Square Times for New Year's; Forget millennium madness -- many people are planning to ring in 2000 at home, with family and friends.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was supposed to be the New Year's celebration of the millennium. We were told that suppliers would be sold out of champagne by last spring. Hotels and restaurants were going to be booked months in advance. And getting your hair and nails done on the last day of this century unless you made an appointment in 1998? Forget it.

Somehow none of it happened. At least not in Baltimore.

Sure, there are those of us who wouldn't miss ringing in 2000 in Times Square with 8 trillion other people. There are those who will travel to the international dateline in the South Pacific to see the first sunrise of the next thousand years.

But as the millennium winds down, many of us are planning a family celebration this New Year's Eve, or a low-key party with close friends. Some people still haven't decided what they'll be doing. And others won't be partying at all. They're the technicians, emergency personnel and other vital employees who will be working -- or on standby -- to deal with any Y2K computer problems that crop up because of the date change.

With all the negative reasons for a low-key New Year's Eve, there is a positive one. Some Baltimoreans want to spend it with their family because it's such a significant date.

"We talked about it a year ago," says clinical psychologist Susan Townsend, who lives in Lutherville. "It came down to the fact that we wanted to do something as a family. It's a reflective time. We'll be getting together for dinner and then the youngsters will go out to their parties."

Baltimorean C. J. Shay and his family will probably do what they do each New Year's Eve. Three generations live in the Shays' home, and other children are nearby.

"We try to start the year on a spiritual note, on a lofty note," says the liaison for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "We do goal setting -- usually over food. We'll do some kind of family feasting; that's the culture we're from." Shay is originally from Louisiana, so it will be a Cajun feast.

Deborah and Stanford Hess of Pikesville, on the other hand, want to celebrate with friends. But they realized last month they hadn't made plans for the biggest New Year's Eve of the century. They decided to invite several other couples over.

"We talked to our friends and found a lot of them didn't have plans either," says Deborah. "We agreed that everybody who comes will share the cost of the evening." A caterer will drop dinner off but not serve it.

It's not just Baltimoreans who are less than excited about the turn of the millennium (or the turn of the millennium minus a year, to be a stickler about it). A survey in September by the marketing research firm Maritz found that only 28 percent of Americans polled had special plans for this New Year's Eve. Uncertainty about which New Year's Eve is the millennium's eve may be one reason: 31 percent of respondents were planning to celebrate it next year.

"A year ago, expectations were greater," says Charles Levine, owner of Glorious Food caterers in Owings Mills. "I think next year's New Year's Eve will be bigger. People will look back and think they missed out."

Local hotels and restaurants are surprised at the relative lack of interest in the millennium celebration, although the official take is that Baltimoreans traditionally procrastinate about making their plans for New Year's Eve. The fact that this one is different, according to them, doesn't make any difference.

Mary Sipes, senior sales manager at the Hyatt Regency downtown, which offers a two-night package starting at $1,350 a couple, says the hotel is about 25 percent booked. "We're optimistic. People will make their plans last minute," she says.

Consumers may be flying into "destination locations" like New York and Las Vegas for the big moment, but Baltimore hotels have found that what interest they are generating with their packages is mostly local.

"People want to drive, not fly," says Shaun Liccione, reservations manager of Harbor Court Hotel downtown. "We've scaled down our packages. Originally they were almost like going on a cruise, but people really didn't want that."

Blame the fear factor. If anything has been more hyped than the millennium eve, it's the Y2K computer problem. Many of us are choosing to walk to a neighbor's house rather than fly somewhere. Others who aren't concerned about computer glitches are afraid of wild revelers or drunken drivers.

"People just want to stay home," says Barbara Hughes of Annapolis, who's planning a black-tie dinner for 12 close friends -- a black-tie potluck, with everyone bringing a dish or table decoration. It's the same format the Hugheses used for last year's New Year's Eve party, and it worked so well they decided to do it again.

"My feeling is that a lot of people are doing family-oriented things," Hughes says. "We wanted to be with our family, but our son is on call. He works with computers."

The Y2K bug is affecting New Year's party plans in another way, besides creating a bunker mentality. "A lot of companies are limiting their employees from partying," says Sipes at the Hyatt. "It's taken potential partygoers out of the mix."

Along with just about everyone involved with computers, any number of other technology specialists, financial institution employees, emergency personnel and media people will be on the job or on call.

"Everything's been geared up for this," says Vicki Camp, who lives in Stoneleigh and works for a data processing firm. "We've seen it coming for two or three years now. We just want to see it come and go."

Her New Year's shift will be midnight to 8 a.m., so she will have dinner out with her husband before she goes to work; but, of course, she won't be drinking champagne. After dinner her husband may visit some friends alone, or he may just go home and go to bed.

Millennium apathy may also be a result of the fact that people are simply sick of all the hype. (A good reason not to consider 2001 the actual turn of the millennium is that we'll have to endure another year of merchandising.) And then there's the sticker shock.

"The phone is ringing," says Levine. "But people are swallowing hard when they find out what the staff wants to be paid." His people will be getting $300 each for the evening, plus they will each expect a tip.

Many of these charges are legitimate. Catering companies and restaurants are finding it hard to get people to work this New Year's Eve. Those staff who are working are getting paid double or triple what they usually get for holidays. Linen companies and meat suppliers will raise their rates, sometimes exorbitantly, for Millennium Eve; and those costs will be passed on to customers.

But some of it is just price gouging, and marketers didn't seem to realize that consumers might not buy into millennium madness. There's something deeply satisfying about the fact that people looked at quadrupled hotel rates and cruises that cost what a car would and said, "No thanks."

"We thought we'd be looking at chaos," says Jason Hovey, owner of Party Perfect rentals in Annapolis and Baltimore. "We aren't ... yet."

Staying in?

If you decide to have a family celebration at home:

* Make it easy on yourself. Have a potluck, order in or hire a caterer. (The wait staff may be booked, but you can find someone who will cook the food for you.)

* Even if it's just your immediate family and you're having pizza, use the fine china and linen napkins. Eat by candlelight. It's a once-in-a-thousand-years event.

* Play some old-fashioned party games like charades.

* Set aside some time for reflection as well as celebration. What are the family's goals for the new year? What was important about the last year?

* Bring out family albums and old home movies. Other family members can help identify and date any mystery photos.

* Make a family time capsule. Each person can add something significant or interesting to the mix.

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