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Sandy on the guest list at holiday fetes

By Sarah LeTrent, CNN
updated 9:34 AM EST, Fri December 14, 2012
Musicians perform at Kevin Powell's 12th annual holiday party, which raised money for Superstorm Sandy relief.
Musicians perform at Kevin Powell's 12th annual holiday party, which raised money for Superstorm Sandy relief.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Companies are turning annual holiday parties into Superstorm Sandy relief efforts
  • Mayor Bloomberg moved his annual holiday party to a Sandy-affected business
  • It's not just companies in New York that feel compelled to help victims of Sandy

(CNN) -- As the economy begins to recover, corporate holiday parties are back, complete with awkward small talk over hors d'oeuvres and that one colleague doing the "Seinfeld"-style Elaine dance after one too many glasses of eggnog.

Ninety-one percent of companies surveyed by global executive search firm Battalia Winston have holiday party plans. That's up from a humbug-worthy 74% in 2011 and 79% in 2010, according to the firm's 24th annual survey of corporate holiday plans.

But this year, some people and companies are turning their annual holiday parties into Superstorm Sandy relief efforts, or forgoing the parties altogether.

The no-regrets plan for your office party

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New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg opted to move his annual holiday press party from Gracie Mansion to Bayard's Events & Catering, a historic event space in the heart of lower Manhattan's Financial District, an area flooded when Sandy hit the Eastern seaboard.

Bayard's sustained little damage, but lost power along with the rest of lower Manhattan. The move, however, is one of many showing solidarity for local businesses and areas walloped by Sandy.

Despite the flurry of craziness that Sandy created, people seemed genuinely happy to be there, said Daina Falk, who attended the party.

"...When Sandy did come up (during the mayor's speech), it wasn't a rehashing of the tragic side of the storm's damage, but rather a positive assessment of how well everyone has pulled together to bring back affected areas," Falk said.

Superstorm Sandy will cost New York state $41 billion, according to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Bloomberg estimates the public and private losses to New York City alone to be $19 billion.

In New York's neighboring state of New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie asked for $36.8 billion in federal funding for Sandy relief. At one point, close to 3 million people there were without power.

Kevin Powell's mother was without heat and electricity for more than a week in his hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey.

Powerless in New Jersey post-Sandy

"I worried about my mother every single day and called her so much she told me I was bothering her," said the 46-year-old activist, public speaker and writer.

Since 2001, Powell has thrown a holiday party "as a way to bring people together and for them to give back in a very easy and simple way," he said.

Normally, admission is free with a clothing donation for Safe Horizon Streetwork Project, an organization that benefits homeless and "street-involved" young people.

This year, however, the 22-year Brooklynite wanted to spread some cheer in Sandy's wake. In addition to the clothing drive, the party accepted monetary donations for the Coney Island Generation Gap, a nonprofit that helps make food deliveries and clean up one of New York's most affected neighborhoods.

"I have been out there on the ground helping all across the city, including Far Rockaway and Coney Island, Brooklyn," Powell said. "So I had to make a big part of the holiday party this year a Sandy benefit. It is the least we can do."

Other businesses, like Union Square Hospitality Group -- Danny Meyer's restaurant group that owns some of the most popular and successful eateries in New York City -- have staffers donning volunteer hats instead of gay apparel.

The corporate office staff will do their merrymaking in the warehouse of the Food Bank for New York City, according to Paul Bolles-Beaven, a managing partner of the hospitality group.

"This year the 'Party Squad' -- the celebration planning committee -- decided that in the wake of Sandy we should focus our efforts and budget on helping those less fortunate, do it as a team and then gather afterwards for some abbreviated but heartfelt cheer," Bolles-Beaven said.

It's not just businesses in New York that feel compelled to help, either. Far beyond the flood zones, people are decking the corporate halls for a cause.

Earlier this month, the Austin chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild threw its second yearly holiday party at the famed Franklin Barbecue restaurant.

The guild will donate proceeds from the holiday party's ticket and raffle sales to New York's Bartenders' Guild chapter, which has been buying cleaning supplies and new equipment for damaged and closed bars, as well as helping supplement income for out-of-work bartenders.

"Hurricane insurance isn't typically under most NYC bars' and restaurants' umbrella and we have several bartender friends who are still out of work, so we wanted to do something that could directly help our Northern comrades," said Jessica Sanders, the secretary of the Austin bartenders' guild and a former New Yorker.

It's personal for Sanders: Before she and her husband moved to Austin a few years ago, they were engaged at The Paris, a restaurant steps from the Brooklyn Bridge and South Street Seaport, which is "closed until further notice."

"We hope that some of these funds will make their way to The Paris," she said.

For Sanders, giving back to an old haunt helps remove the grit.

Is your company forgoing a holiday party this year to help with Superstorm Sandy relief or another charitable cause? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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