WASHINGTON – After two seasons of post-Sept. 11 solemnity and a stretch of economic uncertainty, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas for the folks who throw company holiday parties — finally.
While parties are not back to the glitzy levels of the late 90s, event planners in Maryland said their business is once again on the rise, boosted by a number of last-minute bookings.
“It just dawns on them that, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s Christmas and we don’t have any place to go,'” said Pat Zayas, a catering assistant at Loews Annapolis Hotel, who has been taking calls for last-minute parties.
Explanations for the jump in business are varied.
Zayas said parties have picked up because companies are “just trying to provide something for their employees that they didn’t provide last year or the year before,” but others think companies are simply finding money left over at the end of the year.
“Even now, we have been getting calls . . . people calling to see if we have space saying, ‘You know, we just found we have some extra money,'” said Felicia Lewis at the Admiral Fell Inn in Baltimore.
But even with that “extra money,” event planners said companies are still not spending like they used to.
“I definitely think people are being a little more conservative this year,” Lewis said. “They’re not spending the same amount of money . . . they’re scaling down.”
That can mean reserving a room in a restaurant for associates instead of paying for a ballroom, band and formal dinner. That is good news for Debra Cornett, an event sales manager at Jillian’s in Arundel Mills.
“We are ahead of where we were last year,” Cornett said. “There are people who have been doing more formal parties who are looking to do something more relaxed.”
A restaurant setting also gives groups the flexibility of booking late. A late Thanksgiving left only three party weekends before Christmas, with this weekend and next by far the most popular. That has pushed many last-minute parties to lunchtime and midweek evenings.
“Some are even now willing to go to midweek just because they know that they have waited until the ninth hour,” Lewis said.
That is a bit of a change for hotels, which prefer to book groups a year in advance.
“Ideally, you want to go into the late summer with at least 50 to 60 percent of your bookings on,” Lewis said. “And that trend has not been what it should be. The trend is you’re picking up parties later in the year.”
Even those companies that are willing to splurge on a hotel are scaling back — companies that used to pay $100 a guest for dinner and dancing at a hotel are now only willing to spend $50 or $60 per person on a holiday party.
Sharlene Sherman, the catering director at the Inn at the Colonnade in Baltimore, has found that her clients are “more into lower-key parties rather than big blowouts” this year.
One reason may be that company executives do not want to be seen as throwing expensive parties at a time when they have asked employees not to take raises.
Julie Brown-Edwards, senior sales manager at Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor, has had clients tell her, “I don’t want employees to think we’re wasting their money.”
“Even people still having parties want it to be less glamorous — nothing wow,” Brown-Edwards said. “Not the big blowout event — dinner, dancing with a spouse.”
Daniel Raffel, director of catering for the Brass Elephant in Baltimore, has seen more companies — about half of his business this season — wanting to do something very different from the traditional holiday party.
“People who are doing it different are really doing it different,” Raffel said. “If they are going to invest, they really want to be remembered for what they did.”
There are exceptions. Companies that have been doing well financially are still throwing glitzy parties. Hotels and caterers have a lot of mortgage companies, real estate firms and car dealerships filling those prime weekend slots.
“I see it both ways, depending on the company,” said Vickie Preston, an agent for Entertainment Exchange in Baltimore. “I find that I’ve got some that are spending more. But I find some that kind of went away, you know. It depends on the industry.”
Whether they are spending a lot or a little, whether they booked ahead or at the last minute, Preston and the others said they are just glad to see the business bouncing back.
“Where in the past, a lot would have booked first quarter, now it’s two weeks out and they’re spending the money,” Preston said.
“I’ve still got people booking stuff for next week,” she said. “But I’ll take it.”