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Office-Party Shrimp Sales Offer Dipstick On Economy

Platters of pink-tailed shrimp are plentiful at holiday office parties this year - a sure sign that 1996 was a good year for the US economy and the corporate bottom line.

The cherry-paneled Houstonian Hotel in Houston, where corporate parties are in full swing, offers a snapshot of just how good the year has been.

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"Generally people spend $35 a person just for food. This year they're spending $55," says Kleibert Estrada, the hotel's catering director. "I can't believe how confident people are."

Sales of $275 shrimp platters, he notes, are up 12 percent.

A surging stock market and higher corporate profits have prompted many companies to lay down a little more money this year for their annual holiday festivities. That means when holiday revelers join their officemates at banquet halls and ballrooms across the country, they're likely to dine on beef tenderloin rather than chicken l'orange and dance to live bands instead of a D.J.

New York's Tavern on the Green is reporting higher bookings, and the restaurant is closed every night between Dec. 2 and 20 for corporate parties. The Houstonian Hotel says companies are shelling out about 25 percent more for Christmas festivities, and bookings are already pouring in for next year. At Ridgewell's Caterers in Bethesda, Md., corporate business is up about 20 percent this season over last.

Nearly 8 in 10 companies will hold holiday parties this year - about the same as 1995, according to a recent survey by the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) in Washington. But they're bumping up spending to $28 per employee, up from $21 last year.

The move comes at a time when more businesses are cutting back on year-end bonuses and paid time off for holidays. For some, a big gala is a way to try to boost morale. About 36 percent of firms that halt operations between Christmas and New Year's pay workers for those days, down from 57 percent in 1992, the BNA reports. Only 14 percent plan to give bonuses or cash gifts.

Corporate spending on holiday parties ranges from as little as $5 a worker to a whopping $560, according to the BNA. At the Four Seasons hotel in Boston, for example, the biggest corporate bash this year is for 500 people and will cost almost $100,000.

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This year's hottest trends are palm readers, reindeer ice sculptures, comedians, and make-your-own videos, and some companies go all out. Mastercard International in Purchase, N.Y., is holding three parties - complete with carolers, magic, and a mime. Andersen Consulting's Atlanta office rolled out the red carpet for its 1,000 employees and their guests at the Westin Peachtree Plaza, where both a live band and a D.J. provided entertainment. Another company is renting the 5,000-square-foot Atlanta Botanical Garden to stage a casino.

Still, most firms won't be returning to the lavish 1980s, when corporate parties rivaled Hollywood movie premirs. Today, companies feel more responsible to shareholders. "In the '80s, people didn't care what it cost. Today, people do care," says Barbara Spencer, catering director at Boston's Four Seasons.

Even those that are splurging a little don't want to look too indulgent. "Companies might be spending a little more, but they're awfully careful not to look like it," says Shelley Clark, marketing director at the Tavern on the Green.

Even so, many firms have eliminated big bashes altogether. Some say it's too difficult to get all the troops together. Microsoft Corp., with 12,000 employees at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters alone, is so large it holds an annual gathering in Seattle's Kingdome, so the computer giant opts to let each department decide how it will celebrate at Christmas.

At the same time, with a more diverse work force, companies are recognizing that not everyone celebrates Christmas. IBM Corp. in Armonk, N.Y., holds a "low-key" party with juice and cookies in the cafeteria. "To call it a party may be even too strong a word," says spokesman Scott Brooks. "We realize that different people like to celebrate in different ways ... and this is a more gentle way to do it."

Some companies, too, simply can't celebrate during the holidays. With December being its biggest month ever, toymaker FAO Schwarz holds its big bash in January or February, says spokeswoman Brook Atkins. "That way everyone's a little more relaxed."

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