WASHINGTON – Corporate holiday parties this year will be toned-down affairs, if they are held at all, in the face of a shaky economy and post-attack worries.
Maryland caterers and other party planners say the extravaganzas are not what they used to be, and they are feeling the cuts as corporations eliminate the frills to save some cash.
“I think there’s a more cautious tone this year,” said Alan Weiss of Catering by Weiss in Owings Mills. “Because of world events, (corporations are) downsizing.”
Truffles the Catering Company in Baltimore is delivering food more often to company offices, than to expensive rented hotel spaces where corporations used to hold their parties.
“I think the businesses are scared,” said Suzanne St. Pellicer, Truffles’ marketing director. “They don’t want to spend the money, they want to save the money.
“But, in reality, if we want to keep the economy going, we have to keep putting money in the economy, and not keep it in the banks,” she said. “If people are spending money, we can all continue to be employed.”
The trouble started with the disappearance of Internet companies back in the summer, said St. Pellicer.
“I think that was the beginning of the financial rumblings in our economy,” she said. “All of a sudden Sept. 11 hit and that was like the nail in the coffin.”
In some cases, cancellations were almost immediate. Mike Ostrow of Bethesda’s Entertainment Exchange said he got calls directly after the attacks from clients who had New York connections.
“They didn’t feel it was appropriate to have a party, so they canceled them completely,” said Ostrow, whose company provides entertainment such as bands and comedians.
Since then, some of Ostrow’s clients and others have returned to make last-minute plans. Some popular holiday party spots, like the Annapolis Marriott Waterfront hotel, are seeing more latecomers than normal as corporations return, warily, to spending money.
“People are starting to say, `OK, yes, we’re going to have a Christmas party,'” said Cheryl Green, director of catering for the Annapolis Marriott. “I think people waited to see what was going to happen.”
The waiting mostly focused on a careful watch of the economy.
“The economy is slowed down, and I think there’s a little fear out there,” said Gary Kline, owner of Kline’s Restaurant, Lounge and Catering Service in Cumberland.
He said he has never seen orders so low in his 22 years in the restaurant business. St. Pellicer agreed that the economy is one of the driving forces behind that.
“They’re having a hard time justifying a holiday party when they just laid off a hundred people,” St. Pellicer said.
For those companies determined to have a party, some cuts are in order.
Ostrow said many of the usual black-tie events have been replaced with “smaller, less-opulent things,” such as interactive casino nights or game show- style events. Those have the added benefit, he said, of keeping party-goers pleasantly distracted.
Other companies are keeping prices down by hosting parties in the office, rather than renting ballrooms and other party venues. Employees at the Best Western Washington Gateway hotel in Rockville, after seeing a number of cancellations, are hoping for a burst of last-minute bookings for their facilities.
Truffles has seen less business in the Belvedere, the hotel where the catering company is based. Corporations are finding that smaller in-house department parties are less expensive than the huge company-wide bash, even if crab cakes and expensive alcohol are still a part of the menu.
Parties are important this year, St. Pellicer said, they just won’t include Waterford crystal as party gifts.
She and others said that corporations are realizing that any kind of party is more of a boost to company morale than no party at all.
“I think the smart people, the smart corporations, are still going out and spending and giving back to the employees and not worrying so much,” said David Model, president of Mr. Omelette, a breakfast and brunch catering company in Potomac. “Those are the companies I think are doing well.”