We're calling it the 'End of an Era Party',' Go Gourmet catering group owner Lori Granito says jokingly, referring to one of her upcoming party themes. 'It's going to start with champagne and caviar, and end with hot dogs and jello, signifying that the good times are coming to an end.' There's nothing like a party for a pick-me-up during tough times, but this year's festivities aren't taking Hongkongers' minds off the financial crisis. 'The economic drop happened so drastically and quickly, this holiday season is going to be a tough adjustment from last year,' says Gingers catering company founder Liz Seaton. 'From January to June of this year, we saw our best performance since opening in 2001. But in the last two weeks of October, the bookings stopped. And then in November, the cancellations came in.' For the months of November and December, business has fallen 15 to 20 per cent year on year, Seaton estimates. 'Our corporate clientele, especially, are scaling down,' Seaton says. In previous holiday seasons, corporate clients typically made up 70 per cent of Ginger's customer base, but account for only 40 per cent this year, with the rest coming from private clients. And her comments are echoed across the city. 'Everyone still wants a last hurrah before 2009, but they're extremely price conscious, and even those who can afford the lavish blowout parties are cutting back in an effort to not flaunt their spending habits,' says Mark Percy, who runs the two-year-old Percys catering company. 'Private parties budgets are 20 to 30 per cent down from last year,' Granito says. 'The corporate clients are cutting back a lot more. And by that I mean possibly cancelling parties altogether.' For the holiday party plans that do persist, Hongkongers are adjusting their champagne tastes to their beer budgets. 'This year's concerns are a lot more practical, with questions like whether people should do a buffet or just cocktails,' says Percy. 'Last year the priority was on outdoing other parties with an anything goes mentality. Budget wasn't on their list of concerns.' 'Hong Kong is waking up from its peak-of-the-stock-market lifestyle and realising now that they don't really need truffles in their mac-and-cheese, and they're just fine with regular beef instead of Wagyu burgers,' says Granito. Indeed, in place of the usual foie gras offerings in December, Percys is providing a rustic country terrine at a fraction of the cost. And Seaton tweaked her menu to focus on heartier foods with more bulk, such as sandwiches and frittatas. However, even non-premium ingredients are costly. 'Let's not forget there was a global food crisis and rise in food prices across the board. Our average food expenditure has climbed 19 per cent from January to October of this year. And we haven't felt the benefits from the recent drop in oil prices and euros yet.' Reduced guest lists are another alternative for frugal entertaining. 'Our average party size last year was over 150 people. This year, it's 50 to 80 people,' says Seaton, who recently lowered Ginger's minimum cocktail party size from 20 to 15 people. Alcohol consumption, on the other hand, remains untouched. 'The 'financial drowning' has done more for alcohol sales than the elimination of the wine tax,' says Percy, who increased his company's Australian wine selection by 10 to 20 per cent in October. 'People may order less food, but they want to make sure there are plenty of drinks to go around,' Granito says, adding cocktails may offer more bang for the buck. Seaton agrees: 'A bottle of wine that goes for HK$150 will yield far fewer drinks than a HK$200 bottle of gin.' In addition to food and beverage costs, transport, equipment rental and staff fees can add up to more than half the total. But Seaton says reducing staff from the recommended numbers may be more detrimental than customers suppose. 'It's a false economy. People are trying to squeeze the work of five people into three and often want to get their helpers to lend a hand. But when things go wrong, it is far more apparent to the guests than running low on canapes. Why not spend just HK$140 an hour for someone well-trained?' Nevertheless, in an effort to accommodate shrinking wallets, Gingers, Go Gourmet and Percys have all cut their number of staff at holiday events. The Mandarin Oriental refuses to cut staff numbers. 'We would rather turn down a request than attempt to host a party unsuccessfully,' catering director Joanne Cheng says. 'We aim for the same standards inside and outside of the hotel.' At a private event recently, diners uncorked a bottle of HK$400,000 Chateau Latour 1947. And recently, executive sous chef James Norman provided an eight-course sit down meal for 80 persons replete with gastronomic delights such as a miniature bird's nest made from mixed greens complete with quail eggs encased in an edible 'clay' shell made of potato starch. This type of dinner starts at about HK$1,500, plus 10 per cent per person. Although these over-the-top merriments might seem at odds with the tough economic reality, Cheng reports business is thriving. 'Like everyone else, I was worried, but we've actually surpassed our November figures from last year and have a healthy lineup of bookings for December.' Mandarin Oriental public relations director Katherine Anthony has a theory to explain their strong and resilient performance. 'We're gaining a lot of new private clients who have scrubbed out their travel plans this season. So instead of spending winter in Switzerland, they may be putting a little more attention and resources on doing something special for their holiday dinner here in Hong Kong.' Chef Norman says VIP clients are always looking for the 'wow factor'. He says 95 per cent of their upmarket clientele prefer more innovative western-style menus over traditional holiday dishes and Asian counterparts. 'It's no longer special to have Christmas dinner in a hotel or restaurant, but taking entertaining into your own hands is still a fresh and growing concept. And if you compare it to the price of Krug Room's Christmas menu [HK$30,000 for up for 12 people], it might actually be a bargain.' But the final verdict of this year's holiday parties' impact to the bottom line won't be clear until the very end of 2008. 'Right now everyone is waiting until the last minute to maketheir bookings,' Seaton notes. 'Last year, we would get calls in May for a December party. Yesterday I got a call wanting an event that same night.' Likewise, Percys clients are not calling ahead of the usual four-month deadline. 'The secretaries from corporations are waiting to see how much money is left over before deciding what kind of party they want, if any at all. We're gaining some new private clients who are foregoing the hotel and restaurant parties and doing some low-key [events] at home or in their office. We'll have to wait and see, and be quick on our feet.' 'It's no where near as bad as the Sars [outbreak],' Seaton says, reassuringly. 'We still have our near-blank schedule books from 2003, and I remember having to reduce my staff working week to five days instead of six. But Sars was short-lived and over in about a month. The problem this time is that nobody knows how long this recession will last.' One thing is certain, everyone is working harder with the same resources. 'Just because we've got less money to work with doesn't mean we're going to throw worse parties,' Seaton insists. 'It's crunch time,' Granito declares. She has recently finished roasting 50 turkeys for Thanksgiving. 'We'll all sleep in January.'