This holiday party season looks to be a good one for restaurants, with many operators reporting an increase in bookings, in money spent per person, in repeat business, or all three.
“While consumers and businesses are still cautious, having modest income growth and tighter budgets than they had pre-recession, the economic climate is in a better place than it was a year ago," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association. "Restaurants can expect a holiday season with business slightly improved, but they have to be savvy about their marketing efforts to bring in holiday parties as competition remains stiff within the industry."
“I’m up 40 percent in private and house parties, and everyone is spending more than any year in recent memory,” said Michael Lachowicz, owner of Restaurant Michael in Winnetka, Ill.
Lachowicz doesn’t attribute the success to any change in the economy, but to the “ton of money” he spent on marketing his private room, and on his manager, Marcello Cancelli, who follows up with guests and has worked hard to improve the quality of service. “That sells itself,” he said.
Mark Grossich, whose company Hospitality Holdings operates Madison & Vine restaurant and six high-end lounges in New York City, including the Carnegie Club and The Campbell apartment, said he was surprised to see the 75-percent repeat rate for holiday party bookings this year, up from between 40 percent and 50 percent last year.
“It’s not from some celebratory notion that the world is becoming a financially safer place,” he said. “It’s more that they want to deny the obvious and have a good time.”
Regardless, sales at his properties have increased 20 percent in the past year. “The trend that we’re finding versus last year is that people are spending more money and booking earlier,” he said. “We had people book parties six months ago.”
Party planners that are trading up are upgrading hors d’oeuvres — to filet mignon from beef skewers, for example — extending the party by another hour, or offering top-shelf spirits at the open bar.
Simon Powles, president of Philadelphia-based Stephen Starr Events, which has the contracts for parties at cultural venues including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the New York Historical Society, said throwing parties is fashionable once again, unlike in 2008 and 2009.
In-home catering is up, too, he said, adding that this season his company has handled many house parties with specialty cocktails, passed hors d’oeuvres and roll-to-order sushi and dim sum stations, along with a classic holiday buffet. He charges about $150 per person for such events.
The Starr Restaurant Organization also has seen an increase in restaurant buyouts this season, Powles said, although the norm this year is parties of between 25 and 75 people. “People are looking to create fun,” he said, noting that there are fewer seated dinners and more cocktail parties. “They want to be relaxed and experimental with good food and drink,” he said.
Chrystyna Kassaraba, guest service and event director for The Beehive restaurant in Boston, agreed. “I think just one of our buyouts is a seated dinner,” she said. The rest are cocktail parties.
“I think the perception of a cocktail party is a little lighter,” she said. “People get to mingle more, and it has a different energy than a seated dinner.”
Business at the Beehive is definitely up this season, she added. “We’re actually having a good year,” she said. “Everyone feels their employees deserve a nice evening out, and we’re getting progressively busier. Last year I think people were still filling a little bit guilty about spending money for holiday parties.”
Brian Sirhal, co-owner of Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington, Pa., and La Calaca Feliz in Philadelphia, said he has booked nearly twice as many holiday parties this year as last year, “and the holiday traffic that we do see typically translates into opportunities for us at other times of year,” he said.