Feature Article:  Holiday Practices

Beat the Recession:

Downturn prompting incentives to land holiday parties


The Business Journal - by Kathy Bergstrom
Link to Article at Bizjournals.com

Milwaukee-area hotels and event venues have rolled out incentives and creative packages to entice local businesses to schedule holiday parties at their facilities this year.

Managers say they’re not seeing the party cancellations that occurred last year as the economic downturn was hitting hard, but businesses booking parties want value. Most companies have booked their holiday parties by now, but many managers said they still have openings in December and January.

The Milwaukee Marriott West is offering $25 guestroom rates for attendees of corporate holiday parties booked at the Pewaukee hotel.

The hotel wants to promote a safe environment and also provide an incentive for companies to choose the hotel, said Keith Kramar, Milwaukee Marriott general manager. The hotel’s holiday party business will be a little better than 2008, but still below pre-recession levels, he said.

Cost-cutting options companies are considering include scaling back the menu, limiting the number of drinks per person, cutting back on appetizers or using the hotel’s restaurant or private dining rooms for smaller parties, Kramar said.

Marcus Hotels and Resorts, which owns the Hilton Milwaukee City Center, InterContinental and Pfister hotels in downtown Milwaukee, predicts the hotels’ holiday party business will be flat compared with last year.

Marcus is offering a $25 gift card for its restaurants for every attendee of a holiday party booked by companies in their event rooms, said Peggy Williams-Smith, Marcus’ corporate director of catering.

Companies that book events in one of the hotels’ restaurants receive $75 in gift cards for each attendee.

Marcus also held the “World’s Largest Holiday Party” Dec. 3 at the Hilton. Guests paid $10 if they made a toy donation to Toys for Tots.

“We thought it would be a nice option for people who still want the feeling of a holiday party,” Williams-Smith said.

Zilli Hospitality Group also is offering incentives for events booking at Zilli Lake and Garden, which includes Coast, the Miller Room and Harbor Lights downtown. It is located in downtown Milwaukee near Lake Michigan.

Incentives included price reductions on dinner menus to “show that we understand what’s going on with the economy and that we’re here to help,” said Paul Raasch, Coast’s general manager. “We gain exposure to our space. They see that we are doing something on our end to combat the economy.”

Coast also is offering a communal holiday party Dec. 18 featuring live entertainment for companies that might not be able to afford booking their own party.

Venue rental fees for Zilli Lake and Garden, which range from $1,500 to $3,000, also are waived for events that book in January through March.

One of the challenges to cutting costs at a holiday party is making sure employees don’t feel less appreciated, said Stefanie Meyers, director of human resources for CG Schmidt Inc. The Milwaukee general contractor wanted to cut costs during the recession, but didn’t want to provide a lower quality dinner, she said. Instead the company changed its annual January dinner party to a brunch.

“We thought if we changed the entire venue it would let them know that we still appreciate them,” she said.

Employees appreciate being valued, but don’t want to see fiscally wasteful parties, particularly if their employers had pay reductions or work force cuts, said Jessica Ollenburg, chief executive officer of HRS Inc., a Waukesha human resources consulting firm.

Milwaukee start-up firm Spreenkler LLC, a creative services agency, will combine its employee holiday party in January with a client appreciation party, said Steve Glynn, president of the firm.

Local hotels, caterers and event venues are trying these strategies to entice companies to schedule their holiday parties:

  • Provide gifts or benefits for attendees: Promotions include discounted hotel rooms and restaurant gift cards.
  • Organize communal parties: Schedule holiday parties that can include employees from multiple companies.
  • Customize events: Work with companies to design a menu or event that will fit their budgets.
Publication December 11, 2009