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Party planners catering to leaner market

It's the nature of event planners to be upbeat. But there's not a lot to celebrate in 2008.

Caterers and catering halls, entertainers and photographers are seeing customers hem, haw, pinch pennies and, in some cases, postpone their big parties.

Sit-down dinners are becoming buffets, fillet-or-chicken choices are now chicken-or-fish, imported orchids are giving way to silk flowers from the dollar store.

"Everybody is being cautious,'' said Greg Casella, first vice president of the National Association of Catering Executives. Google, one of his clients, just redid the budget for a holiday party.

You know it's bad when Google is counting its nickels.

"Customers are not planning a year in advance like they used to,'' Casella said. "Things are more last-minute.

Party givers are comparison-shopping for flowers, video services and other extras — or forgoing them altogether.

"They're looking around, where a year or two ago they might go with the first person who impressed them,'' said Ashly Olivier, a wedding planner in Lakeland.

One prospective customer told Spring Hill disc jockey Marty Sullivan, "I found someone who is a deejay and can do karaoke and play the guitar, all for $400. I went, "ouch.''

Another told him she had found someone for $300, he said. "I just can't go that low."

The general consensus is that most people will not cancel a time-centered celebration; such as a Bar Mitzvah, which celebrates a Jewish child's 13th birthday; or the Latin quinceanera, a formal ball for a girl of 15.

It's how they celebrate that might change.

Rachel Mentkow of Carrollwood had her Bat Mitzvah party several years ago at the Rusty Pelican restaurant with 130 guests, a disc jockey and an open bar.

"I never knew people could drink so much at 1 o'clock in the afternoon,'' said her mother, Hilary, who paid almost $3,000 for the bar bill alone.

The family plans a simpler celebration at home for their son Jordan, who becomes a Bar Mitzvah this year.

Jordan did not want a big party, Mentkow said, "and I was relieved." Dinner will be catered, the guest list will be closer to 75, take-home gifts will be less extravagant and Mentkow is re-thinking other traditional expenditures ­— such as custom embossed skull caps for the synagogue guests.

In Town 'N Country, Harry Simon of The Event Factory is not terribly concerned about the quince events that make up 30 percent of his business.

For one thing, he said, his customers save and plan for the quince parties well in advance.

"They will make it happen for these girls,'' Simon said, "They will work with relatives in some cases. We have quinces planned into 2010.''

The Event Factory also benefits by offering all-inclusive packages with everything from food to photos, leaving relatively little for the customer to decide.

"We have a diversified product, and that's what's helped us over the years,'' he said.

The more typical celebration involves a vast menu of choices.

Sullivan is seeing weddings in unconventional locations such as VFW lodges; and disposable cameras instead of photographers.

One extra that some hosts will forego: the upgraded dining chair, which can easily add $2,000 to the cost of the event.

Another is the open bar. While a cash bar is generally frowned upon, a popular choice is beer, wine and a "signature" cocktail in a special glass.

Keep the food

At the India Cultural Center in Tampa, manager Nikunj Patel assists families who throw weddings for as many as 1,000.

He is seeing people cut decorating costs by hanging their own inexpensively bought items instead of hiring professionals.

You can use paper plates instead of china, he said, but "food you cannot cut. The most important thing in an Indian wedding is the food. If the food isn't good, people talk.''

In St. Petersburg, Gold Productions managing partner Victoria Walters is helping clients splurge selectively.

They might opt for a few "wow factors" instead of decorating the whole room, "which is something we promote to our clients anyway."

While once-in-a-lifetime events proceed as scheduled, planners are seeing a drop-off in lesser celebrations.

Anniversary parties are more likely to take place in someone's house.

And the Indian center has had two cancellations of corporate Christmas parties.

"They're giving that money to their employees instead,'' Patel said.

Who has to worry long-term?

Everybody, Casella said.

That's because families have committed to this year's events. Some took out second mortgages to pay for them. Now it's hard to get such financing, even if you want it. Instead, Casella predicts customers will shave extraneous items such as limousines and formal photo albums.

"Deejays, photographers, they're already being hit,'' said Casella. "You can put out an IPod with speakers. It's not the same thing, but you can do it.''

Marlene Sokol can be reached at 813-269-5307 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Party planners catering to leaner market 11/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 17, 2008 8:58am]
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