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Varied Options, Repeat Business Drive Holiday-party Bookings

Serving Up the Season

Banquet tables

Banquet tables await guests at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse.

By any measure, the holiday-party business is stronger than it has been since a decade ago, before the recession. Buoyed by a generally strong economy, companies are willing to invest in late-in-the-year gatherings for their employees and, sometimes, their families. But it’s still a fiercely competitive environment for banquet facilities, who have become increasingly creative and flexible in their seasonal event offerings, aiming to provide a memorable experience and drive crucial repeat business year after year.

As he spoke with BusinessWest, Peter Rosskothen was getting ready to meet a client planning a holiday party.

The message he intended to share? Don’t do what you did last year — even if you loved it.

“My main focus for that meeting is to motivate them and excite them about relying on our brains and expertise to create something a little different from last year,” said Rosskothen, who owns the Log Cabin and the Delaney House in Holyoke. “It’s very easy for somebody who’s working very hard to say, ‘we had a great party last year; let’s do the same thing again.’ But I think that’s a negative.

“The smart thing in the event business is to create something a little different,” he went on, so your staff, workers, and associates get a different experience. I think it gets same old thing, the same old Christmas party, gets boring. The more change you can bring into it, the more people look forward to coming.”

Indeed, many area facilities take pride in being flexible enough to handle different styles of events.

“Companies are usually looking for something business casual, but we also have events where they want to go all out, have a seated dinner with filets, followed a cocktail hour and ending with a DJ for the younger members of the office,” said Alyssa Blumenthal, event manager at Bistro 63 in Amherst.  “A lot of people know us as not only a bistro, but a pub, so we provide a seamless transition from formal events to lighthearted, business-casual affairs.”

With a stable economy and corporate profits on the rise, a national survey released at the end of 2016 showed that not only are more companies planning holiday parties this year, but many also expect to increase spending on those events.

In its annual survey on holiday-party plans (the 2017 survey has not yet been released), global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. found that 80% of companies planned to host holiday parties last year, while 21% were increasing the budget.

More than 66% of survey respondents said their companies were hiring caterers or event planners, up from 62% in 2015. In addition, 43% percent of companies were inviting employees’ spouses or family to attend, up from 31% in 2015.

Peter Rosskothen says he encourages repeat clients to change up their holiday parties from year to year.

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen says he encourages repeat clients to change up their holiday parties from year to year.

 

“Company holiday parties are a great way for employers to thank workers for a successful year. For employees, it’s a great way to meet and interact with co-workers and managers who are not part of one’s daily routine. If you happen to be attending the holiday party of a spouse or friend, it could be a great opportunity to network,” said John Challenger, the consultancy’s CEO.”

Rosskothen said his business certainly reflected the national uptick last year, and 2017 is shaping up to be as least as strong.

“We’re actively in the holiday planning season right now, definitely entering the core part of the season,” he said. “When people are coming back from summer vacations, they’re really focused on business, but by the time we get to October, they’re starting to focus on holiday parties and so forth.”

’Tis the Season

For many, if not most, banquet facilities, the holiday season — which typically extends through January, thanks to a growing number of businesses that move their company gatherings to after Christmas and New Year’s Day — is  key factor in the year-end bottom line.

“We do anything — baby showers, birthday parties, bridal showers, post-funeral receptions, corporate meetings, and holiday parties,” said Cathy Stephens, director of catering sales at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse in Hampden, noting that the facility is trying to ramp up its holiday-party schedule after a successful first season last year.

She said many holiday-party clients are leaning away from formal functions in favor of moving around and socializing amid food stations. “It’s not really a sit-down dinner, but more of a networking party.”

The Starting Gate will also host an elaborate buffet luncheon for multiple small groups on Dec. 12, reflecting a trend in the corporate party-planning world toward giving smaller companies a big-party experience for a budget price simply by combining groups into one event.

That will follow fall holiday events including a Halloween dance on Oct. 28 and a comedy night the Saturday after Thanksgiving, both aimed, again, at both the public and area companies looking to treat their employees.

The Log Cabin has hosted similar events in recent years, and this year is no exception.

“Each one is different; some are a little more elaborate, some a little less elaborate,” Rosskothen said. “Some people coming to a party really don’t want to dance, so we respond to that: ‘how about a comedy night, where you can socialize with co-workers and listen to comedy? How about a wine tasting, beer tasting, martini night?’ People find different things they can do.”

His team has been busy selling out most key dates on the calendar, both private and group events. “I think we do very well every year, and it will be that kind of year this year, too. Most of our key dates are sold out, and our group parties well on their way to selling out at this point. We’re optimistic we’ll have another good year — and happy about that, because there’s lots of competition in the market right now, so knowing people are loyal to us is a big deal to me.”

Blumenthal said Bistrol 63 is seeing a record level of event bookings, due in part to having a full-time event team for the first time in a long while. “That has definitely increased bookings. Someone is always here to answer questions.”

Flexibility is important to clients, she added, and companies tend to have a budget in mind. “The buffet option offers the most flexibility to customize the menu, especially for guests who don’t like choosing one dish.”

Bistro 63 emphasizes its unique custom-cocktail program, and, indeed many party guests look to unwind with a drink or two at holiday events. The Challenger survey revealed that 62% of holiday parties would include alcohol, up from the 54% in 2015. And that poses some risks.

“Serving alcohol can make for a more celebratory mood, but it also has pitfalls, especially for employees and their guests,” Challenger said. “Company parties are not necessarily a time to let loose.”

In the Party Spirit

TriNet, a national provider of human-resources services, surveyed employees at small and mid-size businesses late last year about how they felt about their company-sponsored holiday parties.

A majority (65%) of respondents said they planned to attend their office party, while 22% percent said they were not sure and 13% percent said they wouldn’t go. Meanwhile, 36% stated they are required or strongly encouraged to attend, while 48% considered it their choice.

Asked how they feel about the tradition of holiday parties, 37% said they were somewhat excited, while 28% said they were very excited. Only 5% of respondents showed no enthusiasm at all. However, despite the general enthusiasm, a large majority indicated they would trade a party for other perks. For instance, 73% would prefer a cash bonus, while 51% would favor office closure during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Given those options, only 20% would still prefer the holiday party.

Locally, both Stephens and Rosskothen said employees who have a good time at their holiday parties look forward to returning the following year, and their employers are willing to keep paying for the event.

“We’re getting repeat business from people who came last year,” Stephens said of spillover from the Starting Gate’s first holiday season in 2016. Others have experienced other events there, including weddings that incorporate the site’s sweeping vistas, and return for other events, like holiday parties, based on those good memories.

“The holiday business, specifically, is extremely loyal,” Rosskothen said. “It helps that we do things that smaller companies can join if they don’t want to be alone in a smll room, that we create something cool and different. We have created events with all kinds of variety, and companies can pick. Hopefully there’s something for everyone out there.”

The holiday-party business may not have returned quite to pre-recession levels — a trend that holds true nationally as well — but it’s close, he added.

“It’s definitely come back a long way. We see a lot of people trying to do something during the holiday, to tell employees they’re appreciated and bring the team together.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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