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Partying Like It’s 2019

By Kathy Gibbons

Holiday gatherings are making a comeback.

They’re back. We’re talking about business-sponsored holiday parties. They may not look quite the same, but a sampling of what’s happening in different spots around the United States indicates that after the drought that was the holiday season 2020 and a testing of the gathering waters in 2021, people are partying again.

“People are looking for a celebratory experience,” says Marisa Malgieri, director of sales for First Batch Hospitality, which is based in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Malgieri says First Batch has seen increased holiday bookings across the board. “They want big parties with fun entertainment, and January holiday parties are still in demand. We’re excited to say that we’re having our best year for holiday parties ever.”

Peggy Morrissey, owner of the Warehouse XI event space in Somerville, Massachusetts, also says seasonal bookings are up. Daniel Kelch of Core & Rind Hospitality, which owns Five & Dime and several other event spaces in Evanston, Illinois, reports business being heavier this season, too. “It’s been very busy this Christmas season,” he says. “We’re really fully booked out—much, much busier. It’s a good thing.”

Kelch says that he used to see more corporate holiday events at lunchtime. That’s not as prevalent right now. “We have lost some of that because the offices are at 50% t capacity,” he says. “The workers are still working from home, so we’re not back to full capacity and that affected the lunch trade. The number of lunches and catering—not just on premise, but office get-togethers we would have catered into their business has lagged.”

Melody Corvalán, director of catering and conference services at the Bahia Resort Hotel in San Diego, California, says business has been different, but brisk. Going into the season, she says, the rate of bookings wasn’t as high as she would have expected. But between October and December, people started making reservations, maybe waiting to see what conditions might be given the economy and COVID-19. And then when they did book, they loosened the purse strings.

“This year we weren’t as busy as last year as far as the number of events we had,” she says. “However, the quality of the events made more revenue than last year. What I saw this year was that those who did have parties had bigger budgets and decided to spend more on their employees.”

On the other hand, a few clients who regularly held holiday parties for their workers stopped having them. “We have seen a few drop off and not return,” Corvalán says. “And then when reaching out to them, they said, ‘We’re just not having holiday parties anymore.’ … It’s either we’re going to really go all out or we’re not having it at all. There’s kind of nothing in between.”

Malgieri says District Winery has been hosting larger parties, typically between 200 and 300 people. A few clients bought out the entire space. Typically, invited employees were encouraged to bring a spouse or other guest. As for formats, Malgieri says that cocktail parties and “fun food stations” have been common elements of the gatherings. Live music and other entertainment has also been in demand. “People also want some type of activation involved,” Malgieri says. “For us, our guests are interested in our wine-and-cheese walkabout and our wine games … they want fun, less formal parties.”

Morrissey reports seeing more interest in cocktail-style parties than formal sit-down dinners. And instead of an appetizer table, planners were ordering strolling appetizers. Karaoke has also been a popular element for some events, she adds. 

Corvalán describes an “around the world” theme as being both elaborate and popular with her clients. In one situation, Bahia’s entire Mission Bay Ballroom, which holds more than 500 people, was reserved for such an event that had just 200 attendees. But it didn’t feel like the space was too big for the crowd.

“They had such elaborate setups,” Corvalán explains. “Every food station had both music and decor that matched a country. They had a Japan, with cherry blossoms and a whole sushi display and sake pairing. Then you would walk a few feet, and they had a French-themed section that had a bunch of French pastries and desserts, and champagne and rose [wine].” Other elements included a Chinese dragon performance, African dancers, and a mariachi band.

It’s all made for a whirlwind season. Corvalán, who was laid off from a previous job as a result of the pandemic and was so happy to land in her current position, says she has been working hard—and glad for it.

“I’m happy to still be in weddings and events and happy to see companies are still investing in their team members and producing these events,” she says. “Even though the workplace has shifted to more remote and online meetings, they are still gathering and celebrating and showing this investment for their team members.”