dinner, bring in a DJ,’ that makes it a nice party, but I don’t think it makes it a special party. Something a little more is required.”

This season, a little more might have to be budgeted for a little less. Like most businesses, Rosskothen said that the special-event industry took a hit last season, adding that “most people in the industry will tell you that they were very scared last September.”

The lights dimmed across the nation on the party season last year. Forbes reported that the number of businesses holding holiday parties dropped to a 20-year low last winter, with only 81% of the nation’s businesses partying on. When the economy went into a skid — some saw it as a free fall — the idea of wining and dining employees in the wake of massive layoffs just didn’t feel right.

The story is different this year. Signs of an economic recovery are tentative, and analysts are presently predicting flat holiday sales, but area event professionals are reporting that confidence is returning to their holiday schedules. And that in itself is cause for some celebration.

Companies want to thank their employees after a tough year in business, but there is still an eye to that celebration’s spread sheet. “We’re seeing a lot of our repeat customers now asking to do a little less,” said Ralph Santaniello, owner of the Federal in Agawam. “People still want to do something fun and keep it festive,” he added, “but they’re obviously trying to keep the budget low. The trend thus is a bit more for the cocktail parties, hors d’oeuvres, and less for sit-down-type dinners with lots of food and multiple courses.”

With tight times still a reality, most event professionals said they have been devising creative ways over the past year to keep enthusiasm high. In Springfield, Pazzo head chef Byron White said his goal has been to provide good value for his clientele, but not at the cost of a memorable occasion. “Keep them satiated, keep them happy,” he said, “because we want them to take that experience to heart so that they want to keep coming back.”

’Tis the season for holiday parties. In this issue of BusinessWest, we take our annual look at the holiday event market, what venues are doing to keep the party rolling, and how the season’s tidings can spread beyond one night to remember.

Make It Special, Make It Different

When it comes to talking about all things party-related, Rosskothen is the perfect man for the job.

On a tour of the picture-perfect Log Cabin property, he brimmed with ideas as he walked from room to room. “What makes a party unique?” he asked, before answering his own question. “Something personal about your co-workers, or your employees. Something personal about the business, or about your results from the past year. Something that will become memorable. Something where the client says, ‘wow, we want to come back here next year.’ Those are the touches that make a party great.”

He pointed to a brochure advertising a promotion which joins his two properties with an off-site catering wing called Log Rolling. Rosskothen has organized a variety of holiday event options designed to appeal to a wide array of tastes. From formal dinners at the historic Delaney House to holiday-themed events with kids, to meals at one’s own location, the idea was to create packaged possibilities which he calls “products,” all with attractive price points.

“We try to come up with things that are unique and yet still come under budget for our clients,” he explained. “Come to comedy night, for instance. It’s not something that you normally would think of for holiday parties, but you don’t always have to go dancing or do elaborate sit-down dinners. This is bringing in differing ingredients, as it were, coming up with creative solutions for people to stretch their dollars and make it something different.

“Over the last two years, we have broken out of the element of just offering the basics,” he continued. “We want to be known as a group that can do those basics, but we want to offer you a bit more. Games, dancing, trivia, we have products for that. We’re giving you the idea, then you, the customer, can say that this fits me by the nature of this product, and it fits me by price, also.”

The competition for holiday events is keen, and while most people agree that the market has not reached saturation point yet, everyone strives to offer that “bit more.”

“What we do at the Federal is to cater to each individual customer’s tastes and budget, because the perfect party is different for everyone,” said Santaniello. Meeting with the client and finding what ideas they might have are the launching pad for his team to create the perfect event. Last year a customer wanted to do something with an Italian theme, and the Federal created a Tuscan Christmas party.

While people are ready to celebrate, expectations are kept in check with an eye toward a tough year, he said, and that means fewer tabled affairs on tap. But that suits him fine. “One of our signatures is passed hors d’oeuvres,” he said, giving high praise to his partner and chef, Michael Presnal, for his vision and creativity.

“He’ll do things you might not expect, or present them in ways you might not normally see them,” he explained. “We’re known for passing hors d’oeuvres on spoons, with different flavors and textures. Grilled, breaded shrimp with a gazpacho shooter, served in a shot glass. It’s a different take on the traditional shrimp cocktail.”

Even in a tough year, Chez Josef in Agawam offers flexibility for companies of all sizes that want to have parties. As in past years, groups of eight or more are welcome to participate in the facility’s group company holiday parties, which allow multiple organizations to celebrate with music and dancing, circulating hors d’oeuvres, and a multi-course dinner — to enjoy the trappings of a big event, in other words, while cutting down on planning time.

“Groups of 10 to 20 can enjoy a big party atmosphere, where it would be unaffordable for them to do that on their own. Those remain very popular and are a great value for the guests,” said Linda Skole, president of Chez Josef. She noted that sit-down dinners remain the most popular style of company party at her facility, and businesses are not cutting back on frills — but the bookings this year are smaller than in the past.

“Groups are still having holiday parties, and they’re not scaling back, but the counts may be a little bit lower due to economic conditions,” she told BusinessWest, adding that parties remain an important way for companies to motivate and reward employees. “Things are a little soft as everyone’s feeling the pinch, but we’re looking forward to a stronger next year.”

Coming Back for More

Growing up in a family of 12, Byron White knows a thing or two about hosting large groups of people.

In the fourth year of holiday events at Pazzo, his popular restaurant connected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, he said that this year, prices and value play an important role in creating some of the finest Italian food in the region. Winner of numerous accolades for his culinary skills, including a prestigious nomination from the James Beard Foundation for Outstanding Chef of the Year, White said he strives to make a holiday event that will remind people that good food at good prices is available to them all year long.

“When we book our holiday functions, whether it be for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, or beyond,” he said, “we are always looking to have ways to attract them not only for those events, but for all the other times of the year beyond that. Something where people will say, ‘I want to eat here again, I want to bring my family,’ whether it be for another event or simply lunch.”

So far, those holiday bookings are coming in fast. Like Rosskothen and Santaniello, White noted that, despite the downturn, dates are filling up, and business projections are good for the holidays.

White says his goal for the season, what he calls “synergy” — that which makes an event truly special — is a relationship with his clientele. From his open kitchen, he likes to see first-hand the role his food plays for what he calls his “extended family.”

“This open kitchen is not just so that people can see what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s also that we can see out there, and get that instant gratification of seeing people enjoying what we’ve made.

“Pazzo is the place where they can have a relationship with the owner, with the chef, the staff,” he continued. “To be a successful place, it’s got to have good ambience, good energy, a soul that will make you feel like this is above and beyond as an experience. The holidays are a good time of year for people to be reminded of the larger community they’re in, but we want to remind them of those other times of the year when that doesn’t change for us.”

White said that every night of the week, the restaurant offers some form of promotion, from half-priced appetizers on up to half-priced entrées. He’s heard that people want value for the holiday season and beyond, and he wants to show how much he wants the restaurant to be an intrinsic part of the community.

The Show Must Go On

The holidays are a time for people to join in celebration, and this year the reasons for holding a party might be more important than ever. In Rosskothen’s opinion, a company celebration transcends mere food and drink. “I think it’s a great way to motivate the people who work with you, especially during tough times,” he said, echoing Skole’s similar notion.

“Throwing a party during the holiday is as important as advertising in this economy,” he continued. “Morale is something that cannot be played with. Holiday parties are a great way to say, ‘we’re here, we made it, and we did it because we have a great team.’”

This year, the life of the party is the very company that made it through the recession intact. And that’s certainly something to celebrate.