Companies trim holiday frivolity as the recession plays party pooper


December 02, 1990|By Mary Corey

The party's not over.

It's just losing some of its trimmings.

So say local caterers and corporations about that most hallowed of holiday events -- the all-expenses-paid, company Christmas blowout.

Say goodbye to the lobster. Sing "Auld Lang Syne" to the open bar. And don't expect the band to play on. Matter of fact, don't even expect the band.

Companies -- stung by cutbacks, layoffs and what's now being called a recession -- are cutting more than corners these days. In larger cities such as Boston and New York, some celebrations reportedly have been canceled or funded by employees. In Baltimore, however, the trend is toward creating more modest, low-key affairs.

"What companies are saying to us is that they still want to do something for employees, but they can't afford to do what they used to," says Nick Sheridan, president and owner of Cuisine Catering in Woodlawn. "There's also a sense that when companies are cutting back on employees it doesn't look right to be spending lavishly on Christmas."

Tough times have even caused Mayor Kurt Schmoke to rethink his plans. His traditional four-course, sit-down dinner for City Council members is being replaced this year by a money-saving cocktail reception, says Clint Coleman, the mayor's press secretary.

"It will be a more frugal, down-scaled celebration," he explains.

To save money, Sinai Hospital -- which recently laid off 70 full-time employees -- will twin its holiday party with a kickoff for its 125th anniversary next year.

"In better times, we might have had a separate event," says Vicki Hunter, media relations manager for Sinai.

As the economy slumped, the original budget -- set months ago -- was recently cut in half. The caterer was nixed. The professional decorator, too. And instead of two gifts, employees will now only get one, she says.

With the hospital cafeteria preparing all the food, meatballs, cheese and cookies will substitute for crab cakes, oysters and French pastries, says Bill Mitchell, food service director for the hospital.

"Obviously, we're looking for ways to streamline and cut costs," Ms. Hunter explains. "We're maximizing the fewer dollars in every way we can."

For many caterers, these scaled-down parties have come as no surprise. Many saw the trend begin shortly after the stock market crash of 1987.

"In the last couple of years, there have been less dollars spent on entertainment in corporations," says Rick Smith, president of Dinner at Eight, a Chicago-based advisory firm for the catering and food service industries.

PTC One thing that has definitely changed in the past few years has been the image of these events. "The Christmas party of old where . . . you would have three drinks and tell your boss what you think of him is gone," he says.

Caterers, however, are now faced with the challenge of providing the maximum of cheer with a minimum of dollars. Their suggestions often include everything from narrowing guest lists and serving smaller portions to shortening receptions and canceling entertainment.

When Charles Levine, president and owner of Charles Levine Caterers, was recently asked to reduce the budget for a local defense company's party, he shaved dollars off the per-head cost by removing lobster from the seafood salad and exchanging duck for veal in the main course. At the last minute, another company -- a wholesale automotive group -- asked to change a buffet dinner into a simple lunch with cider, wine and beer.

The uncertain economy and belt-tightening by corporate party-givers has altered how he conducts business, he says. "You're moving faster to get the deal," Mr. Levine says. "I personally take more calls now, and I'm more aggressive to stay on top on things."

Decorations and entertainment have been among the first areas companies have trimmed. "In the past, companies would spend $40 to $60 a centerpiece," he says. "Now it's 20 or 30 [dollars]."

Several prominent banks are saving money this year by holding bashes in their offices, offering only beer and wine and using few, if any, tuxedo-clad waiters, says Blake Goldsmith, owner of Fiske Caterers and the Grand Caterers. "They're clearly looking to scale back. . . . But it would be ridiculous to say it's gone to chips and pretzels."

Some companies, in fact, are proceeding with plans they made in more fiscally prosperous days. There will still be a harp playing and a menu of ginger shrimp wontons, capon with Gruyere cheese and pasta with salmon when Image Dynamics, a public relations and advertising firm, holds is holiday party for 26 employees at Government House later this month.

"We're fortunate that we made changes that left us in a position to be able to do this," says Barbara Brotman Kaylor, executive vice president. "It's a tradition and a morale booster."

But the no-holds-barred fete awash with Beluga caviar and Dom Perignon that employees in bigger cities are now lamenting was simply never Baltimore's style, Mr. Levine says.

"Caviar? Champagne?" he says. "Come on, this is Baltimore."

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