Workplace Culture

Holiday Events Stage a Comeback as Dark Mood Eases

By Staff Report

Nov. 16, 2010

Hey, Scrooge, it’s time to have a little fun. With growing signs of an economic recovery, Chicago employers are again warming up to holiday parties.

After two years of cutbacks, layoffs, bailouts and outright bankruptcies, the return of this annual ritual signals that corporate managers are more confident about business prospects and feel a need to invest again in morale, reward and recognition.

“As a firm, we’ve reinstated holiday parties,” said a spokesman for PricewaterhouseCoopers, Chicago’s No. 3 accounting partnership. The 1,700-employee Chicago office is among the New York-based firm’s 76 branches that will offer the chance to mix and mingle again after a merriment moratorium in 2009. “It shows a lot of optimism where it didn’t exist 24 to 12 months ago.”

The comeback of company-sponsored get-togethers is providing a year-end boost for the city’s hospitality industry, which was slammed by the recession. Corporate bookings are up significantly from last year at many hotels, restaurants and other venues.

Nationally, 76 percent of employers will hold some type of year-end celebration, according to the Bureau of National Affairs Inc., an Arlington, Virginia-based firm that tracks business practices. That’s up from the decade low of 67 percent last year, though below the peak of 83 percent in 2005. “It really does present a very good idea of where the country is economically at any given point in time,” said Matt Sottong, the bureau’s research director.

At Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, “business has tripled over last year,” said Michelle Eastham, director of catering for Food For Thought, the facility’s on-site caterer. While numbers are 15 percent under the 2007 peak, “budget is coming back,” she says.

Across Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc.‘s 39 restaurant brands, event reservations are up 5 percent to 15 percent, while smaller, intimate parties have risen 10 percent to 15 percent, after a two-year drought, said Kevin Brown, CEO of the Chicago-based company.

The Hyatt Regency Chicago has booked a half-dozen big holiday parties this year, twice as many as last year, said Kirk Howard, director of catering and convention services at the downtown hotel. With more companies now making reservations only a few weeks in advance, he said, that number could increase.

“The hangover of the recession is beginning to wear off,” said John Challenger, CEO of Chicago outplacement advisers Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc. He sees more companies playing a defensive game: offering perks such as holiday parties to retain employees who might high-tail it as the job market improves. “They are concerned about their top performers beginning to vote with their feet,” he said.

Two years ago, DLA Piper’s Chicago office canceled its lavish holiday affair and instead hosted a potluck at the office of 450 employees. After another bring-your-own event last year, business is improving and the law firm is headed to a yet-to-be-determined local restaurant for this year’s party, said Bill Rudnick, managing partner of DLA Piper.

“We’re dipping our toe back in that water,” he said, noting that the party will be low-key compared with the excesses of the mid-2000s. “We have a sense that the economy is returning to normal and that we can do some of the things that we used to do, like a nice holiday party for ourselves and our colleagues.”

Some firms are ramping up this year’s event. Executive recruiting firm LaSalle Network is spending 15 percent more on its holiday bash for employees and clients. “We’ve done well and we’re happy about it,” CEO Tom Gimbel said. “We want people to know that we appreciate their business.”

But many parties are less extravagant than they used to be. Denis Frankenfield, director of events and catering at the John G. Shedd Aquarium, said companies are trimming the trimmings by offering wine and beer instead of a full bar, or dishing up chicken rather than beef. “Most of our events aren’t doing décor, like flowers,” he said. Still, the Shedd is already 75 percent booked.

“I like the fact that we’re seeing some corporate business, which is what we really lost over the last couple of years,” added Tony Camarillo, senior director of sales and events at Navy Pier, a Chicago tourist attraction on the lakefront. “It’s a good sign, but I wouldn’t hang my hat on it yet.”  

Filed by Kate MacArthur of Crain’s Chicago Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail


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