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Office parties back on, minus the extravagance

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By Ellen Jean Hirst
Chicago Tribune
Published:
After years of cancellations and downsizing, corporate holiday parties are back.
Several surveys of human resource departments nationwide indicate an uptick in planned office holiday parties. This year nearly three-fourths of businesses plan to host a year-end bash, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey released Monday.
Event planners, businesses, caterers and disc jockeys have been feeling the optimism, something they and the human resources group say is a sign that businesses are doing better -- and feeling better -- as the economy begins to recover.
"With the economy starting to move in the right direction, people and businesses want to be out and celebrating," said Nicole Salerno, an event planner and partner with Rockit Ranch Productions in Chicago.
LaVerne Mathews, chief experience officer at Chicago-area comapny L.V. Edwards & Associates, said some of her clients who skipped holiday parties the past two or three years have returned.
"Our old clients who had stopped having the events came back," Mathews said. "We are refreshing relationships with existing clients."
Planners said businesses are seeking little extras this year to make their parties special -- but extravagance is still a naughty word.
"They're asking for flowers and photo booths," Salerno said. "A lot of people were (asking), 'What else can we do?' We've been doing a lot of adding of special lighting, disco balls. I've done a bunch of logo branding on cocktail napkins."
Matt Windsor, owner of A Posh Production, a Chicago event lighting and DJ company, said he has had the same experience.
"I've definitely seen the trend where we're doing a lot more corporate events and holiday events," Windsor said. "And recently they've been wanting a lot more add-ons: video, lights, screens."
The marketing director and co-founder of Kapow Events in Chicago, Mike Timpone, said his clients have told him they're spending more money this year than last.
"The consistent thing we get is, 'Well, we didn't do that much last year, so we want to do something more this year,'" Timpone said.
Evren Esen, research manager for the human resources group, said its survey showed that measures of economic worry were down significantly this year compared with 2009. Half as many businesses said they wouldn't have a party because of financial challenges (10 percent this year, down from 20 percent in 2009) and about half as many said they would have parties on-site to save money (7 percent this year, down from 15 percent).
A Bloomberg BNA survey found that just less than three-fourths of businesses would throw a year-end party this year, but that was slightly down from its 2011 survey. A National Association of Catering Executives study found that more than 55 percent of its member catering businesses believe that overall corporate holiday event business will increase this holiday season from last.
While some businesses canceled parties altogether during the worst recession years, the Society for Human Resource Management survey found that the majority of companies (61 percent in 2009 and 2010) maintained a scaled-back version of what used to be, for some, an extravagant event.
Esen first noticed improvements last year, when the 2011 survey showed 68 percent of businesses would host holiday parties. For 2012, the number is 72 percent.
Some companies said that instead of canceling parties during the lean years, they simply cut costs.
Critical Mass, a marketing agency based in Canada, was accustomed to having three large parties a year. For a few years, including last year, they canceled the summertime party and scaled back on the remaining two.
"About four years ago is when we had to downscale a lot of the parties," said Christy Esparza, office manager for Critical Mass in Chicago, "but we still were able to have them. We had to, for the morale of everyone."
The get-togethers aren't just about fun and free food and drinks, Esparza said. In 2009 and 2010, people were afraid to quit their jobs for fear of not finding another, she said. Now that fear is gone, and companies have to work to keep employees from burning out. Holiday parties can help.
"It's important for employee retention," Esparza said, "not to try to coax them into staying exactly, but everyone's still working longer hours and there's more stress."
Other businesses continued to have year-end parties for the same reason.
Chicago-based kCura, an e-discovery software company, is hosting its year-end party at the River East Art Center on Friday.
Diane Mendez, kCura's office manager and executive assistant, said the company budgets a similar amount each year for its year-end celebration. Management has cut back on other things to avoid dipping into the holiday party fund.
She said the events are crucial to company morale, and the company always invites "plus-ones" to thank them for putting up with the employees' long hours.
Even though corporate holiday parties are back, the long-term impact the recession may have had on such events remains to be seen, said Kathy Miller, president of the International Special Event Society and Total Events Resources, a Chicago meeting and event company.
Although people are spending more this year, Miller said, they aren't spending nearly as much as they did before the recession.
"We're definitely not back to the extravagance of before the recession," Miller said. "The word 'extravagant' is now - what used to be a great word in our industry, is - 'Oh, don't say that word.' "
Entertainment Cruises Inc. increased its business, which is mostly corporate clients, by 52 percent from 2011 to 2012, sales and marketing coordinator Carolyn Casanova said. The company handles events on boats in downtown Chicago and other cities. Even so, business isn't back to the level it was at in 2007, Casanova said.
Another sign of the recession's effect on people may be something Miller noted: More businesses have been hosting holiday events with a charitable component, such as making toys for a boys or girls home.
For this year, the employees who can are excited to eat, drink and be merry.
"I get so excited for this holiday party," said Shawn Gaines, kCura public relations manager. "It's crazy how fun it is. It's - you can't ask for anything more. It's so fun."
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2012 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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