Vancouver corporate parties and event bookings soar

Restaurants readying for first holiday season in years without COVID-19 restrictions

Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill and Enoteca owner Pino Posteraro stands in one of his Yaletown restaurant's private rooms | Chung Chow

With 2022 being the first holiday season since 2019 with no government COVID-19 mandates, or restrictions on who can enter restaurants, corporate executives have planned ahead and booked office holiday parties.

Restaurant owners say they expect an extraordinarily busy November and December thanks to a surge in demand for private dining room space for corporate events and private parties as most people return to feeling comfortable mingling in indoor public spaces.

Glowbal Restaurant Group owner Emad Yacoub told BIV that his eight restaurants have never had more corporate holiday-season bookings.

“We are seeing a massive increase from 2019,” he said. “It’s about 25 per cent, or 30 per cent over 2019.”

Corporate and private event bookings were extremely rare in 2020, because the B.C. government’s pandemic-era restrictions essentially banned them. Indeed, no one in B.C. had received a COVID-19 vaccine until Dec. 22 of that year.

Widespread public vaccination, and loosened government restrictions in 2021 meant that limited corporate gatherings were possible, although restaurant staff had to check customers’ COVID-19 vaccine cards to ensure that the visitors had been vaccinated.

The rise of the more highly transmissible Omicron variant at the time then complicated matters.

The B.C. government reported the province’s first official case of that variant on Nov. 30, 2021. Omicron cases then soared to 1,613 by Christmas Eve, prompting public testing centres to have hours-long line-ups. That prompted Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry to tell vaccinated people with mild symptoms to self-isolate and not get tested

B.C.’s ban on diners moving between restaurant tables was temporarily suspended for much of December but it returned on Dec. 20, 2021.

Throughout that month, masks had to be worn when diners were not at their tables – something that meant that any corporate gatherings that took place were less social than they would have been pre-pandemic.

All this caused reticence by some people to enter indoor public spaces even when masked. Restaurant owners often operated at less than full capacity to give patrons more space and peace of mind.

Despite this, several restaurant owners told BIV that their holiday season overall in 2021 was sufficiently busy thanks to many people wanting to get out to eat and socialize after enduring more than a year and a half of living with COVID-19 restrictions.

“It wasn’t bad,” said Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill and Enoteca owner Pino Posteraro of his Yaletown bistro’s 2021 holiday season.

In contrast, Posteraro told BIV that all of his restaurant’s seven private rooms are almost fully booked between now and Christmas.

“People can always check, and there might be an empty spot here and there, but, you know, for December, we are solidly booked,” he said.

His restaurant seats 227 people, with about approximately 100 in his main restaurant area and 127 in meeting rooms, he said.

Umberto Menghi told BIV that his staff this week is winterizing the back garden part of his Giardino Restaurant on Hornby Street.

He has booked that space for private parties up to 20 people, and it is largely booked solid through November and December, he said.
Restaurateurs do not usually charge customers extra to use private rooms, but reservations require a set number of diners.

It is not just high-end restaurants that are seeing this boom in event bookings.

Earls’ chief brand officer Kristin Vekteris told BIV that event bookings have poured in for many of her Vancouver-based chain’s restaurants.

“We’re seeing that private event spaces, like the Loft [in Yaletown,] are in high demand this holiday season, but we are also seeing an increase in smaller holiday corporate bookings, over previous years, for our other locations,” she said.

Earls’ Loft space is the top floor of the chain’s Yaletown restaurant, and it can accommodate 265 people for stand-up grazing events, and 100 people seated at tables.

“Guests particularly appreciate that it has its own event kitchen independent of the downstairs restaurant, as well as a large, full-service bar,” Vekteris said.

While most restaurants have been raising the cost of meals, Posteraro said that he is so far strived to absorb most of the cost of inflation. Grocery store food-price inflation in B.C. was 11.4 per cent in September, Statistics Canada said last month.

Menghi said that he has to pass the costs on because his suppliers have raised prices significantly.

“We’ve increased the prices along with the economy,” he said. “Some of the increases are from 10 per cent to 15 per cent. It depends. If it is pasta, it will be an increase of 10 per cent. The costs keep going up and we just have to move with it.”