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Companies whooping it up in more style these holidays

By L.M. Sixel

Companies whooping it up in more style these holidays
  • November 11, 2004

Last year, Tony Pannagl served beer and wine at his annual holiday party. This year, hard liquor will be poured at the open bar.

"Last year, I spent money I didn't have," said Pannagl, managing partner of IS&T, a Houston computer technology consulting firm. And he limited the party to a small number of employees and clients.

Pannagl is in a celebratory mood this year because revenue is setting records and was able to send invitations to all his clients and 65 employees.

Companies may be eliminating jobs and reducing employee health insurance, but they're ready to party.

Seventy-five percent of companies are hosting a holiday party for employees, compared to 68 percent last year, according to a Hewitt Associates national survey of 271 companies.

And they're spending a lot more. This year companies are shelling out a median $20,000, compared to $11,050 last year.

Companies want to say "Thank you" to their employees for a good year, said Ken Abosch, business leader for Hewitt's talent consulting practice.

Abosch suspects companies are also spending more on parties because many have done away with year-end holiday gifts such as hams, cheese trays or gift certificates.

Companies believe they get more good will and morale out of a festive party than handing out frozen turkeys, he said.

Rhonda Marlin, director of human resources for the intellectual property law firm of Moser, Patterson & Sheridan in Houston, said employees stop her all year long and mention how much they enjoyed last year's party.

This year has been especially good for the growing law firm, which does patent applications, said Marlin, and the firm wanted to reward that effort.

So Marlin is putting on a fancier soiree for employees and their spouses. She booked the tea room at the Junior League, hired a band and will be serving a sit-down dinner next month. Marlin estimates she'll spend 20 percent more than she spent last year entertaining about 90.

To extend the season, one of the partners will host a two-night open house at his home for all employees.

The firm will also host a "white elephant" party and potluck luncheon at the office and, for the first time, it hired a baker to come in one afternoon and show the children of its employees how to make a gingerbread house.

"We're a very hard-working firm," she said. "It really gives you a chance to know other families better."

Activities are popular
Abosch said he's noticed more companies are planning their parties around activities this year. For some reason, billiard parlors are popular. Bowling is too.
But that doesn't mean fancy events are out of style. All the party rooms for every Friday and Saturday night during December were reserved months ago at the Hotel Derek.

It's never been this busy, said sales and marketing director Tracy Fitz, especially from petrochemical companies, law firms and medical companies.

They're spending a lot more money on hors d'oeuvres and cocktails to elaborate themed events, said Fitz.

One company will entertain its employees with a casino while another is putting on its own Oscars show complete with celebrity look-alikes, paparazzi and a red carpet.

"They're not batting an eye on spending," he said, estimating that companies are spending about 25 percent more this year on extra courses such as sorbet, custom touches such as martini bars and better food.

"Beef is back," asserts Fitz.

Michael Cordua, owner and chef of Churrascos, Amazon Grill, Artista and Americas, is taking advantage of the demand for private party space by renovating the former Tortuga restaurant on Kirby.

It will open Dec. 1, and it's already booked for every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday in December, he said. Demand is especially strong for private parties since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he said. Travel fell off and the restaurant industry has done a good job encouraging companies to entertain close to home.

Good days back for some
High oil prices might not have created many new jobs but it sure makes the parties better.
"I think we're back on the good days," said Cedric Guerin, executive chef of La Tour d'Argent, which re-opened this week after being closed for two years.

Energy companies have opened their wallets this year and they're asking for big ticket items such as Dover sole and name-brand wine, said Guerin. When oil prices were low, Guerin heard more requests for salmon and house wine.

Energy companies are spending $70 to $80 an employee instead of the $35 to $50 a person tab he saw last year when he was running another restaurant.

But not everyone is getting a chance to celebrate those high energy prices.

Jim Lefton, international representative for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union in Houston, said he hasn't heard of any energy company holiday parties,
lavish or otherwise, that his union members have been invited to.

"Matter of fact," said Lefton, "we'll be lucky if we get a turkey leg."