Exotic dancing... ferret racing... what happened to the festive dinner and dance?

Tired of the ritual of the annual Christmas dinner-dance? Wondering if there's another way to celebrate the season in the workplace?

This year, companies are turning to more unusual events in the festive season, such as ferret-racing and pole-dancing parties to spice up their celebrations and banish the winter blues.

The Exeter office of estate agent Knight Frank is holding a ferret-racing event at Bovey Castle for its Christmas party. "In the past people have done a lot of standard things like go-karting or paint-balling, which are common at corporate dos," says Freddy Cartwright, a negotiator in the country house division of the Exeter office and the mastermind behind the event. "People wanted to do something different."

The idea of ferret-racing came from Bovey Castle, which runs corporate events in Dartmoor. "They have a purpose-built track, and we will be betting on the ferrets and looking into form book," he explains. The event is planned as a surprise, he says. "Staff know the dates and to dress warmly, but that's it."

Animals are a theme in some of the more unusual Christmas parties. The purchasing division of pharmaceutical firm IDIS Pharma opted for llama trekking this year, organized by ViewLondon. "We wanted to do something more memorable and this seemed to fit the bill," explains Naomi Silsby, procurement officer at IDIS Pharma.

"Staff knew about it, just in case people did have strong feelings against it."

A group of ten gathered in Chilworth, Guildford, in early December to meet the llamas and the trek was followed by mulled wine. "Even the most tentative members of the group were converted to llama lovers," says Silsby.

Other companies are opting for events that require a degree of physical exertion and call for an uninhibited nature. The consumer division of PR firm Weber Shandwick decided this year to teach its staff to pole-dance and held a surprise party on 8 December.

"We did some research on what the staff would like to do and there was an expectation that we would do something different," explains Sally Ward, managing director for the consumer division. "We have an up-for-it workforce and we party pretty hard." The company came up with a shortlist of ideas for its Christmas event but whittled it down to pole-dancing after one of its employees, Aleena Abrahamian, a senior account executive, suggested it. "I wanted to do pole-dancing because it's something unique and out of the ordinary for most people, and the dinner-dance thing is just so dull," she says. "I think the perception of pole-dancing has completed changed over the last few years and is now an acceptable activity."

Ward claims that more unusual events have an impact on staff morale. "We talk about them all year round," she says. "Everyone was a little apprehensive at first but after a couple of beers, people got into it and you could not get some people off the poles," says Darragh Ooi, an account executive.

There has been a surge of interest in pole-dancing parties, according to Heath Gardiner, the founder of Polestars, who supplied the pole-dancing teachers for Weber Shandwick's event. "Last year, we did four parties, now we are looking at 50 parties this year. Most of our business is built on word of mouth.

"These types of events work better in female-dominated companies as it's hard for a guy to look cool doing this."

Springing a surprise event on staff can backfire, claims Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School. "It's vital to get employees to think about what they would consider to be the most entertaining activity," says Cooper. "They should vote on it and get some ownership on the event."

But there is a downside to Christmas events, he claims. "Many staff feel obligated to go every year and it's a form of presenteeism. You shouldn't make these events obligatory or staff may think they are letting the team down if they don't attend." Cooper also says there is no evidence or research to show that unusual corporate events improve employee morale.

Companies should organize their corporate event outside the Christmas period, Cooper says. "If you're going to do team-building, do it at a different time of the year. If the objective is to reward staff and make them feel part of the team, then Christmas is the worst time of the year as people are often exhausted."

It seems that companies are becoming more generous when it comes to celebrating Christmas. Recent research by the Chartered Management Institute reveals that the number of organisations hosting end-of-year parties is climbing after a two-year dip, with 74 per cent choosing Christmas parties.

But there is a danger that hedonistic activities can raise staff expectations, according to Nick Isles, director of the Work Foundation, an employment body. "Staff get a one-off shot in the arm doing something out of the ordinary, and it raises an expectation that they will do that every year," he says.

"Managing the expectations of staff is critical, particularly if the company budgets don't allow it."

Isles argues that this can create expectations that many companies cannot meet. "This is the problem with a lot of aspects of performance management and reward. People come to expect things as part of the norm."

He also believes that companies don't necessarily have to splash out copious sums of money on staff when it comes to corporate Christmas events.

"They just need to be creative," he says.