As we close in on holiday party season, a pertinent question on many an employee mind is what the company holiday party will be like—provided there actually is one. In the past month, many businesses have announced massive layoffs, and several, like Viacom, CitiGroup, and American Express Publishing, have canceled their seasonal festivities. But others, such as Yahoo and NewsCorp, are still planning end-of-the-year celebrations.
For those companies going on with holiday parties, event industry vendors note that almost all hosts are scaling back on costs, as well as the number of guests, the amount of food, and the decorations. “In light of recent events, specifically what happened with AIG spending $400,000 on a junket, companies seem leery of indulging in anything not absolutely necessary right now,” says John Ierardi, owner of event production and design firm Event Energizers in New York.
But it’s not all potluck dinners and recycled bar mitzvah decor. Hospitality veterans like Walter Rauscher, the vice president of corporate sales and catering for Ark Restaurants, are still optimistic—although wary—about the current climate in the industry. “9/11 was worse for us for sure. I’m concerned, but positive,” says Rauscher, who has been working in restaurants and hotels in New York since the 1970s. “Frugality will be the new black,” he jokes.
So exactly how are companies handling the parties this year? Here are seven observations based on conversations with planners and suppliers across the industry.
1. Corporate holiday parties will have less flamboyant decor.
No surprise here. “Some of our clients are looking for ways to appear less lavish,” says Carolyn Bakula, owner of Bakula Design Group in New York, which is planning parties for a handful of law firms. “Like after 9/11, corporations don’t want to be inappropriate and lord [their fiscal stability] over people. It’s about needing to be delicate about the situation and sensitive to other, less fortunate businesses.”
One client is swapping out flowers for centerpieces with bare branches, a move that has little to do with price but aims for a less-showy appearance.
“Customized items such as fancy decorative linens, logo ice luges, and live entertainment are definitely not a must this year,” says Kristen Ihnatiuk, director of special events for Chicago-based experiential marketing and venue management company Bortz Entertainment Group. “Companies would rather cut back on the additional amenities that are not noticeable to their guests and keep premium food and beverage packages.”
In anticipation of these cutbacks, some vendors have already come up with creative solutions. Shooting to tackle two birds with one inexpensive stone, Wayne Harth, director of catering at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago, introduced a way to combine desserts and centerpieces: “Instead of plated desserts, we're providing a tiered sweet tray. It acts as a centerpiece for tabletops too.”
2. They’ll be smaller than in years past.
Chalk it up to downsizing, stricter regulations on who warrants an invite, or the abolition of the “plus one,” but attendance will probably drop precipitously. “Guest counts seem to be slightly lower, and companies, while still holding the events, are conscious not to appear frivolous,” says James Nienhuis, owner of Toronto event management firm and staffing agency The Butler Did It.
“People are also limiting the guest count to [senior members of staff], tenured staff members, and above-the-line employees, if you will. New employees, temporary employees, and below-the-line employees are the first ones to get cut, as well as the assistants, the receptionists, and the building staff,” says Joe Moller of Joe Moller Events in Los Angeles.
Some are even adding a business-focused component. “One client is incorporating a meeting into the first portion [of the holiday party], which will debrief the employees on what’s going on with the company,” says Harth. “And more are going for just employees and not including spouses and significant others.”
3. There will be more luncheons and cocktail parties.
“Clients are reverting to having a nice luncheon delivered to their offices or cocktail parties after work instead of parties at restaurants or hotels, or full-scale parties at venues,” says Edith Jakobs, president of Toronto's Opulence Catering & Event Management.
You might not have to dress up for the ballroom, but you’ll still have a chance to boogie down. “There has been a definite shift to a more intense cocktail-style event instead of the traditional dinner. The general focus for us has been on upbeat entertainment, which will build steadily to full-on dancing,” says Frank Clemente, director of event design at ConceptBait in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Chicago’s Blue Plate Catering and the Fairmont hotel have also found new brunch and lunch options are more popular than the holiday party dinner packages.
4. There will be more comfort food and fewer fancy buffets.
Comfort food is considered relief for the soul as well as the wallet, so don’t expect caviar garnishes or fancy foie gras. “People like foods they’ve had from the past that are fun and innovative,” says Jennifer Droznika, director of Toronto-based corporate and event caterer Rose Reisman Catering. This year she has noticed more people opting for items like miniature mac and cheese, po’boys, grilled cheese, and cheesecakes.
“[Our clients] are opting for more creative, user-friendly food in small, bite-sized pieces. Something that’s more fun,” says Sean Campbell, who books New York’s Edison Ballroom. “There’s still wine, beer, and soda, and even the full bar, but they’re looking for things people don’t have to sit down and eat.”
In fact, planners are moving away from banquets and buffets in favor of passed items. “At last year’s holiday parties, carving stations were really popular…staffed with chefs with cutlery, just like you would get at Lawry’s,” says Moller of his entertainment industry clients. “This year, not only are the higher-end food offerings not even an option, but clients begin the meeting with, ‘I can only spend X number of dollars on food, and I need to have food for three hours. What can we do?” One answer was to replace the four-hour buffet with an hour and a half of passed hors d’oeuvres.
Even specialty vendors are being tapped for 2008 festivities. Representatives from America's Dog, a Chicago-based company that provides hot dog carts for corporate events and movie sets, say they are seeing a great deal of interest from holiday party planners, law firms especially.
5. They might play to the feel-good factor, with eco-friendly decor, locally grown food, or a charity component.
“Perception ties into the recycling trend. [Our clients] want to utilize elements that can be reused afterward, extending the value of the item,” Bakula says. “It’s not just about entertaining any more.”
On top of this, some planners are looking for ways to incorporate a charitable element. In fact, one suggestion came after a client heard a CNN story about the current struggle of the nation’s food banks.
“Many clients are requesting caterers to use locally produced and organic food products and ingredients. After the event, clients are taking steps to ensure leftover food is properly composted, bottles and cans are recycled, and extra food is donated to a local shelter or church,” says Elvira Muffolini D'Avanzo, partner and creative director of Devan in Toronto. Muffolini, who plans events for a number of real estate developers, also reports that her clients are using alternative energy sources and are “cutting down or eliminating twinkle lights.”
6. They’ll focus more on boosting morale and might just be more fun.
The holidays are still cause for celebration, and corporate parties remain, as some suggest, a way to assure employees of their job security and offer an opportunity to cut loose. After all, a continued paycheck is celebration enough for many this year.
“For our employees, it's not just a job, it's a home. When people bring a guest, they are really strutting the company's stuff in front of their spouse or guest. Herbalife is an event-driven company—that's the way we do business [as well as the way we show appreciation for our employees],” says Margaret Launzel-Pennes, vice president of worldwide events for Los Angeles-based nutrition company Herbalife International.
”[Our holiday party] is a big part of the employee morale. Some companies are scaling back or not having a party at all. We wanted to have a party and show the employees the holiday appreciation. This is a special night for them. People really get dressed up and it's a pretty big night for everybody,” adds Herbalife's vice president of worldwide corporate communications, George Fischer.
Alcohol isn’t going anywhere—Rauscher has one client that’ll serve different flavors of Absolut instead of a pricier brand of vodka—and planners are trying a few other tricks to try to lift spirits. Chad Everett, C.E.O. and creative director of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based design and production company Galaxy Productions, says he has seen a lot of interest in a new theme he designed, which features mirrored surfaces etched with phrases like “all about you” and “all because of you.”
“I think it’s a motivational thing. The theme is more personal and gets the employees feeling proud,” Everett says.
7. Some won’t take place until the New Year.
And then there are those who are simply waiting—after all, who really has time to celebrate the holidays during the holidays? “For Christmas, I would usually have five parties by [early November] and then in the next week or two, you would gain five to 10 more parties. I think people are waiting to see if the market is going to level off, and to see what’s going to happen to the small businesses that need to hang on,” says Randy Fuhrman, an event producer based in Studio City, California.
The results of the election also had implications, and some vendors, who likened the situation to the reaction after 9/11, are hoping that business will return to normal. “In my opinion, I feel it's worse than 9/11. People were cautious [in their party planning] after 9/11, but now people are being beyond cautious. I'm hoping that after the election people will loosen up a bit,” says Harth, who has been at his post at the Fairmont for more than 13 years.
Some suggest that waiting until after the New Year is really just a cost-cutting measure. “January will be a better month for holiday events as many places will have great deals on booking dates,” says Katie Hall, an event producer at XA, the Experiential Agency in Chicago. “This has actually been a trend the last few years as the holidays are so stressful for many,” she adds. Hall projects that the financial institutions “will be the ones looking for deals” and many venues will not only have special rates, but will be very flexible about pricing.