Decency over debauchery - London financiers plan low key Christmas parties

LONDON (REUTERS) - With an ever-lengthening list of scandals and a number of banks still reliant on the public purse, the 2013 Christmas party season for London's financiers is about decency over debauchery.

Big festive bashes are being eschewed for fear of further riling public opinion. Some events are being switched to January, when its cheaper. Some banks are opting for carol concerts to raise money for charity, while at others it will be prosecco rather than champagne that is flowing, say event organisers and bankers.

"We can't be seen to be enjoying ourselves," said one senior investment banker.

Before the 2008 global financial crisis, a specially erected marquee in London's Canary Wharf offered Christmas parties with sit-down dinner, free-flowing champagne and a band on stilts for banks such as Lehman Brothers and HSBC.

Five years later, Lehman is no longer and parties for thousands of employees are rare. Instead, London's financial services firms are chipping in "modest" sums of between 20 and 50 pounds (S$40-100) per head for Christmas dos, or employees are funding their own celebrations.

"There's definitely been a real shift change since 2009, when the recession really hit. There's so much awareness among our clients about what is decent," said Ms Ruth Lawton-Owen, sales and marketing director for event firms Blue Strawberry and Table Talk, which counts major banks and investment houses among its corporate clients.

HSBC, Europe's largest bank, declined to comment on how its staff will celebrate this year.

Entertainment budgets are often now largely dedicated to clients and parties must have a clear business rationale.

"Everyone talks about return on investment. The next day somebody's boss wants to know how many clients did they talk to, who got what business, what was their feedback. Nobody is throwing money away anymore," Ms Lawton-Owen said.

Events commonly now take place in January, when companies can negotiate better deals, she added.

"Where there would be champagne and a full open bar, people are having prosecco or a mulled wine - it's less lavish... without the sense of unbridled opulence than there perhaps was previously."

Financial firms are also laying on much more low-key dos, like carol services, often in partnership with a charity, Ms Lawton-Owen said.

Christmas parties are not off the menu entirely, however, and a pickup in Britain's economy has seen some companies loosen the purse strings to reward employees.

Mr Simon Lockwood, creative director at The Brewery, a City of London venue whose main clients come from the technology, media, financial and legal industries, said there had been a significant jump in the number of parties held this year.

These events are different than in pre-crisis days - street style food stalls have replaced sit-down dinners - and guests see them as a treat rather than a right, he added.

"It's not something that's taken for granted any more.

People know that they are having a party because the company is doing better, and because of how hard they have worked.

"We don't anticipate it (Christmas party business) ever to recover to the levels of 2006... It will never reach those levels again because the world is a different place now."

Event planner Lawton-Owen said Russians living in London still had an appetite, and a budget, for extravagance.

"The sector that is still being incredibly lavish is probably the Russians that are based in London. They have been in the more expensive, the very obviously prestigious venues (and parties) are often quite lavishly themed. Guests might come in fancy dress but they will also dress the staff."

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