Banks tone down festive spirit

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The combination of September 11 and falling profits has left financial services employers with reduced enthusiasm for bacchanalian festivities.

A spokeswoman for Planit Events, whose marquee-like building near Bishopsgate Viaduct in the City of London was the venue of many of last year's bigger celebrations, says that bookings this December are 25% down. Some banks have pulled out.

Other London party organisers confirm that the City is partying neither as hard nor as lavishly this Christmas. Cai Ferrer, whose company, Pure Consulting, organises events for banks, says that the mood is as sombre as she can remember.

The terrorist attacks in New York are the most frequently cited reason, says Jonathan Rutherfurd-Best, managing director of the event organiser Urban Productions.

Bloomberg, which last year splashed out 1m (&euro1.6m) on a party in London themed on the Seven Deadly Sins, is among the employers opting for sobriety in deference to those who died in New York.

'We lost three employees and, out of respect both to them and to our clients, we will not be having a party this year,' says a spokesperson.

Bloomberg employees are to be involved in charity projects instead.

JP Morgan says it has cancelled all its office parties this year across Europe, because of the attacks in New York and the poor market conditions.

It is the biggest parties that are most likely to have been cancelled. Organisers are unanimous that high-profile, firm-wide parties are out smaller divisional events are in.

This is not the first year that banks have had divisional parties. The days when the entire London staff of Salomon Brothers were able to fit into the Waldorf are long past.

Mergers and natural growth have made many organisations too big for all the staff to celebrate in one place. Those that still opt for this include Jupiter Asset Management, which booked the Mayfair Club this year to entertain its 400 employees.

This year's parties are putting an unprecedented emphasis on cost. Ferrer says that budgets last year were often 200 per head this Christmas they are nearer 40. At one US bank, partygoers have been asked to make a contribution. At Morgan Stanley and Citigroup, some managing directors are apparently digging into their own pockets to ensure that staff have a good time.

Part-funded events are unlikely to endear employees to their firm. They may also be an unnecessary economy.

Ferrer, at Pure Consulting, says that banks have been able to drive a harder bargain this year. As a result, she says, it is the companies that do the organising, as opposed to the partygoers, who are absorbing much of the lower spending. Ferrer says last year venues were making the most of the good times by charging a hefty 30 or more per head for canapés, for example.

Event Wise, which counts Citigroup and Fidelity among its clients, says that some banks are reducing spend per head by buying into shared party packages.

Event Wise organises what it calls a 'big and glitzy' party a number of different employers buy tables for groups of 10 employees. Bankers, telecommunications company staff and pharmaceutical executives are able to let their hair down together.

Not everyone is economising. Some firms do not appear to have been deterred from partying at London's more costly venues. Hakkasan, a new West End restaurant known for its stylish interior and immodest pricing, has had Christmas bookings from Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs.

Rutherfurd-Best, of Urban Productions, says that, alongside the sobriety, another phenomenon is discernible. A few financial services clients are treating parties as opportunities for escapism. 'They want to forget what's going in the world for two or three hours,' he says.

Escapist parties are favoured by divisions that have done well. Corporate financiers and equities salesmen are unlikely to be among those dancing to James Brown in Harry Potter outfits. The annual equities party at one large US bank has been cancelled.

This is not the case for fixed income. The fixed-income group at one European bank is heading for Planit Events' structure at Bishopsgate Viaduct. 'It's been a tough year and we need to relax and have a nice time,' says a managing director.

Escapism is not leading to unfettered frivolity, however. Rutherfurd-Best says that the emphasis now is being placed on food as well as on drink, and on the quality of the total experience rather than the extent of the excess.

'It is not about hedonism, it's about morale. People need to be made to feel that they are appreciated,' he says.

This is the thinking behind one firm's decision not to cancel. The party at Cantor Fitzgerald, which was one of the companies worst affected by September 11, is going ahead.

A spokesperson says: 'We are having a party, but it is will not be a big event. We think it is really important that people have an opportunity to come together.'

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