Sunday, November 4, 2001

The CEO who killed  Christmas

Corporate holiday parties fall victim
to the economic Scrooge

By Lyn Danninger

The Christmas season in Hawaii is traditionally a time for lavish office Christmas parties and festive corporate events.

But this holiday season, even in Hawaii, things may be different. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and a struggling economy bookings for such events are noticeably off, say party planners and catering companies.

Moreover, events that are being scheduled are considerably scaled back.

"Traditionally in Hawaii we are big partiers. So this year it must be an indicator of money issues because people are not willing to spend as much as they used to," said Scott Harada, manager at Marians, a 35-year-old Oahu catering company.

To cope with the downturn, Harada said his company has been contacting clients to remind them that the festive season is fast approaching.

"We've been forced to hustle a bit, trying to keep the public relations up and let everyone know what services are available. Hopefully the mood will brighten up," he said.

The uncertainty is also having an impact on corporate thinking about what type of celebration is appropriate this year, said Winston Gample, president of Kahala Caterers Inc.

Unsure of what's likely to happen next, Gample suspects many companies are holding off until the last minute before making a decision on what kind of holiday celebration to have this year.

"I'm seeing people aren't planning as early as they used to and in their planning, they're definitely holding back," he said. "In talking to past clients at different companies, many say they are going to do something, but they're not sure what it's going to be."

Gample contrasts a typical Christmas corporate event in Hawaii from past years with what he suspects will happen this year.

"Normally (companies) may do a big festive cocktail party with a lot of food stations and live entertainment -- a really nice big bash," he said. "This year, they'll probably scale it back, less glamor, less food, no live entertainment and they may not provide gifts."

There's also the guilt factor.

Some companies may feel it is disrespectful to have a big bash considering the circumstances, Gample said.

"Companies may not want to do this considering what's going on," he said. "A lot of people are being laid off or may be about to be laid off. So on one hand it's a mood thing and on the other, they may not want to spend the money."

Hawaii's hotels have also noted a drop in the number of bookings from local companies for seasonal corporate events and employee Christmas parties.

At the Hilton Hawaiian Village, normally a favorite Christmas venue with Hawaii businesses because of its wide range of restaurants and banquet facilities, Public Relations Manager Paula Imamura said there have been cancellations already.

She notes some businesses have also decided to scale back festivities rather than cancel.

Likewise at Sheraton Hotels, the slowdown in Christmas party bookings has been noted.

"It's fair to say that we are having a slower Christmas booking season than last year and certainly not as extravagant. We have had some of that canceled," said B.J. Whitman, director of public relations for Sheraton and Royal Hawaiian.

What to do for employees and clients during the holiday season has been a common topic of discussion among many companies, said Lynnette Lo Tom, president of Bright Light Marketing Group, a public relations, marketing and special events firm.

"Many of my clients are really looking at what they want to cut and what they want to do," she said.

Trying to do something that is tasteful and in keeping with the current situation is a top priority, Tom said.

Companies don't want to attract undue criticism for planning anything too lavish for the holidays but also want to show both employees and clients that they are appreciated, Tom said.

For example, some companies, wonder whether it would be more appropriate to give financially strapped employees cash rather than holding the usual office party.

"It's almost like people are saying we can't take our employees for granted and I really need to show my clients how much I appreciate them," she said.

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