Offices partying for holidays, but not like it's 2007

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Some workplaces hope to shake off the economic doldrums this year with holiday affairs for their employees. But few are going to party like it's 2007.

IMRE, a Baltimore advertising and marketing firm, struck a balance between the extravagant pre-recession bash and the quieter affairs of recent years, with a night out to dinner for employees at Power Plant Live last week.

Employees at Devaney & Associates, a Towson public relations company, will get a night out for a holiday dinner this week and a day trip to a Hunt Valley spa for facials, manicures and massages. The last spa day was four years ago, before the recession hit full force.

"We're tired of the bad economy, and we went to get out and do something fun. These guys have busted their butt, and they deserve it," said Diane Devaney, president of the firm.

In many workplaces, employees have been asked to do more with less. During the recession, employers across many industries laid off workers and consolidated the work responsibilities of those who remained.

A survey of 100 human resource professionals by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement firm, found that nearly 70 percent of companies planned to hold a holiday party — about the same as last year.

In pre-recession 2007, 90 percent of the surveyed companies held holiday parties, Challenger found. The vast majority of companies were budgeting the same amount of money for their parties as last year, according to Challenger.

The unemployment rate has recently started inching downward, but the economic recovery has lagged over the past year. Last month, national unemployment dipped to 8.6 percent, from a post-recession high of 10.1 percent in October 2009.

Still, American private workers remain highly productive — and they're looking to be rewarded this holiday season. Worker productivity over the next decade is projected to grow by 2.6 percent, thanks in large part to improvements in technology — beating a past estimate of 2.2 percent by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

This holiday season, employees are far more interested in bonuses, raises, paid time off — and even grocery gift cards — than an office holiday party, according to a recent survey by Harris Interactive and Glassdoor.com

Nearly three-quarters of more than 2,500 adults surveyed said they would prefer cash bonuses as a holiday perk this year. Sixty-two percent wanted a raise, and 32 percent wanted paid time off that didn't count against their vacation.

The proportion of workers who want an office holiday party with an open bar? Just 4 percent, according to the poll.

Dave Imre, chief executive of IMRE, said he would rather throw a less lavish holiday party and put more money in his employees' pockets. In 2007, IMRE held a swanky affair at the Engineer's Club in Baltimore and then rented hotel rooms for its employees in downtown Baltimore. Last year, the company had a potluck at a partner's home.

"For us, it's important to get together, but extravagance is out," said Imre. Employees "would rather have the money in their pocket. It's just that simple."

If there is a bright spot in the local economy, BTS Corp. of Baltimore is in the middle of it. The software and technology company was formed during the recession, and scored government contracts that have fueled rapid growth over the past three years.

The company used to be based in Columbia but recently moved its headquarters to Baltimore. Co-founder Sean Lane has become a big booster of the Baltimore technology sector, and he wanted to throw a bash this year at a place that honored local industry. The firm is throwing its holiday party next month at the Museum of Industry, a black-tie affair that will feature an '80s band and tours of the museum.

"BTS is doing really well, and we're having a party that reflects that growth," said spokeswoman Rachel Charlesworth. "We like to invest in our people. This is another perk we like to give our employees."

Last year's BTS holiday party was held at the Hotel Monaco in Washington, she said. But the company was about half its current size, Charlesworth said. The company now employs about 80 full-time workers and 20 contractors.

"It's definitely going to be bigger than last year's," Charlesworth said.

Entertainment venues around Baltimore are seeing employers venture out with slightly bolder party plans.

At the Engineer's Club in Mt. Vernon, the private members-only professional club, the holiday party season is shaping up to be bigger than last year's, though not as big as in 2007. Generally, only members can hold events for their companies at the club.

Dale Whitehead, the club's executive director, has seen a steady, but slow, recovery since the recession. He said that companies were very cost-sensitive in 2008 and 2009, in terms of the food they served and the number of guests they invited. Last year, companies that threw parties at the club invited the same number of people but spent a little more on food and drink.

This year, Whitehead said, the club is seeing companies spend more. And they're inviting more guests.

"We're not talking huge increases, but it's enough to notice," Whitehead said.

At the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, the events staff managed to rebook its corporate clients from last year, but the companies aren't spending any more money.

"We're seeing less of these big corporate events, these big bashes," said Julie Codus, director of sales and marketing for the hotel. "They're smaller. A lot of companies cut back."

Merritt Athletic Club held a huge bash for its members and the public last week, an annual affair that's been going for the past 15 years. The club marketed the event to downtown employers, offering free food from 37 restaurants to the party-goers.

Donyel Cerceo, the club's marketing director, said the club was targeting cost-conscious businesses that wanted to bring their employees to the club for a holiday party. About 2,000 club members attended, and another 1,000 nonmembers showed up, she said.

The club used to hold the party only for its members, Cerceo said. But in 2008, in the heart of the recession, the club decided to open up the party to the public, after watching employers slash their own parties.

The big party doesn't drive a lot of new membership sales, she said. And its costs are managed through a barter arrangement between the club and the restaurateurs — the restaurant provides the food and the club gives the restaurant owner a club membership in exchange for the value of the food.

"It's to thank our members and to give back to the community," said Cerceo.

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