That annual tradition at many workplaces — the holiday party — is coming back strong from its recessionary slump. And some are getting bigger, too. Just ask the folks at Seattle-based Zillow, which is flying in employees from San Francisco, New York, Denver and Cincinnati.
Instead of just platters of cheese and bottles of wine, local companies are looking for artisanal cheese makers and winemakers for their holiday parties this year.
Rather than simply throwing a party in the office or even a nearby hotel, online real-estate company Zillow is renting 92,000 square feet in the Washington State Convention Center for its blowout bash.
And at Vulcan’s holiday party, founder and Chairman Paul Allen and his band are likely to play.
From food demos to bigger bashes, that annual tradition at many workplaces — the holiday party — is coming back strong from its recessionary slump.
National numbers bear that out. And in the Puget Sound area, several companies, event venues and caterers say that this year, they’re planning bigger parties and have busier holiday-party schedules than in recent years.
Tim Carr, director of operations for Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, the site for many company holiday parties, says businesses cut back in 2009 and 2010. But the numbers are nearly back to pre-recession levels now.
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It’s gotten to the point where event spaces are filled way in advance, parking garages and streets are converted into party venues, and penthouses and apartments that are on the market are being rented for parties, said Lisa Dupar, owner of Lisa Dupar Catering.
“The phone is ringing off the hook for local caterers,” she said.
That’s also been the case at John Howie Restaurant Group, where “we are so booked on a few days that we are no longer able to take new business,” said Laurel Dosch, director of catering.
Companies tended to book earlier this year, and don’t seem as concerned with food and beverage minimums, she added.
Nationwide, 80 percent of 368 employers surveyed by Bloomberg BNA this year said they plan to hold some kind of holiday event for employees. That’s up from 77 percent in 2014 and 70 percent in 2013, and close to the 83 percent in 2005 before the recession hit.
Executive-search firm Battalia Winston found a similar rise, with 92 percent of 118 companies surveyed planning to hold a holiday celebration, up from 75 percent in 2014.
The reason, according to Battalia Winston, may be that most of the companies expect to do just as well or better in the upcoming year, and that boosting morale to retain employees is becoming important again.
At the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday in December has been booked for an event, said Christine Kolodge, events manager.
January is nearly as booked up, as more companies push their parties to after the busy holiday season, she said.
Organizations holding events this year at MOHAI — where renting out the entire museum can cost up to $10,000 — include The Gates Foundation, The Allen Institute and LMN Architects.
Companies are going for a “less is more” casual feel, with DJs and bars, rather than more elaborate affairs, Kolodge said.
One particular trend among tech companies, especially here in the land of craft-beer enthusiasts and artisanal-cheese lovers: “Foods from stations where they can chat with a chef or purveyor,” or with local makers of cheese, sausage, wine or beer, Dupar said.
“It’s sort of tech geek meets food geeks or mixology geeks,” she said. “Lots of talk about how things are made, where they are sourced, and tricky techniques.”
Carr, of Meydenbauer Center, is seeing that, too.
“The level of people’s culinary expectations — especially in Seattle, which has great restaurants and food — continues to elevate,” Carr said. “People coming to parties are not interested in just cheese platters or iced prawns or carved roast beef.”
That’s why the Meydenbauer Center’s catering staff is ready to make fresh mozzarella or cook up food in woks and on grills at this year’s parties.
“People want to have fun and be interactive — a lot more demonstration cooking,” Carr said.
Vulcan, which holds its holiday party in the great hall of its Seattle office, isn’t going hugely lavish.
“We don’t do big and extravagant,” said Barbara Bennett, president and chief operating officer for Vulcan. “We really try to focus more on what’s special and unique, and really give an opportunity for our employees to celebrate the year they’ve had.”
Paul Allen and his band, the Underthinkers, typically play at the parties, and there’s an employee talent show.
Data-analytics company Tableau plans to feature a company band, Dragged and Dropped, as well as an improv group and dueling pianos.
That’s not to say there aren’t some companies throwing big blowouts.
Zillow Group is planning its biggest bash yet, with three bands and two DJs, and more than 4,200 attendees expected to attend its party at the Washington State Convention Center. That’s nearly double the number at last year’s event, due largely to Zillow’s acquisition of Trulia earlier this year.
Zillow plans to bring all 2,300 of its employees to Seattle, flying them in from cities including San Francisco, New York, Denver and Cincinnati.
The party will be part of three days of events doubling as an all-hands company meeting and a way to bring employees from acquired companies into the fold.
“From a culture standpoint, being able to hear from leaders and understand and be a part of our mission, it’s really important to get everyone together and hear it in person,” Zillow Chief Operating Officer Amy Bohutinsky said.
Expedia is throwing a cruise-ship-themed holiday party at the Bellevue Regency Hyatt for the 3,000 employees at its headquarters and their guests. The party includes a casino, where people can use the chips they win to exchange for raffle tickets for prizes, including free trips and Expedia swag.
Amazon usually hosts a big post-holiday party for employees in January, so as not to interfere with its hectic holiday season. Typically held at a large venue such as CenturyLink Field, such parties have featured aerial acrobats, karaoke with live bands, and other activities, and performances by bands including Weezer, Imagine Dragons, and Walk the Moon.
Argosy Cruises can attest to the rebound in company holiday parties.
It’s seeing a 30 percent rise in holiday bookings this year, with about 85 three-hour event cruises already booked through the end of the year, said Molly Schlobohm, Argosy’s vice president of sales.
Most of the cruises have at least 150 people on board and feature DJs, live bands and custom cocktails that are specific to each company.
Bookings still aren’t up to pre-recession levels but are getting closer than ever, Schlobohm said.
“The economy has definitely recovered, and people are just feeling better about getting out and spending a little,” she said.