Glad tidings at work

Holiday office parties show no signs of slowing

  • RSM McGladrey manager Gail Overby visits Tasty Catering's chocolate fountain at the McGladrey holiday office party in Schaumburg last week.

    RSM McGladrey manager Gail Overby visits Tasty Catering's chocolate fountain at the McGladrey holiday office party in Schaumburg last week. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

Published: 12/18/2007 12:18 AM

Tasty Catering chefs file into their Elk Grove Village kitchens around 2 a.m. most mornings this time of year to prepare foods for holiday office parties.

Orders jumped 37 percent this month for Tasty Catering compared to last year at this time, the company says.

Despite problems with the housing, auto and financial industries these days, area office holiday parties, at least according to some studies, are at full throttle.

"This is our best holiday Christmas season ever," said Thomas Walter, president and co-owner of Tasty Catering. "But we have noticed that homebuilders aren't ordering from us."

Financial services firm RSM Gladrey last week held a Tasty Catering party at its Schaumburg offices, complete with a chocolate fountain, sirloin steaks, open bar and a singer accompanied by a piano player.

Studies on the number of office parties being thrown this season differ, but two local surveys show an upswing.

Last week Lincolnshire-based human resources firm Hewitt Associates released a study estimating the number of parties is up 5 percent, and 27 percent of those parties cost between $10,000 and $25,000.

Tasty Catering parties average $5,000 and up, but its top party this season will reach $60,000, Walter said.

Backing up Hewitt's overall findings, Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas' study estimates 90 percent of the companies it surveyed plan to hold a holiday party this year and nearly 40 percent will be boosting their party budgets.

"I think what it suggests is a lot of companies are doing well, outside of the auto and housing sectors," said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Even struggling companies are sticking to their traditions.

Earnings plunged 99 percent in the latest quarter at Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings Corp. But Sears still held its annual party earlier this month in its headquarters cafeteria, with senior executives greeting employees.

Activist investor Carl Icahn is calling for the break-up of Motorola Inc. as its cell phone market share has fallen. But each company department is holding its own party, much as they have done for years, according to the Schaumburg-based electronics firm.

"We don't do studies on it but it feels like business is up," said Christine Emerson, executive director of the International Caterers Association, based in Williamsville, N.Y.

Abbott Laboratories CEO Miles White was on hand at the company headquarters in unincorporated Libertyville Township to help serve employees food last week. It's a holiday tradition he has maintained for several years.

Walgreen Co. canceled its party at its Deerfield headquarters, but not for financial reasons. It opted to give headquarter employers Christmas Eve off, adding that Monday onto an extended weekend.

Nevertheless, surveys on the vibrancy of the holiday party industry vary.

The number of companies throwing holiday parties is down 9 percent this year, to the lowest level since 1991, according to a survey by New York-based recruiting firm Battalia Winston.

The latest Spherion Workplace Snapshot survey found about 57 percent of working adults said office holiday parties are not important to them and less than half attend.

Although the Challenger, Gray & Christmas survey estimated 90 percent of all companies will hold a party, the Spherion survey found just 58 percent of the companies it surveyed will hold a party this season.

"The traditional company holiday party may be headed for extinction," said Nancy Haverson, vice president of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based recruiting and staffing company.

One holiday trend that has been developing for a few years is the dwindling holiday bonus, according to Hewitt. About 10 percent fewer companies will offer them this year, most opting for variable pay bonus incentives during the year.