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Sour economy a party pooper for businesses
Companies cut back on holiday galas, gifts, bonuses this year
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Roger Whitmire gets a plateful of shrimp in the Northeast Georgia Medical Center cafeteria as part of the hospital's special holiday meal for employees. Hospital managers were available to lend a hand in serving employees.

The company Christmas party, once the fodder for lively stories about co-workers who overindulged, may be on the verge of changing, if not fading away completely.

According to an annual survey conducted by Battalia Winston Amrop, an executive search firm, only 81 percent of businesses will hold some type of holiday celebration this year, the lowest percentage of companies conducting parties in the 20-year history of the survey.

This year's low surpasses 83 percent in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks, and 82 percent during the recession of 1991.

In addition, 37 percent of companies say their parties have been impacted by the economy, with events either cancelled or more modest, which is nearly double the amount affected last year.

To cut back on costs, many companies that still have parties will not serve alcohol. Only 71 percent will offer alcoholic drinks this year, down from the survey high of 90 percent in 2000.

Last week at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, employees were treated to the annual holiday buffet. Spokeswoman Cathy Bowers said it is the hospital's way of saying "thank you" to employees at one of the busiest times of the year.

"We feel that it is important," she said.

The buffet is served during work shifts and allows employees from various areas of the hospital to socialize.

Hall County School Superintendent Will Schofield said holiday parties for teachers and other employees are not provided at taxpayer expense.

"Schools each do their own individual celebrations, which range from an after-school white elephant gift exchange to a formal party off-campus on an evening," Schofield said.

But some area companies cited the economic recession as the reason for scrubbing the holiday party. Brenda Martin, manager of the Gainesville Civic Center, said bookings for holiday parties were noticeably down this year.

"I had two major companies cancel their Christmas parties because of the economy," Martin said. "But they wanted to book for next year, hoping things would be better."

A Gainesville law firm, Whelchel, Dunlap, Jarrard and Walker, decided to forego a holiday party and also changed the way it thanks its clients.

Tom Cole, a senior partner in the firm, said last year the firm had a Christmas party for staff members and their families, including a visit from Santa Claus.

"This year, in part because of the economy, we have forgone the party and handed out the annual gifts to staff just before Thanksgiving so they could take advantage of postholiday shopping specials, if they so chose," Cole said.

In addition, Cole said the firm stopped sending gifts of Christmas fruit to clients. The company now makes an honorary contribution to a local charity and sends a card to clients advising them of the gift.

Rushton & Co., a Gainesville accounting firm, still throws a holiday party. However, partners in the firm asked employees not to give a gift to their bosses. Instead, employees used the money they would have spent to purchase gifts for needy children.

"I think the employees enjoyed doing that more than buying me a tie," said Barclay Rushton, senior partner of the firm.

Other interesting findings of the Battalia Winston Amrop survey:

Industry Shake Out. Not all parties are created equal, and this year the financial services and manufacturing industries saw significant cut backs on holiday festivities due to the tough economy. Both industries noted that 42 percent of companies will either host more modest parties, or cancel them altogether. This compares with 85 percent of companies in the health care/pharmaceutical industry who say that the economy will have no impact on their holiday party plans.

Bye-bye bonus. Of the companies that typically give year-end bonuses, 62 percent say that they will be the same or smaller than last year. Only 6 percent expect year-end bonuses to go up, and a few companies are getting rid of them altogether.

Do Unto Others. Despite the difficult economy, 74 percent of companies plan to participate in charity efforts this holiday season (donating money, food, clothing, gifts, volunteering, etc.). Even many of the companies that have canceled their own parties and expect to see a drop in year-end bonuses still have scraped the resources together to make a difference in their communities and help those less fortunate.

Corporate Scrooges. While the majority of companies were generous with their charity donations, they were less-so with their own staff and clients as 60 percent said they wouldn't be giving gifts this year.

But not everyone will go unrecognized during the holiday season; 29 percent of respondents say they will provide a holiday gift to employees, 12 percent plan to send some type of gift to clients and 9 percent will provide gifts to management. A few companies even plan to send gifts for family members, such as spouses or children.

Secret Santas. Forty-two percent of businesses say employees are planning on giving gifts to each other or having a gift exchange among one another this year.

Where and When? Of those conducting holiday celebrations, 56 percent will be evening affairs, compared to 44 percent taking place at a luncheon. More than three-quarters are conducting their celebrations off-site, compared to 22 percent celebrating at the office.

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