Giant party is worth year of working hard

Company thank-you involves food, fun and a petting zoo

June 13, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Maybe it was the map, detailing acres of carnival booths, pony rides and tables of pit beef, hamburgers, hot dogs and boardwalk-style fries.

Or it could have been the petting zoo that featured a zebra and an emu. Or the sports director hired to bring military precision to the volleyball, basketball, softball and soccer games that were divided into age groups and scheduled hour-by-hour.

Whatever it was, yesterday's picnic for thousands of T. Rowe Price employees seemed like a family-oriented Fantasy Island, with almost every wholesome, fun-filled activity imaginable -- but without the frou-frou umbrella drinks.

Known among employees of the mutual fund giant as the Rolls-Royce of company picnics, the event takes the term "employee appreciation" into a realm of almost absurdly lavish proportions. Yesterday's picnic, at Camp Milldale in northern Baltimore County, was no exception.

"My husband said this morning, `That's why Mommy works, so we can go to the picnic every year,' " said Sharon Sabol, a T. Rowe Price strategic projects employee who lingered at the petting zoo with her husband, John, and 2-year-old daughter Samantha.

"We've been looking forward to this for weeks. It's always been good, but it keeps getting better and better."

The Baltimore-based company has held an annual picnic since the early 1980s, but they began as modest affairs with food and loosely organized basketball or softball games, said spokesman Joseph Caramanica.

But the company grew "by leaps and bounds," Caramanica said, ballooning to nearly 3,600 employees, including 2,500 in the Baltimore area. The event became hard for the president's secretary to organize, so the company hired The Classic Catering People four years ago.

Since then, attendance has jumped from about 2,000 to more than 4,000 this year, including about 1,200 children.

Caramanica would not say how much the bash costs. But Eileen Miles, the Classic Catering special events planner who has organized the T. Rowe Price affair for four years, said her company charges from $10 to $40 per person for corporate picnics -- which doesn't include the cost of entertainment such as emus and zebras.

Miles, who has been organizing company picnics for 25 years, says the T. Rowe Price party is the most elaborate she's ever planned. At Classic Catering prices, it would cost $40,000 to $160,000 -- just for food.

"The company has always been very committed to its employees," said Caramanica, who spends six months working with Miles on the picnic. "But employee appreciation has become more important recently because the market for employees is growing. It's harder to, one, get employees to stay, and two, get people to come work for you. Retention is a very high priority for us."

Sandra Bauer, president of Bauer & Associates, an organizational development consulting firm near Ann Arbor, Mich., said it generally takes more than a company picnic to keep employees happy.

"The things that make an employee satisfied are whether the organization involves the people in the decisions that affect them, whether they're proud of the organization, whether they feel that they're in an environment that encourages self-motivation," said Bauer, who has worked in consulting for 30 years.

"But maybe all of those things are wonderful, and this is just a nice bit of frosting on the cake. A picnic fosters camaraderie and provides an opportunity for people to get to know each other a little better."

Which is just what T. Rowe Price's employees seemed to be doing.

Mary Ebsworth, her husband, Larry, their 3-year-old daughter Laura and 18-month-old Sarah, bonded with Sharon Sabol and her family while stroking goats and gawking at the zebra.

"It's good for employees to socialize with each other and each other's families," said Mary Ebsworth, who works on projects with Sabol. "You see their kids' pictures but you don't get to see their kids, usually."

Strolling through the campgrounds amid the smell of pit beef, the sounds of pop music from a live band and the sight of contented faces, Bryan Lee -- guest of his wife, Kim, at T. Rowe Price -- offered a small suggestion on improving the alcohol-free event.

"It'd be better if we could kick back, relax and drink some beer," he said with a hopeful smile.

While Miles and Caramanica have no plans to introduce alcohol to the family-oriented event, they're already working on ways to top this year's picnic.

They may have come up with a winner for next summer: elephant and camel rides.

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