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Budgets Under Wraps But More Holiday Partying Planned

Budgets Under Wraps But More Holiday Partying Planned

By DARRELL SATZMAN

Staff Reporter

Is it finally time to party?

Restaurants, party planners and other businesses that rely heavily on holiday spending see signs that local companies are ready to celebrate, if not significantly loosen their purse strings.

A bump in holiday events is attributable to an optimistic outlook for 2004. The stock market is up, and many businesses are convinced the economy is on the mend. There’s also some desire to kick up the heels after two years when there was precious little to get excited about.

“The good news is that things are not getting worse. A lot of our regular clients are booking their events,” said John Stoddard, general manager of the Wilshire Grand hotel downtown. “In the past two years some of those clients were spending a lot less money and some canceled their events altogether.”

As with other hoteliers, Stoddard has held the line on 2002 prices to drum up more business for the Wilshire Grand and to keep employees working. “We don’t want to lose any business over price when we are sitting there wide open,” he said. “Our clients are very cautious on budgets.”

October through early November is a crucial time for companies to line up venues, catering and entertainment for their Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah events. It’s also the time when businesses that organize, staff and host those events get a sense of how the year is going to wrap up.

Many are guardedly optimistic.

“It definitely feels better this year,” said Bob Levine, who, with his wife, Gail Levine, owns Bob Gail the Main Event in Beverly Hills, which organizes parties that cost from $10,000 to more than $1 million. “People want to celebrate and put 9/11 and the economy for the past two years behind them.”

In particular, the local entertainment, real estate and financial services industries appear to be spending more this year than in the recent past, according to observers.

“The last month has been very good and there is a lot of things coming up through the end of the year,” said Pam Morton, general manager of Mortons on Melrose Avenue, which last week was the site of a party marking the “The Matrix: Reloaded” DVD release.

Fence sitting

Still, there is little sign of a return to the free-spending days before the Internet economy crashed three years ago. There’s also the sense that opulent parties are inappropriate in light of such events as the corporate financial scandals, the Iraqi war and the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“We’re still way off from where we were in 2000. A lot of businesses right now don’t want to be perceived as acting extravagantly,” said Bruce Beach, co-owner of Pentola restaurant in Santa Monica.

The local office of software maker PeopleSoft Inc. recently canceled its holiday party at Pentola due at least in part to the company being the target of an unfriendly takeover bid by Oracle Corp. “I guess they thought it would send the wrong message to shareholders,” Beach said.

Gerry Rubin, president and chief executive of Rubin Postaer and Associates, said the advertising agency would hold its holiday party at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, as it has in past years, but less money will be spent this time around.

“We’ve had some attrition, so we don’t think we need such a grand event to share each other’s company. It would not be a prudent or practical expression,” Rubin said.

He added that an informal poll of employees showed that a holiday party was important to them. “They wanted to get together and enjoy that sense of camaraderie and friendship that you don’t often get in the day-to-day business environment,” he said.

One recent trend is a tendency by businesses to hold off making their plans until the last minute, which can make life tougher for people like Jim Snow, managing director for Omni hotels, including the Omni Los Angeles hotel downtown. “The booking cycle for events is still very short,” he said. “We’re adjusting to that, but it does create some uncertainty.”

Snow said the holiday season was shaping up about on par with last year, with some increased activity by downtown businesses.

“It feels like we are at the end of this down cycle and we have really started to move forward,” he said. “But there’s still a lot of question marks about this economy.”

One hotel that has seen a healthy increase this year is the high-end Peninsula Beverly Hills. “I don’t want to sound too comfortable but it’s going very well. We are almost back to 2000 levels in overall events,” said Ali Kasikci, its managing director.

Partying Like it’s 2003

More events: Hotels, restaurants and party planners say businesses are planning more promotional events and get-togethers this holiday season.

Tight Budgets: While events are more numerous, spending is on par with the last two years or even down.

Waiting: Continuing a trend that began after the terrorist attacks, some businesses are holding off on making holiday plans.

Climate: Entertainment companies are spending, as are businesses in the real estate and financial services industries. Technology companies remain more cautious.

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