YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – This year has been nothing to celebrate for the banquet hall industry.
But it has made a small rebound in the past two months, after Gov. Mike DeWine allowed venues to reopen with limits on capacity.
Rental and catering halls in Ohio were closed in March as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. When they were permitted to reopen June 1, it was with floor plan spacing that reduced capacity, allowing no more than 300.
Graduation and prom season were wiped out. Many wedding receptions were moved to next year.
Looking ahead, bookings for company Christmas parties are downright Grinch-like. Still, it could have been worse.
“We ended up having a pretty good August and September,” says Stacey Rzonsa of Blue Wolf Catering, which operates the Maronite Center banquet hall on Youngstown’s west side.
Rescheduled wedding receptions helped to fill up the schedule in the second half of summer.
“There were a lot of delayed receptions after the wedding,” Rzonsa says. “We also did some receptions at their homes.”
The Maronite Center has a capacity of 750, but is currently limited to 300. Despite the late-summer rebound, Rzonsa says her company “took a huge loss” this year.
Waypoint 4180 in Westford Place, Canfield, is even more spacious than the Maronite, with pre-COVID seating for wedding receptions of up to 850. Waypoint’s bookings began to pick up in mid-summer, says its executive director of sales and marketing, Nancy Sullivan.
“There was a very, very positive rebound,” she says. “We’ve done several weddings hitting that 300 mark, which is all we’re allotted.”
Some came from across the state line.
“We captured four weddings from the Pennsylvania market because they were completely shut down over there,” Sullivan says.
The social distancing, mask wearing and other antivirus measures have become second nature to workers and guests.
“We are serving directly to guests at the buffet and cake table,” Sullivan says. “Cookie tables are allowed but they have to be prewrapped on the table.”
Blue Wolf’s Rzonsa agrees. “In the moment, it feels pretty normal,” she says. “By now, we don’t even notice the masks.”
Stambaugh Auditorium in Youngstown has two banquet halls: the 550-person ballroom and the 150-person Christman Hall. The rooms’ capacities have been reduced to 300 and 80, respectively, and the pandemic took a heavy toll on both, says business manager Dani Dier.
“There is no way to recover five months’ worth of lost income, no matter how hard we try,” Dier says. “We have been fortunate enough that 90% of the events that had to cancel have been rescheduled. Unfortunately though, we have not bounced back as quickly as we would have hoped.”
When banquet halls got the green light to reopen, all June and July events at Stambaugh had already been moved to 2021, Dier says, as well as most of August’s events and a portion of September’s.
Almost 75 wedding receptions and ceremonies that had been booked for this year at Stambaugh have postponed until next year or 2022.
The Vineyards at Pine Lake’s events center was also forced to move many wedding receptions scheduled between April and July to next year. But since it reopened, bookings have returned, says Tori Ritchey, events coordinator at the banquet center near Columbiana.
“August and September were the busiest months this year and they typically are,” Ritchey says. “People are a little wary of COVID. But most are happy to be at events again. And they seem like normal weddings. They still have a good time and come to celebrate the couples, even with everything that’s going on.”
The Vineyards at Pine Lake event center can accommodate 350. But it has had to reduce capacity to 250. The center is known for its waterfront location. “The view stands out,” Ritchey says. “We’re right next to the water. During the fall, the tree line is gorgeous. It’s also secluded. You never have to worry about traffic.”
As the year draws to a close, Ritchey is seeing a decline in bookings.
“We lost a lot of events in October because people are getting nervous and moving things to next year,” she says. “We lowered our fees for winter but not too many are jumping at holiday bookings.”
Company Christmas parties are way down, she says, likely because of fear of the virus. “Only three companies have booked holiday parties so far,” Ritchey says.
Blue Wolf’s Rzonsa is in the same boat. Christmas party bookings there “are not looking good,” she says. “Businesses are also taking a hit. So maybe the income is not there for Christmas parties. Also, they don’t want to be held responsible for a large group if someone there [has the coronavirus].”
At Waypoint 4180, the election season is boosting business. “We’re doing a lot of election and political events,” says Sullivan, who noted her hall can open its windows to create airflow and a more healthful atmosphere.
Her focus is also on Christmas parties. Sullivan has noticed a trend toward smaller office parties because of COVID.
“I’ve booked a few luncheons in the afternoon. But I also still have some big ones, 250 people or so,” she says. “We won’t have many big parties but we might have four little ones. And that’s the same amount of business.”
Waypoint can be subdivided into six small rooms to fit any size event.
Stambaugh’s Dier has seen a silver lining. “Most of our regular holiday parties have canceled. But that has opened up the opportunity for new clients to come in the door and host their events here,” she says. “We’ve had a number of companies reach out to us that are not able to host their events at their normal location because the facilities are not able to accommodate the number of guests due to social distancing.”
While 2020 has been tough for all banquet halls, next year could bring a return to pre-COVID booking levels. Dates are filling up fast.
“We only have 15 Saturdays available in 2021 and they are all in the winter months,” says Pine Lakes’ Ritchey.
The situation is similar at Stambaugh.
“We have a handful of openings on Saturdays and Sundays [in 2021] but have found that people are also booking Fridays,” says business manager Dier. “So we have a few weekends where we have three days in a row of ceremonies and receptions.”
Blue Wolf’s Rzonsa has rescheduled many events but is still apprehensive.
“Next year looks good but we don’t know yet,” she says. “Will graduation parties be a thing? That’s unknown territory. I’m not 100% confident.”
It’s been said that necessity is the mother of invention. The pandemic has led to some unique banquet solutions.
“Babies are still coming. People are still graduating and getting married. So we have come up with new ways to celebrate,” Rzonsa says.
“We did a lot of drive-thru baby showers,” she continues. “We prepare a boxed lunch. And as [guests] pull up to our building, we give them the lunch, unload their gifts. And the new mother is there to greet them as they drive on through.”
Rzonsa is looking to capitalize on the idea by branching out into boxed lunches with an upscale flair.
“Another business in the works, born out of [the pandemic],” she says. “A delivery service for artisan lunches.”
Box lunches have been around for a long time, Rzonsa says. But their popularity is rising because they cut down on hand-to-hand contamination. All that is left is to make them more festive and delicious.
“If you’ve ever received a box lunch, it can be boring. So we’re looking to jazz them up,” she says. “Maybe we can get this business launched in time for Christmas.”
Stambaugh Auditorium has turned to technology to facilitate socializing.
“We have implemented an app for bar service where guests can order their drinks through the app and they are sent a text when it is ready,” Dier says. “We are always looking for ways to adapt to this new normal. Our biggest concern is making sure that our clients and their guests feel safe and comfortable.”
Pictured above: Most 2021 weekends at The Vineyards at Pine Lake are already booked, says events coordinator Tori Ritchey.