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Banquet Halls Keep Options Open for Holiday Events
Ralph Santaniello, Michael present and Jonathan Reeser

Ralph Santaniello, (left), with executive chef Michael present and sous-chef Jonathan Reeser, says party planners at the Federal enjoy putting an out-of-the-ordinary twist on company holiday events.

Festive feelings are afoot among area banquet halls as they anticipate a stronger-than-usual season for company holiday parties. Part of the appeal for businesses booking events is the sheer variety — in food, amenities, and price — to be found across the Pioneer Valley. After all, in a decidedly competitive marketplace, the same old thing often doesn’t cut it.

Old habits may die hard, but apparently — at least when it comes to celebrating the holidays with co-workers — so do recently acquired ones.

That’s what Linda Skole, president of Chez Josef in Agawam, has observed over the past six years. In 2001, the holiday party business took a major hit nationwide when, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, no one felt much like partying.

That was understandable. The problem was, many of them continued to stay away in succeeding years, whether for economic reasons or plain old apathy about restarting the holiday party tradition. Fortunately, those days seem to be fading, and companies are increasingly rewarding their hard-working employees with a little food and festivity toward year’s end.

“We’re expecting a very busy holiday season,” Skole told BusinessWest. “A few years back, after 9/11, some groups were holding back and doing fewer parties, but this year they’re coming back, and we have more private parties scheduled this year than we’ve seen in a while. I think people realize the positive influence these events have on company morale, that employees really do appreciate it.”

According to Battalia Winston International, an executive search firm that tracks business trends, 94% of U.S. companies celebrated the season with parties in 2006, up from 87% in 2005. Although it’s too early to get accurate national numbers for this year, some area banquet facilities are reporting that this holiday season will be at least as busy as 2006.

“We get a lot of the same businesses every year, people we know are going to book,” said Melissa Kratovil, event coordinator at Hofbrauhaus in West Springfield. “But we’re getting new people interested in Christmas parties, so we’re up a little more than last year.”

In this issue, BusinessWest explores some of the options available to companies that want to take a break from the grind as the holidays approach.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Kratovil has spotted some party trends that correspond to a company’s size. “Cocktail parties are a popular thing for larger companies,” she said. “They tend to go for open bars, passed appetizers, things like that. It’s quick and easy. For smaller companies, with under 50 guests, they like sit-down dinners with a prix fixe type of menu.

“We like to let people know we can customize it according to someone’s budget,” she added. “Of course, it can get up there if you have that type of money, but even if you don’t, we want you here as well.”

“Most people want to do stations, or passed hors d’oeuvres, or cocktail parties — something less formal,” said Ralph Santaniello, co-owner of the Federal in Agawam. “Not as many people want to sit down for dinner anymore. Probably about 50% of our parties are still sit-downs, but it’s really starting to change as more people look for less formal events.”

The reasons are varied. “People don’t have to show up at the same time or leave at the same time. They can roll in and roll out, do their own thing,” he said. Such a setup also allows for some flexibility in the food offerings, particularly for a restaurant known for its aperitifs; one of the Federal’s trademarks is hors d’oeuvres on spoons and forks on Thursdays and Fridays in the bar.

“We do that twice a week, and we do it for almost every party, so we have it down pat,” Santaniello said. “We’ve got a huge selection, and we can change up the way we present them — not just spoons and forks. The chefs like coming up with cool ideas, and it’s something we really do well.”

Specifically, he appreciates the opportunity to shift people’s expectations.

“When I talk to people, the first thing out of their mouths is, ‘I don’t want to do the same old Christmas party. I got put in charge of it this year, and I want to do something different,’” Santaniello said. “So they’re looking for new ideas, and we like to help them, whether it’s wine tastings or a murder mystery party. Someone asked to do a Tuscany night, where we paired Italian foods with Italian wines. Someone else wanted to do a Hawaiian-themed island party with a pig roast.

“We’ve seen it all,” he continued, “and we like it when people challenge us to come up with something different. It keeps it fresh for us. We don’t want to be the average restaurant.”

But small companies don’t always equal small parties. About 20 years ago, Chez Josef in Agawam pioneered a concept that’s still a popular option today: allowing several small businesses to share one bash, with all the food and entertainment trappings of a full-scale affair. This year, it has scheduled nine of those dates for between 100 and 200 people each, and is expecting sellout crowds.

“For companies that don’t have enough people to reserve a room, we put many groups together in the ballroom, and we orchestrate the whole event,” Skole said. “That way, these small groups can have a big party with a festive band, dancing, and a full-course dinner with hot hors d’oeuvres. They can have a great time at a lower cost than putting on their own private party, and all they have to do is call us with the number of people, and they don’t have to worry about anything else.”

It’s a particularly valuable option considering that 77% of all company holiday celebrations are held off-site, and 74% are evening events — scenarios in which people often want to dress up and feel like they’re not at work. “The holiday party remains an important tradition at America’s businesses,” said Dale Winston, CEO of Battalia Winston, which produced those statistics.

One Eye on the Wallet

Winston was quick to add, however, that the prevalence of holiday parties and, especially, what employers are willing to spend on them have much to do with the economy and how that company is doing financially. Some local party planners reported similar concerns even with businesses that want to have a holiday event.

“Today, the main thing is price,” said Thomas Sophinos, president of the Oaks in Agawam. “Everyone calls looking for price; they want to know what’s the best deal and what they can get for a certain price. With the economy as it is, that’s the bottom line.

“I think parties have been cut back a little bit, because people just don’t have the money they used to,” he continued. “Some of them, instead of giving company parties, are giving their employees gift certificates or a turkey, something along that line. It’s not like it was years ago — certainly, there are companies that still do it up big, but I believe that’s the exception today.”

Sophinos said banquet facilities that offer plenty of flexibility in food options are best suited to meet wildly varying budgetary demands, and the Oaks is helped there by the fact that 90% of its fare is made from scratch, with a bake shop on the premises.

“This way, we can tailor everything to what people want. If it’s not on the menu, we can make it for them, and we’ll dicker on the price. A few companies spend pretty well every year, but even if you don’t, it doesn’t matter, because we can make up a menu for you.”

Santaniello said the Federal makes everything from scratch as well, so it can cater to any company’s specific needs. “We can work with anybody, taking their ideas and adding our own,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a cookie-cutter event. We can be flexible.”

Speaking of flexibility, January parties are becoming an increasingly attractive option for companies who have a tough time booking a December date, or whose year-end season is the simply busiest time on the calendar, with no one thinking about after-work festivities.

“We offer a discount if they book anything after the holidays,” said Santaniello, who noted that the first two Fridays and the first two Saturdays in December are typically the most attractive pre-Christmas slots for company parties.

In January, the party business takes a nosedive, so this allows us to book a few things after the season, and a lot of people have other functions during the holidays, or no one has time with work and all the other things that are going on. So it works out for everyone.”

“Christmas in January is a trend we’ve capitalized on,” Kratovil added. “A lot of people don’t have time for a party in December, so we keep the décor up past the holidays in our downstairs room, so people can come and celebrate in January.”

Catching the Spirit

Of course, whether it’s before Santa arrives or after the ball drops on 2008, most facilities have space to fill, particularly this early in the season.

“We’re trying a few different things, like sending out direct-mail marketing pieces, but we haven’t seen the fruits of that yet,” Santaniello said. “All the popular dates are always booked up first, but how the others fill up in the next few weeks, that’s really going to show us how we’ll do this year.”

Early signs, however, have most area party planners feeling decidedly merry.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]

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