Corporate America Gets Down

As the economy soars and millennium looms, corporate parties swing.
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Diana Ross. Mirrored disco balls. Stevie Wonder and Kool and the Gang.

Is this 1977? No, it's corporate America 1999.

Bolstered by the booming economy and inspired by the coming of the new millennium, many companies are going all out this year to throw extravagant holiday parties.

"There's no question; people are really gearing up for this year," says Robert Swire, co-owner of

It's Your Party

, a full-service party-planning company in Boca Raton, Fla. "The economy at this point is really good and people want to have a good time."

Many firms are sparing no expense to make their employees feel valuable in this tight labor market. "Companies want four- or five-course dinners, whereas a normal dinner is usually three courses," says Jennie Emil, director of catering at

Windows on the World

, a restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

Of course, not all companies are splurging wildly in the spirit of the holidays. According to a recent

American Express

(AXP) - Get Report

survey, 68% of the almost 800 small businesses polled said they would not be holding holiday parties this year. When asked why, most respondents said they just don't have them. But for those companies that do indulge, as rages the bull market, so do the parties.

Even normally button-down accountants are wallowing in end-of-the-millennium decadence. Accounting firm

PricewaterhouseCoopers

decided to get down this year with an exclusive concert at Madison Square Garden with Diana Ross on Dec. 14. PricewaterhouseCoopers spokesman Steven Silber estimates the cost of this party at around $500,000, or about $50 an employee. Employees were also given $15 vouchers to use at the concession stands.

Madison Square Garden was also the scene of American Express' Dec. 13 holiday party with Stevie Wonder, Kool and the Gang and

Sheryl Crow

. Various food stations around the arena offered food from different countries, such as Italy and China, as servers circulated with hors d'oeuvres. Although the company declined to comment on cost, American Express spokeswoman Bet Franzone says the concert attended by 7,000 New York-based employees, advisers and retirees was also to commemorate the company's 150th anniversary next year.

And while it might seem pricey and perhaps just a little too flamboyant to book a diva like Miss Ross to serenade employees, these companies take it in stride. "That's probably fairly typical of what companies of our size and our employee base spend on employees in whatever fashion at Christmastime. It's just on the more creative and novel side," he says. The concert was actually less expensive than the firm's holiday celebration last year, Silber says, when smaller parties were held at different venues around the New York metro area.

The explosive growth of new media is helping make for a merry Christmas for

Invision Media Communications

employees. "Because of the economy, we can throw this kind of party and not worry about the incidentals," says President Jeffrey Shachtman.

"This kind of party," in view of the millennium, is a theme event looking back over the century. Each room of the company's spacious offices is decorated in the style of a different decade. The main party room pays tribute to the 1970s and Studio 54, complete with disco ball and a lock of

John Travolta's

hair in a glass case. (Shachtman concedes the strands aren't really from the long-collared one.)

The 1960s-era bathroom blooms with stalls painted with Day-Glo flowers as partygoers stand admiring a giant Day-Glo American flag painted on one wall, their smiles white from the neon lighting. A buffet, champagne bar, martini bar (in addition to a regular bar), DJ and a hot-air balloon floating above the building to help guests spot the location, rings up at about $35,000. The company makes CD-ROMs and 3-D computer graphics for clients such as

Panasonic

,

Fuji

and

Mercedes Benz

.

Another beneficiary of the technology explosion, Irvine, Calif.-based

Quest Software

celebrates its good fortune at the holidays by sending almost every employee away for a weekend celebration for two. About 900 people visited

The Four Seasons

in Carlsbad, Calif., this year on the company's largesse. Even though the employee roster exploded from the 10 it had when it started the holiday tradition in 1987 to the current 600, Quest founder and President David Doyle says the firm will keep providing the trips as long as business is good.

But is there a payoff to spending more than $200,000 on a holiday party, as Quest did last year when it sent its employees to the luxurious

Bellagio

hotel in Las Vegas? Definitely, says Doyle.

"It's a big morale booster," he says. "The glow lasts for some time after."

For the most part, attendees seem to like them. Jim Colarusso, an employee of executive search firm

Michael King Associates

, regularly attends the holiday shindigs for investment house

First Republic Group

. This year, the black-tie party with dinner, drinks and dancing at the

Grand Havana Room

restaurant in Manhattan included a play casino room complete with roulette wheel, craps and black jack tables. "That made the evening," says Colarusso (who is the brother of

TSC

associate editor Dan Colarusso). And the parties in general "give people a chance to see the other side of the broker in the boardroom or the trader at the desk," he adds. "There's a bit of glamour to it."

At the parties of accounting firm

KPMG

, the big tubs of shrimp and the DJ conspire to create a mood, says an accountant who usually attends them. "It's like going to a giant wedding." And the opportunity to meet spouses and socialize is a good release valve "when people are working like crazy. It's a good excuse for the whole firm to be out at 4:30 a.m. at a party."