Location, Food Set Banquet Halls Apart

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – When it comes to choosing a banquet hall, whether for a wedding reception, class reunion or business meeting, location is what often tips the scales in favor of one hall over another.

If someone has his list of sites narrowed to two or three halls, the most visually appealing usually wins, area hall operators say.

At Avion on the Water in Canfield, general manager Mike Jeswald recalls how brides-to-be began booking their receptions there before construction was finished. The building overlooks a manmade lake and, beyond that, farmland.

“Before the building was even done, I had brides booking the hall simply because of the lake and flowers and landscaping,” he says.

“It plays a major role in this business. The fact that we have windows and scenery beyond attracts so much business.”

The interior of a hall can also be the determining factor, says Ron Klingle, owner of the Avalon Inn. The hotel is undergoing the first of three phases of renovation. One of the first things completed was the ballroom.

“For weddings, this is huge. The chandeliers are magnificent. There’s rope lighting and gold leaf around the ceiling,” Klingle says. “It’s a place where a bride wants to go on the most important day of her life. And the surroundings are the single most important part of that.”

And, of course, you can’t talk about an event without mentioning the food.

Each hall has its own menu that the coordinator presents and informs the renter the specialties the kitchen is known for preparing.

Michal Naffah, president of the Naffah Hospitality Group – which operates the Hampton Inn & Suites and The Embassy in Boardman – says food is one of the most competitive areas of the business.

“The quality of the food just went up and up and up. It’s quite a bit more upscale now. You have to have chefs at a banquet center,” he says. “It can’t just be the church ladies cooking in the church kitchen like we had 40 years ago.”

Another trend many banquet halls are seeing is a move toward personalizing each event. Rather than putting a menu before customers and leaving it up to them to pick, some coordinators take it upon themselves to learn the renter’s preferences (and aversions).

“We’re focusing on things that are special to them. If someone really likes milkshakes, we’ll do a milkshake bar with their favorite flavors,” says Mark Primavera, co-owner of The Georgetown in Boardman. “It’s about trying to find what personally fits for each event.”

What really drives the industry, regardless of the size of a hall or its location, are weddings. Reunions and corporate events have their places, but play second and third fiddle to wedding receptions.

“As long as the wedding industry – which is the bread and butter of this business – is willing to spend the money, then things will be great,” says John Bianco, owner of The Corinthian in Sharon, Pa.

“We are at our busiest during wedding season, generally from May to October,” Bianco says.

At the Avalon Inn, weddings fill its schedule first, Klingle relates. “Frequently, weddings will book a year in advance. They will come in and pick their time slots first,” he says.

“There isn’t much competition over dates being taken other than from other couples who are getting married.”

Business functions at Avalon tend to be held every quarter and fill in around the weddings, according to Klingle.

Once the big day arrives, the culmination of months of planning – whether wedding, reunion or business meeting – it all comes down to timing, Naffah says.

“Everything has to be timed. Timing is the hardest thing. You can’t say, ‘I know your reception started at 7, but your food won’t be ready until 9,’ ” he says. “Outside of that, it’s all about organizing in advance. If you can get that done beforehand, you’ll have no problems.”

Communication, the Avion’s Jeswald agrees, is a major factor in the success of the event.

“If you don’t ask people what their needs are, you can’t satisfy them, Jeswald says. “You have to communicate with your clients, both in the office and in the hall.”

Like almost every other business, the Great Recession took its toll on the banquet industry. Companies scaled back or canceled their holiday parties and functions. Families invited fewer guests to their children’s weddings and everyone worked on tighter budgets.

For many halls, business has recovered, but the owners see room to improve and room to grow.

“Business is growing. It’s not where it was pre-2008, but it’s recovering,” Primavera says.

“This year has picked up,” Naffah relates. “This year seems to have really picked for a lot of people.”

Pictured: Michal Naffah, president of Naffah Hospitality Group.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.