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Firms pack up the picnic

Companies cut back on a summertime tradition

For Peter Hessler, life is a picnic Ñ at least he'd like it to be for 11 prime weekends during the summer, the make-it-or-break-it time for Alderbrook Park, his family-owned picnic ground in Clark County, Wash.

To try to squeeze a little more revenue out of a tough company-picnic market, Hessler has opened his park Ñ which boasts a swimming pool, miniature golf, ball fields, kids' play areas, a paddle boat pond and nature trails Ñ to the general public for two days during the week. That's something the park has never before done in 42 years.

The 63-acre Alderbrook Park has always been exclusively for big group picnics with a minimum head count of 170.

'Some of our best customers from past years aren't doing picnics any more,' Hessler says.

'And that's really too bad because with the economy down, company picnics should be more important than ever. There aren't many more affordable ways to reward employees.'

Hessler isn't crying the blues alone. Picnic-goers at the Oregon Zoo have dwindled from 43,000 for fiscal 2000-01 to 28,000 for the 2002-03 fiscal year that ended July 1, according to zoo officials.

McKillip's Catering Inc. in St. Paul, which specializes in major feeds, has seen its revenue drop 20 percent over the past three years.

'That comes from people dropping picnics altogether,' says co-owner Grant McKillip, 'and from people moving from chicken to hot dogs with their picnics.'

Big-splash picnics are gone, says Teri Dresler, guest services manager at the Oregon Zoo.

'Instead of upscale picnics, people are reducing their menus,' she says. 'They're moving from elaborate dessert choices to cookies.'

Mary Beth Coffey, senior manager of Oaks Amusement Park, a venerable picnic venue in Southeast Portland that's been in business 98 years, says, 'It's not as big of a drop-off as we expected given all the headlines you see about the economy.

'But people are cutting bells and whistles,' she says. 'With us, they usually get a ride package for the kids, and now they might get a package that doesn't include some of the higher end rides. I think people are working hard not to dump the company picnic, but they know they need to scale it down.'

Tradition in tight times

The ODS Cos., which provide health insurance and other services, will be giving its 720 local employees a few extra hours off Aug. 18 to go to Oaks Park.

'We will have a nice barbecue,' says Charlie LaTourette, director of corporate communications. 'But we're certainly very cost-conscious. We think continuing the picnic tradition is important.'

For AAA Oregon/Idaho, cost-consciousness also is a must.

'There are some venues we just can't afford,' says Cary Solberg, a AAA manager who has handled the picnic for more than 20 years. The venues with in-house caterers and built-in entertainment, such as the Oregon Zoo or Alderbrook, are more expensive, but low on the hassle quotient. Companies essentially hand all the planning over to them.

This year, Solberg planned the AAA event Ñ hosting some 300 people Ñ at Blue Lake Park in east Multnomah County. There, users rent a picnic area and bring their own catering and entertainment, such as clowns and face painting for the kids. Renting a picnic shelter at Blue Lake runs between $45 to $200 for a day, depending on its size and whether alcohol is allowed in that particular shelter.

Then, serving as his own general contractor, Solberg hired a caterer who put together a meal for about $12 a head. Clowns, magicians, face-painters and other entertainers can be had for a few hundred dollars.

'All this has been climbing, too,' Solberg says. 'Catering and entertainment expenses have gone up about 30 percent in recent years.'

Good news for some

Lower-cost facilities, such as Blue Lake, actually are doing pretty well as picnic organizers seek to cut expenses where they can.

'Business is brisk,' says Ron Klein, a spokesman for Metro Regional Parks, which manages Blue Lake. 'We haven't experienced a slowdown at all.'

In fact, for next summer Blue Lake will increase its facility fees by an average of 10 percent.

A planner willing to do a lot of negotiating can save quite a bit on a picnic by renting space and then cutting deals with caterers and entertainers who are hungry for business. Companies can reduce costs by deciding not to have beer and wine, or by limiting drinks to two glasses on the company and then moving to a no-host bar. Or, they can have pay-as-you-go for alcohol.

Another popular way to hold the line on costs is to charge for people who aren't immediate family members of the employee.

McKillip, the St. Paul caterer, has a menu of offerings but is flexible.

'People can tell me what they can afford,' he says, 'and I tell them what I can do for that. We've been in business 22 years and you have to be flexible. If someone calls me up and says they have to feed 5,000 next Wednesday, I'll say I'll be there.'

The big venues are adapting as well.

'We're seeing a lot more small events, even by big companies,' says the zoo's Dresler. 'We've really changed our sales focus and are already seeing the results. The numbers for the rest of the 2003 summer should show that our picnics are up again, although we'll have to do more events to get there.'

At Alderbrook, Hessler hopes that letting the general public in will help people remember the park his father developed with Adirondack benches and drinking fountains spouting lemonade. And that better economic times will keep the company picnic alive and well.

'I understand that you can't lay off 800 people and then have a picnic,' he says. 'That would be bad for morale, too. But there aren't too many ways that companies can get as much mileage with employees as with a picnic.'