Recession-weary event planners are now seeing large orchestras returning to galas, more money being spent on food, and events being planned in the future.
After an economic downturn eliminated or downsized many events, meeting professionals have recently started seeing more galas and auctions return, said some suburban meeting planners.
“I think the galas that are doing the best are the well-established events, which kept providing a quality event despite the economic downturn,” said Ann Marie Arzt, president of Barrington-based EventScape Inc. “Some nonprofits abandoned their seated-dinner gala format a few years back and adopted a reception-type event.”
The return of the gala, although with a trimmed guest list, is a welcome change after a tough recession. And trends show that despite costs, events are still being planned and some further in advance, experts said.
The real winners are charities that continue with their proven format of a formal seated dinner, with great entertainment at an interesting venue with delicious food, Arzt said.
“Galas are returning to hiring large orchestras again as well as well as supplementary entertainment for receptions. I do think that the cutbacks made a few years ago in decor have not fully returned yet and most are getting by with less,” she said. 
Food costs have increased and are a larger percentage of the budget, while nonprofits are reducing costs of their invitations and mailing lists.
Venues, including restaurants, also have noticed an uptick. For example, Fogo de Chao Churrascaria, a Southern Brazilian steakhouse in downtown Chicago for 11 years recently invested about $750,000 to build private event space. It also opened its 21st location in Rosemont. Also, e+o (meaning Earth and Ocean) restaurant opened earlier this year in Mt. Prospect with chef/owner Rodelio Aglibot.
While he’s seen an uptick in business luncheons, he’s also partnering with the nearby Hampton Suites to entice guests and private parties into his dining rooms.
“Sales people are becoming real foodies and they need to know where all the hot restaurants are to go to eat and take their clients there,” he said.
Events are easily booking through next year, much further in advance than what’s happened in recent years, said Kathy Miller, founder of Total Event Resources in Schaumburg. She’s directed several events, including the Hoffman Estates-based Alexian Brothers Women and Children’s Hospital grand opening this year.
“There are some events that are three weeks to 60 days out, but now we’re seeing many plan 6 months to 9 months or even a year in ahead. It’s gone from a buyers market to a sellers market, especially since more space is being booked so far in advance,” Miller said. Those booking in advance include financial institutions, pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers.
In addition, Miller is finding more companies and associations are seeking bids from event planners.
“When I started about 18 years ago, I had a lot of relationship sales,” Miller said. “If I did a great job on an event, I built a relationship with that organization and was able to do their event again the next time. About 90 percent was relationship sales. But that’s shifted now.”
The rough economy did more than tighten the belts at companies and associations. More event planners were either laid off or left the staff of their companies and went into business for themselves, feeding into that competition, Miller said.