Pass the sushi, boss; it’s time to celebrate: Corporate holiday events are less common, more fun

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Surveys may point to a decrease in corporate parties this holiday season, but party planners say those who attend them are likely to have more fun. The trend is shifting away from stuffy, business-focused affairs.

More parties are including live music and other entertainment, said Joe Husar, co-owner of Kahn’s Katering and meeting venue Montage at Allison Pointe.

Still, this year could mark the first decrease in corporate holiday events since 2001, according to a national survey. Eighty-seven percent of businesses are planning parties this year, down from 95 percent in 2004, according to New Yorkbased recruiting firm Battalia Winston International, which surveyed 150 firms nationwide.

“I think it’s reflective of the mood of the country,” said Battalia Winston CEO Dale Winston, citing the war, natural disasters and the economy.

High costs, low participation and busy schedules often lead companies to skip festivities, said Andrea Davis Cranfill, president of the Human Resources Association of Central Indiana.

But businesses that eliminate parties to save money could be shortsighted.

“Lots of times, the benefits outweigh whatever the costs are,” said Kent Burns, partner at Management Recruiters of Indianapolis-North.

Party-format changes can boost participation. While an evening listening to the company big shot rattle off the year’s accomplishments can be as exciting as spending Christmas with the Grinch, a night of live jazz music and sushi might attract a few more employees.

“We talk business with these folks all year long,” Burns said.

His company’s party will highlight business achievements, but its purpose is to provide a nice evening for employees and spouses, he said.

“Corporate events are not so much programs anymore,” said Anne-Marie Dezelan, owner of Annie O’s Event Design and Production. “There’s more entertainment, just enjoying the time away with your co-workers.”

Companies also are cutting costs. Median spending this year will be $15,000, down from $20,000 last year, according to a Hewitt Associates LLC survey of 165 large organizations in the United States.

Indianapolis catering and event venues say businesses typically spend $45 to $100 per person attending a party. Dezelan said clients spend at least $30,000 for a party of 200 to 400 people.

Still, many businesses are moving holiday events to workdays.

“It appears the corporate parties are becoming smaller,” said Mary Beth Poe, owner of MBP Distinctive Catering. She said more businesses are planning lunchtime events, avoiding weekends.

Companies have been slower to reserve parties at the Indiana State Museum, now in its fourth holiday season.

“This year, we are noticing it’s a little tighter in the budget,” said Genevieve Novak, museum event planner.

Business at Carmel event facility Oak Hill Mansion is on pace with previous years, according to Jennifer Zehr, who manages events and corporate relations there. But the venue hopes to extend the season by offering “We survived the holidays” party packages in January.

Indianapolis-based Shiel Sexton is having its holiday party in January to avoid always-busy December calendars.

“It’s about the people and the extra mile you go to give them an opportunity to just relax and have fun,” said executive assistant Pam Ryker.

The construction company hired Annie O’s to plan a $30,000-$35,000 party.

The company, which has holiday events every other year to save money and build excitement, is planning a Las Vegas-themed party for about 350 guests.

Some caterers are actually seeing more holiday business this year. Husar expects a 10-percent to 15-percent increase this season at Kahn’s Katering and Montage.

“I think this year will be our best ever,” he said.

Business in December will account for 12 percent to 15 percent of Kahn’s annual revenue, with as much as 75 percent of it from corporate business. Husar projects $800,000 in December catering revenue.

Carmel event facility Ritz Charles also expects more business this year.

“[Business] has been considerably better than years past,” said Vice President Bill Nicholls, crediting company marketing strategies. He also thinks the economy is improving. “Up until this year, [businesses] have really backed off in the number of parties and dollars spent.”

Corporate holiday parties may evolve, but experts agree the soirees are here to stay.

“Holiday parties have become a corporate institution,” Winston said.

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