Parties Pared to Pinch Pennies

By Nicoletta Koveos,Times Herald-Record

Middletown — The sluggish economy of recent years has put a damper on holiday parties.

While there have been hints of an upturn, the mood remains simple this year. Lavish trips, expensive gifts and fancy foods are out. Now, the norm is comfort foods and small luncheons.MJ Associates, an event planning company in Chester, planned four holiday parties last year.

“I really think its because of this economy, because I have no holiday parties booked,” said Maria Acosta-Jurman, president of MJ Associates.

Acosta-Jurman sets up decorations and provides entertainment for parties. To cut back on costs, companies are now doing their own decorating and, instead of having dinner, they’re having luncheons because it’s cheaper, Acosta-Jurman said.

Some of MJ Associates’ bank clients are also taking a more low-key approach to the holidays, because of mergers or people losing their jobs.

Jim Hill, owner of the Owen Murphy Inn in Goshen has also seen holiday parties become more subdued. Hill said people want to relax.

“With 9/11 and everything, I think people want to be home or think they’re home,” Hill said.

He said people want to reminisce about how the holidays were when they were kids.

“They’re not looking for a big blowout,” Hill said. “They just want to come and be with friends and enjoy each other’s company.”

The same goes for food.

“Most of the time they’re just looking of something that’s a reminder of things gone by,” Hill said. “Garlic mashed potatoes, string beans, stuff that you’d see Julia Child do 30 years ago.”

Last year, the Owen Murphy Inn catered to an average of about 600 people a weekend.

“I would say it’s down a little bit,” Hill said. “I would say the economy definitely has something to do with it.”

So far this year, the Owen Murphy Inn has hosted a few parties, and its largest party, for Balchem Corp., is coming up.

Balchem, which has given away expensive gifts at past parties, is cutting back. This year, the New Hampton-based company, which manufactures food and feed additives, will probably not be giving away trips to tropical islands.

“Right now I anticipate that we’ll be presenting gifts to our employees as we have in the past,” said Bob Miniger, a Balchem spokesman. “I don’t know at this point in time that they’ll be as significant as they have in the past.”

But unlike a lot of other companies in economic hardship that are completely doing away with parties, Balchem will have a party.

“We have not chosen to cancel the functions, as some organizations have based on the economy. We still think it’s important to get together as a group,” Miniger said. “It’s a time to relax together.”

One company that won’t change anything about its holiday party is Advance Testing in Campbell Hall. The holiday party is too important, owner Jim Smith said.

“That’s just something we plan throughout the course of the year,” Smith said. “The last thing I would ever want to cut from our budget is the holiday party at the end of the year.”

Advance Testing’s parties normally gather about 125 employees and guests. Smith gives all employees gifts, and those who are celebrating milestone anniversaries with the company get a trip to Disney World or the Bahamas.

Smith and Regina Smith, the company’s vice president, plan the event.

“We take a lot of pride in our parties and our annual event and our employees,” Jim Smith said. “We just try to give our employees a party that’s second to none, something they’ll always remember.”

Smith said it’s important for his 80 employees to end the year with a party because it keeps morale high.

“I think its a positive thing. Everyone works hard during the year, and it’s just us; there’s not a lot of other people,” said Barbara McGinnis, an Advance Testing administrative assistant. “It’s a nice evening to not have to worry about work and just to relax and have a fun time.”

For one year, McGinnis worked five days a week instead of four. At the holiday party, she was given a trip to Las Vegas for working hard.

“I want them to know that they can depend on me,” McGinnis said about why she worked the extra day each week. “I think most of the people that work here are that way.”

Benjamin Enterprises in Middletown is hosting four holiday parties this year: one for management and clients and the others for employees in three different locations.

Michelle Benjamin, the company president, switched things up a bit at the management party. Benjamin hired a curator and displayed art at the company’s headquarters. The three artists whose work was on display were also at the party, which featured live music and hors d’oeuvres.

At the party, Benjamin Enterprises’ managers spoke with local businesspeople and three artists with work on display. Benjamin said art is a good way to relax people after a stressful year.

“What better way than to tap into the creative side, because as an entrepreneur you work better when you’re creative,” Benjamin said. “What better way to bring people together and have them understand the culture of our company.”

Benjamin Enterprises has a party every year, Benjamin said.

An unusual twist — maybe an indication that the economy is turning up — is what’s going on at the Inn at Central Valley this season. Last year, the catering hall hosted 17 company holiday parties. This year, the catering hall is doing 20.

Michele Enser, the wedding and sales manager for the Inn at Central Valley, said good service brings repeat business. Most of the parties host 100 to 200 people, Enser said.

Still, Enser does see some companies cutting back this year.

“We lost two accounts that we’ve done for the past couple of years,” Enser said. “One isn’t doing it because of monetary reasons.”