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Happy Hors d’Oeuvre Are Here Again

After three years of holiday gloom, New York’s caterers rejoice as clients encourage them to go for broke (Grey Goose vodka, aerial acts, snowy topiary gardens) on office parties.

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The city’s long-suffering caterers are getting their Christmas presents early this year: The lavish, loony corporate holiday party is finally back. “Across the board, every budget’s higher,” says Thom Lussier of the high-end caterer Cafiero Lussier. “Business is probably four or five times up from even last year,” says Jessica Bragdon, event coordinator at the Maritime Hotel.

Dale Winston, CEO of Battalia Winston International, which has tracked company holiday-party budgets for fifteen years, says, “This is the first year since 9/11 that we have seen an increase in spending.” Why? It seems to be some combination of good times—third-quarter corporate profits are reportedly up about 20 percent—and a more difficult-to-measure shamelessness metric. “It’s not embarrassing anymore,” says party planner Serena Bass. “Now we’re back on track.”

“Last year was the worst holiday season that’s happened as long as I’ve been here,” says Scott Isebrand of the Metropolitan Pavilion. Eduard Riddle, who works for Bass, remembers a hedge fund that had decided to have its party in the office. The décor consisted of “a bunch of twigs that I sprayed with glue and stuck fake snow on with little robins.” But this year, the same firm is renting out part of a museum for a $175,000 bash. Riddle is transforming the space to replicate an old mansion, with antiques, china, and oriental rugs.

And they’re not alone. The most expensive party at the New York Palace Hotel this year, hosted by a car company, will have 200 guests, a twenty-piece band, Brazilian dancers, and “fun booths” where people can have their picture printed on various objects. The budget: $250,000. Down at the China Club, there’s a 1,300-head affair with a jazz quartet and a flamenco band, not to mention “a karaoke guy with the screen,” says event coordinator Adrienne Hara. “For a long time—well, since 9/11—they weren’t hiring bands.”

Another “big bank” is doubling the size of its holiday party this year to 120 people and taking over a loft on West 26th Street. “They wanted the party to be twice as fabulous as last year,” Riddle says. The space will be transformed into a “snowy topiary garden” with $12,000 worth of French hedges and little trees scissored into animal shapes.

There are other encouraging signs. “Corporations are inviting spouses again,” says Jeffrey Selden, catering director of the Palace Hotel. “I found people trying to get not just a D.J. but aerial, Cirque du Soleil–type acts,” says Arthur Backal, hospitality-division president of Cipriani USA.

Look for Morgan Stanley at Copacabana, Lehman Brothers at Chelsea Piers, Citigroup at Capitale, and Bear Stearns at the China Club (upgrading from ESPN Zone last year).

But it’s the little things caterers appreciate. “People are asking for Grey Goose vodka a lot,” says Lussier. “It’s nice for us not to have to be so uptight,” says Bass. “We don’t have to spend three hours calling around to find the cheapest crab, which kind of takes the joy out of it.”


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