Holiday parties have taken on a new significance this year, with companies ranging from Marc Jacobs to American Express canceling their festivities in light of a depressed economy.
But for those who plan to hold celebrations, the office holiday party presents a good opportunity to build relationships and create an encouraging atmosphere moving forward. "This year, it's not about the flash, it's about the camaraderie," says Martha Fields, CEO and founder of international management consulting firm Fields Associates Inc. "It's more important than ever to come together and be thankful, have fun, and enjoy some downtime."
Fields, whose clientele include Ivy League schools, government organizations and a slew of Fortune 500 companies, acknowledges there's no way to please everyone. "It's guaranteed that people will say things like, 'If you had just put this money into saving someone's job, we would all be better off.' But the other side of the coin is that other employees will really feel appreciated."
And if you're in doubt, take the pulse of the organization. "Ask people what they want to do and how to keep it cost-effective," she says. "Maybe you can't do what you've done in the past, but it's important to have something."
Even when a party won't be possible, Fields thinks it's better to err on the side of doing something. "It doesn't have to be lavish or extravagant," she says, pointing out that even the "Secret Santa" present exchange, which is easy to organize and doesn't cost a lot of money, could spark some much-needed holiday spirit during a difficult time.
Although event planners and caterers have noticed a dip in elaborate holiday parties, the point they all stress is that the value of end-of-year celebrations shouldn't be overlooked.
"I think it's important for company morale to have a holiday party," says Mario Stewart, president of event-planning and marketing firm EMRG Media in New York City. "That way, people have something to look forward to at the end of the year."
Overspending may seem tactless, especially if people were recently laid off, but rewarding employees can lead to a stronger sense of community, says Greg Casella, owner of San Jose, Calif.-based Catered Too and incoming president of the National Association of Catering Executives. "This year, everyone's budget conscious, but you just have to be a little creative," he says. "Having survived 9/11, a lot of companies on this go-round are realizing they still have to do something, no matter how small it is."
Based in Silicon Valley, where tech companies have been practicing budgetary caution for several years now, Casella has seen a trend toward pre-vacation luncheons and parties scheduled during the slower (and cheaper) month of January. "I've actually noticed it's better for employees, because you're not competing with other parties and personal events going on."
Stewart notes that with the exception of firms in the financial services industry, most companies are still holding holiday parties, albeit with some cutbacks. Still, changing just one detail can mean a difference of thousands of dollars--for example, going with a DJ (or iPod) instead of a band, or e-mailing party information rather than giving out formal invitations.
The silver lining, he says, is that everyone's in this recession together. "People recognize the economy is off, so you'll find more people are willing to bargain and compromise."