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Gifts, events, benefits replacing office parties

About 65 employees in Lattice Engines Boston office

About 65 employees in Lattice Engines Boston office celebrate the holiday during a painting party. (Dec. 4, 2013) Credit: AP

Buddy DiFonzo isn't sure what he'll buy at his company's holiday party. That's right, what he'll buy -- the celebration, a company-sponsored shopping spree, will be at an upscale Dallas mall.

The six employees of consulting firm Idea Harvest will meet at NorthPark Center Thursday. The bosses will buy lunch, then hand each staffer an envelope with $200 to $300. One crucial requirement: Staffers must spend every penny on themselves.

"This is fantastic for morale, and employees look forward to opening those envelopes for weeks," CEO Mike Solow says. "I hear people talking about it at lunch."

Making new holiday traditions

Many bosses are ditching traditional holiday parties. Instead, they're sponsoring shopping sprees and cruises to reward staffers and celebrate at the end of the year. Others are holding parties that include a special activity or are doing volunteer events that they say are good for business.

A variety of factors is behind the change, says Leslie Yerkes, president of Catalyst Consulting Group in Cleveland. Younger workers aren't as interested in standard holiday celebrations; the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks made many companies look for events that were meaningful, like volunteer work; and the recession curtailed spending on over-the-top affairs.

When DiFonzo and his colleagues at Idea Harvest are done shopping, they'll meet for drinks and compare purchases.

Solow borrowed the shopping spree idea from a previous job, where staffers got lunch, money and time to go shopping. Last year, DiFonzo used most of his money to buy a $185 North Face jacket he had wanted. This time, he's considering a pair of hiking boots.

A 4-day cruise to Mexico?

Employees of Konnect Public Relations returned from a four-day cruise to Mexico Monday. The Los Angeles company uses the annual trip as a reward for productivity. Top producers get extras like upgrades to a suite or spa treatments.

The trip for 26 staffers costs $15,000, a worthwhile investment, chief operating officer Monica Guzman says. "We go through a lot to find really good quality people, and once we have them we try everything in our power to keep them happy," she says.

Lattice Engine's employees painted while they partied earlier this month at a Boston restaurant. The software company brought in Paint Nite, a service that gives painting lessons at bars and restaurants. About 65 people painted trees on canvas while they drank and ate hors d'oeuvres.

The company holds parties with special activities to encourage staffers to interact with people they don't know well, officer manager Alicia Thomas says.

With 65 people painting, including 40 employees, there was more mingling and chatter as partygoers admired everyone's artwork, says Thomas.

Emphasizing giving

Nautilus used to have lavish parties with employee gifts like big-screen TVs. In 2004, the fitness equipment maker decided to focus less on itself and more on the community, says Wayne Bolio, a senior vice president. So Nautilus began sponsoring an annual shopping trip for underprivileged children at a Target store near the company's Vancouver, Wash., headquarters.

More than 40 staffers volunteered to help about 50 children pick out gifts. Each child got to spend about $75. "When you walk out afterward, you say, 'I feel good about this, and I feel good that the company supports it,' " Bolio says.

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