Tips on how your small business can still spread holiday cheer despite tough economic times and a swine flu pandemic

By Reed Richardson

For many small businesses, the only thing to cheer about in the arrival of the 2009 holiday season may be the fact that it represents the end to a very difficult year. In keeping with that not-so-festive spirit, many entrepreneurs might think that an office holiday party or sending seasonal gifts to customers just doesn't make sense this year, both economically and emotionally. Nevertheless, there are some compelling long-term arguments for why not playing the Grinch this year is better for your employees and your small business in the long run. Best of all, there are ways to do this that won't bust your budget or get everyone in your office sick.

Thank customers first, but don't forget your employees

According to a recent holiday survey by American Express, nearly half-47%-of all small businesses still plan on rewarding their customers with some kind of gift this holiday season, a small drop from the 52% who did so in 2008. The total gift budget planned for clients is only slightly less than the year before as well-$455 in 2009 versus $457 in 2008.


When it comes to rewarding employees, however, the same study found that fewer small business owners plan on giving gifts (35% vs. 46%), bonuses (31% vs. 44%), or raises (16% vs. 30%) this year than last year. But granting employees time off (47%) remains quite popular among entrepreneurs, who choose it at a rate unchanged from a year ago.


"Entrepreneurs understand the importance of showing appreciation for customers' business especially during tough economic times," noted American Express OPEN business advisor Alice Bredin in the survey. And while the gift-giving emphasis is on customers this holiday season, she notes that employers also "recognize the gift of time as a way to give to employees without breaking the bank."


Giving your company a gift-better employee morale

Last fall's unexpected economic crisis found many businesses both large and small slashing expenses as the end of the year approached. And as a result, many company holiday parties were understandably scaled back or abruptly cancelled. But one year later, it might not pay to take the same approach to seasonal festivities, for a couple of reasons.


First, the financial panic and market freefall that gripped the economy last fall has dissipated. Tough times undoubtedly remain, but a small business that, say, foregoes its traditional Christmas party for a second year in a row without much in the way of explanation, might inadvertently rekindle that sense of anxiety among its employees. Coupled with other, more substantial belt-tightening measures, like salary cuts or staff layoffs, the symbolic act of canceling the holiday party might magnify the perceived difficulties plaguing a company and further erode company morale.


"Low morale levels are an unfortunate side effect of this recession," notes CareerBuilder vice president of corporate marketing Jason Ferrara. A November 2009 survey commissioned by his company confirms this, as nearly one quarter (23%) of the 2,900 employers contacted rated their employees morale as low. And as employee morale suffers, fear and/or apathy can soon set in, eroding productivity in the workplace. In fact, that same CareerBuilder survey found that 40% of workers reported having difficulty staying motivated at work during the past year and another one quarter (24%) said they no longer felt any loyalty to their current employer.


As a result of these alarming numbers, Ferrara explains that many employers are now taking steps to address this negative workplace climate and rebuild their relationships with their employees. One small way to do that might be to re-institute a holiday party, even if it's a scaled-back version. Even a relatively small symbolic gesture like that can have a surprisingly large and positive impact among your small business's employees.


Holiday parties more popular, less costly than gifts

Those entrepreneurs who have decided to hold a holiday party, despite the difficult circumstances, aren't alone. According to a nationwide survey of small businesses conducted by the seafood restaurant chain McCormick & Schmick's, a slight majority-52%- planned some kind of office holiday celebration in 2009, although the survey also confirmed that the scope of these parties is admittedly smaller than in years past.


In fact, the survey found that only one in four small businesses holding a holiday party this year expected to spend more than $50 an employee. Overall, the average holiday party budget per employee was a quite modest $36-a relative bargain when compared to the cost of end-of-year bonuses or Christmas gifts in years past. "We know from what we are hearing from our guests and this research that businesses are looking for smaller, more economical ways to celebrate the holidays-department luncheons, small client get-togethers and employee recognition events," explained McCormick & Schmick's CEO Bill Freeman.


For small companies seeking to avoid an expensive holiday party in a catering hall, there are several ways to celebrate more frugally. One way to still enjoy the size and cachet of a fancy holiday party in a large banquet hall or convention space is to seek out a "Bring Your Own Business" holiday party. These BYOB parties, which are increasingly common, let smaller companies pool their resources together and cut costs, while letting their employees still enjoy the same kind of perks-upscale setting, grand buffets, live music, or DJ-found at more expensive holiday parties. If your small business really has a shoestring budget, some combination of a potluck dinner in the conference room, dessert and coffee while mingling around the office, or dancing in the warehouse to music off of someone's iPod might be a fun, yet low-cost way to socialize and let off some steam after a difficult year.


How to Have a Healthy Holiday Party

Some small businesses might be discouraged from throwing a holiday party out of fear of exposing their employees to the ongoing H1N1 flu pandemic. Getting large numbers of people together, particularly in an environment where they may be eating and drinking, still poses a health risk right now, even though, according to the CDC, the H1N1 flu's spread has slowed in recent weeks. But there are some simple steps your company can take to significantly mitigate the chance that your holiday party will spread the flu among your employees.


The first tip is simple-don't let sick people attend. This rule not only applies to employees but spouses, guests, and children as well. In fact, to simplify things, this year it might be worth making the company holiday party an "employees only" affair to minimize the chances of spreading the flu among your workforce.


When it comes to serving food and drinks, it's also a good idea to compartmentalize servings to prevent cross-contamination. This means going for bite-size hors d'oeuvres and serving individual portions of food rather than sharing big bowls of snacks or letting everyone serve themselves out of a large buffet platter. Likewise, you should avoid the big and often messy holiday punch bowl of eggnog and instead encourage attendees to drink out of the same individual glasses throughout the party, maybe by giving them an easy way to identify their glasses, like festive wine stem rings. In addition, it wouldn't hurt to add hand-sanitizing wipes to each place setting and a touch-free sanitizing station next to each entrance and exit. And though it may be popular, hanging mistletoe is one holiday tradition that would be definitely worth skipping this year.