Get the party started

Employers are finally ready to cut loose after too many years of cocktail weenies and cheap wine

Friday, December 7, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 49
By Hollie Deese

Bill Reynolds won’t soon forget 2008, the year the economy stole Christmas.

“I had been hearing people complaining about the economy for nine months, but we were doing fine,” says Reynolds, owner of A Dream Come True, whose catering business was right on pace through Halloween of that year.

“And then, all of the sudden, in November the banking industry fell, and we weren’t doing fine anymore. All of our Christmas parties went away. I mean big, giant corporate parties just didn’t happen that year. Period. At all.”

The Great Recession – with its lost revenues, lay-offs and salary and hiring freezes – spoiled Middle Tennessee’s holiday party plans in 2008 and beyond.

But this year there’s a noticeable uptick in bookings, local party planners, caterers, restaurateurs and venue managers agree.

“People are throwing more parties this year,” says Randi Lesnick, president and CEO of Hospitality Consultants and Nashville Event Space, which has 23 parties booked over a two-week holiday period.

“Corporations are doing parties, and they are doing big parties,” she adds. “They are spending money to cater to their staff and their vendors. Usually people had been doing small departmental parties or house parties, but this year some are doing big name entertainment. Some people are doing great food parties.”

Time to say thanks

So, what has business in the holiday party spirit? Lesnick sees a need to say thank you to staff and clients after a long dry spell.

“Corporations want to take care of their people and their vendors,” she says. “It is the holidays, and if they don’t do it now, then when?’’

Falon Veit, director of Music City Dining, a new catering venture from Nashville restaurateur Randy Rayburn, sees more economic give and take.

“We have been very flexible with our minimums,’’ she says. “I think people know that we do want their business, and we do understand that times are a little bit hard right now waiting on the fiscal cliff.’’

And, fewer major companies appear to be laying people off this year.

“People were getting laid off that Christmas (2008), so there was no way people were going to lay off employees and then have a party for the ones who are left,” Reynolds explains.

Local publicist and online social columnist Heather Byrd, who has been on the invitation list for many parties over the years, has noticed an increase in holiday events this year, as well.

“Last year was the worst,” she says. “Everybody called off their events. Or, there were limited selections as people were scaling back and doing just beer and wine instead of a full bar. But I feel like we are starting to come out of that.”

But stick to the budget

Throwing a holiday bash in 2012 doesn’t mean companies or individuals are throwing the budget out the window or are trading Cook’s for Cristal.

Hosts want quality, but still want a good value. If Cristal is on the must-have list, something else has to go. It could be flowers, music or the number of invitees.

“People still want to have a great party but only want to spend a certain amount of money, so getting the best sometimes means you have to cut down on the number of people that you have or you go less on the food end,” says Anita Hogin, a partner with H Three Events. “No one wants to give up the décor side of it. They want it to look like a million dollars, and they are willing to sacrifice for it to make it look like that.”

Christmas at Fontanel yours for $10,000 to $20,000 for a group of 150.

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Hogin spent 30 years in the music industry before partnering with event planner Hugh Howser in 2007. They launched as the downturn set in.

“I just had an inspiration for a second career, so I sold my management company about five years ago,” Hogin says. “Hugh had done some event planning under a couple of other companies and thought about going out on his own so we thought, ‘why don’t we try this in the middle of a terrible recession?’ We were scared to death, but it seemed to work and over the years it has grown, and we are grateful for all of that.”

The partners, who plan parties during CMA week, were recently tapped to plan the 2013 Swan Ball, Nashville’s most high profile annual party.

Restaurants get competitive

While caterers like Reynolds have worked hard to lure back corporate and other clients, many have felt the pressure of competing with restaurants that have found it necessary to jump into the catering trade during the recession.

“Every restaurant in Nashville, and I am sure across the country, was hurting, so every one of them said, ‘We will be a caterer now,’” Reynolds says. “And so they got vans that said catering, put ads out that said catering, they put tents on their tables in the restaurant that said we cater, so everybody became a caterer.

“Well, what they really became is a delivery (service) because you don’t learn how to cater overnight. It is a whole industry in and of itself. Anyone can drop off some barbecue. But to cater, we literally pack up a restaurant into a van, drive it across town and set up a restaurant and then serve the people.”

Some restaurants have moved into catering only after business picked up.

Music City Dining is a new umbrella team created in August to handle the bookings of private events and outside catering requests for Rayburn’s trio of signature hot spots Sunset Grill, Midtown Café and Cabana.

“We only cater sporadically,” Veit says. “The first thing we focus on is the restaurant business, and the events that come there. We do have some clients who have asked us to do off-site catering, and we do them as they come along, but we are not promoting it yet. That is something we will be able to do more … we do get a lot of requests for that though.”

Fontanel Mansion, a popular Davidson County party and music venue, is also launching an off-site, drop-off catering business from their on-site restaurant, but still use A Dream Come True Catering for many of their larger private events booked at one of the venues on the grounds.

“From the Studio Gallery, you are probably looking at about $10,000 for 150 people, in the mansion about $20,000,” says Emily Cheatham with Fontanel.

“This is our second holiday season renting venues, and the Studio Gallery is pretty much booked every night. The mansion we have a little bit more availability to work with, specifically on week nights.”

If you are lucky enough to have an employer throw a party for you and your staff this year, make an effort to be there.

“If you are an employee in a corporation that is having a holiday party, you should go,” Lesnick says. “Your company is spending a lot of time and money to make it what you would want it to be, and you really should show up.”

Some clients are willing to forgo on-site catering for the lower cost a restaurant can provide by simply dropping off the food, especially for corporate lunches and breakfast meetings. A new caterer usually offers a cut-rate price to get a foot in the door, something Reynolds did when he started out.

“And you will do that until you either go out of business because you don’t make any money or you somehow find a niche and get through it,” Reynolds says. “My niche was churches. When I came to town I was feeding several different churches on Wednesday night, over 800 people.”

The deal was if they joined up they all ate same meal, which cut his costs. And since it was just Reynolds, he did not have any overhead and was able to make it through those bargain-rate times.

“Nobody else was depending on me for their living,” he says. “Today I have a dozen salaried employees and another 10 or so hoping for 30-40 hours a week, and then another 30 who are part-time on call, so I have a big monster. Your prices go up, but at the beginning you do it real cheap.”