Life at Work

A Holiday On Hold

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Corporate holiday parties are back. Newport Beach, Calif., yacht cruises were all booked for parties by the beginning of November. Many restaurants report their December was booked six months ago. Companies are boosting their holiday budgets by as much as 20 percent.

And then there is CDW Corp., a large company that provides technology products to businesses and government. For the first time since the company was founded 21 years ago, there will be no holiday party. This year, executives and employees decided to cancel the heralded $1 million bash.

Instead, the company will send that whopping sum to Gulf Coast small-business recovery efforts.

This was not some minor decision: CDW's event is an event, usually held in Chicago, where the company is based. More than 4,000 people attend. Far-flung employees and significant others are flown in from offices nationwide to attend. Employees start talking about their evening attire in September. They have babysitters booked well in advance.

They are put up in hotels, and everything -- down to cab fare to get to the main venue -- is paid for. Employees can win door prizes such as plasma televisions and a two-week trip anywhere in the world. Every ballroom is taken up, each with its theme -- one room will be playing oldies while another plays hip-hop, for instance. And, of course, the food is plentiful.

Corporate holiday parties often take on a life of their own. Every year, economists and career counselors survey companies about what sort of party they will hold and then use that information as an economic indicator. This year, Battalia Winston International, an executive recruiting firm, said 87 percent of businesses will hold a holiday party, down 8 percent from last year. On the other hand, outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. said 80 percent of companies are holding functions, and 23 percent of those are boosting their party budgets by 5 to 20 percent.

But when the time rolled around to talk about what CDW would do this year for its blowout, the hurricanes had pummeled the Gulf Coast, and CDW executives just didn't feel that a staggering celebration was right.

They thought the money would be better used for relief efforts. The company had already sent some of its engineers to a tent city along the Gulf Coast to set up a command center and, among other things, help find missing people. The company held a food drive and sent 17,000 pounds of food. But when CDW executives talked to different agencies, they were told the area mostly needed cash. "We thought, 'Where are the big pools of cash,' and the holiday party came up," said James R. Shanks, executive vice president, who has attended about 18 holiday parties himself.

Of course, he and the other executives knew how much employees looked forward to the party every year. And so they gave employees a vote. They decided to forgo the party this year, but many asked that the company resume its tradition next year.

"I think they're all feeling they are playing an active role in helping that area recover," Shanks said. "I see this as a way to reach out. . . . We want to make sure we're involved in our communities and make sure we're a good corporate citizen."

Shanks thinks the holiday party is an essential benefit the company should provide. He said his employees work hard during the year, and they need a little pampering. It helps workers who normally would have no face time with the executives to see them in a relaxed atmosphere. It builds morale because the employees really feel they are treated royally. (And, Shanks adds, this is in addition to a year-end bonus.) "Our commitment has been, no matter how big we grow, it's a key element of our culture," Shanks said.

"I was really excited they were doing this," said Jennifer Keating, manager of technical sales in the company's Herndon office. "I think everyone was touched with what was going on with Katrina."

Keating hopes the company continues its party tradition, however. ("Assuming there are no other tragedies in the world, absolutely. It's a blast," she said.) She attended with her husband two years ago but didn't last year because she was pregnant.

It was "un-be-lievable," she said. "Because we're satellite offices, it goes a long way to build morale. It says a lot for the company that they bring everyone together."

This year's efforts, as much as she loved the bash, simply solidified her appreciation for CDW: "It makes me feel very proud to work for this company."

In a world where job-hopping is the norm, Keating, 31, said she could see retiring at CDW.

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