The rotten economy may be forcing employers to become Scrooges when it comes to holiday parties this year, but restaurant operators across the country are offering packages and incentives to appeal to those who must cut back on spending.
Arecent survey of human resource executives across the country found that only about 67 percent of employers planned to hold some sort of year-end holiday celebration this year, down from 81 percent last year, according to BNA, a publisher of business news.
The number of employers planning to sponsor a companywide party where employees gather at a single location was expected to drop from 64 percent last year to 50 percent this year, BNA said, and such parties were more likely to be restricted to employees only. Only 47 percent of those surveyed said they would open their parties to spouses or other guests, compared with 55 percent last year.
The findings were similar to those of casual-dining company McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurants, which also surveyed employers of small businesses earlier this year.
In November, McCormick & Schmick’s predicted that holiday bookings would be up this year, compared with the cancelled or downsized celebrations of 2008.
The Portland, Ore.-based chain said 52 percent of respondents to their survey were planning to host holiday parties for their employees, but the budgets for those celebrations would be a bit more modest. About 31 percent of those surveyed said they were likely to spend $30 or more per employee on their holiday party this year; 24 percent said $50 or more; and 12 percent planned to spend less than $20 per person.
To help employers find a party that fit into their budget, the chain this year is offering a package on Sundays through Thursdays featuring a three-course meal with beverage for $26.95 per person. The package includes a $20 dining certificate for all party guests, good for a return visit in 2010.
In Las Vegas, the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group is offering 25 percent off holiday party bookings of 20 or more in the company’s fine dining restaurants there, including Spago, Cut and Postrio.
Holiday bookings are going strong, even without discounts, for ThinkFoodGroup, the Washington, D.C.-based operator of chef Jose Andres’ restaurants, including Jaleo and Cafe Atlantico.
However, events manager Hillary Patriquin said more guests are booking lunches, rather than reserving the restaurant for evening events, and parties tend to be smaller, with fewer than 50 guests, rather than the 100 to 200 guest extravaganzas of past years.
“We’re also seeing more last minute bookings and people who are shopping around,” Patriquin said.
Still, those who are booking are spending about the same per person as in past years, she added.
The restaurants’ common theme of small plates that can be shared is a draw for guests who don’t want to be pinned down by the more traditional appetizer-entree-dessert setup, Patriquin said.
“Small plates are more festive,” she said.
Joseph Bastianich, a partner in high-end New York restaurants such as Del Posto, Esca, Otto and Babbo, saw an opportunity for making it easier for consumers to plan private parties with the launch of a new booking website.
Called DinePrivate.com, the booking system allows guests to search for a private dining space and compare pricing and features at some of the city’s most renowned venues. Similar to OpenTable or other Web-based reservation systems, DinePrivate.com allows guests to book the room without having to wait for a call back from an event coordinator.
Bastianich partnered with Jeff Zalaznick, founder and editor-in-chief of AlwaysHungryNY.com, to create the site. So far, only about 20 restaurants are participating on the site, Daniel, Craft and BLT Steak. However, Zalaznick predicts the website will feature about 50 New York restaurants by January, and they hope to take the booking service national in 2010.
For the holiday season this year, Zalaznick said the participating restaurants so far have seen a lot more last-minute bookings.
“People are definitely having private events, but they’re being more careful and price shopping,” he said.
Katie Grieco, vice president of operations for New York-based Craft Restaurants, said the company's three restaurants with private dining in New York -- Craft, CraftSteak and Craftbar -- were booked every night from Dec. 1 through Dec. 19, with bookings continuing through Dec. 21.
For those parties, however, check averages were generally not as high as in pre-recession days, she added.
"People aren't spending as much on wine or they're choosing cocktail parties, which are less expensive, rather than sit-down dinners," Grieco said.
The company offered no specific incentives for booking holiday parties this year, but Grieco said they were willing to compromise on the minimum sales requirement. On any certain night, if the room generally had a $4,000 minimum to book, Grieco said they were willing at times to drop the minimum to $3,000, for example.
"Better to fill the room," she said.
Other restaurant chains are offering value-positioned holiday buffet packages for holiday parties in offices or homes.
Golden, Colo.-based Boston Market has several party plan options available at the chain's 519 units. Prices start at $9.99 per person.
Centerpiece options include boneless roasted turkey breast, boneless ham and beef brisket with sides. Guests also can choose whether they want the meal delivered hot within three hours of ordering, or dishes that can be reheated and served.
“Celebrating the holidays with friends and colleagues is a cherished way for people to mark the year’s end,” said Lane Cardwell, Boston Market's chief executive. “The convenience, quality and affordability of our catered holiday buffets and Heat & Serve Banquet options make this possible, even for those that are striving to spend less on parties this time of year.”
Baton Rouge, La.-based Piccadilly Restaurants is also offering a holiday to-go package, which can be ordered online. Each meal feeds eight to 10 people and includes the choice of turkey or ham, two sides, a dozen rolls, and pumpkin or pecan pie. The turkey package is $59.95, and the ham package is $49.95. Guests also can order side items a la carte, or add another turkey or ham for $24.95. The offer is available until Jan. 1.
Piccadilly operates about 120 locations, mostly in the Southeastern U.S.