If these were the olden days — okay, last year — downtown Tampa would be kicking off the season of big holiday bashes right about now.
Law firms would have invited clients to swanky dos with catered canapes and live music. Downtown high-rises would host breakfasts of benedicts and bagels for their tenants. Restaurants and hotels would spill over with back-to-back fetes Friday and Saturday nights, .
In pandemic year 2020, not so much — not even in legal communities known for getting their holiday celebration on.
Traditionally, invitations from law firms “really start landing in late November, the first of December, in piles,” said Tampa lawyer John Fitzgibbons. “And, nothing. Crickets.”
“I haven’t heard of any holiday parties, and I’m not so sure anyone would go,” said Clearwater lawyer Denis deVlaming. “With a million people getting COVID, they don’t want to be a million and one.”
From major museums to neighborhood restaurants across Tampa Bay, venues that bank on the holidays report a decline. Party planners, too.
This time last year, the Largo-based UDREAM EVENTS was setting up more than 75 corporate and private celebrations. (For a Grinch-themed party, they built a bar covered in green fur.) The 13-year-old company expected to be 50 percent busier in 2020, said owner and CEO Cristina Martin.
“It was a shock to come to a dead halt,” she said. This month, she’s expecting fewer than 20 holiday events.
At Mise En Place, an elegant Tampa restaurant that has hosted scores of upscale events, people are calling off parties — at one point, eight cancellations in 48 hours, said owner Maryann Ferenc.
“Normally, we would be booked (with parties) at least four nights a week for the entire season,” she said.
The powerhouse Holland & Knight law firm normally holds a party for clients in its offices atop the 100 North Tampa building with 200-plus guests and a sunset view.
“People would be calling us, asking for an invitation,” said John Smesko, the Tampa Bay office manager. This year? “We’re not having that party,” he said. “It’s not safe.”
Alicia Koepke, an employment attorney with Trenam Law in Tampa, says this makes sense.
“Total Debbie Downer of me to say this, but the reality is that the safest thing, of course, is to cancel or go remote right now,” she said. “A lot of employers are telling their employees: ‘We value you. We wish we could all safely meet right now, but that’s not possible.’”
It’s not just here. The White House is going ahead with at least 20 holiday parties, but businesses across the country are opting for Zoom toasts, virtual gift exchanges, online cooking classes and employee gifts, care packages or extra time off.
While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says that celebrating virtually or with members of your household poses the lowest risk, it offers a list of considerations for attending gatherings, including outdoor parties with limited guests all wearing masks.
As with all things 2020, people are trying to pivot.
Tech Data in Clearwater started transitioning last year from traditional holiday partying to a “Season of Giving.” Employees made toys for guide dogs and stuffed stockings for domestic violence shelter residents, among other things. This culminated in a lunch where bosses did the serving.
This year, employees will continue with community causes across the month, but with added measures like online shopping wish lists and a drive-thru drop-off at the office.
But no, bosses won’t be serving them lunch this year.
Mise En Place is delivering Christmas boxes of food and wine to customers’ homes for Zoom get-togethers and putting on cocktail-mixing demonstrations and wine talks for virtual corporate events.
“Our theme for the holidays is: There’s always a way to celebrate,” said owner Ferenc.
The Tampa Museum of Art, another upscale venue, recently held a fundraiser with 30 people attending the party and everyone else watching at home. Through ticket sales, a live auction and other means, the money raised was “better than expected,” said marketing and communications director Nina Womeldurf.
UDREAM EVENTS has seen a spate of clients calling to arrange last-minute, pop-up, in-person parties. Among its other precautions, the company thermal-scans its masked-and-gloved staff and offers to scan party guests, if that’s what the client wants.
“We’re just trying to do everything we can,” said CEO Martin. “We’ll get back there. We keep saying that.”
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