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How banks' Christmas parties got boring

One of the first Christmas parties I ever attended in my banking career was a black tie affair. It was full of the firm's most important clients. There was unlimited Dom Perignon, as many Cuban cigars as your lungs could handle and ice sculptures as far as the eye could see. It was like the opening scene of a Bond movie, and was followed by an even more extravagant after-party at a private members' club that was personally financed by the most senior Managing Directors.

Times have changed. Pre-crisis, when banks were making huge profits, there was limited oversight of expenses, and particularly limited oversight of expenses attached to client-related events because the margins were so large. By comparison, the most recent ‘Christmas party’ I attended was apparently over by 10pm (I left at 8.30pm like most managers), did not have a single client on the dancefloor, was renamed the ‘Holiday’ party in order not to offend non-Christians, and was held in January rather than December to save money. 

Just like the share prices of most European banks, Christmas parties have fallen off a cliff. 

There are some good reasons why these changes have been so dramatic (costs, inclusion, litigation etc.). - Clearly the excesses of the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ days were ridiculous (and likely criminal) and the budgets were absurd.  But there are also some terrible reasons (the industry is just not that fun anymore). As banks have become more spartan, Christmas parties have gone too far the other way. 

This is unfortunate. What used to be extremely fun events, that brought people closer to their clients and managers in a somewhat informal setting have turned in to internal, rather stiff, almost certainly dull and often obligatory affairs. People are generally begrudging about attendance, and yet the 'parties' still cost a significant amount of money. 

That money would almost certainly be better-spent topping up junior bonuses or hosting several smaller more intimate gatherings. Alternatively, banks need to understand that a party doesn't need to be expensive to be fun. One firm I worked for hosted a talent show at the Christmas party, which people (surprisingly) took really seriously. It was a huge success and allowed people to see a totally different side to their colleagues irrespective of title or status. Another firm gave up on the one-off invite-all party, filled with meaningless two minute conversations, and decided to arrange a number of smaller gatherings, one of which was an ax throwing competition at a bar in Brooklyn. That was my most memorable party of all.

Peter Flower is the pseudonym of a senior banker

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AUTHORPeter Flower Insider Comment

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