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Party on!

Corporate holiday parties continue to celebrate employees.

(page 1 of 3)

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Businessmen and women who have been around long enough to remember the “good old days” — meaning, in this case, pre-recession — may also remember what became an annual rite of sorts, the holiday office party. For some well-known companies, these annual events became almost historic.

Consider this: In 2000, Bloomberg spent a reported one million British pounds for a seven deadly sins-themed party featuring a casino, live music, cabaret, and 10 different bars. Fifteen hundred employees attended, with some visiting the company’s “lust room,” the details of which are scarce, thank goodness.

In 2006, Google celebrated with Googlympus, a Greek-themed party on San Francisco’s Pier 48 that lasted a reported five days.

In 2007, just prior to the recession, MTV’s party featured models — female, we presume — playing Twister inside snow globes.

By 2009, corporations began toning down thanks in large part to a tanking economy. Over the years, the traditional “Christmas” party was PC’d down to the more inclusive company holiday party, and stories of debauchery and morning-after regrets appeared to be relegated to distant memory.

Around here, the end-of-year celebration has evolved. Some are smaller, some are later in the season, some are more purposeful, but most are focused on employee appreciation. We checked in with several area businesses in an exploration of what companies are doing and how the traditional “Christmas” party has changed.

Shifting parties

Scott Faulkner, hotel manager at the Wisconsin Union and former owner of The Edgewater Hotel, has spent his life in the hospitality business. Faulkner, who took the Edgewater’s reins after his father, the hotel’s founder, passed away, has witnessed many corporate celebrations throughout his career. A few things have changed, he notes.

“There are few open-bar parties anymore,” he observes, with companies opting to offer a limited number of drink tickets instead. That doesn’t always keep a person from over-consuming, he notes. “There are always a few who begin bartering early to collect more than their allotment of tickets. That used to happen all the time. ‘My wife’s pregnant and can’t drink …’”

Faulkner also watched as companies began focusing less on the holidays and more on employee celebrations. In general, parties got smaller, too. “You don’t see too many 500-person events anymore.” Some companies also ask attendees to bring a non-perishable food item or other donation to help those less fortunate.

It’s a far cry from the wilder parties of old, Faulkner notes. “Years ago, there would be after-party after parties. That’s usually when trouble started.”

But those days have largely passed. Sit-down dinners still exist, but a more casual event with heavy hors d’oeuvres followed by dancing or games is also popular.

“With my staff, I’d set up a makeshift indoor mini golf course throughout the hotel. Players needed to hit a golf ball into a shot glass, and those that beat me each got a buck. I also had pizzas brought in so the kitchen staff didn’t have to work.”

Todd Weisenbeck has worked at Blackhawk Country Club for 24 years. The executive chef and director of food and beverage says parties definitely changed after the Great Recession. Drinking and driving laws also have had an obvious impact.

“Corporate parties no longer focus so much on alcohol,” Wiesenbeck states. “I’ve noticed more money going into the parties and the food, with nicer meals being offered.”

Weisenbeck has also noticed smaller gatherings. “If some parties brought 100 people in the past, they may bring about 50 people now, or they’re not holding parties and are choosing to do other things instead, like offering monetary gifts or time off for employees.”

The changes haven’t negatively impacted Blackhawk’s business. “2015 was a great year,” he says. “We saw companies being more generous, and this year looks good, too, so it really depends on the economy, but 2008 to 2010 was hard.” Menus have also changed, with more of an emphasis on buy local and buy fresh, “but people still want their comfort foods.”

“Recession? What recession?” jokes Betsy Jenkins, owner of It’s Your Party. While 9/11 forced a downturn that she said put a three-year damper on the area’s palette for partying, her business has thrived. “The concept of a holiday party is to take care of your employees and that hasn’t changed. It’s just dependent on what’s going on in the world as to the size and scale.”

Companies appear to be waiting a little longer before making their plans this year, she says. “There are a lot of people waiting later to confirm things with us. I think they’re waiting to see how business is doing before going all in.”

It’s Your Party is a production/entertainment business that works strictly with corporate businesses to help stage special events, from breakfasts with Santa to holiday parties and casino nights.

Jenkins says more companies are moving their annual celebrations into January and even February. Some are also testing the weeknight waters.

Event planners are always looking to be more creative. “That’s awesome,” she says, “but for us, sometimes it’s more challenging for the vendors because unique locations aren’t always set up for that kind of space — like a warehouse or barn, for example.” With most of these parties held over the winter months, heat is also a prime concern.

A good party, she says, is one that isn’t overly long and one that provides good food. “We’ve noticed some companies going back to traditional dinners and then adding entertainment like caricature artists, fortune tellers, or photo booths to spice up the fun.” Other companies have been alternating winter parties with summer picnics.

It’s Your Party has been creating celebrations and parties for 30 years, staging game shows, murder mysteries, strolling and interactive entertainers, and popular casino nights. At the time of this writing, the business had booked 25 holiday events in just the first two weeks of December.

Meanwhile across town, 2015 was The Madison Club’s biggest year, notes Emily Bowen, senior events manager, at least in her four years with the establishment. What once was a traditional November–December holiday party season now stretches from the first week of December through mid-January. “Our larger parties have been getting larger, and some even outgrow us,” Bowen notes, bucking a trend toward downsizing.


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