Even though ModSpace's holiday party has some of the trappings of your typical company-sponsored event - buffet line, free-flowing drinks, and employees dressed in red and green - the setting is anything but the same old, same old.

There are pool tables, techno music, big-screen TVs playing How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and bowling.

As companies tighten belts while trying to keep up employee morale, unconventional, interactive parties are giving employers more bang for their holiday-party buck. Not only can these kinds of parties be more fun for employees as a corporate thank-you, but they also can provide team-building benefits.

"You get more smiles and laughs in an interactive format than I think you do sitting across the table from each other," said Michael McClain, partner at Battalia Winston Amrop, a New York-based executive search company. "Any time you interact, that's a better bonding experience."

McClain's company conducts an annual survey on end-of-the-year celebrations, and this season's findings were less than festive: About 81 percent of businesses were planning holiday parties this year, the lowest percentage in the 20 years the company has been doing the survey. Thirty-seven percent reported that they had either canceled or cut back on parties - and McClain believes that if the survey had been taken in November instead of October, the numbers would have been worse.

Last year, ModSpace, a Berwyn-based company that provides mobile offices, site trailers, and portable storage spaces to expanding businesses, held the traditional sit-down dinner holiday party, but its leaders felt it didn't quite match the vibe of their company of 800-plus people.

"We're a pretty high-energy and enthusiastic group. We thought we can combine that with a team-building event," said Dominick DiGiacomo, director of human resources for ModSpace. "In this economy, it's a way of thanking our employees, showing them we appreciate all the work they do, but at the same time, not going out and spending a lot of money to do this." Hence this year's event, at Lucky Strike bowling alley in Center City, where the company spent 25 percent less than it did for sit-down dinners.

"It's more relaxed and people mingle more than at a traditional Christmas party, where people tend to stay in groups," said Linda Smith, 53, as she watched a game in progress. She works in the operations department of ModSpace.

Ian Clark, 27, joined ModSpace this year as a salesman. "Coming from a place that had a sit-down dinner, this is a little more fun and livelier."

When Danielle Carr started planning a holiday party for the employees of Old City's Lakshmi Hair Salon, which opened in April, she knew she wanted to have it at Distrito, a modern, Mexican-themed restaurant in University City.

But she knew she had to add an extra kick for the party to be worth it to her 10 employees. That extra kick came in the form of karaoke.

Not only did it lead to a lively, interactive party, but the positive energy also extended beyond the event itself.

"We'd all been gearing up in the salon for it," Carr said. "Everyone talked about what song they were going to do, so it had been a really fun buildup to the actual party. I think as hairdressers, we're performers anyway."

Braithwaite Communications, a marketing and communications firm in Center City, moved away from the traditional party format three years ago, and now makes the party theme a secret, revealed only when employees arrive at the event. The theme changes each year according to what concept the company wants to reinforce.

"We wanted to make the holiday party actually meaningful to our business," says Hugh Braithwaite, president of the 12-year-old company. "To just do the expected - a nice dinner where you're stuck next to someone you may not want to be talking to - that's the antithesis of what we're about."

These kinds of celebrations also cost about 15 percent less than the traditional parties the company once threw.

In 2005, the company chartered a trolley with a tour guide who told stories about Philadelphia. During the trip, employees and their guests also were asked to deliver their own stories. The lesson? How storytelling helps when communicating.

For 2007, the company went to Helium Comedy Club for a party - the theme being performance. "We say every communication we make and deliver needs to perform," says Braithwaite. "We used that theme as we saw some great - and not-so-great - performers."

This year's concept was improvisation, the idea being that, no matter what information you're given, "to accept it and do something positive with it," says Braithwaite. It also helped that his brother is Tony Braithwaite, a Barrymore Award-winning actor who just wrapped up Look Mom - I'm Swell, a one-man show at the Act II Playhouse in Ambler.

Tony Braithwaite mingled with partygoers, and then used the information he gathered through chitchat and eavesdropping to lead a workshop.

The party also had an additional surprise: the location. When employees met at the company's office in the Wanamaker Building to head to the party, they discovered they already were at their destination - this was meant to reinforce team-building and working together.

For companies evaluating the 2009 budget, McClain says you can do a lot to lower costs up front, like switching from an evening to a daytime event (which gives employees the added bonus of time away from their desks) or using a lower quality and price grade of alcohol. The key is to save money without giving the appearance of skimping.

"I've been to parties where they've spent a lot of money and I didn't have fun," says McClain. "The key piece to it is the best Christmas parties are parties where there's a lot of bonding."