Cheyenne Mountain Resort uses this ice cream truck to give local companies a gentle nudge.

It might not feel appropriate with sunny days still reaching into the 90s, but this is holiday party planning season.

“If you don’t have your venue booked by October, you’re going to really limit your options,” said Donna Vessey, professional party planner and owner of Donna Vessey Events.

This is one of her busiest planning seasons as companies organizing larger parties begin making arrangements even if they’ve had their venue locked down for months.

“We fly entertainment in from all over the country,” Vessey said. “We arrange a fleet of courtesy limos.”

All of that takes some advance planning and commitments, especially for entertainment that becomes harder and harder to book closer to the holidays.

There’s a lot that goes into orchestrating a big event, something Vessey said a lot of companies are still doing despite the economic downturn.

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There are 30 to 40 major employers in Colorado Springs — primarily in the medical, insurance and defense contracting fields — that can still give out bonuses and throw big holiday parties for employees, she said. And plenty of smaller employers are still partying on a different scale.

Vessey said she noticed a big slowdown in corporate holiday events in 2009 and 2010, but that 2011 was better and her bookings are looking stronger for 2012.

Vendors and venues report the same trend.

A better year

Heather Darrigan, who owns The Food Designers catering, said she already has a few holiday parties booked — aside from the ones that usually do it a year in advance.

“I’m already ahead of last year,” Darrigan said. “It’s looking good.”

She noticed more businesses holding off until a month or even a week before their actual holiday event to book her services the past couple years.

“It seems like they were thinking they would do it themselves and save some money,” Darrigan said. “And then they decided last-minute to spend the money.”

A.J. Carlisle, who owns Celebrity DJ, said the same. His corporate clients the past few years have held off until the last minute to book him for appearances at their parties.

“It seemed to me like they wanted to see what their third-quarter billings were going to be before they committed to spending in the fourth quarter,” Carlisle said.

But he says he’s also been getting more early calls this year. Based in part on that, Carlisle feels optimistic that the economy is taking a turn for the better and companies are starting to think they again can afford that big end-of-the-year thank you for their employees and, in some cases, their customers.

Some venues like the Cheyenne Mountain Resort, as well as vendors, are seeing more and more bookings for January parties, said Melodie Owens, director of catering and special events for the resort.

Because demand is lower after Christmas, prices are too, she said. And that appeals to businesses that are trying to save some money.

Still, Owens adds, “The biggest reason they say they’re doing it in January, though, is to give their employees more time.”

A lot of employees miss the holiday events because they go out of town or have conflicting commitments. It’s hard to get everyone together when people are trying to squeeze their vacations in at the end of the year, Owens said.

Important part of the year

About 75 percent of Vessey’s business revolves around corporate event planning. She’s busy year-round. But the holidays are her busiest season.

She organizes three to four major holiday parties a week during each week in December and bounces between another two to three big ones on weekend nights, she said.

Some of the parties host more than 1,000 employees and their guests.

But she does smaller events, too, including dispatching holiday carolers and singing telegrams to more intimate events. She even has a team of Santas on call who can bop between four or five parties in a night handing out holiday bonuses, hams and gift cards.

Some of those Santas will hit parties at Briarhurst Manor in Manitou Springs, where December sales make up a sizeable chunk of annual business.

Briarhurst general manager Ken Healey couldn’t say for sure what percentage of annual business the Briarhurst does during the winter, but the restaurant and its banquet rooms are all packed on weekends and stay busy during the week as well.

Vessey’s Santas will also likely stomp into some parties at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort, where they hire 150 seasonal staff in addition to letting employees like accountants take on extra shifts as banquet servers, Owens said.

The resort has more than a dozen spaces where it can host parties ranging in size from a handful of people to 1,200.

“We do about 25 percent of our local catering budget in the month of December,” she said.

That makes December the catering team’s single most important month of the year.

Marketing in advance

And that’s why Cheyenne Mountain Resort’s team has been bouncing around to area businesses in an ice cream truck for the past six weeks.

Owens, along with teammates Heather Snow and John Kerr, has been giving $200 to $400 worth of ice cream novelties away to employees at area businesses nearly every afternoon.

“We decided we wanted to bring people snow in summer,” Kerr said.

It’s not a hard-sell tactic, but more about raising awareness. The idea is to remind businesses about the resort, he said. And it’s a lot more fun for everyone involved than sitting in the office making cold calls.

People might not be thinking about their holiday party on a 100-degree day in July, but it’s about the right time to start planning, he said. And the visit makes people think about it.

“We had two people call us before we even got back to the resort last week,” Kerr said.

They wanted to book right away. That’s how the team knows for sure it has a successful promotion.

The numbers also speak for the success of added marketing efforts, Owens said. Holiday party bookings are up about 15 percent over last year and they were better last year than they were in 2010 as well.

“I really don’t think that’s about the economy,” she said. “I think it’s because of our marketing and becoming more known in the community.”