by Martha Cooke | December 01, 2003
Economic forecasts are trending upward, a shift reflected by the widespread, if still cautious, return of corporate holiday merry-making.
   “We are seeing guarded optimism,” said Sam Bonfe, director of sales/catering at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, D.C. In some cases, he said, individual departments are going ahead and throwing a bash just for their workers, in the absence of a companywide shindig.
   But hotels aren’t fully decking their halls just yet. “Companies are still in the deciding mode,” said Joanne Brooks, president of the Creative Impact Group in Deerfield, Ill., pointing to the last-minute nature of much of this year’s holiday bookings. She also estimated a 50-50 split between on- and off-site gatherings in and around her Chicago-area headquarters.
   “I’m finding people want to hold parties in their office lobbies,” said Josie Littlepage, president and owner of St. Louis-based Cosmopolitan Events. “They’re keeping it intimate, but at least they’re having parties again, which is a big change from last year.”
   Off-site parties are smaller as well, providing a boon for boutique properties, according to Andrew Freeman, vice president, restaurant sales and marketing, for San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. His company’s downtown hotels are picking up holiday business, often in their restaurants or lounge areas, he said.
   Larger hotels, meanwhile, struggled to fill holiday holes as of November. “We are about $200,000 behind where we should be for December,” said Vince Fattore, associate director of catering at the 1,209-room Sheraton Chicago. “Companies are scaling back so far, they are hitting hotels they would never fit into before.”
   Companies also are cutting costs by holding lunch events or cocktail hours instead of dinners. “Every person who has called me has accented strongly the fact that they are on a very tight budget,” said event planner Josie Littlepage. To accommodate clients, she suggests receptions with passed hors d’ouevres or appetizer stations, which can be staffed more lightly than carving stations.
   Firms also gave decor budgets a nip and tuck this year, said Monica Antola, account executive at Los Angeles-based EventWorks. “We see a trend toward a generic party with less emphasis, if any, on decor.”