Consumer Trends

Restaurants see a merrier party season so far

The holiday festivities may be more reserved, but restaurants say both the number of bookings and the per-person expenditures for corporate holiday parties are making this a merrier year than 2012.

Operators say they’re expecting as much as a 46 percent increase in booked events, with expenditures typically running above $100 a head, and sometimes much higher. Overall, says party sales tracker MillerPulse.com, a 4 percent to 6 percent increase is possible, which would make this “a good year” relative to the past, according to CEO Larry Miller.

“It is turning out to be better than we thought it would,” he says.

“Money doesn't seem to be as much of an issue this year as in the last four years,” comments Suzanne Cullen, director of catering for Poggio Trattoria in Sausalito, CA.

Still, the events can be fairly staid, observers agree. Cullen says she’s seeing less entertainment and dancing, and more cocktail parties with passed hors d’oeuvres and plated lunches. The invitees are typically limited to employees, with spouses excluded.

“Holiday planners are not necessarily shopping for a bargain, and are looking for that wow factor that includes something people will be talking about after the party is over,” says Robert Gundrey, vice president of hospitality sales and operations at Wente Vineyards in Livermore, Calif., which hosts holiday parties. “Offer something unique, not necessarily a discount.”

He notes that his customers will pop for upgrades such as a four-course menu, high-end wine selections and wine tastings prior to dinner. Overall, parties at the winery are averaging “$80 to $125 per guest this year, with several at $150-plus,” Gundrey says.

But a discount doesn’t hurt, says Josh Eckstein, general manager of the Buffalo Wild Wings in Waterford, Mich. The restaurant gives corporate party customers a rebate of 10 percent in Buffalo Wild Wings gift cards for every $250 they spend.

“We had around 15 planned parties last year and our goal for this year is 22 planned parties,” an increase of nearly 50 percent, he says.

“You need to offer incentives to cash strapped companies to have a party, and be willing to work within a budget,” Eckstein comments.

Cullen, who says Poggio Trattoria’s holiday lunch events have increased particularly sharply this year, stresses the importance of offering gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian options. She also suggests value sweeteners, such as complimentary valet parking and the decoration of private dining rooms.

And it’s not too early to start thinking about next year, she suggests. The restaurant sends out postcards mid-year to potential corporate party customers. 

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