Lavish and quirky office parties return as economy picks up

Times were lean, and no one expected much of a holiday party. For the handful of employees at a documentary production company in New York City, a pizza party would have sufficed.

But the boss rounded his small workforce up one day after work, and escorted them to a venue a few blocks down the street with a steaming buffet and open bar. The only catch? It was another company's Christmas party. "It was so lame," recalls Vanessa Reiser, who worked in the graphics department there in 2002. "We didn't know anyone; we just stood there."

Now those days of penny-pinching - however creative - are ebbing in some quarters of the corporate world.

The holiday party appears to be back, in some suites as lavishly as in the foie gras days of the late 1990s, while in others the celebrations are quainter and quirkier. According to a 2004 report by Battalia Winston International, almost all companies surveyed had plans for holiday parties in 2004, and 28 percent said they would spend more than they shelled out in 1999.

In some ways, the party's comeback parallels the rise and fall of the national economy: excursions to exotic locales in the halcyon days of the 1990s contrast sharply to celebrating on someone else's tab. But it's not just a night of toasts and rubbing elbows. It's also a window into the priorities of top management, a barometer of morale, and a chance, however fleeting, to let gratitude ring.

This year, that gratitude extends to a strengthening economy, with parties harking back to the tech boom's glory days. The special events company EventQuest, for instance, took their 20-some employees to a Mexican resort along the "Mayan Riviera" for four days in early December.

A New Hampshire-based public relations firm, High Point Communications, sent their employees on a scavenger hunt to be documented on film as part of a contest. Then it fed them a gourmet meal and awarded them prizes and gifts. The hope, says High Point founder Laura Monica, is to foster camaraderie and trust.

But for all of the considerate and thoughtful gestures, there are also parties that redefine the meaning of "spreading joy." For one Ohio woman, the annual event is more like a gift from the Grinch, a night that's all about "bullying and control."

Take last year's mandatory, employees-only dinner - on Christmas Eve. People grumbled, she says, but choice was limited. It was a snow-filled night, at a retail plaza packed with procrastinating shoppers. She and her colleagues made a pact in the parking lot about the one element they could control: the annual "trade and swap" gift exchange. "Keep whatever present you get," they decided. Let's get out of here as soon as possible.

And then there are the factors worse than any Scrooge: Sexual harassment claims and drunken driving accidents are often the companion to holiday parties. A cottage industry has sprung up to provide holiday-party "dos and don'ts," from surveys to lectures to legal advice.

Alan Kopit, a lawyer in Cleveland and legal editor of Lawyers.com, which conducted a holiday-party survey this year, says the end-of-the-year get-togethers are a prime arena for sexual overtures. "Employees forget all the things you tell them all year long," he says. Two healthy precautions, he says, are to monitor alcohol intake and provide transportation.

But these moves can't prevent all snafus. Even the most innocuous game of "secret Santa" can bring out the kind of candor that can make employees' true feelings as conspicuous as flashing reindeer antlers.

At one gift exchange at a New York City public-relations firm last year, clues to uncover who "Santa" was came in a note.

"From the person who bugs you the most," was office manager Blanca Dominguez's clue.

"Stacy?" she blurted out. Stacy, it turns out, was a company vice president and not her secret Santa. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, everyone laughed. "I chose the person who really bugged me," says Ms. Dominguez, who also moonlights as a comedian and found she could soften the confession with a shrug. But the comment ended up being a running joke around the water cooler for the whole next year.

To be fair, office holiday parties aren't all insult and overtures, or glitz and glamour. For a group of scientists in Georgia, the holiday party is a night to celebrate a quirky traditions (while raising funds for a nature conservancy).

There is the "chicken dance in pink apron," where dollar bills are stuffed into the misfortunate danseur's garment. There is also an auction, where a John Wayne poster and football-sized sugar egg - both said to bring good luck for the coming year - are reauctioned, for several hundred dollars a piece.

This year's proceedings: $7,127.81, including $27 from the apron's pockets. Odd, yes. But these ecologists don't care.

"It's a charity that everyone feels good about," says John Seaman, an associate professor of geochemistry at the University of Georgia who volunteered to help organize the party. (Even if he can't remember how the pink apron tradition began.)

Beyond whimsy and fundraising, annual parties can offer a rare window into the minds of management. At an oral care company in Boston, the president opted for a karaoke contest in lieu of a stodgy cocktail party, setting up departments as rival teams. "It's meant to be fun," says Peter, who starred in "Brushing in the Streets" - a parody of "Dancing in the Streets."

But the hazard of karaoke, says Peter, is that for every employee who takes the stage, others hover in the back, while still others seize the performance with all the lightheartedness of a root canal. And then there's the rivalry factor.

"We used to get a week's notice [of song assignments]," says Peter. "But it got really competitive; teams would get together and practice. It was too much pressure."

So now song assignments are disseminated just a couple days in advance. All in keeping with the holiday spirit.

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