The economy might be showing glimmers of hope, but don't expect one casualty of the recession — the company-sponsored holiday party — to bounce back any time soon.
Under pressure to cut spending, many companies have cut out the catered lunches or off-campus bashes for employees and gone to potlucks instead — or nothing at all.
Executive search firm Amprop Battalia Winston, which has been doing holiday office party surveys for more than two decades, found that in 2006, 95% of the companies it surveyed were planning an employee fete. That was down to 79% in 2010. And the slide continues.
This year, of the 120 companies it surveyed nationwide, 74% said they were planning holiday parties. It was the lowest percentage ever in the surveys.
Dale Winston, Amprop's chief executive, was not optimistic the trend would turn around, even if the economy bounced fully back.
"Once a company does away with them, parties rarely get back in the budget," she said. "Some young people entering the job market may never see a corporate holiday party."
Food giant Nestle's Southwest Region used to have a big annual party for more than 300 Southern California employees. The shindigs would be held at the Queen Mary, hotels or a cruise ship with three-course dinners, open bars, dancing, entertainment and television giveaways.
"They were big, like really big," said Andrea Estrada, an Upland resident whose husband works in the company's city of Industry warehouse. "And you could drink whatever you wanted — shots, beer, wine, mixed drinks. It was top-shelf."
Then, after 2008, the revelry suddenly stopped. Nestle hasn't thrown a Southern California party since.
"They just said sorry, no more, and didn't even try to wean people off," Estrada said.
Many companies that still have office parties are finding ways to curb expenses.
About 60% of firms surveyed by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. said they would limit party attendance to employees-only this year, compared with 54% in 2010.
And more companies, such as Los Angeles-based Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, are holding their parties at the office rather than paying for outside facilities.
Others are shifting their festivities to restaurants, which are cheaper to rent than museums, concert halls and other venues, said Teri Kinne, who runs an eponymous event-planning business in Beverly Hills.
Instead of multi-course meals and open bars, Kinne said, firms are going with finger foods and beer.
J. Schwartz, owner of Eagle Rock-based party planning company Entertainment Contractor, longed for the days when firms would order up fake snow, penguins, trains, caricature artists and face-painting stations for holiday fetes. Now, companies are padding their party entertainment through venues such as Craigslist or using in-house volunteers.
"Companies aren't blowing it out anymore — they're very cost-conscious," he said. "They're shopping around more."
Even firms that are finally doing better, post recession, are not going all out for fear that it would make them look callous in the face of still-high unemployment.
"Everyone wants to be right-sized and conservative," Kinne said. "That's key this year, to not be over the top — to have a celebration but look good doing it."
Some have switched to charity and team-building efforts for the season. El Segundo-based toy giant Mattel is taking funds that used to go to company departments for their parties and instead organizing a 12-day holiday charity event at inner-city schools.
To be sure, there are companies back in holiday party mode this year.
Yellow Thunder Media, a downtown Los Angeles start-up specializing in social media optimization, went from no party in 2010 to a catered bash this year with nearly 150 people and a deejay at its Watermarke Tower headquarters.
And nutrition company Herbalife International is moving its fete out of its headquarters for the first time since 2008, when it canceled plans to party at Union Station. This year, employees will be at the spacious Book Bindery building in Culver City to fete the season.
Party planner Bob Levine, who heads Bob Gail Special Events with offices in West Los Angeles and Las Vegas, said his business was running about 20% over last year. That's at least partly because he bought out several rivals that fell on tough times.
But he also said that companies that still have holiday parties are spending a bit more on them this year. Instead of the "meat and potatoes" centerpieces and minimal decorations he used over the last few years, he said that in 2011 he's back to booking full-set bands and decorating with Santa sleighs and 10-foot-tall toy soldiers.
"They're definitely spending more money now," Levine said of his clients. "There's only so long people can go without a party."