It may be the season to be jolly, but those tasked with holiday party planning may feel like their fa-la-la-lling behind. There are venues and menus to choose, dates to solidify and a to-do list that would make Santa’s wish list pale in comparison. Partnering with a local catering company or hiring a caterer has helped many party planners get through the holidays (at least relatively unscathed).

So how do some of Arizona’s favorite catering companies help businesses just like yours to prepare for a festive, fun and stress-free holiday party?

’Tis the time to calendar way ahead

Pat Christofolo

Typically, when planning a holiday party, especially a sizable event, it’s best to solidify your venue far in advance.

“We begin booking holiday parties for the year as early as March,” says Pat Christofolo, president of Artisan by Santa Barbara Catering. “If you want your ideal date and vendors, it is always best to book far ahead. If your company is not able to begin planning until later in the year, you should always check which dates are available with your top vendor choices before settling on a date for your company gathering. This will make it easier for you to narrow down which dates are still available.”

Christofolo also suggests considering hosting your company party on a weekday, versus a weekend. “Vendors may be able to offer discounts for these ‘off days,’” she says.

“Our group starts booking holiday parties as early as August,” adds Christopher Collins, fourth-generation restaurateur and founder of Common Ground Culinary. “There are only so many days between Thanksgiving and Christmas when the entire neighborhood wants to plan business and family events. A last-minute booking means you may have to settle for a date or time that isn’t traditionally booked.”

Chestnuts roasting and limited toasting

The menu. Even looking at the word can be overwhelming for holiday hosts. After all, the meal criteria to consider feels infinite — budget parameters, food allergies, meal preferences, plated versus buffet.

To reduce that overwhelming feeling, take an honest appraisal at the event size. Small and intimate or gargantuan gala?

Christopher Collins

“When it comes to smaller events, it’s beneficial for the host to select a small menu that guides the guest to pick something at a pre-determined cost point, versus letting the guest pick anything on the menu,” Collins says.

Plated dinners often work well for smaller holiday parties. Not only does this catering style help control costs, but it also provides a more cozy, inclusive ambiance. As for large-scale holiday events, buffet meal service often works well.

“For larger parties with a budget in mind, we suggest sticking to a buffet and limiting the food selection,” Collins says, “while adding a few stations around the venue to help move guests around and keep them mingling.”

If you’re looking for additional ways to help massage the budget, think about re-imagining a traditional sit-down dinner with these suggested alternatives from Jennifer Russo, owner and chef of Jennifer’s Catering.

“Outsource your own plasticware and flatware,” Russo says. “Or, have appetizer stations instead of a full dinner buffet. Or, if it’s a late evening event, then just provide a dessert bar. Large events can be much cheaper if you only serve wine and beer for the bar instead of having a full bar with all the liquors.”

Russo’s last point is something for which many caterers unanimously agree: Alcohol is a holiday-budget buster.

“Our first suggestion to anyone hosting an event is to control the bar offerings,” Collins says. “Costs won’t skyrocket with the food, but it can easily get out of hand with bar provisions. We suggest focusing on a modest selection of craft beer and West Coast wines and leaving out the expensive liquors.”

Not-so-secret Santas 

Jennifer Russo

Although employees deemed with the responsibility of holiday party prep know many of the ins and outs of catering and hiring a caterer, there are some services for which they may not be aware.

“We offer pick-ups, deliveries, delivery set-ups and full-service events,” Russo says. “So if you missed the mark on your full-service event, don’t have your guests go hungry. If you are trying to be cost-effective, try our pick-up option.”

“We pride ourselves on truly making every event a custom experience, from flower arrangements to holiday decorations, and more,” Collins adds. “We have a team available to make any vision come true. That’s beneficial when the party planner might have other areas of responsibilities and can’t afford to make goodie bags or individual place settings.”

Beyond special add-ons and services, catering companies also have unique offerings. Take, for example, Common Ground Culinary’s ice cream cart, which serves handmade ice cream from Sweet Provisions.

“We offer upgrades to our culinary stations to include interactive chef-action items,” Christofolo says, “such as flaming desserts, salad walls, and more to create excitement at an event.

If you have a specific theme, sharing it when hiring a caterer or catering company can help create a special look for the culinary stations.

“Our event producer also knows all of the current event trends and can help book entertainment or photo opportunities,” Christofolo says.

With all that holiday party planning demands, why not delegate whatever tasks you can? If hiring a caterer, remember to ask your caterer if they provide set-up, cleaning, trash service and whatever other requirements you wish to get off your plate. And, be sure to verify whether there is an additional fee.