For their 2010 holiday season party, the employees of Clean Sheet Communications painted the town "rouge."
Co-founder Catherine Frank and her partner Neil McOstrich rented a "disco bus" for the 35 employees of their Toronto-based advertising agency, and embarked on an action-packed evening with a French theme.
"We went for wine and cheese at a lovely little wine bar, and then we went to a really lovely French restaurant, which we sort of took over for the evening, then a nightclub," she said.
This year, however, things will be a little different, Ms. Frank said.
"It's been an extraordinarily rough year, to be honest. Some crappy things have happened, which I think have happened to people all over the country," she said.
"We had to lay off some people, the first time in my career I had to do a major layoff actually, so the idea of doing a big celebration and not acknowledging all of that seemed very disingenuous. So we said, what would you guys like to do? And we let them decide what would be the most enjoyable for them."
The company's 20 employees voted to go to a Latin, family-style restaurant for a less formal, casual dinner. Ms. Frank said she knew it would be important to have the party despite the year's difficulties – perhaps even because of them.
"We have really had to pull together, and it's more a celebration of getting through the year together," said Ms. Frank, adding that this year's party budget will be downscaled about 40 per cent from about $5,000 spent last year to about $3,000.
"It's much more of a 'family' approach than we have done in past years."
For many small and medium-sized businesses, this time of year is synonymous with holiday parties.
Though most are still celebrating with staff, many are cutting back but trying to inventively adapt their party plans in response to economic uncertainty and an increasingly diverse work force.
In the United States, just 35 per cent of small-business owners expected to host a party for the holidays this year, according to a survey by American Express OPEN. That was the lowest figure in the decade the survey has been taken.
In Canada, 39 per cent of nearly 900 employed Canadians said they weren't expecting their company to throw a seasonal party this year, according to a recent survey by the Human Resources Professionals Association, and 56 per cent said they would be understanding if businesses scaled back or even cancelled holiday party spending.
Kristina Hidas, vice-president of research for the HRPA, said the poll indicates a shift in expectations about traditional festivities.
"The nature of the Christmas party is changing," she said. "I spoke to a colleague and they don't have a party in December, they have one in January and call it a winter party."
Ms. Hidas said continuing media reports of Canada's still-recovering economy have also affected expectations.
"On a daily basis, we read something new about the economy and how it looks like 2012 is going to be lean as well, and I think that affects people's expectations on the money their company is going to spend," she said.
Despite this shift in expectations, Ms. Hidas said a year-end event can be an important way to recognize the hard work of employees. She's not alone: In a poll of HR professionals by the HRPA, 81 per cent said they felt a holiday celebration is important to the morale of an organization.
The good news, Ms. Hidas said, is that an event doesn't have be extravagant. Many companies are coming up with inventive ways to celebrate the season.
"Necessity is the mother of invention and I'm seeing some very creative alternatives to the traditional holiday party. Here at the HRPA, we're having a party in our lunchroom and decorating it and keeping it simple," she said.
"When you boil it down and pare it away, people want to be recognized for what they've done over the past year. How you do it doesn't matter as much as that you do it."
Another innovative idea is a pot-luck lunch that involves a cross-cultural exchange, with employees bringing in dishes that reflect their own cultural background, Ms. Hidas said.
"There's a lot of buy-in with that because they get to express themselves, bringing something about their home life into the office. And it costs absolutely nothing."
Janet Salopek, president of Salopek Consulting, a human resources consulting firm based in Calgary, said she has also seen parties being scaled back in recent years.
"I think as we look at 2011 parties, organizations are being responsible to their shareholders," she said. "You see … a lot of private parties at restaurants. Many will try to find a restaurant with a games room attached, or one company is going to a dinner theatre.
"So the focus isn't all on drinking, it's on networking, good food, having a drink but also about fun."
Suzanne Bona, president of Enfield Home Hardware Ltd. and Scotian Homes in Enfield, N.S., , said that, in previous years, she hosted a lavish Christmas dinner and dance for employees and their spouses.
For the first time this year, she decided to host a family barbecue in the summer instead.
Although the party had been a local tradition for three decades, Ms. Bona felt it was time to mix things up a bit. She found some employees were having difficulty getting out to the party during such a busy time of year. As well, it was a response to the fact the industry isn't as robust as in the past.
"I had known this year wasn't going to be an easy year for business and I had known something probably should change," Ms. Bona said. "The bills kept mounting, and the service providers [for the party]would put up their price a bit each year, so I just thought, we have to change this."
Ms. Bona still held a general meeting this month, featuring a turkey dinner at the local hall for employees only. She also gave each of her 60 employees a little more in their grocery gift certificate.
Ms. Bona said she's pleased that the feedback about the change has been quite positive.
"People are our best resource and you have to remember that," she said. "It's like tending the garden."
Special to The Globe and Mail
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