Silent Night, Riotous Night

How to get the biggest bang out of your office party buck

About a half million bundled-up spectators will soon huddle together to view New York's annual tree-lighting ceremony beside Rockefeller Center's wondrous ice-skating rink. But way up on the 30th floor of an office building fronting the world-famous plaza, 250 vendors, employees, and family members of MSW Travel Group will make merry in the warmth and comfort of an office suite with a breathtaking view of the festivities. The rent sure is pricey for the Manhattan-based travel agency, but at this time of year it seems well worth it.

"It's great fun and gives our party something special that others cannot duplicate. We have this great space and have a world-class event as a backdrop," says Mona Aramburu, a MSW vice-president whose phone starts ringing off the hook with requests for party tickets as early as October.

THE TONE. 'Tis the season for holiday parties, and many small businesses are scrambling to reconcile their limited budgets with memorable visions of a glittering spectacle. In most urban areas, it's hard to get away with less than $75 to $100 per person for food, alcohol, and space rental. But first, business owners have to sort out their real mission: Are they trying to reward overworked and underpaid employees, or burnish their image with clients both potential and existing? Should they try an exotic venue for a change, or stick with a formula that works? Will their younger employees be appalled if they selected a jazz band over rock and roll? Should they try to keep the bills down by offering just wine and beer, or serve the hard stuff that can lead to Animal House antics?

Of course there's nothing worse than throwing a party only to find the place empty after an hour. But there's more than ego on the line. "Boring parties are not only a waste of money but are really a wasted opportunity for getting business and goodwill," says Manhattan event planner Brenda Rezak, who owns Affairs to Remember.

Getting the tone right is a difficult challenge, as any party planner will confirm. Amy Thomas, marketing supervisor for TRC Staffing Services Inc. in Atlanta, thought her Murder Mystery party last year would be a surefire success. But after some of the employees gave it a thumb's down, she decided to stick with tradition. This year an Atlanta comedian will perform a 30-minute stand-up act before the dancing begins.

Many business owners use the event to send a signal to employees about the kind of company they're trying to build. This is only the third Christmas for Compelling Content, a small interactive advertising agency in Manhattan's trendy new-media district known as Silicon Alley. For their first-ever holiday party, CEO Marshall Karp will treat his staff of 12 and their spouses to an elegant dinner in a flower shop called Bloom, along with dancing and live music. "Right away, we're saying that this is a family event--from my family to your family," he says. "Sure, I could go to a nice restaurant, or bring a caterer up here [to the office], but that's boring. I wanted something really special."

MUD PACK? Something special was also what Jim and Ellana Livermore had in mind for the nine employees of their Houston-based software company. In the four years that Livermore Software Laboratories has been up and running, entertaining employees wasn't in the budget. But after having what they call "an exceptional year," the Livermores decided to treat their staff to a holiday retreat at San Luis Resort, a spa in Galveston, Tex. Partying didn't seem appropriate, they felt, because what their employees needed most was less stress. "It's like getting a little of the Caribbean in the middle of winter," says Jay Lyall, the marketing director in charge of planning the outing, which is for employees only.

Holiday parties take serious work to make them a stunning success--and if you're just starting to think about it, you're probably a bit late for this year. But it's not too early to start thinking about next year's affair. You could, after all, get a great buy at the post-Christmas sale.

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