Two years ago, the American Institute of Architects annual office Christmas party for 200 employees and their families featured a disc jockey, door prizes and buffet dinner -- beef tenderloin, seafood Newburg, wine and beer. This year, it was scaled down considerably -- a buffet luncheon for staff only with lasagna, salad, rolls. There was no alcohol and employees brought homemade desserts. Those who could play an instrument or sing entertained their co-workers during the luncheon.
December always has its share of corporate grinches who proclaim the office party outdated, immature and unnecessary. But this year, the boozy year-end blowout is financially out of reach for many companies and out of fashion for the rest.
Blame it on the recession, of course. Or the issue of corporate liability if alcohol and dangerous curves lead to personal injury or sexual harassment lawsuits. This being the less materialistic '90s, it's considered bad form to host extravagant feasts while the homeless go hungry. Then there's the question of having a high-profile celebration while American troops are still in Saudi Arabia.
But fear not, all you elves who drape jingle bells and bubble lights across your desk, we bring tidings of mulled wine and potluck; of cash bars and sliced hams; of designated drivers. The office Christmas party may be down but it hasn't been scrooged out of the picture entirely.
Don't look for anything approaching the glitz and bacchanalias of the '80s. The Washington office party that epitomized the no-holds-barred decade was thrown by Goldberg Marchesano, the advertising agency renowned for its annual black-tie and barbeque holiday gathering for clients, staff and several hundred close personal friends. That blast took place some years back at the 9:30 club, complete with a live animal act -- Uncle Heavy and the Pork Chop Revue.
"We thought they were going to be dancing piglets in tutus," said Kris Kohlman, now a partner at the agency. "They turned out to be several 500-pound hogs on the stage, with little dogs jumping over the pigs to music. Suffice to say the crowd went so wild the animals would not come out for the second act.
"Now that was a party."
In years past, the office Christmas party was one chance for Washington's business community to grab the spotlight from the politicians -- who by then had retreated home for the holidays. Parties were held in hotel ballrooms, tables held huge bowls of shrimp, costumed waiters passed caviar.
Today's office party is more concerned with sinking spirits than showing off. "Virtually everything is taking a hit," said Paul Hencke of National Institute of Business Management in Alexandria. "Some companies, because they can't give bonuses or raises, give a get-together to recognize employees and to keep morale up."
In a survey of 300 owners and managers of small and mid-size companies across the country by the institute, 72 percent said their companies were still sponsoring some form of year-end party for staff, but that figure is down 14 percent from 1989.
Breakfasts and lunches in the workplace are replacing the traditional after-hours party, which saves money on both the guest list and the menu. Only 51 percent of the companies surveyed said they were providing alcohol at their functions; most of those are limiting it to wine and beer.
"With the economy being the way it is, we would not have a knock-down, drag-out blowout party," said executive assistant Barbara Hamer, one of the employees who organized the AIA Christmas luncheon. "Everyone thought we should have a party, but it should be tastefully done. Everyone thought the employees deserved to have something nice at the end of the year."
Few companies in the building industry -- developers, contractors, architects -- have much to celebrate this year.
With industry layoffs and hiring freezes, media parties are also down or out this year. The Los Angeles Times Washington bureau canceled its catered get-together for 250 staff and sources. The Washington Post has dropped all company-sponsored office parties. NBC canceled all departmental celebrations, but still held parties for children of employees.
The low-key approach has spilled over to Erol's. The recent buyout by Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. made owner Erol Onaran $40 million richer, but Friday's party at company headquarters was "nothing fancy": catered hors d'oeuvres for the office staff; the individual stores had their own parties.
Even the World Bank is cutting back on its legendary hospitality. "There are parties and then there are parties," said press officer Peter Riddleburger. "My impression is that it's gotten tighter. I can tell by the food. It's less scrumptious. We had a good time, but it was less lavish."
The Ridgewells Economic Index of Hors d'Oeuvres
Blinis with caviar
Raw bar with shrimp and oysters
Carved beef tenderloin
Total: $25 to $40 per person.
Total: $10 to $25 per person.
Food for Thought
Even if you didn't like the people, the food at most corporate parties made them worth attending. For the first time in at least 10 years, local caterers are seeing clear signs of a downturn in the economy.
Ridgewells's seasonal business is down 15 percent from last year, according to Mario Andrade, director of sales. Last year the firm catered two back-to-back parties for 700 people each night hosted by a local bank, which spent nearly $140,000 for two nights. This year the bank is not entertaining at all.
"In the past years, you had waiters dressed as Santa Claus passing hors d'oeuvres or little gifts, and ladies dressed in Colonial costumes," said Andrade. "This year, you still have shrimp, but you pass it instead of having a raw bar. And believe it or not, beer is coming back. We do a lot of parties with assortments of beer."
The first things to go are the little extras: Custom linens, flowers, extra waiters. Many companies are moving the party back to the office and using what they would have spent on hotel rental fees for the food. A number of caterers are doing "drop-offs": Instead of arranging and staffing a full-blown affair, they are only providing food for the event. Which explains why your boss may double as bartender this year.
"They all feel that a Christmas party is good for morale and it's good for company image," said Design Cuisine co-owner Bill Holman. "People don't want to give up the party. They say, 'We might not have all-the-shrimp-you-can-eat type of thing. We'll have chicken and beef fajitas but we'll still have fun.' "
Some companies, said Holman, first asked for much less expensive food than they had in past years -- then had second thoughts as the date of the party got closer.
"One client called and said, 'We originally told you to scale down. We've been thinking and we've decided 'What the hell. Try to shave around the edges but make a nice party.' "
Signs of the Times, Part 1
The executive office staff of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry threw its holiday party Thursday: Lunch in the office -- everybody prepared a dish -- and little presents; employees pulled a name out of the hat and brought a gift. Even though this was the mayor's last office Christmas party, they stuck to their tradition of years past with a no-frills celebration.
"I don't remember anything fancy," said press secretary Lurma Rackley, who brought Key lime pie last year. "People generally have something small for the people they work with. I can tell you ours is nonalcoholic. It seems that it may have been an unwritten understanding in the District Building."
The New Rules
For some people it's not a Christmas party unless there's a nip in the air -- lawyers, for example, like their parties big and spirited. Covington & Burling's party last week at the J.W. Marriott hotel ballroom was packed with 700 current and former employees, a live band and "just about any beverage you could want." Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld's party for more than 900 people Friday night at the Westin Hotel featured a dinner buffet, live band and open bar. The only cutback? No after-dinner cordials.
Other law firms are still throwing big bashes but are paying closer attention to employee drinking at the event.
Arnold & Porter tossed its traditional party for the entire staff, more than 1,000 people, Thursday night at the J.W. Marriott Hotel -- complete with fancy cocktail buffet, a band and the infamous annual skit written and performed by the lawyers making fun of the firm et al. Videotapes of past years' performances are kept in the firm's library.
The party, as in the past, offered hard liquor but made provisions for those who drank. In lawyerlike fashion, the firm issued a memo reminding employees to pace their drinking and to designate drivers. It also provided cab rides home and arranged a special discount rate for employees to stay at the hotel for the night. "We take a number of steps to mitigate the risks," said managing partner James Jones.
Many companies are moving to wine and beer only, or no alcohol at all. Reasons most cited are concern for employees' safety when driving home as well as company liability in the event of an employee injury or death following a company-sponsored party.
"At any event, alcohol becomes a big consideration," said Jennifer Phelan, administrative secretary for support services at TRW Systems Integration Group, a Virginia defense contractor. Last year, the TRW Christmas party was canceled at the last minute due to a snowstorm and the increased risks of getting to and home safely from the party.
The cancellation was a boon for Lazarus at the Gate in Falls Church, which received $20,000 worth of whole turkeys, duck, roast beef and desserts to feed the hungry, but a disappointment to the 300 TRW employees stuck at home that night.
This year "we were going to have a party no matter what," said Phelan. "I think it's really important to the employees."
Earlier this month, TRW staff and their guests descended on the Radisson Hotel in Alexandria to find a dance band, door prizes and four rooms, each with a different food theme: "Early American" featured turkey and ham; the "Italian" room had different kinds of pasta; the third room offered Oriental food; and the "Old Vienna" room had tables piled with desserts, pastries and eight kinds of coffee.
The tab for the extravaganza, which came to about $50 a person, was picked up by the company -- with the exception of drinks. The party featured a cash bar because of the liability issue.
There is one other concern about the role of alcohol at office parties. The once-legendary drunken pass at a secretary is being tempered by an increased sensitivity to potential problems: What once was dismissed as an innocuous gesture could show up in a sexual harassment lawsuit later on.
Signs of the Times, Part 2
For the first time in years, Cartier jewelers has canceled its famous champagne-and-caviar parties for customers -- except in New York and Beverly Hills -- and is donating to charity instead.
"We have two things we're very excited about," said a spokeswoman. "First, we have the Cartier Santa. We're planning to send him to hospitals and shelters in some of the Cartier Boutiques cities. He will bring fun and cheer and toys to the children. And on behalf of our clients, we are making a contribution to the United Way."
No amount has been announced but customer response has been positive. "We're doing our share," the spokeswoman said. "It makes it a meaningful Christmas."
The Sensitive '90s
Last year, the Tysons Corner office party of Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman was snowed out by the same storm that canceled the TRW celebration. The 200-lawyer firm had $5,000 of shrimp, crab legs, scallops, steamed salmon and tenderloin of beef, catered by Ridgewells, on its hands, which it donated to the Community for Creative Non-Violence, which runs a program for the homeless in the District.
This year, the holiday party is being postponed until January, when the branch will become the new firm of Stauffer & Abraham. Senior partner William S. Stauffer said the company would be making an annual cash donation to charity, earmarked for the homeless.
The office party will be scaled down from last year -- not because of the recession, he said. "It has to do with allocating some percentage to the homeless. In fact, our business is better than ever." The law firm specializes in banking and real estate litigation.
"For people who work hard all year round, I think the least you can do is have some kind of party," he said. "It's a nice way to say thank you."
But over at the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., the annual party for all employees and their spouses has been canceled. In past years, the parties for 1,500 to 2,000 people included food and music at a hotel.
"We've chosen not to do that this year," said a spokeswoman. Instead, the private company has opted to donate the estimated costs of the event -- up to $100,000 -- to Washington area charities and those in the communities of the four regional offices.
"I think we felt that the money could be spent in better ways," the spokeswoman said. "Most people think it's a wonderful idea and are very proud of the company's philanthropic efforts. There's some disappointment but on the whole, most employees appreciate the decision. We felt there are other ways to express appreciation than a party."
Maybe the Freddie Mac folks will drop by the "World's Largest Office Party" at the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda tonight benefiting the Children's Inn at the National Institutes of Health hospital. In a twist on the sensitive-but-like-to-party category, revelers pay $5 for tacos, hot dogs, brownies and dancing.
No one knows for sure what happened to Uncle Heavy and the Pork Chop Revue. Goldberg Marchesano is now Goldberg-Marchesano-Kohlman, and its Christmas parties have evolved back to a small affair for staffers and significant others.
"It's much more 'We're a business' now," said Kris Kohlman. And working on an anti-alcohol advertising campaign sobered them up on the issue of hosting a party with heavy drinking.
So no more pig acts. Merry office party anyway.