Who's Having Holiday Parties, and Who Isn't

December 5, 2001, 12:00 AM EST

Who's Having Holiday Parties, and Who Isn't

By Chad Kaydo

The staff at Bon Appetit magazine--a group that should know about good food and parties--has seen its share of holiday blowouts. One year the gourmands took over a SoHo loft and feasted on food from Bobby Flay, and they went to the Russian Tea Room the year it reopened. This year they're staying in, though, opting for the much-fussed-over Conde Nast cafeteria, where they'll nibble comfort foods like chili and macaroni and cheese.

After years of splurging on lavish events that have given the special event industry a nice end-of-the-year bonus, many companies are now cutting back on--or completely cancelling--their holiday parties. The September 11 terrorist attacks and the faltering economy have left many people wondering about the appropriateness of such celebrations, and others are simply unable to afford them. “Everyone is watching their pennies,” says Patrick Ieva, vice president of sales and marketing for Tavern on the Green and the Russian Tea Room.

MTV Networks cancelled plans for a holiday blowout at Hammerstein Ballroom, and both Tommy Hilfiger USA and Estee Lauder are donating money to September 11 relief efforts in lieu of corporate holiday events. Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator publisher M. Shanken--whose publications glorify expensive wines and cigars--is giving employees an extra day off instead of a party, as are business publishing giant VNU-USA (who took everyone to Tavern on the Green last year) and glossy publisher Hachette Filipacchi (who went to the Plaza
in 2000).

But the predominant reaction to the holiday party conundrum is to have a party that is scaled back in tone or budget, or both. Instead of the karaoke party Glamour editors had at Moomba last year (picture junior staffers belting Britney Spears), they're having cocktails in the upstairs loft space at Fressen, where they'll mix with the ad sales folks this year. Similarly, Conde Nast Traveller will also combine its ad and edit staffs at a low-key party at Man Ray.

Revlon will hold a morning company meeting at the Florence Gould Center in the French Institute, where CEO Ron Perelman will address the state of the company, and employees will toast at a champagne breakfast. Afterwards, staffers will walk back to work in their nearby headquarters. Compare that to years past, when Revlon hosted nighttime holiday parties with dancing at Webster Hall and the Copacabana. “They're generally more rock-n-roll,” Joan Horton, Revlon's vice president of corporate events, told us. This year she's shopping for decorations herself, and she plans to have employees take Polaroids of each other and put them on the wall at the motivation-minded party. “It's about the employees, about the people,” she said.

Last year Smart Money staffers went to Flute for drinks and hors d'oeuvres, then headed to a party in someone's apartment; this year they're just going to the apartment party. The production company behind Sally Jessy Raphael and Maury Povich's talk shows is having a toned-down two-hour cocktail party at Serena. Last year struggling cable network Oxygen Media had its party in the Chelsea Market downstairs in its building; this year employees will move upstairs to their own studio for its party. Calvin Klein is staying in-house, too.

Larger parties with entertainment and decor are looking more traditional than in years past. You probably won't see a tropical-themed party with Santa in a Hawaiian shirt this year, for example. For some companies, the perception is more important than the price. Vendors tell us that some clients are putting on events designed not to look over-the-top, but they're paying just as much as they have before. “Even when clients can afford to do things, they want to make sure what they're doing is politically correct and not perceived as insensitive,” says Richard Blau, president of Chez-zam Entertainment Group, which is working on parties for Cablevision, Computer Associates and Lehman Brothers. Clients are requesting traditional entertainment, like carolers and a cappella groups, and some have asked to have the national anthem played before the CEO makes remarks.

According to a survey of 150 American companies held in November by executive search firm Battalia Winston, 83 percent of companies will have a holiday party this year, down from 92 percent last year. Half of respondents said the economy caused them to change their plans, although only 18 percent of them cancelled their events. And 26 percent said the September 11 terrorist attacks had influenced them to change plans, with 66 percent of those respondents saying they had opted for smaller gatherings. Meanwhile, several event vendors say New York companies are more likely to change their holiday plans because their employees are more likely to be directly affected by the September 11 attacks.

Many companies are also waiting until the last minute to decide what to do; after cancelling its big annual bash, one publisher was still mulling over different options last week. And an event manager at a downtown lounge told us she has had lots of clients calling to find out rates and available dates, but after the proposals are done and ready to be signed, most of them cancel.
But venues aren't empty. They're just not packing in two or three parties per day, as some locations did last year. Both Hearst Magazines and NBC are going back to Tavern on the Green after hosting events there last year, and the Russian Tea Room is hosting Reuters and a number of pharmaceutical companies. Sapient Corporation is headed to the Metropolitan Pavilion, with catering by The Catering Company. The Conde Nast corporate communications department is having its own event at Aquavit, and Lucky magazine is headed to the newly revamped Serena (which just reopened this past Friday, and is hosting Elite Models' holiday bash, too).

Like the Bon Appetit staffers, many partygoers will be sampling comfort food items. “I've had several requests for pigs in a blanket,” Matthew Kenney's Olivier Cheng told us. Tentation, who is catering holiday-time events for clients including Coach and Viacom, reports a run on traditional, homey menus including cornbread muffins, hearty stews and carving stations, and comfort food items like macaroni and cheese and mini hamburgers. One current favorite: “I Love New York” cookies.

Events are more likely to be soothing than sexy. Liz Seccuro at Creative Edge Parties says she's seeing lots of peaceful, all-white decor, and traditional holiday music (think Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra). Mark Sonder of Mark Sonder Music Booking & Production has booked a special holiday act with 50's groups for four New York companies holding parties for 200 to 500 people, including two financial firms.

Barkley Kalpak Associates' Corrie Cooper says clients including a large pharmaceutical company have booked a show called “Broadway Celebrates America” that incorporates patriotic and holiday music and stresses the good parts of the holiday season in New York. ”[Planners] are trying to create an atmosphere where people are feeling comfortable,” she says.

Henri Bendel has booked Pink Inc.'s campy Fortunettes group, but the company's Hourglass Divas--who can perform graceful, calming movements in fabric sculpture costumes--have been a more popular holiday choice for clients including WKTU radio, who is holding its event at the Art Directors Club. And price, of course, is an issue. ”[Customers] are asking for cheap things,” the company's Daniel Nardicio told us. “Everyone's haggling like I've never seen before.”

Posted 12.05.01

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