Company holiday parties

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5 tips for planning a festive celebration for your small business

It’s the time of year when many companies host holiday parties to celebrate milestones and show appreciation to their employees. Done the right way, a holiday party can bond employees through teamwork and fun, highlight the company’s success, and show appreciation for everyone’s work throughout the year, according to Entrepreneur.

It can take work and time to organize a gathering, but, with the right planning, most can be a lot of fun for employees. Event planners often agree that it’s more a matter of lack of time than budgetary constraints that make holiday party planning a challenge, so they suggest the earlier one can start, the better.

They also suggest the primary focus be on those in attendance, which most of the time will be a company’s employees. If employees enjoy the event, it’ll be a success, and they’ll likely attend in the future.

“You’d hate for them to feel like it’s an obligation,” says Mindy Toyne, owner of In Any Event in Johnston. “You want to be respectful of people’s time. They’re giving up their time or their weekend for, basically, a work function.”

The best events incorporate some new aspect each year, she says.

“While familiarity is fine, I feel like it’s important to change it up as much as you’re able to and budget will allow,” Toyne says. “Sometimes it’s not budgetary concerns; it’s time. Spend the extra time to keep it fresh, so attendance stays up and people look forward to it.”

Here are five tips to consider when planning a company holiday get-together for your small business that won’t break the bank:

1. The basics

Generation Next owner Karen Glenn, left, and regional director Alison Tannatt show some of the prizes employees will be eligible to win at the company’s annual holiday party this month.

Much of the planning will begin with the number of people who are being invited and whether they’ll bring
a guest. From there, a budget needs to be set for the event.

The budget will determine everything else, including whether employees will receive gifts beyond the party (more on that later) and the venue.

Jake Feldman, the president of BCP in Grimes, a company that provides entertainment for events and parties, says the holiday office party isn’t as prevalent as it once was.

“A lot of companies scaled back or completely cut out the holiday party starting with the 2008 recession, and some haven’t brought it back,” he says.

For those companies that do have parties, planning needs to occur far enough in advance so that employees
have at least six weeks to two months’ notice of the event, Toyne says.

Karen Glenn, the owner of Generation Next childcare, which has four facilities that include Urbandale and Johnston, begins planning her company’s party in July. She selects a venue, determines food and begins to buy gifts for employees. Her company has grown large enough that she now has a line item for this expense in her operating budget.

The holiday office party can have a wide range of costs depending upon food, entertainment, gifts and extras, but a business of up to 50 people could expect to spend at least $2,000 for alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, brunch, appetizers and entertainment if it takes place in the office. A buffet meal with entertainment at a venue can start at $4,500. Glenn will spend between $25,000 and $30,000 on her company’s party. Much of that goes toward prizes for her 200-plus employees who will attend. Everyone receives a gift for attending, and then some will receive prizes that range from Kitchenaid mixers, to laptops to hotel gift cards.

She says she thinks it’s important to budget for a party for her employees.

“Some of our employees might not get gifts,” Glenn says. “This is a time for them to come out and have fun. It’s a ‘thank you’ for them from us.”

Scheduling is another issue that often arises, especially during the month of December when employees have many commitments outside of the office.

The holiday party doesn’t have to be a cocktail party with hors d’oeuvres and music on a Friday or Saturday night, Toyne says. Hosting a party during work hours on a workday or right after work is one way to include employees who may have busy schedules.

While you’ll have the ultimate say in what happens at the holiday party, ask employees for their opinion. What’s their favorite restaurant? What entertainment would they enjoy? What food do they like? Including them in small planning details can increase attendance and interest in the party. Be sure to also inquire about special accommodations such as those with food allergies or special diets.

2. The space

Mindy Toyne, owner of In Any Event

A wide range of locations are available to choose from for the event. It can be as basic as hosting the party at the office to renting an elaborate events center.

American Express suggests a “dark party” in which owners rent a secret space such as a loft or a hidden venue, have it decorated and give employees an address shortly before the party. Guests are blind-folded when they arrive and led to a dinner table.

One way to cut costs is to host the party at the office. This can also make it easier for employees to attend and make them feel more comfortable in a familiar space, according to Sure Payroll, an online payroll provider.

“There are fun ways to bring in an entertainer or some type of experience, so you save the venue cost,” Toyne says.

Sometimes the simpler, the better. Time away from work is always popular. A company could give its employees a long lunch either catered in or as a potluck and then give the rest of the afternoon off. Or they could cater in a
brunch with mimosas or a bloody Mary bar, and then play games the rest of the day.

“The most successful parties we see have an interactive, creative element,” Toyne says. “Make a contest of old-fashioned games where people can enrich themselves but not feel awkward or obligated to participate. Find a way they can cut loose a little bit.”

Hosting an office-space party does have its limitations. It can make employees feel like they’re still on the clock, there may be restrictions for use of the space, and food and drink will have to be catered.

A variety of off-site options are available for holiday get-togethers, local event planners say. These include restaurants, wineries, breweries and art galleries.

“I think changing it up each year, whether it’s venue or theme, really makes it a lot more fun so the employees don’t always know what to expect,” says Gina Cramer, the owner of Make It Happen Events in Johnston.

Toyne suggests making the holiday party an experience that will make employees want to attend. This could include hosting the party at a local winery and having a label contest for a commemorative wine bottle that employees will receive.

“They could learn about wine making and have more of an experience,” she says.

Having your party off-site gives employees a chance to socialize in a new space and limits any mess that can be made in the office, according to Sure Payroll.

Another idea is to coincide the holiday celebration with a local sporting event or fine arts activity such as a play or musical production. This could be less expensive unless the company pays for food and drinks. The company should provide employees tickets at the very least.

Some company owners host the holidayparty at their own house. They cater in food and beverages, play music through a stereo system, and even give away a few small prizes.

Glenn hosted her company’s party at her house the first year for her 20 employees. She’s always let employees bring a guest. Her staff has now grown to more than 200, and she rents a space for the party.

3. The vibe

Gina Cramer, owner of
Make It Happen Events

Another aspect of planning is to determine what sort of vibe you want to set for the event. Most holiday parties are a way to honor employees, but your company’s may coincide with a commemorative event such as an
anniversary or milestone.

Some companies also choose to incorporate a theme into their celebration. Employees can come in costume, and prizes can be awarded for the best dressed to the theme. This could include wearing a costume from a specific time period or asking employees to dress like their favorite characters, but be sure to make it office friendly and take into account cultural sensitivity.

This year, Cramer has a client who is using “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” as the theme for its holiday party with casual attire and barbecue as the meal. Last year, this client had a more elaborate “Great Gatsby” theme in which employees dressed in period-appropriate attire, and the party was held at Rollins Mansion in Des
Moines.

Generation Next’s parties have been more fun when there has been a theme, Glenn says. In the past, this has included a pajama party with games, entertainment and prizes. This year, the party has a Kentucky Derby theme,
and employees have been working to make or purchase fancy hats and attire. She says things like this keep employees coming to the party.

“It’s not been a problem for people to come year after year because they know we’re going to have a good time,” she says.

Décor can add to the space and also enhance the party’s theme. Decorations can range from basic banners and balloons to an elaborate set-up that completely changes the look of the venue. Companies that want to get
creative can even host a contest for the best decorations and divide employees into teams to participate, according to the Small Business Chronicle.

The holiday season is a time for giving, and the company’s annual social gathering can be a place to recognize its philanthropic efforts by asking any organizations it supports to attend or requesting employees bring an
item or two for an adopt-a-family.

4. The entertainment

Most parties include food and drink, which will be a big factor in your budget. Companies can hire a caterer
to take care of the details, ask employees to bring in food for a potluck meal, or order in pizza from a new
place. If an employee has amazing cooking skills, coordinate with him or her for a demonstration.

Food can also be tied to the theme of the event. An international menu could give employees a chance to
learn about Christmas traditions around the world.

Employees are provided with dinner and nonalcoholic drinks at Generation Next’s parties, but alcohol must be purchased through a cash bar because some employees are under age, Glenn says.

Music is also a way to incorporate entertainment into the event. This can range from acoustic musicians to a karaoke machine that gets employees involved in the action. Many companies are moving away from hiring a live DJ to avoid potentially embarrassing situations when dancing can get out of hand or employees drink too much, Feldman says.

Instead, comedians, game shows, trivia games or casino or card games are popular alternatives.

“It gets everybody involved, and they play at their table,” Feldman says.

Part of the event budget also could go toward a celebrity appearance. This could include a brief speech — don’t let them get carried away and bore guests — or a performance for 10-15 minutes by a comedian, improv group or musician. This doesn’t have to be a big-name person and could be a local celebrity with whom guests are familiar. Be sure to review any material they will perform to ensure it is appropriate and fits with company guidelines, according to Entrepreneur.

If the company function is more of a celebration of successes for the year, bring in an inspirational speaker to boost morale and get everyone ready for the new year. Ensure the speaker keeps it short to keep those in
attendance interested in what he or she has to say.

Most everyone likes a laugh, and gag gifts can be away to do this. Make sure any gifts are kept clean and
non-offensive and don’t violate company policies.

Games are an inexpensive way to promote teamwork and get employees involved, especially those who are shy and more introverted, according to Entrepreneur. A company could also bring in a pingpong table or video games, and then offer gift cards to local businesses as incentives to play.

5. The extras

Smaller companies may be able to find more unique, cost-effective ideas for their employees.

Cooking classes are an option, and a couple of places within the Des Moines area offer them. This is an experience that can enrich the employees’ lives and make them more likely to attend, Toyne says.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box:

• Rent or create a photo booth for employees to take their picture and give them a free print. This can cost only a few hundred dollars. Create a company hashtag for employees to post pictures to social media.

• Take employees to the horse track and give them money to make bets.

• Host a party with dinner but ask employees to bring a gift for an exchange.

• Offer door-to-door service if employees will be consuming alcohol.

• Provide child care to help out employees who have kids and need a sitter.

• Host a company talent show where employees can show off their abilities.

• Give away prizes to employees. Prizes can range from board games and vacation days to iPods and flat screen TVs, depending on the budget for the event.

• Hire a band and offer dance lessons.

• Host a casino night where employees can exchange chips for prizes.

• Ask someone to dress as Santa to deliver gifts, and then give employees a chance to guess who it is to win a prize.

• Host a health-conscious event with yoga or some other stretching exercises or chair massages, as well as a health professional who can talk about healthy eating and lifestyles, and provide healthy food and drinks.

• Break employees into teams for a scavenger hunt that ends at a restaurant for dinner and awards.

• Have formal paper invitations printed and sent or delivered to employees to invite them to the gathering. It makes the event seem more special, Toyne says.

• Bring in dueling pianos. ♦

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