Baltimore firms get into holiday spirit

Black-tie gala or casual lunch, employers large and small strive to make season bright for workers

December 15, 2003|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Special to SunSpot

Poinsettias deck the lobby. A holiday-themed sweater adorns the receptionist. And you've just been invited to your company's annual shindig. 'Tis the season.

Though the recent gains in the economy have not led many companies to stop pinching pennies, most Baltimore-area firms plan to spend a little something on holiday cheer for their employees this season.

Whether it's full-blown affairs with champagne and tuxedos or sedate lunches out with the team, the local 9-to-5 world will find a way this month to punctuate the season -- even if it might not be as elaborate as in Christmases past.

"We've always said that if people want to know if I'm going out of business, it's if I'm not having the holiday party," said Bob Leffler, president of The Leffler Agency, a Baltimore-based advertising firm. He continued his 20-year reputation of throwing merry holiday affairs last week, playing host to 500 people at City Lights restaurant in the Inner Harbor. "People expect it."

While a recent wave of corporate scandals and Wall Street investigations have taken some of the sparkle out of holiday events, it has by no means eliminated them.

A survey of 339 human resources and employee relations executives by the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington found that more than three out of four organizations are planning holiday parties this year. That number's just about held firm since 1998, when the economy was much healthier.

But businesses are scaling things down, the BNA said, working with smaller party budgets and, in some cases, not allowing company money to be used for department-level celebrations.

The median cost of the average companywide party is $9,000 this year, down from $10,000 the last four years running, the BNA survey said.

"Companies are really trying hard not to cut parties, but they are looking for ways to save money," said Joshua Joseph, the BNA's research director.

Parties more festive

Another report, from Battalia Winston International Inc., a New York executive search firm, was more optimistic, however.

Its survey of 150 public and private companies nationwide found that 95 percent said they are having a holiday celebration this year -- the same as last year, despite a tougher economy -- and higher than the 83 percent saying so in the firm's 2001 survey, in which respondents said they were affected greatly by 9/11 and related events.

In addition, 83 percent of the respondents said this year that the recent wave of scandals has not dampened their holiday spirits.

"We've begun to see the economic turnaround," said Dale Winston, chairwoman and chief executive of Battalia Winston. "Last year's parties were more about team-building. Everybody was kind of down in the dumps.

"This year, the parties are going to be more festive," Winston added. "Companies are more optimistic that next year is going to be better."

Gesture of thanks

Blake Goldsmith, owner of the event-planning firm Extraordinary Events in Baltimore, said the holiday party business is strong this year. "It's been a good year," he said. "Probably not what everyone's expecting."

Goldsmith added that while his clients were by no means scrooging on their events, some are watching the bottom line a little more than usual.

But since few can afford to do everything, Goldsmith said the key is doing one showstopper that everyone will remember. In that vein, some companies are planning holiday skits with Elizabethan-style actors. Others are going for fortune-tellers.

"People are watching their budgets," he said. "But it needs to have impact -- something that implies appreciation."

Appreciation is part of what Leffler shot for with his party last week. Employees mixed with the politicians, sports figures and media personalities they represent. The format was simple -- an open bar, hors d'oeuvres and mingling. No program. After-work attire. No different from any other year.

"We don't tinker with it," Leffler said. "You have a bunch of competitors in the room who like each other, and they just want to get together to enjoy each other.

"It was a big gabfest," he added. "It started at 5, and people finally got tired of talking to each other at 11."

Though he certainly isn't obligated to throw a party, Leffler knows a good one can build business and keep his employees happy. "It's a hard business today and they don't get a lot of appreciation," he said of his staff. "[The party] is our way of saying all of that at once."

Oysters and beer

At an unlikely spot a few blocks away, the large staff of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc., the development firm in Tide Point, will toast the season Wednesday in their way -- or in what president C. William Struever said is a Baltimore way.

Known for redeveloping many city neighborhoods, Struever picked Cross Street Market in Federal Hill for his annual party. What with the history, the urban-neighborhood feel, the lack of pretension, it was an ideal location, he said.

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