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Taking stock of New Year's Eve sales

The poor economy has some organizers wondering if even $10 is more than some people are willing to pay for a First Night button.

The poor economy has some organizers wondering if even $10 is more than some people are willing to pay for a First Night button.

Pat Mason isn't sure how big a crowd to expect tonight at St. Petersburg's annual First Night celebration.

At $10, the price seems right, she says.

But Mason, who has organized the event since it started in 1993, also knows a sagging economy may mean even $10 is too much.

"I have a feeling we're going to have absolutely perfect weather," Mason said. "We will have thousands of people downtown. Whether they will buy a $10 First Night button is a different question. The economy may dictate that people enjoy the outdoor activities and stay away from the indoor ones."

While New Year's Eve reveling likely isn't recession-proof, local businesses and event organizers say they're unsure how much less money will be spent ringing in 2009.

Most believe people will delicately balance partying and saving, rejoicing in the new year and recounting their pennies.

In that way, tonight will be reflective of the new American Way — a form of pragmatism born out of the instability of the stock market, banks, taxes, property insurance, gasoline and cars.

"We know the economy is affecting the choices people make," says Gina Morales, a spokeswoman with the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa. "But we also know people are looking for fun, and we're expecting a packed house."

Morales said Tuesday that just three of the hotel's 250 rooms remain available. The casino is preparing a party — open to guests and visitors — that will include champagne and a 6,000-balloon ball drop.

Restaurants surviving

Across the bay, executives at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort say bookings for dinner and parties aren't far off from last year. The second seating for dinner at Marchand's, the resort's upscale restaurant, is sold out, said director of operations Doug Fisher.

There's more good news for local restaurateurs.

Malio's Prime Steakhouse in Tampa is fully booked. Bern's business in Tampa will be as brisk as 2007. Armani's at the Tampa Hyatt has limited seats available for its $125 per person, four-course meal. And at Café Ponte in Clearwater, general manager Patrick Shepherd is pleasantly surprised with the New Year's Eve outlook.

"Things are down maybe a little bit," said Shepherd, who is still accepting reservations for a $75 per person dinner. "But it's not as bad as I anticipated. Actually, we're pretty happy."

No sparks elsewhere

The people running those circus-like fireworks tents tell the opposite story.

Managers of the tents along Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa feel like they're on a tightrope when it comes to meeting their budgets this year.

"I'm waiting to see what it'll do today and tomorrow because it's not been that good," said Heather Huffman, manager of a Crazy Dave's Fireworks tent at the corner of Columbus Drive.

They have a buy-one-get-one free offer to drum up sales on fireworks, which cost anywhere from $4 to $250.

Across the parking lot, Bobby Burmaster, manager of the Universal Fireworks tent, said he also expected sales to be better after such a successful July 4 holiday. "It's a lot slower," he said.

Also unusual this year, he said, is that many customers are shopping around before they return to buy. Fireworks tend to be impulse buys.

Pitching a bargain

A New Year's Eve night out will still cost a pretty penny. Hard Rock's Naughty New Year private party costs $75; the Florida Aquarium's swanky soiree costs $100 (tickets for both are still available).

But, with the state of the economy in mind, some businesses in the Tampa Bay area and nationwide are keeping an eye on costs.

In years past, admission to the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas would cost about $100. This year, the New Year's Eve party is free to Nevada residents and $20 for everyone else.

In Los Angeles, a club that had considered charging $200 for admission, will instead charge $50, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Locally, many clubs and bars are offering free drinks or hors d'oeuvres. Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg is promoting its New Year's concert with a champagne toast at midnight and a buffet from Harvey's 4th Street Grill (tickets $39.99).

Mason, the organizer of St. Petersburg's First Night, said a good deal gives her event a chance tonight.

"I've gotten a couple of e-mails from people who have looked at our Web site and wondered if all you need is one $10 button, because that seems too good to be true," Mason said.

"That's what I love to hear."

Times staff writer Justin George contributed to this report.

Taking stock of New Year's Eve sales 12/30/08 [Last modified: Friday, January 2, 2009 1:24am]
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