Mahoning Valley Banquet Bookings Improve, Reflect Uncertainty

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Uncertainty remains the theme in the banquet center industry but it’s something that operators and their clients have learned to live with.

Rentals continue to rebound in some sectors but the rise in COVID-19 cases has narrowed the booking window and reduced the size of parties.

Bookings for parties and receptions are coming in to the  Holiday Inn Hotel and Conference Center Boardman, even if corporate events remain slow.

“We’re starting to see people apprehensive again,” says KayLou King, general manager of the hotel. “Social events are still happening but there is more hesitancy. They’re asking for clauses about their deposits, referring to the pandemic.”

John Bianca, owner of the Corinthian Banquet Hall and Event Center in Sharon, Pa., says his hall is booked solid on Saturdays and most Fridays, but what’s changed is the number of attendees.

“The crowds are smaller at weddings on Saturdays and other events,” he says. “People aren’t flying. So they’re out.” Bianca routinely reserves blocks of hotel rooms for wedding reception guests and those numbers are down. “Hotels are probably feeling the pinch,” he says.

The spread of the delta variant of COVID-19 is to blame. “People are more reluctant [to attend public events],” Bianca says. “So wedding guest lists are down… probably by a third.”

The Corinthian, located in a former Masonic temple, has a seating capacity of 350. “The average wedding had 240 to 250 guests prior to COVID,” Bianca says. “Now, they max out in the upper hundreds, around 180.”

Booking windows – the length of time between the day the hall is reserved to the date of the event – are shortening, says Holiday Inn’s King. “It’s pretty short for weddings, rehearsals, class reunions and other noncorporate events,” she says. “People are hesitant to commit.”

The Holiday Inn has a grand ballroom that seats 250 for weddings, which includes space for a dance floor. It also has a smaller ballroom that holds 100 and some smaller rooms.

At all events, King’s staff aims for a comfort level that suits the guests. “We take it one at a time,” she says. “For a 50th class reunion, [we will ask if] they want us to wear masks. We have to make people comfortable.”

Bianca, of the Corinthian, points out that Pennsylvania had stricter regulations during the height of the pandemic. That caused some groups to look across the state line. “Being a border town, I lost a lot of business to Ohio,” he says

He’s expecting 2022 to be a “record year” for weddings. “We’re booking it out pretty well,” he says.

The Corinthian has a turn-of-the- century look – marble staircase, chandeliers, decorative woodwork – that is attractive to certain groups. “Think of the Roaring ’20s,” Bianca says. “People who like vintage love the Corinthian.”

Bianca recently purchased a warehouse behind his building and is seeking permission to tear it down to create a 36-foot by 50-foot outdoor space that could be used for ceremonies and events.

Like the Corinthian, the Tyler History Center in downtown Youngstown attracts people who appreciate a rare and historic look.

“The people [who book the hall] really have an appreciation for history and architecture and character,” says Dave Ragan, spokesman for the Tyler, which is owned by the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. “It’s not uncommon that brides and grooms look for unique places for their reception. We have carved out a niche. You get the architecture, the history of downtown. That is our biggest appeal.

“There are restrictions because of the historic nature of our building,” he continues. “We have to protect it. But people who pursue this type of venue understand that. It’s folks who want charm and history. And this fits with their taste.”

The second-floor Tyler ballroom, which seats 160, has a hardwood floor and a large wall of windows that overlooks the city. The Tyler also has a smaller banquet room, the Anne Kilcawley Gallery, on the third floor for gatherings of 10 to 30 people.

Both facilities at the Tyler have a mask mandate to which guests must adhere. The center remained closed longer than most, reopening in mid-summer.

The ballroom had its first wedding of the year two weeks ago. “It went really well,” says Ragan. “The bride and groom were good about making sure all wore masks. People are very understanding. And they know the pandemic fluctuates all the time.”

The Tyler’s next wedding isn’t until New Year’s Eve and things could change by then, Ragan says.

“When we reopened in July, people started calling and not necessarily for right away. We got calls for 2022 events. We are starting to fill up for 2022 but not at the level of 2019.”

At the Holiday Inn, King echoes that statement. “Compared to pre-pandemic levels [of bookings], we’re not there yet,” she says. “Our corporate events and midweek [bookings] are down. Weekends are busy and our hotel rooms are sold out on weekends. Some companies are inquiring about holiday parties but they don’t want to sign contracts.”

Like all hospitality businesses, the Holiday Inn banquet and conference center has a shortage of workers.

“It’s a constant challenge getting workers,” King says. “We thought we’d see an influx in applicants in June but we didn’t. Although in the last week, people  did start coming in for interviews. Little by little they’re coming in.”

The Corinthian’s Bianca says he’s also struggling to find servers and bartenders.

Unlike the Holiday Inn and the Corinthian, the Tyler does not have a kitchen; instead, it lets its client secure a caterer and then coordinates the meal with it.

“We are a very lean operation,” Ragan says. “We have a rental coordinator and he has an assistant and we employ [museum volunteers] to help with teardown [after events].”

Pictured: The Holiday Inn Boardman ballroom seats 250 for weddings. Bookings for special events are starting to return.