Tara Goodwin Frier isn't throwing her employees the annual holiday party this year. Instead, she used the money she would have spent on holiday meals and staff gifts to hire back Amanda, the crackerjack junior employee she had to lay off this fall.
"No one felt like celebrating," said Goodwin Frier, CEO of The Goodwin Group, a small marketing firm outside Boston. "We would rather use the money to bring in Amanda one to two days a week so we can land the accounts necessary to bring her back full time."
For the decade-old firm, 2009 has meant lost clients, more tap dancing to sign new ones ("what used to take two meetings to close now takes four or five," Goodwin Frier said), delayed commission payments for staff and the sacrifice of Goodwin Frier's own paycheck during weeks with low cash flow.
"My staff has been good about the cutbacks, saying, 'We're all still here and we're still employed,'" the CEO explained.
In other words, holiday party, schmoliday party.
Not all businesses have spent the year as close to the edge as the Goodwin Group. Nevertheless, the canceled or greatly scaled-back holiday party has become a familiar recessionary tale: The rented hotel ballroom has been replaced by the company conference room. Five-star dining by pizza and beer. Year-end employee bonuses by $10 coffee gift cards.
An annual survey conducted by executive search firm Battalia Winston Amrop found that 56 percent of leading U.S. businesses polled were either nixing the holiday shindig this year or dialing it back several notches. In 2008, that figure was 37 percent; in 2007, just 19 percent.
Of the companies Battalia Winston polled, only 67 percent planned to hold their holiday festivities offsite, down from 78 percent last year.
Columbus, Ohio, communications director Kristyn Wilson works at one such firm.
"This year we're going to have a company potluck," said Wilson, who in past Decembers has enjoyed a holiday steak dinner on the town. "For entertainment, we're pulling out the Wii for a mad Rock Band competition. It's more about coming together and less about spending money."
Executive coach Suzanne Bates seconds this notion.
"The whole holiday party tradition needs an overhaul," said Bates, whose latest book is "Motivate Like a CEO: Communicate Your Strategic Vision and Inspire People to Act."
"It needs to fit the company culture and be appropriate for the economic times and the corporate budget."
Price tag aside, the beauty of low-rent holiday events is that they remove the artifice and forced merriment that plague so many swanky company parties, Bates said.
"People dread the traditional holiday party because it's a march through the routine: bring your spouse, grab a drink, sit down at a round table of 10 and talk with people you talk to all the time about business," she explained.
"It's just a continuation of the workday. What's fun about that?"
"Justine," a human resources professional who didn't want her real name used, said she was "totally fine" with the casual, hour-long pizza party her employer held at the office this month.
"With the economy the way it is, I find it frivolous and irresponsible to spend thousands of dollars on a holiday party," said Justine, who works for a large government organization in a state with a multibillion-dollar deficit.