Company holiday parties make a comeback after recession lull

Downturn prompted many firms to scale back or eliminate holiday celebrations

By Janice Podsada
Omaha World-Herald

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - If the hurly burly at Hap Abraham's Catering in Ralston is any indication, Omaha is a party town.

The kitchen staff at Abraham's - more than 20 strong - is scheduled to work every day this month except Christmas, preparing food and drink for 15 or more parties a day. Many of those are shindigs companies throw for their employees.

The Omaha World-Herald reports that after some companies cut holiday parties in the wake of the Great Recession, is the company Christmas shebang back? It depends on whom you ask. Some local event planners say their business is revving back up after taking a hit during the crisis. One national survey also shows a return to holiday hoedowns. But another national survey shows parties on the wane.

One way or the other, local event venues and planners are counting their holiday blessings. And many businesses say they're doing what they can to celebrate the season.

At the Durham Museum, site of a massive Christmas tree, a number of corporate regulars that had scheduled the same date year after year canceled celebrations during the economic downturn. But in the last two years, "they've begun returning," said Jessica Brummer, the museum's director of marketing.

More than 80 percent of respondents to a national survey said they planned to hold a company party this year, employment-consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas told The World-Herald. (Challenger hasn't yet officially released its 2015 holiday party survey.)

Just 68 percent of U.S. companies that responded to the Challenger survey in 2011 said they would hold a holiday party that year. But this year, among the 80-plus percent that said they would be holding a party, 13 percent hadn't done so in the past year or more, said James Pedderson, a spokesman for the Chicago-based firm.

Locally, Brian Kobs, president of Abraham's Catering, watched as companies "walked away from their deposits during the recession."

That hurt, he said. In 2009 and 2010, Abraham's experienced a 30 percent decline in December sales, Kobs said.

By 2011, orders began to pick up again. Since then, each year has brought steady increases, he said.

Still, sales are not back to where they were pre-recession, said Kobs, whose company caters events for five to 5,000 people. "I don't know if we'll get back to that level. I don't know if enough time has passed."

That jibes with a national survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. It tells a different story from the Challenger survey: Thirty percent of respondents to the society's survey said they wouldn't be holding a holiday party this year, compared with 17 percent in 2012.

Locally, the company party appears to be staging a comeback, but it's undergone a few changes since the Great Recession. The downturn prompted many firms to scale back or even eliminate holiday celebrations.

At some firms, the companywide party has been replaced by smaller, departmental celebrations. Other companies have dropped the more formal dinner service for less-elaborate festivities - lunch or an appetizer buffet, local caterers and venue directors say.

Brandeis Catering's Omaha-area venues are booked through the year and beyond, senior event planner Carolyn Sullivan said. Business has increased steadily each year since the recession, she said.

One trend she's seen: More firms are holding holiday parties in January - when fewer people are out of the office - and incorporating employee-award recognition ceremonies into the event.

At the First National Bank of Omaha, individual departments plan holiday festivities, a spokesman said, based on their own interests and traditions. This weekend, the bank will play host to 1,000 children and grandchildren of employees; executives will dress up as Santa and hand out toys to children. The kids also will make gifts for their parents or grandparents, he said.

At Union Pacific, holiday parties also are handled at each department's discretion, a company spokeswoman said.

"Many departments celebrate by devoting their time and resources to adopt local families - purchasing items the families want and need, wrapping them, and delivering them as a team - and then having an employee potluck after the delivery," said spokeswoman Calli B. Hite.

Corporate celebrations involving charitable activities are a growing trend nationally. More than 80 percent of organizations participate in charitable donations or drives, up from 74 percent in 2012, this year's Society for Human Resource Management survey reported.

Meanwhile, the organization says smaller companies are more likely to throw a holiday wing-ding than larger companies.

Flywheel, an Omaha website and design company that employs about 27, has been holding annual holiday parties since it was "just the three co-founders," said co-founder Dusty Davidson. Spouses and significant others are invited. The company provides all the food and beverages - and pays for Uber rides home.

Published: Mon, Dec 21, 2015

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