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Coronavirus Cover Story

Battle Fatigue

Meyers Brothers Kalicka

Employees at Meyers Brothers Kalicka crowd around a food truck offering gourmet grilled cheese, one of many initiatives on the part of the company to help boost morale during the pandemic — and a long, difficult tax season.

The food truck from the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House pulled into the north parking lot of the PeoplesBank building in Holyoke around 2 p.m. on Oct. 15.

By 2:30, a large number of employees from the accounting and tax-planning firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka had gathered to enjoy gourmet grilled cheese, tomato soup, hard cider, and some pumpkin beers, and to play a little cornhole.

The occasion? The last day of filing for those who sought extensions on their tax returns, and thus another milestone during what has been labeled by those in the accounting realm as the ‘never-ending tax season of 2020.’

But in many ways, the grilled cheese, trimmings, and camaraderie were part of what has become a multi-pronged effort at MBK to help employees cope with all the stress and strain — the battle fatigue, if you will — of what has been the most trying year anyone can remember.

And the company is certainly not alone in this mindset.

Indeed, businesses and nonprofits large and small have been addressing this matter of fatigue and helping employees cope with stress in ways that range from loosened dress codes to those food trucks; from pumpkin-decorating competitions to the ‘concert T-shirt day’ — no explanation needed — staged by MBK.

“There’s a lot of stress, and initially, people were trying to do everything and be 100% in everything, and I think most are now acknowledging that this is not realistic or sustainable.”

Overall, business owners and managers are recognizing that their valued employees — the ones who remain after many others have been furloughed or laid off — are tired, worried about the future, ‘Zoomed out’ (another phrase you hear a lot these days), unable or unwilling to take paid time off, and unable or unwilling to leave work behind when they leave work — whether they’re at the office or at home, said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE).

And they’re responding, as she is responding herself (EANE has 22 people on its payroll), with policies, formal and informal, and action plans focused on providing some stress relief and perhaps a sense of normalcy in a year when some companies and agencies are offering ‘mental-health days’ in the office instead of at home.

“Our team is feeling it,” said Wise, using ‘it’ to refer to the sum of the stress incurred at work and at home. “We’re having a difficult year here, and everyone is pushing for the numbers and pushing for the registrations and pushing to connect with our members and provide the best service. And then, at home, it’s not like they’re going home and then relaxing and getting away from the pressures and having time to rest and refuel. They’re going home, whether they’re working remotely or working at the office, and they’ve got all the stuff in their personal life.”

Elaborating, she said this collective ‘stuff’ constitutes everything from fear of contracting the virus to negativity on the nightly news, to the inability to do the things they want to do and go to places they want to go.

Add it all up, and it’s exhausting and often overwhelming, she said, adding that, as an employer, she considers it her responsibility to help valued employees cope with all this.

Amy Roberts, senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank, agreed. She told BusinessWest that the focus for businesses over the past few months has shifted from dealing with an emergency — getting everyone home and making sure they’re safe — and setting up people to work from home if needed, to coping with this fatigue that has settled in.

MP CPAs in Springfield

The dress code has been thrown away at MP CPAs in Springfield, one of many steps taken to help employees feel more comfortable in the office during these uncertain times.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do through the whole situation is be flexible and creative in working with each person as their own needs evolve,” she explained. “You have parents who have kids in school or at home, or a combination of both, and then you have employees with significant others who are exposed or working in situations that put them in potential harm. There’s a lot of stress, and initially, people were trying to do everything and be 100% in everything, and I think most are now acknowledging that this is not realistic or sustainable.”

“We don’t meet with people in the office generally — we’ve closed our doors. So as long as you’re looking good from the waist up on Zoom meetings, it doesn’t really matter what else you’re wearing.”

As companies continue to find ways to assist employees, they acknowledge that, as the pandemic continues, fall turns to winter, the holidays and all the additional stress they bring on approach, and the days get shorter and darker, these efforts will have to continue and probably expand.

 

Forever in Blue Jeans

Doug Theobald says MP CPAs, the Springfield-based accounting firm, has long had a casual-Friday policy, and it has become quite popular.

These days, though, every day is casual as the company tries to make employees feel happier and more comfortable during this stressful time. And allow them to dress like their colleagues, who are working at home.

“We’ve thrown our dress code out — people have been in shorts and sweats since we came back in May,” Theobald, a principal and president of the company, explained. “We’ve always been business casual, and one of my biggest concerns was that people would be nervous coming back to the office; we wanted to make it as comfortable an environment as possible. We don’t meet with people in the office generally — we’ve closed our doors. So as long as you’re looking good from the waist up on Zoom meetings, it doesn’t really matter what else you’re wearing.

“That’s probably been the most beneficial thing we’ve done,” he went on. “If we get back to a new normal at some point, that might be my biggest hurdle — putting business casual back in place once client meetings start again.”

Meagan Tetreault, standing outside Big Y

Meagan Tetreault, standing outside Big Y’s West Springfield store, says the company has taken an individualized approach to helping its thousands of employees cope with the stress and strain of the pandemic.

In some ways, this new dress code, or lack of one, is merely an extension of strategies put in place before the pandemic, aimed at creating a more appealing workplace at a time when attracting and retaining employees, especially in this sector, was becoming increasingly difficult as the job market tightened.

But it’s also part of a broad effort to help employees cope with all that 2020 is throwing at them, including that never-ending tax season, which will soon give way to the next tax season.

“My team is wiped,” Theobald said on Oct. 15 — again, the last day for those who sought extensions, and there were many in that category this year. “They work hard, and we are the one firm in this area that has a really, really busy fall season; it’s almost busier than April.”

He was planning to close the office down for a few days and give his team a break, another attempt to help them get rest and recreation in a year when there has been much less of both.

“There’s so much stress going on in this world right now, we’re just trying to make it as stress-free in the office as we can,” Theobold went on, noting that efforts ranging from the new dress code to flexible hours; from bringing food into the office more often (even if people can’t eat together) to delivering care packages (mostly snacks) to those working remotely, are efforts that will have to continue as the pandemic wears on.

“A lot of places are scaling back on these kinds of things for various reasons, and I don’t think it’s the time to do that. I think it’s time to put a little more gas on the fire because you don’t want to lose engagement or enthusiasm with your organization.”

Wise agreed, noting that, between work and home, many employees simply don’t seem to be able to get a break from the pressure and stress.

This leads to lack of sleep and even more mental and physical fatigue, she said, adding that matters are compounded by the fact that traditional vacations have become far more difficult to undertake. Indeed, trips to Disney World, cruises to Europe, weeks on the Cape, and even visits to relatives in other states have become daunting, if not impossible, because of the pandemic.

As a result, people are vacationing at home, which is good for the region and its tourism venues — the ones that are open, anyway; Six Flags, the Big E, and many others have not been — but the time off is, in many cases, not as relaxing and therapeutic. Meanwhile, with technology and the pandemic both being what they are, time off is usually not time off from many work stresses.

As a result, Wise and others in positions of leadership are strongly encouraging employees to completely unplug when they are taking a day or a week off.

“We try to encourage people to take their time off and to completely disconnect from the office,” she said. “We’re requiring people, when they’re taking a day off or a half-day off or a week off, to put an ‘out-of-office’ message on all of their devices. And that message should say that they will not be responding to e-mails. I don’t necessarily want to cut off people’s access, but we’re saying, ‘put that out-of-office message on, and don’t respond to anything.’ I can’t stop you from checking, but don’t respond.”

Roberts agreed, and said PeoplesBank has been pushing its workers to use their paid time off.

“When there’s nowhere to go, people are inclined to say, ‘I’ll just work,’” she said. “But over the summer, we were encouraging, and in some ways pushing, people to just take a staycation and unplug from work.”

 

Stressing Some Points

Roberts told BusinessWest it was only a few months into the pandemic when upper management at PeoplesBank recognized that fatigue was becoming an issue and needed to be addressed.

“We’ve had some pretty deliberate management conversations where our president, Tom Senecal, has said to team managers, ‘make sure you’re paying attention to the fatigue factor and that you’re communicating with people in a way that they know you understand that this is a very unique and evolving situation.’

“While we want obviously to meet the needs of the customers and do everything we need to do as a business, we recognize that there’s another side to this,” she went on. “Just acknowledging this and having that conversation with managers gives them that awareness and pushes them in a direction where they’re taking a more flexible approach with their people.”

Meagan Tetreault, senior Employee Services field manager for Big Y Foods, agreed. She told BusinessWest that, as an essential retail business, the company has obviously been open for customers and focused on their safety. But it has been focused on employees and their various needs as well — everything from steps taken to keep them safe to flexibility with schedules to enable them to successfully balance work and life.

“Our first priority was making sure we’re putting in place different protocols to make sure that the environment is as safe and secure as possible — from sanitizing and cleaning to plastic barriers to maintaining that social distance,” she explained. “And at certain points, we limited our staff to maintain that social distancing; in retail, it’s natural that you have to have that interaction with the public, and that can be scary. How do you support them through that? It starts with safety and wellness, and promoting that wellness.”

But, as noted, support has come in many different forms, she noted, including efforts to help the company’s 12,000 employees manage the pandemic. And as she talked about it, Tetreault stressed the need to address each employee individually and, when possible, customize a response.

“We found that it comes down to each individual employee’s needs and wants, and our store teams are a big part of that,” she said. “Our employee-services representatives are in each store to assist with employee needs, identifying opportunities and having some of those individual conversations to find out what works for that particular individual.”

Elaborating, she said the company amended its attendance policies; established something called ‘COVID leave,’ which enabled employees to take time off without losing their status; and created more flexibility for workers.

“Our store hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., but we have people who come in and work overnight shifts as well,” she explained. “And we’re able to work with employees to find a schedule and position them to support their individual needs, be it childcare or even wishing to limit contact with customers.”

 

COVID Coping

Overall, while morale is an issue some companies address at least some of the time, it has become more of a front-burner topic during the pandemic, out of necessity, said those we spoke with.

“We’re seeing morale dip a bit; people are trying to put a good face on it, but it’s becoming harder and harder to do that,” Wise told BusinessWest. “So we’re trying to find things we can be doing to raise morale.”

Such efforts include e-mails on Wednesday reminding people that they can almost see Friday, and other e-mails on Friday telling people to turn their computers off at 4:30, go home, and not think about work over the weekend, or even watch the news.

PeoplesBank conducted its annual Employee Fest this year, but it was decidedly different, with many of the activities carried out remotely.

PeoplesBank conducted its annual Employee Fest this year, but it was decidedly different, with many of the activities carried out remotely.

Region-wide, morale-building efforts run the gamut from food and games to team-building exercises, either in person or the remote variety.

At PeoplesBank, the week-long event known as Employee Fest was staged as always, but it did look and feel different, said Roberts, noting that many activities were carried out remotely, with gifts delivered to all employees, whether they were working at the office, in one of the branches, or remotely.

At MBK, morale-building has been a year-long priority, said Sarah Rose Stack, Marketing & Recruiting manager, adding that it comes in several forms, from so-called social-media holidays, where people post pictures of pets, children, or travel destinations; to the concert T-shirt day, flip-flops day, and alma-mater day; to food trucks, which have come on several occasions.

The company has traditionally done such things, and it has long had what’s been called the ‘Fun Committee,’ which arranged an axe-throwing competition and visit to a brewery last year, for example. This year, the activities are different, but there are more of them, with good reason.

“A lot of places are scaling back on these kinds of things for various reasons, and I don’t think it’s the time to do that,” she noted. “I think it’s time to put a little more gas on the fire because you don’t want to lose engagement or enthusiasm with your organization.”

Many of the initiatives at MBK and elsewhere fall into the broad category of connectivity, an important ingredient for success at any business, and something that’s been lacking due to the pandemic.

Monica Borgatti, chief operating officer for the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, said the small staff of three full-time and three part-time employees has mostly been working remotely since March. That means no water-cooler talk — literally, anyway, she said, adding that the nonprofit has tried to incorporate those types of discussions into the regular Zoom meetings in an effort to help people connect in ways beyond what they’re doing for work every day.

“We always, always make sure to start those weekly meetings with a virtual water cooler,” she told BusinessWest. “Everyone takes turns sharing something, whether it’s an article they’ve come across over the past week or something personal — they got a new dog and they want to show off the pictures, or some household project that they’ve finally completed.

“We make sure to create time for that at all those staff meetings, so we’re connecting with each other as people and not just as co-workers,” she went on, adding that the agency also allows for very flexible schedules and encourages employees to stop and step away from their work when they need to, and not stare at a computer screen for hours on end.

At MBK, one of the partners, Jim Krupienski, stages a monthly check-in social, Stack said, during which the company has a cocktail hour of sorts where those working from home can join in remotely. “It’s just really to check in and talk about anything other than work,” she noted. “It’s a mental-health check-in with adult beverages.”

Scanning the landscape, Wise believes many companies are struggling in their efforts to maintain morale among their employees. It’s easier for a smaller business to undertake initiatives in this regard than those with several hundred employees, she noted, but most are trying to do something.

It might be a food truck or two coming to the parking lot — even sharing a large pizza box can be risky during a pandemic — or more communication from the C-suite, she said, adding that there is more ‘management by walking around’ in this environment, or at least there should be.

Meanwhile, employers are pushing people to take time off and providing more one-on-one employee counseling, duties now falling in many cases to human-resources professionals, especially at smaller companies that do not have employee-assistance programs.

“They’ve had to put on their social work, psychologist’s hat,” she noted. “And it’s not something that they’re used to. But some employees just need to vent; they’re saying, ‘I don’t know what to do or where to go.’”

 

Bottom Line

While no one really knows when the pandemic will subside and something approaching normal returns to the workplaces of Western Mass., what most business owners and managers do know is that their valued employees will need some help getting to that point.

At a time when most e-mail messages end with the message ‘stay safe and stay sane,’ or words to that effect, achieving those goals has been anything but easy.

Addressing this battle fatigue has become an important, and ongoing, assignment for many businesses, and the smart ones understand that the fight is far from over, and they need to keep finding ways to be attentive and creative — and even fun.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Company Notebook

Melanson Heath Rebrands as Melanson

NASHUA, N.H. — Melanson Heath, one of the fastest-growing accounting firms in the U.S., announced that the company will begin operating under a new name and will be known as Melanson, effective immediately. This rebranding strategy reflects both the evolution of the company and its vision for the future. Along with this change, a newly redesigned company logo has been revealed, and a new website, melansoncpas.com, has been launched. “As part of our focus on expansion and business development, our leadership team and I believe it was appropriate to rebrand our firm to more specifically reflect who we are,” said Managing Partner Scott Toothaker, CPA. “We are very excited about the introduction of our new company name, Melanson, because it allows us to better represent our business to our clients and community. We are also very happy about the launch of our new website, which features our own employees and better reflects the personality found at Melanson. We are not just an accounting firm; we are a partner for our clients.”

Phoenix Project Launched to Assist Struggling Businesses

PIONEER VALLEY — The DiStefano Group and Seven Roads Media announced the Phoenix Project, a movement to collaborate and create opportunities within the Pioneer Valley business community based on the principles of kindness and understanding. The goal is to provide a broad range of assistance to businesses that are struggling as a result of the unprecedented happenings of 2020. The two companies, in direct response to the inequities and hardships that so many in the community are facing, will seek to gain a genuine understanding of what local business owners need and address those needs immediately and for free. The process will begin with a video interview to gather raw, first-hand knowledge. Seven Roads Media and the DiStefano Group will provide business and media coaching on the spot, but support for the business won’t end there. The Phoenix Project also includes the expertise of an established group of ‘masterminds’ — local professionals at the top of their fields — to provide coaching in banking, marketing, financial management, real estate, photography, hospitality, events, human resources, psychology, IT, and more. Gina DiStefano, president and CEO of the DiStefano Group and Phoenix Project co-founder, explained that “the video is just the beginning. From there, we will connect the business with our group of masterminds, who will continue to provide pro bono advice. We intend to have a real impact on businesses that have been hit hard. We are willing and able to help.” The project’s model will build supportive relationships not just for the chosen business, but among all of the those represented by the masterminds, said the third co-founder, Jess Roncarati-Howe, a nonprofit consultant and coach with the DiStefano Group who formerly served as president of the Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce. “An entrepreneurial spirit who truly cares about what’s going on around them can foster tremendous impact,” she added. “It is the driving force behind the Phoenix Project. We will help our community to heal — one interaction, one relationship at a time.”

IALS at UMass Amherst Joins Digital Health Sandbox Network

AMHERST — The Massachusetts eHealth Institute at MassTech (MeHI) selected six new healthcare research and development (R&D) hubs to join the Digital Health Sandbox Network, including UMass Amherst’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS). The Sandbox Network program connects digital-health startups to cutting-edge R&D facilities in the Commonwealth and allows Massachusetts startups to apply for funding to test their innovations at one of the networks’ labs, now including IALS. Sandbox R&D facilities provide a range of services supporting validation and testing for digital health companies throughout their life cycles. “Establishing a translational institute at UMass that provides startup lab space; more than 30 industry-friendly, staffed core equipment facilities; and individualized venture-mentoring services creates an exciting environment for digital-health companies in Western Massachusetts,” IALS Director Peter Reinhart said. IALS helps to shepherd and translate fundamental research into new product candidates, technologies, and services that benefit human health and well-being. IALS also helps users address both basic and translational questions, deliver technologies and product candidates more rapidly, and become more competitive in obtaining funding. Facilities include a state-of-the-art test bed for mobile health experiments at scale, the Center for Human Health and Performance, a roll-to-roll fabrication and processing facility, and research laboratory space for lease. In 2019, Gov. Charlie Baker announced $500,000 in funding for the Sandbox program as part of the Commonwealth’s efforts to boost the digital-health ecosystem under the Massachusetts Digital Health Initiative.

Captain Candy to Open Second Store in Holyoke

NORTHAMPTON — Levi Smith, owner of Captain Candy in the lower level of Thornes Marketplace, announced he is opening a second store in the Holyoke Mall at Ingleside. “I’ve survived the COVID-19 shutdown, and I’m excited to be opening a second store in Holyoke,” Smith said. Captain Candy offers eclectic candies that are not the norm in grocery and convenience stores — everything from gumballs to candy cigarettes, wax bottles full of juice, Turkish taffy, Pop Rocks, and Zotz. Smith was contacted in January by the owners of Pyramid Management Group, which owns more than a dozen malls in the Northeast, including the Holyoke Mall. Smith’s Holyoke store opening comes a little over a year after he purchased the Northampton shop from former owner Nolan Anaya. Smith was 18 at the time. Currently, he is a business student at Holyoke Community College. In the early months, Smith will operate the new store to ensure a smooth start, and then he will hire as needed. Currently, he and six part-time employees operate the Thornes location, which opened in 2013.

Smith College Team Wins Ventilator-design Challenge

NORTHAMPTON — The SmithVent team of engineering alumni, staff, and faculty are the winners of the CoVent-19 challenge to design an easily manufacturable ventilator for use during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Grécourt Gate, Smith College’s online news portal. The team’s breathing device was chosen from more than 200 submissions to the competition launched on April 1. “In two months, we went from knowing nothing to having a functional prototype,” said team co-leader Susannah Howe, director of Smith’s Engineering Design Clinic. “To see that trajectory in such a short period of time, with people who are volunteering their time on top of their other jobs, is amazing and heartwarming and so rewarding.” Smith College President Kathleen McCartney added that “I could not be more proud of the SmithVent team for winning the CoVent-19 Challenge. This win speaks volumes about the power of a liberal-arts education, grounded in experiential learning, to find innovative, collaborative solutions to complex, urgent problems. SmithVent is Smith at its best: a lasting example of our community coming together for the betterment of the world.”

Springfield Library & Museums Assoc. Wins $100,000 NEA Grant

SPRINGFIELD ​— National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Mary Anne Carter has approved more than $84 million in grants as part of the NEA’s second major funding announcement for fiscal year 2020. Included in this announcement is an Our Town award of $100,000 to​ the ​Springfield Library & Museums Assoc. in partnership with the Springfield Cultural Partnership for Spark!: Igniting Our Community, a project in the newly renovated Pynchon Park to envision and create public art that serves to connect the city, residents, and visitors. This is one of 51 grants nationwide that the agency has approved in this category. Spark: Igniting Our Community is a two-year public art project that will transform recently reopened Pynchon Park into a vibrant public space through innovative multi-media art installations created by local and national artists. City residents, community stakeholders, and cultural institutions will be involved in a collective process to imagine, select, and commission public art that celebrates Springfield’s citizens, culture, and heritage. The park, closed for 40 years, will use the arts to connect neighborhoods and people, creating equitable partnerships that demonstrate the power of civic engagement for more vibrant and livable communities. The park’s reopening offers an opportunity to continue momentum by celebrating public art in this passageway and creating a programming and civic-engagement space. This project will create a walkable pathway between the museum district and the commercial downtown, spurring retail and public-space projects along these avenues and encouraging greater tourism throughout the city.

Webster Bank Offers Financial Program for Frontline Heroes

WATERBURY, Conn. — Webster Bank became one of the first financial-services companies nationwide to introduce Frontline Heroes, a program for essential healthcare workers and first responders that enhances the financial well-being of those who are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. In gratitude for their selfless service, Webster’s new Frontline Heroes program offers a range of financial benefits, including checking accounts free of a monthly maintenance fee and free checking withdrawals at any ATM through December 2021. The program provides new customers with the ability to earn a cash incentive, as well as additional discounts and benefits. Frontline Heroes includes any full-time or part-time employee currently in essential healthcare, including hospitals, nursing homes, medical and dental practices, and home healthcare. The program is also available to first responders. For every new Frontline Heroes customer, Webster will also donate $250 to United Way COVID-19 Response Funds, making a minimum donation of $100,000.

Agenda

Zoom Series on Elder Law, Estate Planning

May 4, 11, 18: Adapting to COVID-19 restrictions, Attorney Karen Jackson of Jackson Law will teach a series of Holyoke Community College classes through Zoom, highlighting the latest developments in elder law and estate planning. An elder-law and estate-planning attorney, Jackson will present her six-hour course, called “Elder Law and Estate Planning: What You Need to Know,” on Zoom in three two-hour sessions on consecutive Mondays from 6 to 8 p.m. The cost is $99. To register, e-mail Valentyna Semyrog at [email protected], leave a message at (413) 552-2123, or visit www.hcc.edu/bce. Participants will be sent a link to join the class and can join using PCs, laptops, or smartphones. In the first session, Jackson will explain each document in the core estate plan. She will discuss the problems that can occur when proper documents are not prepared before a loss of mental capacity or physical health or before sudden loss of life. The second session will address four areas: trusts, the probate court process, Medicare hot topics, and options for community care and home care. Jackson will provide pertinent information and details about each to assist attendees in their planning now. In the third and final session, Jackson will introduce the various Medicaid programs that provide long-term skilled nursing-home care in Massachusetts and the financial assistance associated with each. While participants may choose to attend any or all of the sessions, they must still pay the full course cost of $99.

Difference Makers

Sept. 10: BusinessWest has moved its 12th annual Difference Makers event, originally scheduled for March 19, to Sept. 10 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. The class of 2020 was profiled in the Feb. 3 issue of BusinessWest and at businesswest.com. Tickets cost $75. To reserve a spot, e-mail [email protected] or visit businesswest.com. Event sponsors include Burkhart Pizzanelli, Mercy Medical Center/Trinity Health Of New England, Royal, P.C., and TommyCar Auto Group, while the Tom Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament, MHA, and United Way of Pioneer Valley are partners.

Elms College Executive Leadership Breakfast

Sept. 22: Elms College has rescheduled its third annual Executive Leadership Breakfast due to state-mandated caution regarding large crowds and coronavirus. U.S. Rep. Richard Neal is still slated to be the keynote speaker for the event, which was originally scheduled for April 9. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold, the college will announce more details as necessary. This annual event features talks by the region’s leaders on topics of relevance that impact all sectors of business and the economy in Western Mass. Speakers at past events have included Dennis Duquette, head of Community Responsibility at MassMutual and president of the MassMutual Foundation, and Regina Noonan Hitchery, retired vice president of Human Resources at Alcoa.

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]