A lot of us have already packed up what remains of 2010 -- in our minds, at least -- as we look ahead to 2011. But while the New Year is traditionally associated with cautious optimism, this year's holiday season is showing some palpable signs of economic recovery.

Several recent surveys indicate the number of holiday and end-of-year parties has been increasing this season, especially compared to the past several years. A CareerBuilder poll says 52% of employers it surveyed had plans to throw a holiday party this year for their employers, compared to 49% last year. And while 8% of employers said they had no such plans, that's down from 11% in 2009.

Holiday celebrations may not appear to be the most realistic economic indicator, but some people in the hospitality industry would beg to differ. David Corsun, director of the University of Denver's Knoebel School of Hospitality Management, has some firsthand experience with the current uptick in holiday events. His school has its own event company, managed by a team of five professionals and staffed by students. And the number of holiday parties it catered this December was double that of last year.

"We're seeing the same thing [throughout] the industry, seeing the return of corporate holiday parties," he says. "And not just the return of the parties, but a little bit higher end. For about the last two weeks, any time I've been talking with anyone in the industry they say, 'this is a very good sign, this is a leading indicator.'"

Champagne vs. Sparkling Wine

Bonnie Fedchock, executive director for the National Association of Catering Executives, says parties and events taking place during the last six to eight weeks of the year generate 15% to 20% of her industry's annual revenue. And in terms of this season, "everyone I've talked to across the country says it's definitely better -- because last year corporate spending was negligible," she says. "The dollar spending is still down from '07 and '08 -- and last year most people canceled or really scaled back their events. In '09 it was almost taboo to do lavish corporate events because it would be considered bad form."

But individuals also seem to be feeling a bit more prosperous ahead of the New Year. "The majority of our [sales revenue] happens in the fourth quarter," says Lorena Ascencios, head wine buyer for Astor Wine and Spirits, one of the largest stores of its kind in New York City. And this year, she says, "we're definitely more comfortable."

One trend she's noticing this holiday season is the sale of a lot more champagne -- that is, actual champagne from France and not the less-expensive sparkling wine. "People are buying [champagne] right now," she says, "for Christmas dinner, for the holidays -- not just for New Year's." And a bottle of good champagne can cost three to five times as much as a similar bottle of sparkling wine.

That largess appears to be spreading to the food currently served at holiday parties, as well. "People revert back to their childhood in hard times," says Fedchock. "Last year everyone reverted back to comfort food -- mac and cheese." This year, she says, people are still watching the bottom line, but they're willing to spend more on locally grown, quality foods for their party tables.

Food and drink are essentials -- and a willingness to spend a bit more on the basics, says Corsun, "comes from the psychological security of those who are employed, who can afford champagne – who say 'we're on the way up, we're not flat.'"

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