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Another Big Party Canceled
Celebrations Fizzle In D.C., Elsewhere

By Susan Levine and David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 30, 1999; Page A01

Washington's biggest private New Year's Eve celebration--a heavily promoted music and dance party at the downtown MCI Center--was canceled suddenly yesterday, joining numerous other area hotel packages and special events that apparently have fallen victim to cost concerns, Y2K and apathy.

Mike Harrigan, at Shack Events Promotion Inc. of Northern Virginia, declined to elaborate on the decision, saying only that the promoters "unfortunately had to pull the plug." Although he previously had described Capital Countdown 2000 Gala as well on pace to sell out, he acknowledged yesterday that thousands of the $249 and $399 tickets remained. Only weeks ago, the company merged a second party at Georgetown Park into the one planned for MCI Center.

The cancellation comes two weeks after a major New Year's Eve soiree at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center was scrapped. The black-tie "America's New Millennium" ball, intended to raise as much as $1 million for 20 area charities, also died because of paltry ticket sales.

Throughout the Washington area--indeed, across the country--an industry that months ago confidently publicized lavish year-end affairs has changed its tune. With shows fizzling from Los Angeles to New York, hotels and promoters alike have folded their parties and special events, and others have adjusted their prices. Reservations remain sluggish at some restaurants and clubs. It turns out most people would rather spend the evening quietly at home or with friends, or enjoy a far less expensive evening--even, it seems, the hip twentysomethings who were the target audience at MCI Center.

"I think that people are cocooning," said Chip Stuckmeyer, director of marketing at Washington's Marriott Wardman Park, which canceled its $2,000-per-couple dinner party featuring Neil Sedaka and the Supremes with Mary Wilson. The price included three nights at the hotel. Only 25 couples were interested.

At the Hyatt Regency Bethesda, the festivities are still on, but sales director Carolyn Montrose acknowledged that "we didn't have an overwhelming response." After dropping the cost of its "spectacular all-inclusive millennium celebration" from $699 to $399 a couple, the hotel will host about 150 to 175 people, half its hoped-for sellout.

"A lot of it, I think, is the hype. A lot of it is fear of Y2K, or people have to work," Montrose said. "I think a lot of people realized it's just another night."

Nearly everyone in the hospitality field was betting on New Year's Eve being a night for large galas that people might pay handsomely to attend. Most were wrong.

"When you start planning major events a year, a year and a half out, you think the best," said Bill Edwards, general manager of the Washington Hilton. "Then people just change their minds. . . . The typical event attracting the general public is just not working, and I don't know too many cities where it is."

The Hilton had scheduled an $849-a-couple ball, with dinner, live music by the Hubcaps and an overnight stay. Or people could pay $250 each to dine and dance. But the week after Thanksgiving, those plans were killed.

At the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, the party has been moved from the large ballroom to the "much more cozy" Ambassador Room, where general manager Jose Campos is hoping to attract 100 to 150 people--a quarter of the crowd once anticipated.

"It's not at all what we had in our minds," Campos said. On Dec. 31, 1998, a run-of-the-mill New Year's Eve, the Omni Shoreham's 800 rooms were sold out. This year, only about 300 rooms are booked. "One year ago," he said, "we thought this was going to be the year for a special celebration."

Campos also suspects media reports about potential Y2K glitches may be to blame. "I think everybody got so scared for Y2K, people said, 'We don't want to be a part of it. Let's stay home.' "

Smaller and quieter--that's not how it was supposed to be for these parties of the century. But patrons are telling the professionals that they just aren't up for it. Campos has heard such explanations as, "We are staying at home, we are meeting with friends, we are going house to house, my husband is working. . . . "

Fewer than 20 packages for dinner, dancing and an overnight stay were sold at the Swissotel Washington-the Watergate, so few that the hotel downsized the event, moving it from a ballroom to its restaurant.

At the Westin Fairfax on Embassy Row, there was only one taker for a $1,599 "Sweet '99" overnight package for two. Six couples initially reserved the Y2K package at $1,299--but two later pulled out. Only five couples will partake in the hotel's special four-course, $399 dinner in its Jockey Club, although the restaurant may fill up with patrons enjoying its a la carte menu.

"It's almost like the over-hype met with reality and blew up in everyone's face," said promoter David Lindenauer, who nonetheless will be smiling tomorrow night. His National Millennium party at the Grand Hyatt downtown is apparently one of the few flourishing, with about 3,000 tickets, of 3,500, sold for $199 or $499 apiece. The event, featuring eight nationally known and locally prominent bands, has had a bounce effect for the hotel, which is booked.

In Crystal City, too, the Embassy Suites hit its goal by selling 105 New Year's Eve packages, according to general manager Darrius Gray. The $349 price includes a two-room suite, dinner buffet for two, open bar and dancing.

Although restaurants may not be closing for lack of business, reservations are lagging at many.

"It's going to be pretty slow all night," said Alfie Magby, floor manager of B. Smith's in Union Station. The restaurant is offering $75 and $175 dinners. He said the restaurant has a capacity of 300 people but has just 120 people booked for the night.

At the Old Ebbitt Grill, private party manager Kate Ehlers said about one-third of 700 tickets have been sold at $300 per person for its New Year's Eve event, which includes dinner, entertainment by an 18-piece swing orchestra, an open bar and party favors.

The good news, Ehlers offered, is that many who have reservations say they are glad the crowd will be more intimate. "We're looking forward to having a really great party, just not as many people as we expected."

Some live music clubs also are seeing slow ticket sales--as in "real mediocre," said Susan Anderson, catering manager at Whitlow's in Arlington.

Whitlow's had expected tickets to sell out for its $100-a-person countdown featuring open bar, food buffet and the band Boogiehawg playing rock and funk. Instead, tomorrow night it will also open its doors to walk-ins willing to pay a $25 cover charge to hear the band and get a class of champagne and some party favors.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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