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Ringing in the Holiday but Sharing the Bill

A few months ago, this holiday season looked to be another bleak one for the caterers and event planners who orchestrate big corporate parties.

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Steve Novich of Jersey Street Furniture Rental in Clifton, N.J., arranging seating for the “Bring Your Own Business” party on Wednesday at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in West Orange, N.J.

Gone were the lavish affairs of just a few years ago. Even scaled-down events were few and far between as the economy continued to sputter.

That was basically the genesis for a different sort of holiday gathering: one event “shared” by a hodgepodge of smaller companies on limited budgets. Name tags, it seems, are a must accessory.

This is how an invitation to a “Bring Your Own Business” party from the Wilshire Grand Hotel in West Orange, N.J., puts it: “What’s better than a holiday party for one company? A holiday party for 10 companies.”

The concept is not new. The Mohegan Sun in Connecticut has been running a shared holiday party for most of the decade. The casino will hold its eighth annual Big Little Holiday Party on Friday.

Meryl and Andrew Snow, owners of Feastivities Events, a catering company in Philadelphia, are promoting their own variation of shared parties and calling them Snow Balls, according to Ms. Snow.

The couple came up with the idea of opening one event to many companies as corporate clients eliminated entertainment budgets or could not entertain so lavishly because of the recession, Ms. Snow said. “We wanted to be as proactive as possible and said, ‘Why not do a full-blown holiday gala and open it to small and midsize companies in Philadelphia and its suburbs?’ ”

The first B.Y.O.B. party at the Wilshire Grand will be held Thursday evening. Wilshire caters the party and is working with Jersey Street Furniture Rental to stage it with a New York City-style lounge décor. Unique Musique, a local disc jockey, is providing the entertainment, and the Hip Event, an event and marketing company, has helped with promotion.

The more local companies that participate, the cheaper the cost per person.

When it comes to the recession, said Steve Novich, partner at Jersey Street Furniture Rental in Clifton, N.J., “we are not out of the woods yet.”

Other business owners feel the same, he said. “No one is giving a bonus, but you still have to give your people some love. They have to know that they are wanted. You have to give back something.”

In promoting the parties, organizers are pitching another benefit to smaller businesses — the ability to network. “That was a consideration as well,” Mr. Novich said. “You could get together with a bunch of other law firms, dentists, doctors, and you could network and share in a different relaxed atmosphere. It helps people grow their business.”

While networking opportunities have an appeal for small-business owners, customers always come first.

According to the American Express Open Small Business Holiday Monitor, 42 percent of the 516 owners or managers surveyed by telephone said that they planned a holiday party, compared with 49 percent a year earlier and 54 percent in 2006.

By contrast, 47 percent of owners or managers this year said they intended to give clients presents compared with 35 percent who said they would shop for employees. This year, 82 percent of owners said the No. 1 reason for giving gifts to customers was to say thank you. That compared with 64 percent in 2008.

Total customer gift budgets have remained steady, according to American Express: $455 in 2009 versus $457 in 2008.

Plans to give employee year-end bonuses, meanwhile, dropped to 31 percent this year from 44 percent in 2008.

“Employee celebration and thanks is a place where small-business owners are looking to save,” said Alice Bredin, a small-business adviser for American Express Open. Shared celebrations could be one way of doing so, she said.

“Even for the business owners feeling good right now, money is still really tight,” Ms. Bredin said. “They know they have to thank customers so there will be a business to run. They feel employees will have to wait another year, in most cases.”

Costs for the shared parties vary. At the Wilshire on Dec. 3, 9, 18 and 23, groups of 30 pay $99.99 for each person, and the cost decreases as the number of guests increases — up to 300 guests can gather for $69.99 each.

Snow Ball guests pay $145 apiece for cocktails, dancing, entertainment and a sit-down dinner every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in December and the first week in January at the Phoenixville Foundry in Phoenixville, Pa.

For the Big Little Holiday Party on Dec. 4, Mohegan Sun is seeking a 10-person commitment for each $475 table to bring the cost to $47.50 a person. In addition to a cash bar, there are salad, carving and dessert stations, as well as dancing.

For the last seven years, Mohegan Sun has filled its 1,100-guest quota, according to Richard Zazzaro, vice president of food and beverage. The concept came from the catering team, which was seeking to promote the casino’s new convention center in 2002, he recalled. “It was so well received, one year we did it twice.”

“It’s been very popular with small businesses like hair salons, small legal firms, professionals that don’t have the big office parties,” Mr. Zazzaro added. “They can get the feeling of a big party without, one, having to spend a lot of money, or two, having to plan it.”

Amanda Spear, project manager at the Connecticut office of the EPS Corporation, based in California, is a repeat customer.

“We were so impressed with it last year, we’re coming back,” Ms. Spear said. A team of about 30 will attend the Big Little Party on Friday. In addition to the festive atmosphere and ability to mingle with other companies, she said, the setting itself is a draw. “It’s just the whole feeling of being in the casino.”

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