Party on!

Corporate holiday parties continue to celebrate employees.

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.



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.”



Legally speaking: Avoiding the party pitfalls

Are businesses exposing themselves to liability issues simply by hosting a company-sponsored party? We spoke with Fred Gants, labor and employment partner at Quarles & Brady, and Mindy Rowland, vice president and chief legal officer at The Employer Group, to get their thoughts.

“There could be workers-compensation exposure,” acknowledges Gant, “but we have to realize that injuries related to dancing or physical games or tripping can happen anywhere. So while I wouldn’t recommend bungee jumping at the company party, I also wouldn’t be overly concerned with that.”

He strongly encourages companies to allow employees to bring a guest (spouse or partner, child, parent, or close friend). “Any of these people would be looking out for the best interest of the employee,” Gants notes. “In general, people tend to exercise better behavior when there’s a guest around.”

Rowland suggests companies consider the following as they plan their corporate events:

  1. Control the holiday spirits. Tickets or cash bars are best, or offer beer and wine rather than hard liquor, and don’t allow shots, she advises.
  2. Go mistletoe-free. Days before, remind employees that the party is still a work event so anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies still apply. Mistletoe has no place at a corporate event.
  3. Remember overtime rules. Companies requiring mandatory attendance must be prepared to pay nonexempt (hourly) employees for their time, even it it means overtime. If a company doesn’t specifically state that party attendance is mandatory but it is implied or an employee feels pressured by a supervisor to attend, legal issues could arise, she cautions.
  4. Spell out the dress code. Be upfront early about a party’s dress code. “Not knowing what is expected of them can cause people angst,” says Rowland.
  5. Consider the social impacts. What are the company’s expectations for photos or videos taken at a company function? Companies should communicate a plan beforehand to avoid embarrassing coworkers or worse — the company’s reputation — on Facebook or other social media outlets.

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