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Office holiday parties are fewer and less elaborate

Southern California developer Robert F. Maguire remembers fondly the holiday bashes that once rocked corporate Los Angeles. “We had some wonderful parties that were very exuberant.”

There was live music and drinks aplenty, in addition to memorable presentations of hors d’oeuvres, entrees and pastries rarely seen at holiday parties today, recalled the man who built the U.S. Bank tower in downtown Los Angeles, the tallest office building in the West.

Publicist Barbara Casey recalls the elaborate office parties of holidays gone by.

“I would say the heyday was at least 10 years ago and earlier,” she said. “When I look back, yes, it was kind of fun to get dressed up and have a reason to get a fancy dress that you normally wouldn’t have a reason to buy,”

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Casey said she used to attend several elaborate dinner-dances during the holiday whirlwind that included hundreds of guests and gifts for everyone who attended. But, she added: “They probably seem more fun than they were, when you look back.” They were very, very elaborate.”

It’s not that Los Angeles has forgotten how to party. Corporate events for employees, clients, and favored customers are in full swing across the Southland. But in recent years, changing social values and a difficult economy have toned down many corporate holiday celebrations in Southern California and across the nation.

Instead, there are more office potlucks, client lunches, charity projects, and holiday snacks with less alcohol flowing. Lawyers in the Los Angeles office of O’Melveny & Myers, for instance, wrote letters to American soldiers abroad during an informal gathering Tuesday, spokeswoman Marjory Appel said.

The Los Angeles-based law firm — which operates 14 offices around the world — has “scaled back” holiday parties in recent years in response to the recession, she said. In Los Angeles, that translates into shindigs held in the office, not at a restaurant.

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Nationwide, 79% of companies will throw some kind of holiday event this year, a 2% drop from last year and down 16% from 2004, executive search firm Amrop Battalia Winston said.

It is the lowest percentage in the 22 years the company has conducted the survey.

“People have gone through a survival mode, and we still have one of the largest unemployment figures in our lifetimes,” said Dale Winston, the company’s chief executive. “Companies are starting to do better, but many who aren’t holding parties just don’t think it’s appropriate or don’t want to spend the money.”

Three years ago, Harbor Breeze Cruises in Long Beach organized about 40 corporate holiday fetes in December, manager Scott Louie said. Companies often splurged for open bars, and employees enjoyed fancy catered meals on scenic boat rides around the Queen Mary, he said.

This year, fewer than 10 have booked. Businesses also have been more aggressive about negotiating better deals, sometimes driving down boat rental fees 40%, Louie said. “It sucks for them and it sucks for us,” he said.

The historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles has been the site of many an elaborate soiree. But general manager Kathy Faulk said revenue from company holiday parties is expected to drop 15% compared with last year.

Many plan to spend less per person, switching from sit-down dinners with three course meals to receptions with hors d’oeuvres and drink tickets, she said. “In the past, every weekend would be booked,” she said. “Now people are booking for the middle of the week. Previously companywide parties are also splitting up into departments.”

“In general people are saying it’s been a long, hard year,” she said. “Their profits have been impacted, and they want to be responsible about how they celebrate.”

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At Lawry’s the Prime Rib in Beverly Hills, businesses are still calling for evening parties — 18 have been planned for this month — but holiday lunches are down 10% to 12% compared with a year earlier, marketing manager Ellen Fremaux said.

“Many were waiting to see if they had money,” she said, “I’m still getting calls now, the bookings are happening later than in years past.”

Public perception is a big factor when businesses calculate if and how to throw a party, Winston of the executive search firm said.

“Certainly the investment banking firms who will see record bonuses again don’t want to publicize it with a huge celebration,” he said. “Wall Street doesn’t want to expose itself to Main Street.”

Other companies have thrown in a charity component to go with the eggnog and mistletoe. Barbara Casey’s public relations firm, Casey & Sayre, “adopted” a family this year and headed out to a Target store Tuesday to buy Christmas gifts for the parents and their seven children, she said.

Leaner holiday celebrations were in keeping “with how people are looking at life these days,” Casey said. “Especially younger generations, who want to have philanthropy in their lives now instead of waiting until later.”

Still, it’s not all cut-cut-cut among Southland employers.

Talent agency William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, which represents acting and music heavyweights including Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe and Kanye West, will treat 1,200 employees and guests from the Los Angeles office to a holiday dinner at the Bazaar, an upscale restaurant in Beverly Hills.

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Revelers at this year’s William Morris event, taking place Thursday, can look forward to a photo booth, movie karaoke (sort of like normal karaoke, but players act out scenes from famous films) and possibly a return of last year’s foie gras wrapped in cotton candy.

And the Montage resort in Laguna Beach expects to welcome more than 1,000 of its employees and their families this Sunday to a breakfast with Santa, an annual party with an elaborate buffet, a photographer and a Santa Claus hired for the occasion.

“It’s a way to thank our associates, many of whom work during the holidays,” general manager Todd Orlich said. “It’s only gotten bigger. In spite of everything else that has touched the economy, we always want to outdo ourselves every year.”

John Challenger, chief executive of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., said it’s just a matter of time before corporate holiday soirees make a comeback.

“The corporate holiday party scene is going to vary greatly across the country and in different industries,” he said. “But, overall, we are probably still a year or more away from a widespread return to the types of festivities held prior to the recession.”

shan.li@latimes.com


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