Babysitters and limousines are going, going . . . and portable dance floors are gone.
There aren't enough propane heaters to make all the outdoor party tents cozy. Waiters can still be hired, but they're billing almost as much an hour as lawyers. Prices of beef tenderloin and shrimp are climbing like technology stocks.
From champagne flutes to crooners of "Auld Lang Syne," the building blocks of a proper New Year's Eve celebration are being hit by inflation of millennial proportions.
"It's a good time for everybody to make some money," said Philip Kirlew, a manager of Capital Party Rental, where tent prices have risen 50 percent and heater prices have doubled.
"It's the most expensive night of the last thousand years," said Sandy McCall, millennium point man for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
And yet the economics don't make perfect sense. Despite the inflation, consumer demand has yet to fully justify commercial fantasies of an orgy of spending and buying.
Take beef. With packers out West asking $10 a pound for tenderloin and refusing to guarantee it will be available in late December, wholesalers such as Robert Carroll of C&C Meat Sales in Upper Marlboro are digging in their boot heels and waiting for the price to come down. It was recently $2-a-pound higher than at this time last year.
"Market observers refer to it as millennial madness," said Jens Knutson, economist for the American Meat Institute, cheerfully fielding calls on why better cuts of beef are so dear. "The cowboys are just tickled pink."
But caterers such as Susan Lacz of Ridgewells in Bethesda and hotel managers such as Bill Edwards of the Washington Hilton grumble that suppliers are hiking prices "for no reason other than the millennium," in Lacz's words.
"We are reminding the purveyors how much meat we buy over the course of a year," Edwards said delicately. "Those purveyors who try to take advantage of us or the public will be remembered."
And waiting at the end of the food chain is the New Year's partygoer. Edwards's hotel is charging $849 a couple for New Year's Eve lodging and a party with live music, an open bar, a four-course meal and breakfast. The special menu includes tenderloin. So far the response from the public has been lackadaisical.
"Right now, we don't see the demand," Edwards said. The number of party reservations "is barely creeping into the 10-to-20 range."
The Omni Shoreham Hotel has about 50 takers so far for its $899-a-couple package, according to managing director Jose Campo. Ridgewells reports 40 parties booked and 20 more pending, not much more than in other years, although Lacz has noticed the parties being planned are more lavish. "It's not the quantity, it's the quality" that suggests something different this year, she said.
Party planners say ticket sales will pick up after Thanksgiving, when friends and families have had a chance to gather and make New Year's Eve plans.
Some people are more focused on the dreaded Y2K computer problem that pessimists fear will cause lights to go out and commerce to cease. Demand for backup electric generators is huge, and some distributors and manufacturers are sold out until next year.
Generator sales at Auxiliary Electric Power in Fairfax City are up 40 percent. But manager Marc Tolbert sees a downside: "There's going to be a lot of used generators on the market come the third or fourth of January. I don't think I'll be able to sell a generator to save my life."
Tolbert has some generators for sale, but none to rent. His entire rental inventory is on emergency call with Fairfax and Arlington counties from Dec. 1 to Feb. 1. "It kind of suggests maybe they're worried about something," he said, "or maybe they just want to be prepared."
Most of the market-cornering and price-hiking seems driven by people who, unconcerned about Y2K, are planning to punctuate the century by attending or hosting once-in-a-lifetime bashes. Never mind that the new millennium technically doesn't begin for another year, it feels as if something's ending now.
"I don't think there's any more dance floor in the area for New Year's Eve," said Doug Jones, vice president of Rent-All Center in Alexandria.
"The thing we're having trouble keeping up with is heaters," said Marion Hearn, of Atlantic Tent Rentals near Frederick, Md., where every heater was booked weeks ago.
Capital Party Rental in Rockville expects to have dance flooring only because it is ordering more from the factory, manager Kirlew said. The 50 percent higher rental fee this year will pay for new inventory that can be rented out in years to come. The firm also had to buy more champagne flutes--after a single client ordered 5,000.
But higher prices don't just reflect savvy entrepreneurs seizing the moment. Businesses, including Capital Party Rental, must pay sharply inflated wages to coax employees to work when they'd rather spend this New Year's Eve with their families and friends. Some musicians are charging 10 times their normal rate, according to party planners.
Jones said Rent-All Center usually offers $100 holiday pay for about three hours of work installing and dismantling tents and dance floors. This year, he said, "I'm offering $500, and I can't get any takers. They're laughing at me."
Experienced waiters, in short supply, are commanding triple wages. "Because of the staff situation, we're being very cautious about what [party bookings] we say yes to," said Bill DuBois, of Design Cuisine caterers in Arlington. He said some employers are offering skilled waiters up to $100 an hour.
To boost their staffs, hotels and caterers are competing for the same pool of freelance waiters, many of whom would rather celebrate--unless the price is right. Others want to work but won't commit until they see who offers the most.
Waiters at two recent catered receptions said they're being offered triple pay, about $50 an hour, to work New Year's Eve.
"The real money is going to be in private house parties," said one, noting that a good waiter can make $1,000 at a plush affair in Georgetown, Potomac or McLean.
"It's going to be a great night to make a lot of money, but it's the only millennium you're going to see," said another waiter. A third said he's working that night because the caterer threatened to withhold jobs for a month if he didn't.
For hotels, such as the Marriott Wardman Park and the Hyatt Regency, that have a unionized work force, the pay scale of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union doesn't reflect millennial inflation. At the Hyatt, employees' vacations have been postponed until next year.
Some partygoers and party-givers have already lined up transportation. Limousine companies with smaller fleets say limos are reserved, but sedans are still available. Larger fleets are getting booked fast.
Admiral Limousine Service is supplying nearly 70 vehicles for the show at the Lincoln Memorial. It also has a standing obligation to big hotel customers, so owner George Coupe Sr. can't guarantee anything to new patrons. "Our biggest problem is getting the drivers. We're paying double," he said. "I may drive a job myself."
Babysitters are being reserved way ahead. "I'm just about at the point of cutting off my bookings," said Suzanne Cook, owner of American Nannies, who got her first call last January. Wages at many services have doubled: parents will pay $20 to $40 an hour, plus a nanny firm fee.
At least celebrants can take comfort that prices for the sacred beverage of New Year's Eve aren't soaring--not yet anyway. One factor is that the champagne shortages that some feared months ago have not come to pass.
Marriott International, for example, began ordering in January so guests would not run dry, and liquor stores and restaurants say there will be plenty. Still, wine merchants warn that particular brands will probably vanish well before 1999 does. If your favorite bubbly is Veuve Clicquot or Roederer Cristal . . . better stop reading now and go shopping.
Makers and suppliers of champagne know they are being watched for signs of gouging. Instead of raising prices, Michael Quinn, manager of Potomac Wines & Spirits, said the industry is forgoing the usual discounts that knock a few dollars off a bottle this time of year.
You'll be paying more for champagne, but unlike nearly every other party supply and service, you just won't know it.
Staff writer Susan Levine contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Marc Tolbert stands beside one of the most coveted pieces of rental property for New Year's--a generator. All of his Fairfax firm's rental generators already are taken.