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Some Scale Back, yet Holiday Gatherings Remain a Popular Workplace Tradition

The holiday banquet business has been up and down over the past decade, but despite some clients scaling back their requests, most venues report healthy bookings for 2008, with plenty of repeat business and few openings left for the season’s prime dates. That’s because, even in a slow economy, employers realize that holiday parties build camaraderie and lift morale at what is often the most stressful time of the year — and that’s just good business.

Relaxation, laughter, and food, food, food.

For most people, that’s not a typical day in the work world, but it does describe a night that has become ingrained as a tradition in corporate America: the holiday party.

As Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah approach, parties are an essential element of the season for most Americans, and employers have long gotten into the act, treating workers to sit-down dinners, cocktail parties, and upscale luncheons, with the intent of marking another year, showing appreciation, and just building camaraderie and morale.

On any given year, around 90% of companies treat their employees to some sort of holiday party, and while a slowing economy might have some area businesses scaling back their plans, few are dropping them altogether.

“As far as holiday parties, we’re pretty much right on schedule with where we were last year,” said Ralph Santaniello, co-owner of the Federal in Agawam. “The prime dates have really filled up as quickly as they did last year.”

Those choice dates are typically the first two Fridays and Saturdays in December, and often the last Friday and Saturday in November as well. Other dates are being booked at a brisk rate as well, Santaniello said, but with a difference.

“The restaurant’s filling up as quickly as it did last year, but people are spending less. So we’ve tweaked our menu and added some less-expensive items. It’s more-casual food, but we’re still doing it our way.”

Peter Rosskothen, co-owner of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House and the Delaney House, both in Holyoke, sees a similar trend — perhaps a little caution on the part of party planners over how much money to spend, but still a desire to have fun.

“I think people are cautious — ‘Oh, God, I don’t want to spend so much money’ — so if we can offer a price within their budget, it makes the sale easier,” Rosskothen said. “We’ve structured our products at very tight, competitive levels. It’s about giving people a fair deal and quality for a good price. That’s where the market is going to be.

“Personally,” he continued, “I’m cautious because of the economy, but I haven’t seen anything that gives me a sign one way or another. I don’t expect an incredible season this year, but I don’t really foresee a bad season, either.”

In this issue of BusinessWest, we take our annual look into holiday party planning — and why these get-togethers remain an important part of the work culture.

On the Rebound

Jamie Przypek is curious.

Overall, the economic alarm bells seem louder this fall than last, yet holiday banquet business dipped at the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007 — and is back up this year, said Przypek, the Hall’s general sales manager.

“Looking back, we’re actually doing more business this year — and there are still a few months to go,” he said, noting that the venue hosts a wide variety of parties and other social events, with food catered by neighboring Max’s Tavern.

“We started promoting the season early this year — way back in the spring, actually,” he continued. “We’ve done E-mail blasts and phone calls to businesses, direct-mail pieces, advertising on our Web site, and the electronic highway sign is great, too.”

The dip in 2007 actually reflected a wider trend, according to the survey of corporate holiday celebrations conducted annually by Battalia Winston, an international search firm that tracks business trends and has been surveying U.S. businesses on their party plans for two decades.

Last year, the survey showed that 85% of businesses were planning parties — which may seem like a high number, except that the 2006 figure was 94%. In fact, only 2001 (83%) and 1991 (82%) showed lower participation, and those years were marred by 9/11 and a deep recession, respectively.

The post-9/11 days were rough for the banquet business, and not just that one holiday season; it took several years for venues to return to pre-2001 levels. The 2008 survey results aren’t available yet, but if business in Western Mass. is representative, party planning could see an uptick.

Even in good years, however, the landscape for banquet facilities in Western Mass. is competitive, so any edge helps. Kim Clayton-McGrath, sales manager at Yankee Pedlar in Holyoke, said that, because the facility can host parties from 20 to more than 200 people, it doesn’t have to require a minimum number of guests for a party, or place several parties together at one event, as other halls have done.

She told BusinessWest that bookings are solid so far for the upcoming holiday season, and that repeat business is one major reason why.

“We’ve had clients book the day after their party for next year,” she said. “We’re pretty booked for Friday and Saturday nights, but some of the smaller rooms are still available.”

Like virtually every other banquet facility in the region, the Pedlar has in recent years put an emphasis on January parties in addition to the traditional, pre-Christmas events, to cater to companies too busy before the holidays to take a break, or who just want to celebrate at a calmer time; many facilities offer discounts for those who choose the post-New Year’s option.

“That seems to be a trend people are moving toward now, because it’s less stressful,” Clayton-McGrath said, noting that people have so many other festivities to attend to in November and December.

Many venues offer discounts not only for January parties but for weeknight events during the holiday season, which can be more of a challenge to book. The Hall of Fame, for example, is sending an E-mail blast offering 50% off the weekend price for anyone booking a holiday party from Sunday to Wednesday.

Offering something unique helps; Przypek said the Hall of Fame offers attractive amenities to businesses that choose to celebrate the season there, from access to the basketball exhibits themselves to the placement of a company’s logo on the highway sign or its message on the scrolling marquee at center court. “There’s a lot of added value there,” he said.

Chow Down

Santaniello said it helps for a banquet facility to be flexible with the divergent needs of its clients.

“We do food stations, and we also do sit-down, plated dinners. It runs the gamut,” Santaniello said. “We make everything in-house, and we change our menus so often that we can really adjust to anything.”

Judging by last year, he said, most companies are eschewing sit-down, three- and four-course dinners for stations and butler-passed hors d’oeuvres, where mingling is the rule.

Trends can change, of course, and certainly do — but it seems the company holiday party isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Businesses are dealing with a lot of pressures right now, and in these tough economic times, when people are worried about their jobs, what better way to boost the morale of your employees than with a holiday party?” Przypek said. “It’s a way to reinvest in your employees.”

Clayton-McGrath agreed.

“The economy’s not great now, but it’s not like after 9/11, when everyone had a very poor holiday season,” she said. “We’ll be busy, pretty much the same as we were last year. We have some great clients, and they don’t seem to be scaling down. We’re happy with where we are.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]

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