Originally created 12/19/05

Office holiday parties don't always mean dinner and drinks



DENVER - To the delicate strains of cello music, the eight women in white robes soaked their feet in warm water, laughing and enjoying a light lunch by the fireplace in a darkened sitting area of the Antoine du Chez day spa.

This was no bridal shower. It was the office holiday party for Theresa Shaver Orthodontics, whose boss told her staff the good news just three hours before they got their choice of manicures, facials, pedicures and massages.

"They nearly tackled me down the hallway when they found out," said Shaver, 38.

Surveys differ on whether more or fewer offices plan holiday parties this year. Battalia Winston International, which surveyed 150 companies, found 87 percent are planning a celebration this year, down from 95 percent last year. A separate survey of 100 human resources executives by Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. found 80 percent plan to hold holiday functions, up from 70 percent from the survey last year.

Whatever the decision, not every executive is treating employees to the traditional dinner and cocktails. Some are passing on alcohol, some are contributing to charities, and others, like Shaver, are having parties during the workday.

Dale Winston, CEO of the executive search firm Battalia Winston, said there seems to be a trend toward luncheons to avoid taking employees' time after work.

"It's a reward, a morale builder, the one time of year the staff comes together for a social occasion. So companies are trying to be sensitive to the needs of their employees," she said.

Intel Corp. is forgoing an all-staff bash for its roughly 900 employees in Colorado Springs this year. Intel instead is encouraging employees to support community service initiatives, like donating to Toys for Tots. Raymond James Financial Inc., based in St. Petersburg, Fla., isn't having a companywide party either. With 4,000 associates, the financial services firm for years has left parties up to individual departments, a spokesman said.

Employees don't necessarily want extravaganzas anyway, said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

"They're looking for a place that has a good culture where they work, so they want the party to reflect that," he said. "They want recognition of the work they've done, participation at all levels and authentic relationships."

One trend growing since Sept. 11, 2001, has been companies focusing on public service, Challenger said. According to Battalia Winston, about 18 percent of the 150 companies it surveyed planned to donate to natural disaster relief as part of the festivities.

The survey said 30 percent plan to celebrate at the office. A separate survey of 100 human resource executives by Challenger, Gray put that figure at 45 percent.

Challenger said holiday parties and doing more for employees can be key to worker retention, especially as unemployment levels dip.

When it comes to office parties, something "unique" is one of the most common requests to New York-based Swank Productions, which is producing at least 11 corporate holiday events, president Maya Kalman said.

"They want it to be fun and interesting and different from last year. And make people feel special," she said.

Some companies thought of spas. In Boston, the upscale G Spa has four office parties booked. In Denver, the Antoine du Chez branch in the upscale Cherry Creek neighborhood says it has seven, including one for about 30 to 40 people from the Denver-based restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc.

Shaver chose the spa for something new.

"I have an office of all women. I wanted to do something during the day just for them - not their husbands, not the kids. Just them," Shaver said.

The whole experience cost $860, or less than the $1,000 or so she spent in past Decembers to treat staff and their families to dinner. Antoine du Chez CEO Robert Miller says the office parties help fill weekday appointments.

Marion Kunkel, finance and insurance coordinator at Shaver's office, loved the spa party after celebrating with co-workers at a restaurant last year.

"This is a million times better," she said.