The 2009 Holiday Party: Casual, Intimate, and Quick

By Michael O'Connell & Anna Sekula December 10, 2009, 12:15 PM EST

Capitalizing on the firm's existing aesthetic, festive lighting was all Chicago-based Gerard Design added for a holiday party inside its office.

Photo: Christina Noel

This December hasn't seen the return of the opulent holiday parties of yesteryear, but planners across the board agree that there's more willingness to gather than in 2008.

In response to an email poll sent to event professionals across the U.S. and Toronto, planners and vendors repeatedly described this year's holiday parties as shorter, more casual, and more intimate than years past. The 2009 holiday bashes are more likely to take place in bars and restaurants than in fancy hotel ballrooms—and many are staying in the office. Food options tend to focus on hors d'oeuvres, or occasionally buffets, but rarely full sit-down dinners.

Much like the cost-conscious move of eliminating plus-ones last year, the parties are likely limited to staff only, which makes it easy to host them in-house. “I think people are hosting events in their offices to eliminate the venue rental and parking and travel for guests,” said Rita Gutenkanst, principal of Chicago catering company Limelight. ”[They] hope it may keep the group together on a shortened workday to get better attendance.”

For those leaving their workspaces, packages offered by restaurants and bars have been attractive choices. “Restaurants seem to be offering more flexibility then ever before,” said Toronto planner Cathy Muffolini of Devan. “We have been asked by numerous clients to select raw spaces for their parties, but as they find out during the budget process, it's not as cost effective as they think with rental requirements.”

Companies still regard booze and bites as essential components to the year-end bash. Buffets and grazing stations have replaced the formal sit-down arrangement, and almost all holiday parties are at least providing beer and wine options as well as one specialty cocktail. “We've seen a shift to limiting the amount of alcohol consumed by either issuing drink tickets or limiting the times the bar is open, which is more corporately responsible and also reduces costs—a win-win,” noted Deborah Borsum, president of Chicago-based event design and production firm Meetinghouse Companies.

What's not important this year is decor, entertainment, and the extra frills. Vendors across the board have seen tight budgets take their toll on holiday ornaments and extravagant flourishes. DJs and iPods have replaced live performances; to keep employees interested, some planners have asked for song suggestions in the days leading up to their events.

As was the trend last year, many companies—financial institutions in particular—are taking the philanthropic route. Accounting firm KPMG enlisted staffers at each of its U.S. offices in a day of service last Friday. Employees spent the day constructing teddy bears and packaging them with books for needy children while eating a complimentary meal.

The return of the holiday party, however subdued, has at the very least helped solidify optimism for the coming year. “The good news is that people are concerned about availability for 2010 holiday parties,” says Peter Callahan of New York's Callahan Catering. “We are back to 2007 levels of interest in holiday parties 13 months away.”

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