Heather Johnson is thrilled company parties are back after the pandemic canceled all the holiday catering orders at the Minneapolis restaurant she opened early in 2020.
This month, Heather's is catering nearly a dozen holiday parties, including a 14-hour celebration for 400 Canadian Pacific Railway employees coming off train shifts at all hours of the day and night in St. Paul.
"It's pretty exciting, and it's good for our whole staff" of 78, Johnson said. "People are definitely hosting large events that they weren't before. ... We have a lot booked for December for corporate events."
Business boosters and event planners across the Twin Cities area say more corporations are restoring event budgets and partying hard this holiday season and beyond. It's a marked change from the mass cancellations and "Not This Year" mindset that accompanied COVID-19 waves during the last three years.
For caterers such as Heather's, that change means putting a little yum in the holidays for investment firm Piper Sandler, the women's construction trade group WIRED UP and other employers.
"Definitely, corporate celebrations are on the rise," said Adam Duininck, the new president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council.
Some planners say the renewed gusto for getting folks together is driven by the swell in remote and hybrid work habits that emptied offices and estranged co-workers.
At least for one night, it can feel like the old days again.
Growing guest lists
On Dec. 1, St. Paul-based Ecolab and Minneapolis' Ryan Cos. were among the corporate behemoths restoring their red carpet for massive holiday parties.
Ecolab hosted more than 750 guests at the Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel, the Depot in honor of the holidays and the company's 100th anniversary. That same night, Ryan hosted a "Western Wonderland" for 800 guests, complete with line-dancing lessons, a big band and other fun at Heritage Center of Brooklyn Center.
Commercial developer Ryan punched up its guest this year and last after canceling parties in 2020 and 2021.
Guest lists swelled despite party and event costs climbing noticeably higher due to inflation. The Consumer Price Index shows food prices jumped almost 21% between 2018 and 2022. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts a 5.8% spike this year.
Still, Ryan hasn't flinched.
The investment in employees "is absolutely worth it," said Ryan North Region President Tony Barranco. "Our teams and our culture are paramount. ... So while we are seeing a little bit of a cost increase, it's worth it to celebrate our time and our team together."
The Landmark Center in St. Paul recently pulled out all the stops for several chambers of commerce and for Visit St. Paul, which hadn't had a big holiday bash in three years. Observers say the cocktails, glitzy appetizers and fancy menus drizzle cash into the economy on both sides of the river.
"That kind of economic impact is really important. It's a really busy season from mid-November to Christmas," said Duininck of the Downtown Council.
"The restaurant and bar [scene] is doing very well in the last couple weeks. The holidays are a big driver," Duininck said. "That's helping to create some momentum for coming back downtown."
No one has exact figures, but holiday and company events are believed to inject "millions" into city economies each year, said Meet Minneapolis spokesman Kevin Kurtt.
A buffet of benefits
In 2020, COVID-19 forced D'Amico Catering to furlough its entire staff.
But by this time last year, 250 workers were back, decking the halls with decadent treats. This year, business was so brisk D'Amico hired 32 additional workers and opened another event center in Chaska.
"Our corporate business is way up this year over last year," said D'Amico marketing director and senior event planner Christie Altendorf.
This month, D'Amico delivery vans, chefs and servers will be dashing through the snow to cater holiday parties for business clients at the company's 11 event centers and at outside venues such as the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The caterer is hosting four events at Mia in just one week.
That's unusually brisk. The number and size of events is "stronger this year," Altendorf said. "Companies are pulling out all the stops" and having some fun with guest menus, chef performance stations and butlers serving hors d'oeuvres.
It's not just food sales benefiting. Battered downtown retailers are also finally getting a boost.
Since the day after Thanksgiving, Minneapolis "saw increased sales at the [pop-up holiday] Dayton's Market and in our downtown shops," Duininck said. "Some of the businesses said sales are up by two or three times compared to last season."
Beyond the holiday bonuses for local businesses, human resource managers say gathering "really showcases their company culture and helps to build relationships as we enter a new year," Altendorf said. "Our corporations are finding there's a lot of value in that."
Start planning for next year
Cathy Bovard, D'Amico's operations director, thinks the festivities are here to stay.
"There's nothing that tells me this trend can't continue. I'm very optimistic that it will," she said. "So we're buckling in for a couple of really busy, busy weeks [and months]," that should last into 2024.
Michael Clark, managing director of the Depot hotel complex on Washington Avenue, also expects his business surge will continue into 2024 and 2025, offsetting continued lackluster demand from regular hotel visitors.
"Business is back. Our food and beverage revenue from catered events finally exceeded 2019 this year because of the corporate events and fundraisers and weddings," Clark said. "But [hotel] room revenue still remains down."
Clark credits the rise in corporate events to clients who are determined to defy remote work trends by creating experiences that bring their people together. Because of that, "I am seeing that guest attendance is a little larger," he said. "A group that may have been 600 in 2019 is now hosting 700."
At Ryan Cos., Barranco said he's noticed more real estate industry firms such as Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), Transwestern and Colliers are hosting more happy hours and small events for employees and clients.
He's seen industry peers treat their office workers to a fun night at Topgolf in Brooklyn Center, Puttery Minneapolis, the St. Paul Curling Club and elsewhere.
Barranco said with so much going on, "It does feel like we are finally getting into a new stage here."