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Ultra-lavish corporate picnics

July 25, 2007 11:38 IST

Does your company's summer picnic consist of nothing more than hot dogs, hamburgers and a kiddie pool set up at the local campgrounds?

Maybe it's time to consider alternative employment.

Perhaps, with Bloomberg. In June the company hosted its annual summer fete on New York City's Randall's Island, which it rented out for the day, setting up Bedouin tents and serving Middle Eastern dishes, barbecue and seafood.

The corporation also provided employees and their families with an ice skating rink, petting zoo, poker and blackjack tables, and an iPod-mixing station.

Extraordinary, sure. But events like this are not the norm. The number of annual employee picnics has fallen in the last five years, mostly due to post-9/11 budget pressures, says Lisa Hurley, editor of Special Events Magazine, a trade publication for special event designers, producers and suppliers. And if companies are spending money on events, she says, they are usually for clients, not staff.

Still, a handful, including Google and Microsoft, opt to treat their employees during this time of year with a summer outing. And they are swanky. Google employees and their families last summer spent a day eating unlimited carnival food and playing Texas hold 'em.

Next month, their neighbors in the Pacific Northwest will party for three days on a farm atop Mount Si. While neither would release exact expenditures, Chicago-based event planner Karen Hansen estimates that corporate celebrations such as these usually start at around $200,000.

Days-long outings and special savories are all well and good, but what's in it for company heads?

"There's no question that the big-budget company events boost loyalty," says Hurley. "No matter how massive a paycheck I pull in, I can't take over Central Park with headline entertainment and top-flight food. Special events are exciting, exclusive parties created just for me. It's an experience that money can't buy."

Rock 'n' Roll Revelry

That's what Livonia, Mich.-based Quicken Loans must have been aiming for when it celebrated its 20th anniversary last summer. The company hosted a Black Eyed Peas concert for employees at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. Opening for them were "the Loaners," Quicken's employee band. At the end of the night, part of the basketball court was converted into an after-hours club, with DJ Scribble spinning hits.

Craig Erlich, co-founder of Southfield, Mich.-based marketing agency Pulse 220, organized the event. He says that when companies make that extra effort, employees respond.

"It makes the difference between a great company and a good company," he says. "They realize how valuable their people are, and they reward them."

Erlich says that the feedback from employees was stellar. "Of course, the Quicken team loved the Black Eyed Peas, but one of the real highlights of the night was when we broadcast a video presentation of employee interviews, many of whom have been working there since the beginning," he says. "You could tell there's a real sense of camaraderie there."

Dawn Passaro, a researcher at HR Marketer, a marketing and media relations outfit for companies selling to human resources departments, spent 20 years as a human resources director. She says that as part of a full retention package, special events like company picnics definitely contribute to employee satisfaction.

But here's the caveat. Once you've set the bar at a certain level, it must remain there.

"You need to remember that people will always be comparing this year's picnic to what you did last year," says Passaro. While salary and health care are paramount, secondary perks, like company-sponsored parties, are "the icing on the cake."

And Microsoft is willing to spread it on thick.

Next month, employees will spend three days on Mount Si, about 25 minutes away from the tech giant's Redmond, Wash., headquarters. There, employees from around the globe will find a Ferris wheel, paddle boats, pony rides, a clown show, mini-golf, water games and an arcade.

For the adventuresome, there's an "extreme zone" featuring a mechanical bull, golf driving range and numerous obstacle courses. The extensive gourmet spread will consist of typical picnic fare as well as cross-cultural dishes, vegetarian sides, vegan options and a build-your-own dessert bar.

Don't work for Bill Gates? No need to go get a computer engineering degree. If other companies take his cue, soon enough the annual sack race may become the yearly mechanical climbing wall contest.

Lauren Sherman, Forbes