Office parties back on the holiday checklist: Trend watchers predict smaller budgets

OFFICE PARTIES OVER THE YEARSPercentage of polled companies hosting office parties2013 - 96 percent2012 - 91 percent2011 - 74 percent2010 - 81 percent2009 - 81 percentAll time high: 97 percent in 1997Source: Battalia Winston Annual SurveyGUIDELINES FOR OFFICE PARTYGOERSArrive early: This could be your best chance to talk with senior executives while things are still quiet.Work the room: Use the occasion to meet people in other departments -- you never know who can help your career.Be friendly, but not too friendly: The company party is not the place to try out your latest pick-up lines. Such behavior could easily be seen as sexual harassment.Avoid talking business: This is not the right time to approach your boss with a new business idea. Save that for Monday morning.Source: Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

Pull out some glasses and dust off your ugly Christmas sweaters - the end-of-the-year office party is making a comeback.

The number of companies throwing holiday parties soared to pre-recession highs this year, according New York-based executive search firm Battalia Winston, which has been conducting an annual holiday survey for 25 years.

A surprising 96 percent of surveyed companies will host parties this year -- just lower than the all-time high of 97 percent in 1996 and well above the all-time low of 74 percent in 2011.

"It's a good barometer for the economy," said Cara Silverman, Battalia Winston spokeswoman. "It's a 17-year high, and we think that's very promising for economic development."

And the good cheer is jingling in Chattanooga as well. Tara Plumlee, who owns event halls The Mill and The Car Barn as well as a catering company, is looking at her busiest holiday season ever. She'll host or cater 65 events between Dec. 2 and Dec. 22.

"For us, it's been our biggest and strongest year for corporate catering both off-site and at our venues," she said. "We have seen a trend of people booking later or making last-minute adjustments as their budgets come in. But they're making them bigger, they're not shrinking anything down."

Many of her corporate customers are expanding their orders to include more people than last year, she said. One company doubled from a party of 60 to a party of 120.

Yet while Christmas parties are back on the agenda this year, most companies aren't dishing out any extra money for the events. Only 6 percent of companies will spend more on parties this year over last, according to Battalia Winston. And a full 10 percent will spend less money than last year.

"They're not as elaborate as they used to be," said Tina Player, owner of TP Events. "It didn't take a dive as far as number of events, it took a dive as far as what you're going to have. Like ice sculptures. I've had maybe three ice sculptures in the last three years. Those things were cut out."

She added that some Chattanooga companies are spending more time and money on employee team building and appreciation events throughout the year, instead of one event in December.

And despite the holiday buzz, it's important to remember that an end-of-the-year bash isn't always the best way to reward employees, said James Pedderson, director of public relations at Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

"A company that mistreats its employees most of the year is not going to win over any fans with a single party, no matter how lavish it is," he said. "A company that has a lot of hourly wage earners might find that a party is appreciated, but some extra cash at the end of the year or a few extra hours of paid vacation to allow people to get some gift shopping done might be more effective in boosting morale."

But for some companies, it does work. At International Equipment Co., almost all of the fire and security technology company's 30 employees attend the annual get-together at The Car Barn.

"Most times when you go to a corporate party it's kind of stuffy and everyone is like, 'I'm going but I'll get out as soon as possible,'" said Denise Patterson, accounting manager. "But everyone always stays until the doors close at 10 p.m. We've been so happy there."

Patterson gives out door prizes and serves dinner at the party, which usually lasts over three hours. The company's owners and employees from International Equipment's Nashville office attend -- it's the only time all year everyone is under one roof, Patterson said.

"It's a great time of year," she said. "It lets the guys know, 'Hey, we care about you, we appreciate what you've done all year.' It's just our way of giving back."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or