Company holiday parties are getting festive again

With corporate profits finally on the rise and the job market more alluring, many employers are loosening their purse strings this year when it comes to spending on holiday parties.

Some 80 percent of companies that participated in a yearly survey by outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas plan to host holiday parties this year. Of these, in excess of 21 percent have budgeted more for their celebrations than they did last year, according to the survey. 

Released Tuesday, the survey was taken in October and is based on interviews of about 100 human resources executives in various industries. The percentage of firms that plan to hold holiday parties has remained fairly consistent over the last several years, according to Challenger.

While the firm didn’t ask HR execs why their companies plan to spend more on holiday parties this year, the uptick may reflect the recent rise in corporate profits after a prolonged earnings recession, according to Challenger.

“Our survey suggests that employers are ready to spend some of those profits on their workers,” said Chief Executive Officer John Challenger.

Feeling flush, more companies are splurging on hiring caterers or event planners this year, rather than opting for a potluck or some other frugal alternative, according to the survey.

Not only will many workers be spared the obligation of bringing a dish, but many won’t have to go stag either. More than 42 percent of the companies surveyed will allow spouses or other family members to attend, up from 31 percent last year.

What’s more, alcohol will flow a bit more freely this year -- although business etiquette experts say the company holiday party isn’t the time to overindulge. Nearly 62 percent of companies that participated in the Challenger survey plan to serve alcohol at their holiday celebrations, up from 54 percent last year.

While spending on holiday parties is on the rise, lavish celebrations may be a thing of the past. Many firms are still taking a relatively low-key approach, and some are also tying in charitable events, such as toy drives or coat collections, said Greg Jenkins, a partner at event-planning firm Bravo Productions.

“Companies are still sensitive about the perception of going overboard,” said Jenkins.

Interestingly, technology has also had an impact on the office holiday party tradition. Many companies have employees who work remotely, and it may not be worthwhile for them to fly in those workers for a holiday celebration, said Adam Ochstein, chief executive officer StratEx, a human resources software and consulting firm.

“There’s a cost-benefit analysis involved,” said Ochstein. “Companies have to ask themselves whether it makes sense to get all their employees together for an event a lot of people dread.”

His 75-person firm has about 20 employees who work remotely. This year, he plans to “kill two birds with one stone” by having those workers come to the home office in Chicago for meetings the day before the company holiday party. Clients, he noted, won’t be attending the event, so employees don’t feel they need to be “on” and can focus on having a good time.

“We rented out a bar-restaurant on a Saturday night,” said Ochstein, “and will have 80 employees, plus significant others, proverbially letting loose.”