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Party on!

Corporate holiday parties continue to celebrate employees.

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With end-of-year or holiday planning in full swing, we checked in with a handful of area companies to see what they do.

Fairway Independent Mortgage Corp.

Kalyn Lewis, organizational development specialist, says Fairway has been holding its annual celebration on a Friday night at the Edgewater in recent years. About 200 people attended last year’s party, which began with appetizers followed by a plated dinner and dessert. The CEO addressed the crowd for a few moments, door prizes were handed out, and the evening culminated with a dueling pianos performance by Piano Fondue.

Fairway also reserved a discounted block of rooms for employees opting to overnight at the hotel. Lewis says scheduling the party on a Friday creates a buzz around the office and still allows employees to enjoy the weekend with their families.

Strang Inc.

Strang has hosted a holiday party for its employees and their significant others for decades, according to Randy Banks, vice president of marketing and client care. The month of December is typically full of activities, starting with the company’s Fezziwig potluck lunch (an idea he admits he stole from another business). Aptly named for Charles Dickens’ fun-loving business owner in A Christmas Carol, Strang pays for chips, dips, and sodas while employees get a chance to share their favorite recipes. The company also holds an ugly sweater contest in December, adding to the atmosphere. “This is the time of year most people are in good spirits,” notes Banks, “so we don’t want to put a damper on that.” Fezziwig would be proud.

Strang’s annual celebration is also held on Friday nights, usually at The Madison Club in early December. Following a 30-minute open bar, dinner is served before company execs do a quick year-in-review. “This is meant to be a fun, social evening. We keep business to a bare minimum,” Banks insists.

After dinner, attendees participate in a highly anticipated white elephant gift exchange. “It’s such a silly thing but people really look forward to it,” he says. “Employees can re-gift or spend no more than $5 on something really cheesy or goofy.” Swapping or stealing items is part of the fun. “The porcelain poodle has been around a couple of times,” Banks jokes.

Wisconsin Aviation

Jeff Baum, president and CEO of Wisconsin Aviation, says his company’s annual celebration has moved into either January or February “when people are looking for things to do.”

With employees at Wisconsin Aviation’s three locations — Juneau, Watertown, and Madison, the employee appreciation party has traveled through the years. Kestrel Ridge Golf Club in Columbus has become a favorite venue because of its geographical convenience. “It fits our company perfectly,” Baum says.

Theirs is an old-fashioned gathering — cocktail hour, full dinner, a few words from Baum thanking staff, and perhaps some award presentations. “We also invite retired alumni and they love it!”

At the same time, Baum says he’s noticed some attitudes changing. “Some people don’t like parties, some don’t like mixers, some don’t want the company to ‘waste’ money, but overall, I think people are appreciating it more.”

Community Living Alliance

Nonprofits need to operate very lean, reminds Kathy Talaat, director of human resources, quality, and development at Community Living Alliance, but that doesn’t keep it from trying to thank as many of its 900 employees as possible each year.

“Our situation is unique because at least three-quarters of our employees work off site in client homes between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.,” Talaat notes. Hoping to share the holiday spirit with as many as possible, CLA provides refreshments in its lobby every Monday throughout December.

“For those in the building, we hold a luncheon during our all-staff meeting, catering a lunch and having a nice reception. We’ll decorate tables, play some games, and hold drawings.”

There was a time years ago when CLA would provide dinner or heavy hors d’oeuvres, karaoke, dancing, beverages of all types, and occasionally entertainment. “It’s never easy to scale back on any type of employee acknowledgement or benefit, but we began scaling back around 2008. We definitely don’t have the funds to pay for an entire event,” she adds.

If an off-site event is scheduled, employees are asked to purchase tickets to help defray costs. “Things aren’t better in the nonprofit world … because we haven’t seen a change in our reimbursement rate for Medicaid to provider services in over eight years,” Talaat states. “We are also subject to Dane County’s living wage requirements and other rising costs, as well, including employee benefits, and we have to give our people pay raises outside of living wage, so it’s increasingly more difficult to bring back these nice events.”

At press time, the organization was still hoping to schedule a “winter celebration” party this year, but party or no party, the Monday treats will continue. Gift cards to Target and Best Buy were distributed in the past, Talaat says. “One year we gave out cheesecakes and people loved it!”

Hausmann-Johnson Insurance

A 70-year-old company such as Hausmann-Johnson Insurance has a long-history of corporate parties. “In the insurance industry, the last three months of the year are very hectic with renewals, so holiday parties are a culmination of all the hard work,” notes Barry Richter, president and principal.

The company usually targets a Friday night in December and over 90% of its staff attends. Why? “Our culture has a team atmosphere,” he states, one that likely helped propel the company onto Fortune’s 2016 list of the “50 Best Workplaces for Giving Back.”

An employee-led events team will survey the staff each year for party ideas. In the past, events have run the gamut from a formal sit-down dinner to a piano bar to bowling. “My experience is that a lot of companies stopped planning parties during the economic downturn, and many haven’t resumed,” notes Richter. “Anecdotally, I’ve also seen a difference between locally owned and nationally owned companies. If a company’s senior leadership team resides elsewhere, there tends to be less interest in celebrating.”

Whatever the event, Hausmann-Johnson covers party expenses. “We don’t want our associates to spend money, and we pay for a cab ride if necessary. We haven’t had any problems but we also keep an eye on people.”

(Continued)

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