Ron Alicandro is afraid to say it too loud, but the general manager of the Westin Tampa Bay thinks his hotel and others will enjoy a turnaround in holiday parties, events and bookings this year, thanks largely to an improving economy.
Alicandro anticipates 30 percent to 40 percent growth in parties this holiday season year over year. He’s also created holiday specials for individual business, including a Ring-in-the-New-Year package with access to the private BluVu rooftop party, 18 floors up overlooking the bay with a view of the area’s fireworks.
“But we take it one holiday at a time,” Alicandro said. “First Christmas, then New Year’s.”
Tampa Bay area hoteliers who turn to local groups that host parties and other holiday events to compensate for seasonal downturns in corporate travel and conferences are cautiously optimistic that holiday business is improving.
Although holiday traffic might not be rebounding as quickly as year-round group and leisure bookings in what’s been a stellar year for the local visitors industry, positive signs for the holidays include more bookings for restaurants and meetings spaces and greater expenditures for a wider range of food and beverages.
That’s the view of the local scene from interviews with local executives and industry officials. It matches increasingly optimistic expectations by national observers that the recession’s impact has receded on local holiday trade that helps hoteliers during a customarily slow travel period.
“The holidays are an opportune time for area hotels to market themselves to local businesses hosting an employee lunch as a Christmas gathering, a reception celebrating the season for volunteers at nonprofits and social groups looking to throw those big bashes,” said Mary Lou Janson, public relations consultant for the Hillsborough County Hotel Motel Association.
“When conventions and meeting groups are grounded due to the holidays, the local market gets tapped.
“That means dinner reservations at the restaurants for the office party, hosting a family gathering that lets everyone relax and enjoy the time together while dining in at a restaurant’s Christmas buffet spread, enjoying a special holiday menu at a restaurant or hotel or getting together with friends for the holidays for drinks and/or dinner.”
In 2011, when the recovery from the recession had begun to take shape, the trade journal HotelNewsNow reported that many hoteliers began marketing efforts for holiday parties in July.
One example: The Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa in Asheville, N.C., delivered baskets of gingerbread and the resort’s holiday menu to companies in Asheville and nearby, which increased their catering business by 30 percent in December.
BizBash, which covers event planning news, reported the corporate holiday party scene was returning to normal in 2012, compared with December 2008 when the recession was in full swing and companies were scaling back on holiday events or canceling them altogether.
Though many companies are hosting holiday gatherings again, the recession created a lasting change, with hosts valuing smart spending over freewheeling excess, BizBash reported in a September article of 2013 holiday party trends. Nonetheless, companies are staying away from “cookie-cutter” holiday parties while trying to get the most for their money, BizBash said.
Local hoteliers have begun to notice similar trends.
“Social gatherings for a lot of corporate folks over the holidays have shown a significant year-over-year increase,” said Jim Bartholomay, general manager of the Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel, which was awarded the Orbitz 2013 Best in Stay Award and the 2013 Reader’s Choice Award for Best Hotels in Florida from Condé Nast Traveler.”
“Over the past few years there was a downturn to lunches with no alcohol. That trend has shifted back to dinners, DJs and music.”
Bartholomay noted a telling sign that he thinks has its roots in social media’s impact on communication.
“It used to be typical holiday was sitting at a long table where you would talk only to who was sitting next to you,” he said. “Now people want full offerings of hors d’oeuvres, and they can move around and talk.”
In addition to group events, the Renaissance caters to holiday patrons, with a Christmas brunch from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for $45 and a New Year’s Eve session beginning at 5 p.m. that lasts beyond the drop of the ball on Broadway and into New Year’s Day.
The Outback Bowl at nearby Raymond James Stadium has been a big business generator for the Renaissance, which this year secured a major booking from the Louisiana State University alumni club for rooms and parties.
“As you can imagine, everything comes to a screeching halt during the Christmas-New Year’s period for corporate business and travel, so the Outback Bowl business picks things up,” Bartholomay said.
Keith Overton, president and chief operating officer of the TradeWinds Islands Resorts on St. Pete Beach, said group business throughout 2013 has surpassed record group business a year ago, just as leisure business is increasingly strong.
The TradeWinds Island Grand does about 35 percent of its annual business with group trade, compared with 65 percent leisure.
“The holiday party thing is still not back to its heyday, but it has picked up,” Overton said.
“Companies have little appetite for spending money if they consider it frivolous, going back to the recession. Holiday business is OK, but it’s just not growing at the rate of (annual) group.”
The hotels in the northern part of Pinellas County, particularly along Clearwater Beach, get a sizable amount of Outback Bowl business, which they bolster with special events for the cheerleaders, bands and fans on the beaches.
The TradeWinds’ share of the Tampa bowl game’s traffic is not as high as it has been in the past, when occasional visits by Penn State, which customarily scheduled its pregame practices in Pinellas County, helped pack the resort, Overton said.
But the TradeWInds is a sponsor of the fledgling Beef O’Brady’s Bowl at St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field on Dec. 23 and gets hotel stays from the bands of the two schools this year — East Carolina for two nights and Ohio University for three nights — along with the team’s fans.
“Both bowls have a history of bringing fans to the destination,” said Kevin Smith, director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Sports Commission. “It’s a good opportunity to come in during a slower time for tourism.”