Parties, bonuses, gifts return as holiday spirit rebounds

| Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, 8:54 p.m.

Holiday parties for employees, bonuses and gifts are increasing this year, after years of cutbacks.

Surveys show corporate Scrooges are loosening pursestrings. Employers acknowledge Christmas, Hannukah and other holidays even if budget cuts or heavy work schedules don't allow formal bashes.

Bonuses and gifts — sometimes pricey, often memorable — are in fashion.

“At least on the department level, people are doing something. It may not be a full-blown party but there are a lot of different ways to celebrate,” said Carrie Haglund, branch manager for the Accountemps staffing agency in Sewickley.

Many companies send staffs out for special lunches or dinners, order catered meals at offices, or plan outings to game centers or bowling alleys, Haglund said. “We're having a potluck lunch, where people make and bring in their favorite recipes.”

Cable TV and broadcast conglomerate Comcast Corp. on Friday hosted a gingerbread house-making event at its North Fayette offices for 26 Sto-Rox Middle School students in a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program with employees.

Range Resources Corp. gave employees company stock as part of annual compensation. Shares traded around $64 on Thursday.

H.J. Heinz Co., known for handing out collectibles that tie into the company's food products, will give a “small but symbolic holiday gift” to 8,000 employees and retirees this year, spokeswoman Jessica Jackson said. She wouldn't specify this year's gift because it was still a surprise as of Friday. Last year, it was a set of four coffee mugs.

Ikea, with a store in Robinson, is giving gift cards for shoe retailer Toms, which donates shoes to disadvantaged children for every pair it sells.

Workplace consultant Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. said 83 percent of employers plan parties, up from 68 percent a year ago but still below pre-recession levels.

Holiday bookings for Common Plea Catering in the Strip District are up 10 to 12 percent, owner John Barsotti said.

“I haven't noticed any particular cutbacks. That was a definite trend from 2008 to 2010,” he said.

Common Plea will dish out food at 55 or so corporate parties, at its namesake restaurant Downtown, and at Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, the Senator John Heinz History Center and the Mansions on Fifth Avenue.

Barsotti thinks event decorations are more festive and said many returning clients splurged for beef tenderloin at a carving station or lobster tail.

The Meadows Racetrack & Casino in North Strabane doubled its corporate party calendar, to 50 events, said Phil Barnett, assistant general manager. Schools, natural gas companies, medical and law offices book suites overlooking the harness racetrack, the bowling center or restaurant space.

“In the future, we'll be putting an event center into the complex,” he said. “We do holiday parties in January because there's no space available.”

Some companies with year-end crunch times prefer holding later parties, said Haglund. And party room rates are cheaper after New Year's. “It's more than just celebrating the holidays; it's expressing your appreciation for the work everyone has done over the year,” she said. “The benefit is, it does promote teamwork and motivation.”

Giant Eagle Inc. encouarges departments to give gift cards or plan events, said spokesman Dick Roberts. The O'Hara-based grocer's business-to-business gift card sales have increased, indicating more companies are giving cards bought at Giant Eagle.

Many companies pack charity events into pre-holiday weeks, Haglund said.

Fort Worth-based Range, with a regional headquarters in Cecil and 400 local employees, raised $100,000 for Toys For Tots and food banks and holds interoffice fundraisers. Its party for employees and guests at the Omni Willim Penn Hotel, Downtown, will have fortune tellers and casino games. Range hosts another party for land owners and businesses, spokesman Matt Pitzarella said.

Website design and search optimization company Higher Images Inc. of South Fayette plans fun for staffers at a restaurant party. It hired North Side-based GEMS Entertainment to take photos, display them on a giant screen, and invite partiers to draw on them with “digital spray cans.”

Higher Images, with 22 employees, runs a white elephant auction, a common office party game, said Chris Reidenbaugh, director of sales. People add gifts to a pool; one person takes a gift and the next can either steal the first box or choose another from the pile.

Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or

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