Amid layoffs, firms trim holiday parties

Ho is a Times staff writer.

They’re swapping caviar for barbecued chicken, the Four Seasons for the conference room and the deejay for an iTunes playlist.

It may be the season to be jolly, but businesses across the nation are trimming their budgets for their annual holiday party or nixing the tradition altogether -- part of a larger move to cut holiday-related costs after enduring months of losses.

Some, including Wall Street biggies Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., have canceled all holiday parties. Last year, JPMorgan set aside $20 per person for a holiday party but eliminated that expense this year.

“The economy is tougher and we’re being more frugal,” JPMorgan spokesman Tom Kelly said.

About 77% of companies are planning holiday parties this year, down from 90% last year, according to a survey by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.


Others are slashing gift-giving or downgrading from swanky banquet halls to low-key restaurants for the annual soiree.

Last year, advertising agency Fraser Communications rented out a floor at the Victorian, an upscale venue in Santa Monica, and hired entertainers to lead partygoers in karaoke, magic tricks and salsa dancing.

This year, the West Los Angeles firm is scaling back to a more modest restaurant, Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach, and saving $500 in entertainment costs.

Chief Executive Renee Fraser also decided to end a company tradition of giving a $100 gift certificate -- last year, it was for home retailer Crate & Barrel -- to each of its 40 employees.

And the agency is opting out of giving the customary $4,200 worth of holiday gifts to more than 50 clients, instead sending a card and donating $2,500 to two nonprofit organizations.

“These are times when a lot of people are suffering, and it’s better to share our well-being with others,” Fraser said.

Riester Pacific, a marketing and communications firm in West Los Angeles, is sending out holiday e-cards to more than 500 clients and vendors, the first time the company has moved away from traditional paper cards, said Tom Ortega, the agency’s executive creative director.

Although the switch was also made for environmental reasons, reducing postage costs of about 50 cents a card is “a huge savings in that regard. And it’s more in line with what we’re all about,” Ortega said.

Caterers nationwide are seeing a roughly 30% drop in bookings this holiday season, said Daniel Briones, president of the National Assn. of Catering Executives, which represents 4,600 members of the industry.

At least part of the decline is about image, he said.

“It’s not all about the money spent, it’s about perceptions,” said Briones, who also is catering director at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia. “Companies laying people off can’t be having extravagant holiday parties.”

Culinary Delight Catering, a Crenshaw operation whose corporate clients include Toyota Motor Corp. and Verizon Wireless, has booked about half as many company Christmas parties as last year, said vice president and catering director Emma Tate.

Those who are keeping their reservations are downsizing the guest list by as much as 50%, she said.

“People are telling us they have to make a choice between giving a bonus or having a Christmas party,” Tate said. “A lot of them find an employee would prefer a bonus over a party.”

Chatsworth-based GEC Events, which handles catering and entertainment for company events, has seen a 30% drop in bookings for holiday parties, founder Oscar Urrutia said.

“A lot of companies are just having catering instead of catering and a deejay,” Urrutia said. “They’re asking for basic menus, like chicken or tri-tip, that are cost-effective, instead of elaborate menus like lobster, steak or salmon.”

Others are cutting out the middleman and pitching in for a company potluck instead.

Last year, Coldwell Banker in Hancock Park hosted the annual holiday party at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. This year, 90 or so agents from two Hancock Park offices will gather at an agent’s home, said John Winther, a Coldwell Banker office manager.

“It’s a big change from the past,” Winther said. “But it’s been such a tumultuous time that I think they like the feeling of participating a little bit.”