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Picnic Purveyors Thrive on Companies' Fun and Games

September 03, 1987|IDELLE DAVIDSON | Davidson is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

Hoping for a reprieve, 12-year-old Christine Gomes asked: "Aw, Mom, do I have to?" Her mother pushed her up to the starting line as the race began.

The crowd went wild. To deafening cheers, laughter and thunderous applause, Christine and her competitors waddled down the field with foam watermelons between their knees. Christine crossed the finish line, winning second place, the prize of a board game and a squeeze from her mother.

Welcome to company picnics. They are a treat for employees and their families and good for staff morale. They're also big business for the picnic industry.

In 1986, well over half the 4,000 U.S. corporations belonging to the National Employees Services and Recreation Assn. held company picnics. Locally, many picnic companies are booked for the summer and are scheduling into next year.

Glen Gerson, president of the family-owned, 80-acre Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, said that this season's picnic business has been the firm's most profitable yet. By the end of the summer, which Gerson counts as May through October, Calamigos Ranch will have held corporate picnics for 150,000 employees and their guests and grossed over $3 million, he said.

Sites Are Leased

Corporate Events, one of the largest picnic operators in Los Angeles County, leases 10 picnic sites. Five of them are high in the hills of Agoura, Calabasas and Topanga. About 200 companies--up to 200,000 guests--will use these facilities this season, at an average cost of $23 per person.

But costs can run much higher, said Dick Friedlander, the picnic company's area manager. It depends on what the client wants. Corporate Events provides the site, food, liquor, entertainment, full-time staff of 30 and as-needed staff of up to 400, including security personnel and emergency medical technicians.

"We organize anything from chili cook-offs to Oktoberfests to luaus to casino nights," said Friedlander. He prefers to organize events for 200 or more people. "The largest we've booked this year was for a union--4,000 people."

Amusement parks are also in the picnic business. For a minimum of 150 people at $15 to $17 per person, Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia offers admission to the park, an all-you-can-eat meal in a private picnic area, volleyball and traditional games like egg tosses and sack races.

"Companies stay in the area for about half a day, eating and doing all the games," said general sales manager Ron Broschart. "They are free to go into the park afterward and stay until closing. That's the advantage we have over some picnic companies. Their day pretty much ends at 5. We stay open until midnight."

Friedlander believes that there's a big difference between amusement parks and traditional picnic companies.

Said Friedlander, "At an amusement park, they'll have their food and then split up. You may never see your neighbor again. We do it all together and involve the family."

An alternative to amusement parks or on-site picnics are the mobile picnic companies. Al Patt, owner of Picnic Services, based in Los Angeles, takes his catering and entertainment services to the client's choice of location.

Booking for '88

Patt's company held 180 picnics last year, and is now booking for next season. Often Picnic Services uses public parks. The 5% catering fee it is charged by some parks is passed on to the client.

"Others in the industry make much more than I do," said Patt. "We grossed probably three-quarters of a million dollars last year. But I'm working seven days a week, and probably 12 to 14 hours a day."

The staff of Dataproducts Corp., based in Woodland Hills, attended a picnic one recent Saturday. At least 1,200 adults and children attended a six-hour, $26,000 picnic package at Corporate Events' Meadow Oaks facility in Calabasas.

It was a day for staff and family to relax, don jeans or shorts instead of business attire and simply have fun. There were make-your-own sundaes and barbecued beef ribs, fried chicken, hot dogs, salad, beans, corn and soft drinks, all you wanted. Wine and beer service ended an hour before closing.

When not eating, guests participated in races for all ages, a giant water slide for the daring, swimming, boating, miniature golf and fishing from a lake stocked with catfish. Cassandra Valenzuela, 5, shyly displayed the squirming fish she had just caught, now that it was safely in a plastic bag.

A&M Records also had a 1,200-person picnic this summer. Theirs was at Calamigos Ranch and was a bit more elaborate. In addition to all-day feasting and games, there were mimes, a Ferris wheel and hot-air balloon rides. Because the company was celebrating its 25th anniversary, a silver Toyota Tercel was raffled off.

"We have a picnic every year. It usually runs us between $30,000 to $45,000," said Dave Alpert, vice president. "We have a lot of loyal people who have worked for us for years. The owners of the company bear the entire expense."

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