First it was COVID-19. Then came recession fears coupled with spikes in coronavirus variants. Over the last few years, big holiday get-togethers were often marred by one concern or another, forcing many companies and organizations to scrap or at least downsize their celebrations. And that hit a restaurant and hospitality sector already struggling to regain lost ground particularly hard.

While the 2022 holiday season brought a bit more normalcy to most cities including Houston, many restaurants report that spending wasn’t quite on par with pre-pandemic levels. This year though, hopes are high that companies will go big for their celebrations while the industry adapts to new trends. We spoke with a few optimistic owners and managers at area concepts who are looking forward to a merry season over the next couple months.

Answers provided by: Monica Richards, Chief Marketing Officer at Picos in Upper Kirby; Ursula Sloan, Sales and Events Manager at Steak 48 in the River Oaks District near Uptown; and Cinda Murphy de Palacios, CEO of Palacios Murphy which owns the iconic Armando’s restaurant in River Oaks as well as Hotel Lulu in Round Top and several other concepts.

For a number of years now, holiday celebrations have been scaled back or minimized in some way due to the pandemic. How has the traditional gathering changed during this time and are you expecting a “return to normal” this year?  

“The pandemic definitely pushed us to pivot and be creative during a time that was so uncertain. We are now seeing a dining out scene that is reminiscent of a pre-pandemic pace, and we are here with welcome arms! With most of our Picos private event requests being 50+ people, and on average 80 to 100 when final numbers are coming in, this holiday season is looking very promising.” – Richards with Picos

“We are seeing a combination of trends at our restaurants. On the one hand, we have hosted more intimate gatherings for important life moments like weddings, anniversaries and major milestones. Gorgeous long tables for twenty with extravagant florals, multiple courses and place cards are more popular than ever in our restaurants—and it feels like a return to a more formal style of celebrating.  

We are also seeing large-scale events come back in a major way with buyouts and full-service catering at offsite venues. From custom menus, active food stations and more intimate dinners with our chef, people are not holding back this year and it is a lot of fun for us and their guests.” – Murphy de Palacios with Armando's 

“Our return to normal actually happened last year, though we didn’t see too many changes in the landscape of holiday celebrations. We saw an increase in some clientele asking about social distancing guidelines and what protocols we were still following, but it never deterred anyone from booking. We’ve also seen a few people introduce ‘COVID waivers’ to private event contracts, but other than that people seemed more than comfortable to return to Steak 48. We were really busy last year and it’s looking like we’ll be busier this year.– Sloan with Steak 48 

What trends are you seeing among organizations and companies planning their holiday gatherings? Anything stand out?  

“Live entertainment and budgets spent on elevated decor, like custom floral and large welcoming back drops for guest arrival, are standouts. Restaurants are truly going above and beyond to make this year's holiday celebrations memorable for their guests.” – Richards

“We have seen a major increase in companies opting for retreats around the holidays. They are reserving our entire property at Hotel Lulu in Round Top for a chance to plan for the upcoming year and on the last day their spouses join them for a top-notch celebration. Included in the retreat are spa treatments, golfing, shopping, s’mores stations at night, and extravagant welcome baskets. 

As far as one-night-only celebrations, we have had huge demand for private chef dinners that include a culinary and wine experience inspired by different themes like sustainability, or water and salt. We pair each meal with a different wine/cocktail and take guests on a complete journey. These are really great nights for a group of 20-30 guests to really let down their guard and connect outside of the office.”  – Murphy de Palacios

What does your concept offer that you think is unique for those looking for something outside the box?  

“Picos offers strolling Mariachi and is special in the fact that we can do any style of elevated cuisine. Many of our clients choose a mix from our international menu choices for their in-house events. It doesn't have to be strictly Mexican food, as our catering department does it all!” – Richards

“We are extremely lucky to have 6 restaurants and a boutique hotel, which allows us to offer diversity in guest experience. One of the most popular options for our less traditional guests is our three gourmet Taco Trucks from Armando’s. Armando was the first person to offer a luxury food truck in Houston as an alternative to traditional catering and we carry on that tradition today. We recently added a new truck to our fleet, and it is a really fun way to make the dining experience memorable, active and a little more fun for a large group.” – Murphy de Palacios

“Beyond offering our guests eight private dining rooms of varying sizes to choose from, we also offer the option to add wine pairings and bourbon or whiskey tastings to booked evenings. With enough time, we can also embroider chef coats with the guests' names on them to give them ‘the ultimate chef's experience.’ We have great relationships with outside event vendors that help us transform rooms with elevated decor and entertainment to further elevate all of our events with an extra bespoke touch.– Sloan

How are bookings looking so far this year?

“Bookings are filling in quickly. [In one recent week] we confirmed an additional 20 events. There will be a lot of happy people at Picos this year.” – Richards

“It is not too early to say that it is looking like it will be our busiest holiday season in the history of our company. We started fielding requests in June and July and our team is ready for an incredibly packed season.” – Murphy de Palacios

“Bookings this year came in quickly and have kept us busy. We’re currently booked for the majority of the holidays!– Sloan

What are you most looking forward to this season in terms of celebrations (perhaps a return to normal, a particular event you enjoy hosting, welcoming certain clients back). 

“Our favorite night of the year is Christmas Eve. In true Picos tradition, we are looking forward to seeing multi-generational fans of Picos who have made it their tradition to celebrate Christmas Eve with us.  We are also still seeing some faces that took a break from dining out during the pandemic. We look forward to seeing everyone enjoying themselves all season long.” – Richards

“We operate restaurants and hotels, but we are in the business of people and community. It is truly our guests that make any of our spaces feel special and there is something about the holidays that makes everything feel a bit more special. We have had the honor of watching generations of guests celebrate some of life’s most important moments. After being in this business for just over 45 years, we are truly lucky to have a following that feels like an extended family to us. So spending time with everyone this holiday season will surely be the highlight.” – Murphy de Palacios

“I’m really grateful to have a year of ‘normal’ already under our belt – I think it will help tremendously as we get back into the swing of holiday bookings. Additionally, a lot of the guests who booked with us last year have returned to book their events this year as well. I’m looking forward to seeing some familiar faces!” – Sloan

 (Pictured above, Steak 48's East Room; credit Michael Anthony)