By Maureen Post Special to Published Dec 18, 2009 at 4:06 PM

During the holidays last year, plenty of Milwaukee companies felt the stinging pinch of the exposed recession. The tradition of office merriment, food and drink gave way as layoffs, salary reductions and benefit freezes captivated water cooler chatter.

But, that is a year behind us, right? More than 15 months after the recession took firm hold, are things looking any better around the office this holiday season? Many would say economic times are starting to improve, but is there financial room for the holiday spirit in the office this year?

It largely depends on who you ask. The question, is your company having a holiday party, is one not many companies are openly answering. For those who can afford it, the concept of a holiday party can be seen as inconsiderate and extravagant in a flailing market. For those whose budgets just can’t provide for it, it represents continued cutbacks and economic struggle.

"Right now, a lot of people are losing jobs and a party is a great way to increase morale. I think companies want to let employees know they’re appreciated," Amber Bricco, event manager for Trocadero, 1758 N. Water St., says.

This season, Milwaukee’s restaurants, bars and party venues have keyed into what is making the cut for office holiday parties. Understanding the economic pressure in the workplace, local bars, restaurants and party venues have created new options for the holiday season.

"We opened for lunch earlier this month to expand our products and services for our guests.  Lunch offers a great way to still have a special event, but at a generally lower price point," Mike Matousek, sales manager at Hinterland, 222 E. Erie St., says.

Whereas in the past companies typically had a full coursed dinner, opting for heavy appetizers or an abbreviated meal is more common. Whereas perhaps open bar would’ve been customary, many companies are choosing to offer just wine, beer and soda or host the bar bill only to a certain limit.

"There’ve been a lot more cocktail receptions rather than traditional dinners. There hasn’t been much full cash bar but we’ve seen a lot more solely beer and wine selections," Joseph Lawton, event planner at Swig, 217 N. Broadway, says.

Both office administrators and restaurant event planners are redefining what a holiday party can entail in tough economic times. The main goal: to cut down the cost.

"We’ve had an increase in sales, about 20%, and we attribute a lot of that to holiday parties. Throughout December, I’ve had about five company parties a week and in January, we’re already booked nearly three nights a week," Lawton says.

Cutting costs isn’t the only obstacle however.

"We’ve really seen party size go down due to layoffs and budgets are really down this year.  Almost every party has a spending limit that is much smaller than in previous years and many businesses have cancelled their holiday parties totally," Greg Wittig, VP of Operations for Mo’s Steakhouse, 720 N. Plankinton Ave., says.

But what may just be the vital touch for restaurants, is the addition of an event planning executive to restaurant staff. Across the board, restaurants that have seen a good response this holiday season have done the work for it. Restaurants like Hinterland, Swig and Trocadero each created an events coordinator position to focus solely on the needs and wants of clients.

"We have definitely experienced an increase in private party bookings compared to last year.  I would say, roughly a 75% increase.  We have, however, become more aggressive in booking the lounge, and seeking out businesses to have their parties with us," Matousek says.

And while some companies have not been able to afford the same holiday party as in years past, it doesn’t mean they’re forgoing the tradition altogether. Instead of lavish restaurant dinners, some companies are having a catered event or potluck in the office. Others are invigorating the holiday spirit by contributing to a holiday charity event.

"I think that companies have been tightening their budgets over the past 12-18 months, and cutting down on general entertaining.  When it comes to the holidays, even though it may be a pared down version of past parties, companies still want to do something to celebrate the holiday season, and reward employees for working hard," Matousek says.

 "There’s really a tradition there and companies are still trying to show some benefit to their employees by giving something back. Last year, it was often just employees invited to holiday parties but this year, there seems to be a lot more who invite clients and others that have supported them throughout the year. There’s more emphasis placed on recognition at the event rather than just the holiday," Lawton continues.

Maureen Post Special to staff writer Maureen Post grew up in Wauwatosa. A lover of international and urban culture, Maureen received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

After living on the east side of Madison for several years, Maureen returned to Milwaukee in 2006.

After a brief stint of travel, Maureen joined as the city’s oldest intern and has been hooked ever since. Combining her three key infatuations, Milwaukee’s great music, incredible food and inspiring art (and yes, in that order), Maureen’s job just about fits her perfectly.

Residing in Bay View, Maureen vehemently believes the city can become fresh and new with a simple move across town.