Hotel Strategies for Hosting Holiday Events
Seasonal party pros offer planning and execution advice.
The official holiday season is still a few months away, but September is typically a time when hotels ramp up their plans to host holiday groups in December and early January. In many cases, budgets determine which companies can book earlier in the year—and stake the premium event space at a hotel with preferred dates and times—and which ones have to wait until September or later to find out what kind of party they can afford.
Most of these gatherings are variations on an end-of-year office party, usually held in December. Approximately 80% or more technically fall under social bookings, even though they’re populated by corporate clients. Events that are more holiday specific—Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve/Day—contribute as well.
Depending on location, December parties can be a noticeable slice of revenue for banquets and catering annually (anywhere from 15% to 30%) and they’re also a high-profile opportunity to impress the client, encouraging them to book business meetings in the future.
We talked to three seasonal party pros with more than 45 years combined experience: Tiffany Rea, director of meetings and events, La Cantera Resort & Spa, San Antonio, Texas; Sydney Waisanen, market director of catering sales for Marcus Hotels & Resorts, based in Milwaukee; and Anjali Bakmeijer, director of catering and convention services, Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort, Curaçao.
Here, they offer advice for planning and hosting holiday parties and also how to generate new business while keeping longtime clients happy.
Booking and Budgets
Communicate to clients that early commitments for December parties—preferably in Q1 of the year—will ensure those customers have their pick of the hotel’s best event spaces and dates. However, since the downturn, many businesses are cautious about budgeting “recreational” money early in the year, so it’s important to keep those clients on the radar. “A lot of people wait until September or October, but if they wait too long the best spaces and dates are already filled,” Rea says. “Our team starts in the summer to convey a sense of urgency to get them to book earlier.”
Bakmeijer adds that they “offer special discounts for clients that book parties on weeknights in December, and also weekday lunch parties as an option for those booking late in the season with extremely tight budgets.”
All three of our experts say offering an alternative location for a group in case of poor weather or other unforeseen challenge is an absolute must, and also a way to keep longtime clients from becoming bored with the same environment each year. They advise utilizing your entire property indoors and outdoors, from parking lots, golf courses, helipads, beaches, and more. Younger clients in particular will appreciate the non-traditional sites.
Menus and Mingling
Unless the client specifies they want a seated, plated, multi-course meal, offer an environment that fosters mingling and a festive vibe, with action and cocktail stations, family-style service, games, music, and more. “A lot of our clients are choosing interactive stations and customizing them based on their party theme. For example, we had a company choose a Latin theme for their holiday party, so they had Latin stations with Cuban-style rice, quesadillas, and several different tequilas,” Bakmeijer says.
Simple comfort food is also popular and easy to eat in a reception-style setup. “It doesn’t always have to be filet mignon to signify the party is important. You can do something like a flavorful short rib, for example, that has wide appeal yet isn’t fussy,” notes Waisanen.
Less Is More For Décor
Christmas trees with red and green tinsel might be considered old-school, although they still have a place in more traditional holiday events. All three of our experts say whatever theme you choose, less is more when it comes to décor, with accents and touches rather than an overbearing motif. “There are ways to incorporate holiday décor without screaming holiday,” says Rea. “You wouldn’t want a Valentine’s Day party where the room was plastered with hearts, and the same applies to December events. You want décor that livens up the room. It could be something like premium linen, candles, colored lighting, or a thoughtful floral centerpiece on each table.”
While clients and their budgets ultimately determine what décor adorns their parties, Waisanen adds that you can turn something like a high-quality centerpiece into a raffle prize that incorporates it deeper into the event. Overall, all three experts say you must show value for the money spent by a client on décor, food, and location, as corporate budgets are tight, and they want to feel like they’re getting the most for their spend. This can be something as simple as a take-home gift bag for each attendee.
Make New Friends, But Keep The Old
Waisanen says approximately 80% of their holiday business is from repeat clients, but they never stop prospecting for new partners. Rea advises to “use your existing client base to connect to their clients, and inquire about their interest in a holiday party at your hotel. Also, build on your existing corporate relationships. Tell them, ‘We love having you here in February and May for meetings. What do you do for the holidays?’
“Come up with creative promotions and marketing of your holiday program so you have something to present to new clients that’s catchy and memorable,” Rea continues. “Finally, talk to your individual business travelers during the year. They can spread the word at their companies that your hotel would be a great place to have their holiday party.”
Oh, What A Night
The potential for guests having “one too may”—especially in a corporate crowd letting off a year’s worth of steam among their peers—is a holiday party reality. While our experts disagree whether a cash bar is an enabler or a deterrent to excessive drinking, they all agree a rooms package for attendees is the smartest way to ensure everyone goes home sober.
“We promote a ‘take the elevator home’ option to clients, and we offer a great rate that includes breakfast the next morning,” explains Bakmeijer. “It’s extra revenue for us, but also less worry for them. You want everyone leaving the party with the same integrity they came in with, so they’ll return next year.”