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Having to scale back the office party?

At Mercedes-Benz of Tampa, holiday plans are in flux. Usually by mid November, office manager Elaine Sumner is organizing the party and shopping for gifts. This year, she says, they were still reviewing the budget and trying to decide what they could offer.

With the way the economy's going, that's not much of a surprise. We checked in with businesses around Tampa Bay to find out about their holiday plans. A common response: laughter, followed by some variation of "Party? Ha! What party?"

There has been a decline in bookings for corporate parties this year, says Heather Clark, a manager at BJ's Restaurant Brewhouse in Pinellas Park. For last-minute scramblers, that can be good news: Need a party for 100 to 120 people, even just a few days from now? Just call, Clark says.

But if your company is among those cutting back on holiday merriment this year, don't despair. There are still plenty of ways to celebrate a company's good work.

Be upfront

A cancellation can land a hard blow on morale. "You want to let them know the company is still stable, still has a future, you don't want them to feel they're on a sinking ship," says Ilene Gochman, of Watson Wyatt, a Chicago management consulting firm. "There's a difference between panic and being frugal." Clearly explain the reasons for the party cutback, says Rodger Roeser, president of Eisen Management Group, a Cincinnati public relations agency that plans events for its clients. "Be honest and be open," says Roeser, and people are more likely to understand. That also holds true if your company is having a party despite cutbacks or layoffs.

Ask, don't tell

Involve staff in figuring out how to handle the cutback, says Barbara Poole, founder and president of Employaid, a work force issues Web site. Gochman suggests employee focus groups as one way to brainstorm options. At Resource Interactive, a digital marketing agency in Columbus, Ohio, suggestions for a celebration came via the office's internal blog: The company will donate the money that would have been spent on a party to a food bank and the staff will spend the afternoon of the party volunteering at the food bank.

Keep it in the family

Another option is a catered or potluck meal in the workplace, rather than renting a restaurant or club. Resource Interactive, the company that is donating time and money to a food bank, also will also host a potluck lunch for its 230 employees. Even more intimate: Invite the staff for cocktails at the boss' home, a more personal gathering.

Make party personal

Holiday charity can begin at home. Poole suggests taking all or part of the party budget and giving employees bonuses to help with their holiday expenses.

Trim tree, trim expenses

Stretch the budget by negotiating rates and suggesting substitutions, Roeser said. Or switch from an evening event to a lunch. Other ideas: Limit drinks to beer and wine, switch from a sit-down dinner to a buffet or hors d'oeuvres, or move the party to January, says Larry Weaver, who runs a Durham, N.C., entertainment agency that books talent for corporate functions.

Remember the message

A holiday party should achieve its main objectives: Thank employees for the year's efforts and build a sense of shared commitment to their work, says Poole.

Times staff writer Ester Venouziou contributed to this report from the Associated Press.

Having to scale back the office party? 11/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 10:30am]

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