The rise and fall of the oilpatch Christmas party

Like everything else in the energy sector, oilpatch Christmas parties go through boom and bust cycles. What are companies signalling when they cancel Christmas?

This year in Calgary, the Grinch stalks the land when it comes to corporate Christmas parties

Christmas decorations outside the Bow building in Calgary. Many Calgary energy companies are foregoing their Christmas parties this year. (Tracy Johnson/CBC)

Like everything else in the energy sector, oilpatch Christmas parties go through boom and bust cycles.

When times are good Blue Rodeo shows up, and hardbodied performers covered in glitter paint stand around getting ogled as "living statues." And there's booze. This is Calgary, so there's lots of booze. 

When times aren't so good, Christmas is marked by a desultory potluck in the staff room.

This year in Calgary the Grinch stalks the land. But is it really necessary to kibosh celebrations for workers who have already had a tough year?

Once upon a time in the '70s and even the early '80s, you go to a reception there would be liquor, beer, and wine in copious amount and people would drink it in copious amounts.- Ian Lee, Queens University

Power utility Enmax, which hired Blue Rodeo back in 2006 for the Christmas bash, was among the first Calgary companies to publicly announce the cancellation of this year's party, saying that it wanted to respect its customers, who are going through tough times.

Cenovus, which has been shedding staff all year, followed suit, and Suncor said that it would hold regional family parties only. Some party planners in Calgary say business is down by 80 per cent.

To spend or not to spend?

It seems pretty straightforward: spend money when you've got it, save it when you don't. And that's certainly part of the equation.

But Christmas parties in the oilpatch aren't just about bling and booze for the lucky few. They're also about the corporate message. Who's got the biggest brand?

Christmas tree decoration in Calgary's Banker's Hall (Tracy Johnson/CBC)

"A big corporation is signalling to people far beyond immediate employees," said Ian Lee, who teaches corporate strategy at Queen's University.

"They're signaling to NGOs, to academics, to investors. In good times, it signals that we're a good employer. In tough times it sends a signal that we're being prudent, we're not wasting money in a time when we're laying off staff."

Ah yes, the dearly departed. Companies want to be sensitive to all the people in the office who got the axe this year and won't be invited to the party. But, it turns out, they don't mind much.

Laid-off, but still all for a party

There's no question that the energy sector is laying off people in droves. Numbers vary, but industry itself pegs the number at 40,000 in 2015 in Alberta alone. That's painful.

But most laid-off employees don't resent their former employers.

Corporate Calgary is scaling back on its Christmas parties this year (Tracy Johnson/CBC)

Richard Bucher is a career coach with Right Management in Calgary. He helps laid off employees find new work and runs group career-counselling sessions five times a week.

"I had 35 people in a room and I asked them that question," said Bucher. "How would you feel if the company that let you go went ahead with its Christmas party for its remaining employees. And to a person, they said, 'Yeah, they should absolutely do that.'"

Bucher said he understands that if a company is losing money it doesn't make sense to go further into debt to throw a party. But those who can afford it should consider going ahead with a celebration because Christmas parties are also about the social glue that holds a team together, he said. 

"In some measure it's an acknowledgement for people weathering what's been a really tough time,"said Bucher. "And a workload that's become increasingly challenging because there are fewer people handling the load."

Bucher says it's also a career opportunity.

"This is the kind of thing you want to be seen at. Further, and in the full knowledge this may be uncomfortable, I would make a point of visiting every table to say hello to folks … kind of like at a wedding."

U.S. companies also dialling back

A survey recently done by Society of Human Resource Management in the United States found that 65 per cent of companies are holding holiday parties, down from 72 per cent three years ago, and more than 80 per cent in 1998. 

That doesn't surprise Bucher.

"American companies ... are moving away from those kinds of functions, but in Canada they're finding that people still want them."

In Calgary, Bucher says that companies that have cancelled large parties are in many cases asking managers to take their staff out for lunch. That sounds like a lot less fun than watching a Cirque-du-Soleil type spiral down a red ribbon to pour champagne into your waiting glass.

But it's also a function of the changing times.

'You know, once upon a time in the '70s and even the early '80s, you go to a reception there would be liquor, beer, and wine in copious amount and people would drink it in copious amounts," said Lee of Queen's University.'

"That whole dialling back has then evolved into looking at any form of ostentation," he said "And I think when you have recessions, it becomes an opportunity for companies to revisit practices. To dial back on something that has lots of downside, but not much upside."

Lee thinks that even if oil makes its way back up, "I don't think they ratchet back up to the same level that they were."

CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


Tracy Johnson

Business reporter

Tracy Johnson is the executive producer of CBC's western digital business unit. She's been a business reporter/producer with CBC on radio, television and online for 15 years. @tracyjohnsoncbc