Holiday Event Planner 2012

For businesses the traditional holiday office party remains a cost-effective reward.

It's a chance for employees to mingle with the corporate execs to hopefully create camaraderie, and a way to blow off some work-related steam.

In recent years, however, Scrooge has tried to put a damper on the festivities with many companies dropping the parties during the economic downturn. Yet, the Bob Cratchits of the world are, for the most part, still getting their holiday parties even as fat bonus checks have shrunk in many sectors.

Strong Tradition

Surveys show that in pre-Great Recession corporate America a whopping 90 percent of companies had some sort of year-end holiday office gathering, whether an in-house luncheon or a full-blown after-hours banquet.

Although the economic downturn caused some firms to cancel or downsize that revelry, it's still a strong tradition with 70 percent of companies holding holiday parties last year, according to the annual survey of human resource managers from the Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., a global outplacement firm.

Full Slate at Cintas

"Things took a step back in '08. Companies did a lot more on-site. But gradually they are coming back," says Mike Dunn director of the Cintas Center at Xavier University. "We anticipate a full December slate this year."

Event planners say companies still feel a lot of pressure to at least have some event to rally the troops at the end of the year.

"Every company needs to do something, even if it's just a luncheon style in-house situation," says Dunn.

What's Hot?

So what's hot this season?

"The large corporations still do events. We get an equal mix of appetizer parties, buffets and sit-down dinners," says Jeff Schachleiter, sales director of Receptions Banquet and Conference Center with locations in Loveland, Eastgate, Erlanger, Fairfield and Western Hills.

In many ways the theme and purpose of the holiday party has never changed.

"The idea is to create an atmosphere where socializing is encouraged," says Don Vonderhaar, Jr., the exclusive caterer for the new Cooper Creek event center in Blue Ash and a second-generation caterer in Cincinnati for two decades.

"The sit-down banquet is not very popular for the holiday party. It's more of an event where people can get up, move around and talk to people they may not see every day."

Serving Stations

When it comes to creating the appropriate schmoozing atmosphere, Vonderhaar likes to go with serving stations.

"Carving stations are much more popular at holiday parties than buffets. You might have a salad station, a pasta station and one with a pork loin, turkey breast or beef tenderloin."

Most party planners find clients want little experimentation at the holidays.

Holiday Eating Tradition

"People want familiar things, comfort food," says Spencer Garon, the catering manager at the Cincinnati Zoo, which hosts dozens of business gatherings in conjunction with its annual Festival of Lights. "People associate the holiday eating tradition with meats and lots of starch. They want to eat during the holidays the way they don't eat the rest of the year."

Garon says the Zoo has actually simplified its holiday event menu in recent years in a back-to-basics move. In fact, he remembers the marching orders one year from Festival of Lights corporate sponsor PNC Bank, which hosts holiday parties for more than 600 employees.

"PNC actually demanded very little change," Garon says. "They said, 'Don't mess with it.'

"Whereas, the rest of the year in catering, it's constantly finding new and different ways to do things. There is no top in over-the-top. But not at the holidays."

Garon says he will put a twist on the basics with a macaroni and cheese station offering different cheeses. And the elegant hors d'oeuvre stations are always popular as well. While bruschetta became a fad at Cincinnati parties in recent years, Vonderhaar says in this town you can't go wrong with a creatively-made slider of some sort "” beef, pork or chicken. All agree the well-designed fruit and cheese tray never fails, and shrimp is almost a must.

Light It Up

Most of the event halls offer generic holiday lights and decorations. Some planners say it's been a trend the last decade to make the displays more secular. Client customizing is often done through signage, extra lights or with audio-video resources.

Dunn says clients have especially been pleased with the creative multi-media efforts from Xavier students employed by the Cintas Center.

A Toast

Then there are libations. Schachleiter says in recent years alcohol has been downplayed because of liability issues. Surveys show liquor is still served at more than 60 percent of office holiday gatherings, but its use is often controlled, either through drink tickets or cash bars.

Vonderhaar says one of his most popular non-alcoholic drinks at the holidays is a cranberry spritzer. But, again, caterers say people want the basics at the holidays rather than an experimental signature drink. That means eggnog or cider with your favorite liquor or hot chocolate, perhaps with Baileys or Kahlua.

Although the holiday party style and substance might vary over the years, event planners say the biggest, most established corporations in town maintain the tradition regardless of the economic pendulum.

"Generally, the largest brand name companies in town still do it up," says Schachleiter. "It's still strong, especially in the manufacturing sector. Those companies haven't really stopped doing parties."

Dunn says, "There is still that feeling of, 'Hey, let's celebrate the conclusion of a successful year and kick off the New Year in a big way.' "