IT'S THAT TIME of year when corporate culture cooks up a gift often as well-received as a vacuum-wrapped fruitcake: the office Christmas party. However, this holiday season merry-making has approached Dionysian dimensions. It's an indication, say some, that businesses have more money to throw around as a result of the economic upturn. 'With the recession in the past few years, people have just started to spend money on office parties again,' says Ann Tsang, who has organised parties past, present and probably future on behalf of a public relations and marketing firm she owned and ran for the past five years. French investment bank Credit Lyonnais Securities (Asia) must be a believer of intangible benefits based on its boisterous affair, the first year-ending party thrown for clients in years, said Fiona Lawson-Best, a marketing department manager who helped organise it. About 400 people throughout the night at The Peak Cafe danced around a bonfire in togas for the Gladiator-themed event amid flame throwers and fire eaters. 'It went off brilliantly,' says Lawson-Best. 'We had to throw people out at three in the morning.' One attendee said 'some people were apparently caught in the loos in compromising positions' and that, 'yes, it was a horrific night of Romanesque debauchery'. In short, a proper party? 'Something like that,' says Lawson-Best. The tab for throwing a gig for a couple of hundred people might be $400,000 and can easily exceed $1 million for larger, more lavish affairs, says Tsang, who is now a marketing director at Alive Networks, a multimedia travel and learning company. 'For a lot of companies there are no expenses spared,' she says. Financial news wire service Bloomberg is said to have spent $10,000 a head for about 300 employees, who on December 9, were bussed to an undisclosed location near Tung Chung. The Las Vegas-themed extravaganza encouraged partygoers to dress as high-rolling gamblers. Is it worth it? The companies apparently think so. Investment bank Goldman Sachs held its Arabian Nights-themed affair at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. 'It's always seen as a real important evening . . . it can have an impact on morale,' says corporate spokesman, Eddie Naylor. 'The end of the year is an emotional time, a time of reflection, so it's a good opportunity to celebrate with colleagues the successes you've had. It's a chance to emphasise that everybody's part of one firm, an overall team, not individual departments.' Aside from keeping employees in good spirits, many companies use the annual Christmas bash as an opportunity to woo their clients. 'It's a time of year to have fun with clients,' says Bruce Shu, a spokesman of ABN Amro (Asia), the Netherlands' largest bank. 'Our objective is to create an atmosphere so people can unwind. It's a justifiable business expense, a way of saying thank you at the end of the year,' says Shu. ABN staged its soiree atop the Island Shangri-La Hotel and its Heaven and Hell theme included clear dining tables 'floating in the air' - think transparent fishing line - and cages for sinful dancing. For their part, clients seem to appreciate such offerings, if cognisant of a greater purpose. Stuart Leckie, chairman of insurance and pension consultants Woodrow Milliman China, says 'most banks don't particularly encourage wives or girlfriends to come along'. 'You're encouraged to talk about business indirectly.' Tsang puts the worth of the Christmas party in slightly more coarse terms. 'Invite clients and get them drunk so they'll say yes to the next deal.' Cathay Pacific Airways hosted the largest fete hands-down, with 20,000 employees and family members attending the company headquarters on Lantau over the course of two days, says Cathay's Catherine Law. Such was the mood on the night of Friday, December 8 that some women threw their knickers at the employee band onstage, which included one of Cathay's top directors on guitar. 'He was a bit embarrassed, but the ageing rock star was lapping it up,' said one witness. The world of dotcoms wasn't to be denied either. Icered.com, 'the Web community for high-income professionals', held its first Christmas party and the stats read as such: attendance, 435; wine consumed, 100-plus bottles; value of prizes, $100,000. Held at Lee Gardens in Causeway Bay and catered by Cova, the event was an opportunity for people to finally meet offline, says CEO Tim Lam, who adds that corporate sponsors helped foot much of the bill. The holiday parties, in fact, have had line-ups of singers rivalling that of Japan's famous Fuji Rock Music Festival. Cathay featured local Canto-pop stars Edmond Leung, Francis Yip, Cheung Chi-lam and Grace Yip. Star TV paraded Andy Lau at their Regent Hotel ballroom shindig for 1,200 guests in Tsim Sha Tsui a fortnight ago, 'he was a warm-up act for Nicholas Tse', said one attendee. The Australian Chamber of Commerce flew in Melbourne singing sensation Vanessa Amorosi, the 19-year-old chanteuse who was one of the stars of the closing ceremony for the Sydney Olympics. 'Once word got out [about Amorosi] there was 10 days of fielding begging-and-pleading phone calls,' says Michelle Gray, the chamber's general manager. One of those calls was from a gentleman who claimed to have the coveted Melbourne Cup in his possession. The trophy of the nation's greatest horse race is apparently quite a crowd-puller among Aussies. 'It was just another great excuse to get in [to the party],' says Gray. The caller turned out to be New Zealand trainer Michael Moroney, winning handler of this year's hero, Brew. He was promptly conceded a spot at the December 14 celebration. 'If you're Australian or into horse racing it's a pretty amazing piece of silverware,' says Gray. Attendees had their pictures taken with the cup and by night's end were drinking beer out of it and wearing it on their heads. Isn't that a bit irreverent? 'Absolutely not,' says Gray.