Russian firms tone down holiday cheer as crisis bites

Moscow, December 26

Forget corporate holiday bashes where glitterati are treated to fine champagne and French delicacies: Russia’s economic crisis has taken the glow off the holiday season this year.

Many companies are now forced to scrimp on once lavish New Year’s parties or celebrate the country’s most beloved holiday in the office — with simple snacks on offer and employees bringing their own drinks.

On a recent afternoon, servers were arranging Chianti bottles on white tablecloths for a holiday party for 500 employees of an international firm in Roll Hall, a venue just south of the Moscow city centre.

Yelena Vetrova, deputy director of the entertainment and shopping complex, said that business was mostly good although some clients waited until the last minute to book their parties, while others scaled theirs down.

“For the first time ever this year, we were taking reservations in December,” said Vetrova, noting that clients used to make bookings as early as May.

She added that some clients had cancelled, while others toned down the festivities: the average price tag this year is 25 to 30 per cent lower than last December.

“People don’t go away hungry but they don’t eat foie gras,” she said with a wry smile.

“Many firms ask us whether they can bring their own alcohol, and we agree.”

Corporate New Year’s parties became a huge industry in Russia during the years of high oil prices, with some companies booking lodges in the Alps, splurging on chocolate fondue fountains and paying singers hundreds of thousands of dollars for a performance.

But if it was once trendy to show off, the opposite appears to be true amid a shrinking economy, with prices rising and real incomes falling by more than nine per cent in the first 11 months of 2015.

This year, holiday excesses can land businesses in hot water.

The government is looking into what many believe is a suspiciously lavish banquet laid on recently by the state corporation Rosnano, a leader in Russia’s nano-technology industry.

Some 400 people attended the New Year’s party, which reportedly cost more than $30,000 (28,000 euros).

“We have a huge amount of money. Simply a lot,” Rosnano Head Anatoly Chubais told his staff at the event held at a Moscow club, according to a leaked video that caused a scandal.

“We will have a second bonus,” he said, to cries of ‘hooray!’

Chubais, one of a handful of figures who oversaw liberal reforms in the government of Boris Yeltsin and who managed to hold on to a top post under President Vladimir Putin, was forced to explain himself.

“About the New Year’s corporate party,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “I confirm that all expenses were paid from the personal funds of board members.”

The scandal prompted Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich to order a check into whether the Rosnano employees’ bonuses were justified.

For most companies in the private sector, New Year’s habits are hard to break, with three-quarters planning to have a party.

But 41 per cent said they have cut their budgets and 21 per cent plan to party in the office, according to a study by the Russian executive search website

“The situation is not good,” said Yegor Dobrogorsky, the head of event agency Communicator Creative Events, according to which the hard-hit construction and auto sectors appear to be scrimping the most.

Dobrogorsky added that companies can save by having employees host and participate in entertainment programmes, opting for buffet-style meals or axing the traditional celebrations altogether.

Buying Russian wines instead of imported alcohol can reduce the bill by half or more, he added.

Restaurateurs for whom New Year’s parties have always been a gold mine are taking a hit.

Igor Bukharov, president of the Russian Federation of Restaurateurs and Hoteliers, said the market for holiday catering is down by a further 20 per cent after last year’s decline.

The parties ‘have always been an important source of revenue to compensate for a slow January’, he said.