Office Christmas and holiday parties, a common casualty of the recent recession, appear to be coming back into fashion in the Capital Region.
Matt Mazzone, chief financial officer of Glen Sanders Mansion in Scotia and several other venues operated by his family including the Hall of Springs in Saratoga Springs, said the business for holiday parties cratered when the financial crisis hit.
“In 2008, the parties just stopped. There would be companies that had booked parties and three or four weeks before they would just cancel them because they didn’t want to have the perception that they were wasting money,” he said.
Several local venues report the business from office parties dropped by as much as 30 percent in 2008. Since then companies have slowly returned to their annual traditions of rewarding employees with an office Christmas party.
Mazzone said holiday party business at his restaurants rose about 10 percent last year and are on track for a 15 to 20 percent gain this year.
“We were actually getting worried because companies weren’t booking with us, but the last three weeks have just been crazy,” he said in mid-November. “I think companies have realized they were doing a little bit better this year and that they do want to thank their employees. Now we’ve had to close out some dates because we can’t take any more business.”
After Thanksgiving, The Desmond in Albany transforms into a Christmas-themed village, complete with Christmas trees throughout its courtyard and hundreds of poinsettias.
Desmond Director of Sales Jon Stultz said Christmas party business at his hotel has remained strong throughout the recession and he’s forecasting a slight increase in business for this year.
“We continue to provide that grand atmosphere that seems to have helped our business be maintained probably more than some of our competitors,” he said. “We find this creates the setting people want to come to and the investment draws business to the hotel.” Stultz said one trend he’s noticed is that while some corporations have dropped their office parties, sometimes the employees themselves will still gather and hold their own parties.
Rick Treacy, owner and executive chef of Michael’s Banquet House in Cohoes, said his business has had to innovate to make up for the 30 percent dip in business he’s lost from corporate, state and county office parties. He said he’s opened up December as a non-prime wedding period and booked several weddings. His venue also hosts a general holiday party where individuals and companies can buy tickets.
“If an office party of 20 can’t afford their own band or their own venue they can still come to a nice Christmas party and it will be all inclusive,” he said. “Our venue here is a little different than some places in that typically when someone books here they get the whole restaurant, they get the whole facility. Some of our neighbors will book a single room for smaller parties; we don’t do that as a rule, so we produced this one holiday party for smaller companies and individuals.”
The holiday party at Michael’s Banquet House this year is Rat Pack-themed; tickets for the Dec. 17 affair cost $50 for dinner and all of the activities or $20 for just the musical show plus dessert and dancing.
To booze or not to booze
One of the key issues involved with throwing or hosting a holiday office party is whether or not to allow alcohol. While the popular cable TV show “Mad Men” has introduced new generations to the 1960s office culture that included a wet bar in every executive’s office, the realities of providing alcohol to employees and co-workers present both economic and legal challenges.
Connie Slocum, director of event management for The Desmond, said more and more events are going the cash bar route to limit cost and liability.
Holiday parties, or any kind of event really, are trending away from open bars. There was a time when people would never think of having a cash bar at a wedding, but now we’re finding many weddings are deciding that it’s not about the drinking and many holiday parties are following suit with that,” she said.
Treacy said providing alcohol at an office party can as much as double the cost of the event for a company. He said many of his customers have switched to either a cash bar, no alcohol at all or providing two-drink maximum tickets for events.
Mazzone said he thinks the fear regarding serving alcohol peaked between 2002 and 2006 and now appears to be diminishing. He said whenever he provides alcohol to a party located at a customer’s company he has to apply for special permits.
“They are absorbing some of the liability because they are the property owner, but we have to have all of the certifications and the licensing and the insurance to allow us to provide alcohol at any of these events, so we have liquor liability coverage for anything we do,” he said.
Mazzone said he mitigates risk by making sure all of his employees are “TIPS” certified, which means they’ve received Training for Intervention Procedures which teach how to cut off drinking for someone who’s too drunk. He said he thinks attitudes have begun to change again about alcohol at office parties.
“In the society that we live in, anybody can get sued for anything. The way we get around it is we train our staff to responsible serving. They are trained to know when to stop serving people,” he said. “The companies that dropped alcohol for liability reasons aren’t coming back to it but a lot of new companies aren’t saying they don’t want alcohol at their events.
It’s not as much of a hot button as it used to be.”