Fine Affairs - 2006-11-01

Eight thousand people are milling around inside a huge warehouse. Some are drinking, some are dancing, some are posing for pictures. There's a huge buffet table, with white canvas draped around a giant, old-fashioned ship's steering wheel. Strands of colored lights are strung throughout, among palm trees and above oversized anchors and treasure chests that overflow with pearls and jewels. A skeleton dressed in pirate's garb hangs from above; he is lit from below, and seems to be surveying the scene.

It looks like a set from Pirates of the Caribbean, but it's not. It's the annual corporate holiday party for a well-known technology company based in California.

Holiday parties don't look like they used to. Gone are the Christmas trees, the Santa-on-his-sleigh, the red, green, and blue color themes. Striving toward inclusiveness and political correctness, organizations throwing holiday parties are opting toward generic winter themes that avoid reference to any specific holidays. Some, like the California-based tech firm, sidestep the entire issue by creating themed events that have absolutely nothing at all to do with the time of year. But regardless of how the theme is approached, the budgets for these annual festivities are, by all accounts, on the rise.

Follow The Money

"These events really ride the economic wave," says Vincent Steffan, founder of New York City-based event management firm Steffan Group. When he first started working with one of his current clients several years ago, "They started out with extremely lavish events," and they rented out one of Manhattan's most famous restaurants. As business contracted, so did the events. Parties were moved to less glamorous restaurants in a slide that reached bottom when the employees gathered in the company's cafeteria. ("They decorated it, but still," says Steffan.) Eventually, the firm's fortunes recovered, and so did the stature of the party's venues, until the group once again celebrated at the same famous restaurant where it all began.

Planners say that over the last couple of years, companies have begun to spend more on their holiday parties. "Up until 2004, we had a tough time filling even our most popular nights. People just weren't spending money," says Evelyn Taylor, director of special events at Universal Studios Hollywood, in Universal City, CA. "But last year and this year, all our weekend nights were booked by June or July. And now [as of September], we're booking midweek events." Taylor says that rather than increasing the size of their parties, firms are upgrading the quality of the events themselves, by adding specialty linens, floral arrangements, or spending more on food and beverage.

"They've started to loosen the purse strings again, and décor is getting more elaborate, more fun," adds Steffan. "Are we going to have just some poinsettias at the entrance and votive candles here and there or are we going to have a whole theme? Will there be a DJ or different rooms with different music playing?" For one event Steffan planned, the client hired a children's chorus with 80 singers in it to greet guests with "nondenominational winter songs" as they entered the venue. "That really created a big bang, and a big visual." Clients whose budgets are directly linked to their firms' fortunes this year also find that food and beverage is another point of flexibility. If things are going well during the year, Steffan says, companies "can get more lavish on the food at the last minute. You can always upgrade to shrimp."

While companies are willing to spend more on their holiday events, most are still very uneasy with any appearance of extravagance or profligacy. "Clients who want to create something lavish are often concerned with the event being perceived as outrageous," Steffan says. "So you don't generally see celebrity performances or gift bags. You have to strike a balance, where the event is something that people are honored to attend, even from out of town, but you don't want it to look too extravagant." There are several ways to walk this line. "You can do beautiful centerpieces but maybe they're not very tall. That way, it can be dense and lush but not ostentatious. If your venue can be expensive, make it a cultural institution. So now the perception is, 'This organization supports the arts,' and either the money is going to charity or the organization is already a member, so they have access [to the venue]," Steffan says.

Holiday Lite

Regardless of the budget, it's uncommon for organizations to emphasize holiday-related themes in the event. "Everyone wants to be politically and culturally correct, so they're treading lightly on the holiday themes," says Laurie Sharp, president of San Francisco-based event management firm Sharp Events. Sometimes, she says, the themes are still seasonal—"winter-related, with snowflakes; or a ski chalet, winter mountaineer type of theme, rather than Rudolph"—a sort of "holiday lite." But increasingly, Sharp says, her clients eschew any seasonal references whatsoever. "We've had some just determine that they're not even going to call it a holiday event, or even relate it to a holiday. It could be a Pirates of the Caribbean theme, for all that matters. It's got nothing to do with the holiday season, other than the fact that people are in the mood to get dressed up, be festive, and mix and mingle." Sharp says she's seeing more clients opt to hold their events in January rather than December to avoid any holiday association. "From last year and continuing this year, there seems to be a trend that it's not so much a holiday party as it is an employee appreciation event," she says.

In some cases, organizations choose to celebrate non-denominational holidays instead. One association recently threw a Halloween party for 100 guests at The Breakers, in Palm Beach, FL. "It was a good twist on the regular holiday party," says Michele Wilde, director of conference services for the resort. "We had actors and models airbrushed as ghouls on the pillars of our Mediterranean courtyard, and they were like statues that moved and changed every once in a while," says Wilde. "We had a 'live buffet,' in the form of waitresses dressed as Elvira, passing food. We had Dracula's head on one of the buffet tables, and when guests would go to get candy, he would come alive." Wilde considers it a good way to celebrate the holiday season without causing offense; it's unlikely that any attendee would feel excluded or marginalized at a Halloween-themed party.

Of course, there's more to a party than simply avoiding offense—hosts go out of their way to please every attendee. "From an entertainment and food-and-beverage perspective, it's about trying to provide something for everyone as much as possible," says Sharp. "They'll have one room for photo opportunities, one for karaoke cabaret, and one for a big dance party, for example. The goal is to develop environments that will appeal to different interests and interaction levels." And, she says, the same goes for food. "If they have a diverse group, they try to be cognizant of that in the menu planning. Of course, you can't do that exhaustively, because it will impact your budget, but you do try."

And it was that spirit of something-for-everyone, Sharp says, that inspired the pirate theme for the holiday party she threw last year. "We were trying to appeal to every level of the audience, from the support staff to the top executives." The client, she says, loved the outcome, and this year is opting for a similarly non-holiday-related theme: a Cajun/Bayou party.