Office Parties Jollier This Year

PHOTO: Party planners have said that more money is being spent on office holiday parties in 2012 than in recent years.
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Enquiring employee minds want to know: How will holiday parties this year compare to last? Will it be oyster shooters, a 15-piece band and complimentary fur coats for the ladies---or pretzels, stale beer, Jujubes, and a pat on the back? For that matter, will there even be a party?

A November survey of 105 companies by executive search firm Battalia Winston found the number of companies planning to throw a party this year is up from 74 percent last year; 91 percent of respondents said they intended to kick up their heels.

Despite a still-challenging economy, says Dale Winston, CEO of Battalia,"It seems that companies are moving back to a state of normality"—at least where parties are concerned.

Nine percent of companies, found the survey, will have no party. Reasons cited included the belief that employees don't want one. Indeed, a study published in Forbes finds employees far prefer getting a cash bonus to a party.

Party and event planners around the U.S. report a mixed picture. Employers who've come through the recession in good shape are spending—some extravagantly. Others not at all.

At law firms, drug-makers and health care companies, spending is mostly up. Matt Ostroff, a partner at EBE Events & Entertainment in Philadelphia, points to an example client: Last year the health care company threw an understated in-house fete for 100. This year: 700 will attend.

"Business definitely is better," he says. "Companies are back to having celebrations." He speculates that more employers want to acknowledge just how much their workers, despite recession, have managed to accomplish.

That desire holds for companies both big and small, he says. "At mom-and-pops and at the major corporations, parties sort of disappeared when the economy collapsed a few years ago. The mom-and-pops didn't have the money; the corporations didn't want to be seen as spending. Both are back now, strongly, at both ends of the spectrum."

Otroff specializes in booking entertainment--everything from solo JDs to 15-piece bands. "The bands, in particular, took a hit in recent years," he says. Now, customers who last year got by with a DJ want a trio; customers who made do with a trio now want a 15-piece-er.

What's the most extravagant party Otroff has booked so far this season? "It's an event being held at a casino. There's a great dinner and a dance party, then everybody's staying overnight. They'll give cash prizes at the door—a couple of $1,000s, and some $500s."

In New York, party planner Linda Kaye sees companies cutting back: Ones that used to hire outside professionals to throw a lavish bash in a restaurant now use an in-house planner for more modest in-house events.

Other companies this year have replaced parties with team-building exercises or fund-raising events. What, after all, is the purpose of a party? She asks. "To bring your firm together in a very positive and creative way." In the wake of Hurricane Sandy some New York employers have organized events through which employees can bring relief to storm victims—by serving food, say, or by raising money.

Kaye says one segment of her business is thriving: private, non-corporate events she describes as "over-the-top" celebrations. These include birthday and children's parties.

Rich individuals, she thinks, feel freer to spend. "There was a period when everyone was holding back, no matter how much money they had." Each day's news brought new reason to worry about the economy or the stock market. Now, things seem to have leveled off. "Now they say: I think I can manage. Let's go forward and have some fun."

A year ago, says Kaye, somebody booking a children's party would decide they could do without a photographer. "They'd say, I can bring my camera and photograph it myself. Now they want a photographer. They want a videographer. They want personalized party favors, a face-painter for the kids, a balloon artist, a magician."

In San Francisco, designer Ken Fulk agrees with Kaye: People—the rich included—are more apt to spend and to have fun.

"People are more willing to be exuberant," he says. "Before, there was a lot of second-guessing: people asking, 'With the state of the world, does this seem appropriate?'"

Exuberance, he says, is one reason clients seek Fulk out. His website opens with a quote from Oscar Wilde: "Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative."

Fulk, who the New York Times says "bridges the divide between San Francisco's entrenched dynasties and the newly minted technology millionaires," in March threw a lavish bash whose show-stopper was performance artist Dita von Teese, stripped to her underpants and riding a mechanical bull.

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