2 years after crash, consumers open wallets

Toasting holiday cheer

By Donna Goodison

It’s party time, again.

After two years in which the Great Recession reined in holiday parties, companies are more spirited about their celebrations for the coming season.

Early bookings are on the rebound and, while companies remain cautious, they’ve loosened the purse strings and are less price-sensitive than in 2008 and 2009.

“This year it’s much more relaxed,” said Ron Leduc, chief operating officer of DePasquale Ventures, which hosts employee holiday parties at its Umbria Prime restaurant for financial companies, including Liberty Mutual, and law firms such as Ropes & Gray. “The economy is coming around a little bit, and we’re finding out that people are getting back into the way it was a couple of years ago.”

The financial collapse of Wall Street proved to be a party pooper for holiday celebrations in 2008. Companies scaled back their events – and in some cases even canceled them to show fiscal restraint and avoid appearances of extravagance.

Companies were in a better mood to celebrate last year, when holiday bookings picked up, even while a more economical and last-minute approach to parties prevailed.

Last year, Umbria managers had to come up with creative menus to accommodate shrinking budgets for customers that still wanted to host holiday gatherings, but didn’t have a ton of money to foot the bills. They cut back on courses, served hors d’oeuvres instead of meals and eliminated open bars. Holiday parties became more like holiday socials.

“They did want to do something, but they didn’t want to spend $55 to $85 per person for a four-course, sit-down meal,” Leduc said. “Last year, it was more, ‘Hey, appreciate that we’re having the party, and if you want to drink, it’s all on you.’ This year we’re not seeing that.”

And this year, companies are planning parties that celebrate their employees rather than their revenue, according to Catherine Chaulet, senior vice president of Best of Boston, an event planning firm.

“It’s not lavish, it’s conservative, but it’s definitely focused on employee recognition,” Chaulet said. “There’s a lot of effort to thank employees.”

Many venues, meanwhile, are saying thank-yous to companies, offering incentives if they reserve space for holiday parties early or just to entice business.

The Lyons Group-run Towne Stove and Spirits, Scampo and Sonsie are offering 10 percent off room rentals and 10 percent rebates in the form of gift cards for contracts signed before Oct. 8. And all Summer Shack locations are cutting $100 from final food and beverage bills for every $1,000 spent for parties in December and January.

“This year we’re seeing people book with a little more confidence,” said Adam Sperling, general manager of Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square. “I’ve had bookings in September, which is great for us. It’s still on sort of a downscaled mode, but not quite as cautious as it was in 2008.”

Bakers’ Best catering in Newton last year got late bookings and saw clients forgoing extravagant parties in hotels in favor of office parties with hors d’oeuvres. The catering company also did a lot of food drop-offs for companies who passed on hiring chefs and servers.

This year, though, Bakers’ Best is getting earlier bookings and already has closed out some days.

“We’ve seen a couple of recessions, and this one has lasted a little bit longer, but things seem to be on the uptick,” owner Michael Baker said. “It definitely seems like things are loosening up in the corporate world a bit. People are paying attention to what they’re ordering, but they’re a little freer about ordering higher-end food compared to last year.”

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