Banquet Business Rebounds Post-COVID

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – From small corporate meetings to large extravagant weddings, the pandemic sent the meetings and banquet industry into a tailspin.

Despite lingering COVID-19 doubts and concerns about inflation, the hospitality industry has been seeing a resurgence in 2022, because people want a chance to meet, socialize and celebrate.
The Knot, a trade publication for the wedding industry, predicted based on a 2021 poll that this would be a record year with about 2.6 million weddings compared to the average 2.2 million in the years just before the pandemic.

“We definitely have had a post-COVID surge,” says Jessica Jablonski, the visitor services manager who works with those planning rental events at Fellows Riverside Gardens in Mill Creek Park. “People are anxious to get back together,” she says, “especially when they have something to celebrate.”

Reunions, baby showers, parties and weddings have returned to the level before COVID throughout the parks. Jablonski says fellows hosted 12 wedding ceremonies in three days over the recent Labor Day weekend.

Joseph Glista, owner of The Vineyards at Pine Lake near Columbiana, says the hospitality business has been about 80% of where it was before the pandemic. Bookings are increasing for next year and he believes some people may have still had concerns about COVID-19 this year and postponed their events until next year.

Located along Pine Lake, the event center hosted proms and weddings this year. Staffing levels remain a concern, Glista says. The Vineyards, which includes both the 12,900-square-foot event center, as well as a tasting room and restaurant, is a family business and everyone has been pitching in to help.

Staffing levels are often a concern, especially for events that require the temporary service of a large group of people.

The general manager and executive chef for the Eastwood Event Centre, Matthew Sutton, says while staffing remains a concern for everyone, the Eastwood Events Centre is lucky enough to be operated by Columbus Hospitality, which has the finances to pay a little extra.

In addition, it has implemented an on-call system, so even those who have full-time or other part-time jobs can work events. The system sends a text or a call asking if the employee is available to work a date. Should he be unavailable, he can turn down the opportunity or decide to take it and make a few extra bucks.

“It’s a great side gig for somebody that is conscientious, wants to work hard and wants to please the guest,” Sutton says.

The center also has housemen positions available, which are for those responsible to set up the 15,000-square-foot ballroom with precision before events. With about 30% of the event center’s customers still expressing concern about Covid-19, Sutton says the ballroom can be configured to have tables more spread out and other sanitation precautions taken.

Available for hosting corporate and social events, as well as weddings, Sutton says the ballroom comes with top-of-the-line technical equipment, capable of a simple laptop hookup and touch screen controls, showing presentations on several large screens throughout the room simultaneously and automatically dimming the lights as the screens come down.

“We believe we have the best AV equipment anywhere in this area,” Sutton says. “If you want to give a state-of-the-art presentation. … We have [that] via the Cafaro Company. They built this whole place and it’s amazing.”

Perhaps fairytale castles and beautiful outdoor venues are more some brides’ style.

Annie Carpenter, director of events at Buhl Park, says many would-be brides who canceled because of the pandemic were eager to reschedule in 2021, even if it meant a smaller guest list or moving their rites outside to one of the permanent shelters there. With the outdoor shelters, there were fewer restrictions on the size of the parties regarding the pandemic.

In addition, to get their events in with everyone rebooking, many have been willing to book on an off day, such as a Monday or Thursday.

Along with an increase in the number of events, Carpenter says visitors to the park itself have increased over the past year with people coming from Pittsburgh and Cleveland eager to get back out to do things and to enjoy the outdoors.

Dani Dier, who serves as the chief business manager with Stambaugh Auditorium, DeYor Performing Arts Center and the Youngstown Playhouse, says events in general have changed because of things beyond everyone’s control. Instead of buying tickets the minute they go on sale, the public is now more likely to wait until a date becomes closer or to buy at the door.

Brides may plan their weddings and find a quarter of those invited who returned their RSVPs do not come and those tables are empty. Dier says even the best man for a recent wedding could not make the wedding because of flight cancellations. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports 24% of flights were delayed in the first half of 2022 and 3.2% were canceled.

Flights do not affect just participants and guests. They also affect the food and other supplies needed to pull off a memorable event that people have sometimes waited to hold a year or more.

Dier says her venues honored the prices of contracts when events were suddenly canceled in 2020. Her staff has worked its way through the majority who chose to reschedule, and have just held the last of the rescheduled events. Those who added services for a former account or are planning newer events may pay more.

Everyone is forced to increase prices because of inflation, which was as high as 9.1% in June. The
National Restaurant Association reports average food prices in July were 16.3% above where they were a year ago.

Eastwood’s Sutton is also the executive chef, making certain the food exceeds expectations for guests of the event center. That can be difficult when prices and supply chain issues hamper what’s available.

Sutton says he battles that by being flexible with ingredients and working weeks ahead of time with his regional vendors so they know what he will need.

In this market, Sutton emphasizes the importance of allowing people to bring in cookie tables and works with the Mocha House if someone wants specialty deserts.

Blue Ribbon Cleaners in Howland launders the linens the event center owns. Linens are rented when specialty items are needed.

“We try to stay as local as we can,” Sutton says. “We all have to support each other.”

Pictured at top: A table setting at the Eastwood Event Centre when the salad course is served.