Company holiday parties

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5 tips for planning a festive celebration for your small business

The employees at Cindy’s Boutique in Valley Junction each year receive a $100 gift certificate, small gifts, prizes and dinner as a holiday season “thank you.”

It’s something owner Cindy Lane has done for her employees — she currently has 21 — during the 20 years she has operated her business.

“Every year we do something,” she says. “It’s great for everyone to mingle and have a chance to talk … and to celebrate a great year together.”

Now is 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 appreciate for everyone’s work throughout the year, according to Entrepreneur.

It can take work and time to organize a gathering, but most can be a lot of fun for employees with the right planning. Most event planners agree 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.

“People don’t realize how much work it is until you’ve actually done it,” says Bonnie Rosa-Mosena, the owner of Perfect Events in Clive.

Event planners 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, which assists companies in planning holiday gatherings. “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 that won’t break the bank:

1. The basics

Cindy Lane, bottom right, owner of Cindy’s Boutique in Valley Junction and her employees celebrate during their annual holiday shopping night in the shopping district.

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.

Planning needs to occur far enough in advance that employees have at least six weeks to two months’ notice of the event, Toyne says. The holiday office party can cost a wide range 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.

Lane spent $2,000 on her company’s party. Much of that went toward dinner and drinks. There are ways to help reduce the cost of the holiday party.

The cost of food and beverages can increase when it has to be purchased through a venue such as a hotel, which will charge extra fees on top of it, Rosa-Mosena says. If possible, the company should use an outside bartending service or caterer, or purchase its own food and drink. A can of beer at a venue can cost upwards of $5, while purchasing it wholesale from a big box warehouse can drop the price down to 88 cents a can.

A venue may charge more if it allows outside service to be brought she, she says. “Even if the venue costs a little bit more, if you can bring in your own caterer or alcohol, you’ll save thousands,” Rosa-Mosena says.

Eliminating alcohol from the event can save even more money. She says a non-alcoholic sangria is one way to incorporate a flavorful drink that costs less money.

Money also can be saved by using tap water with ice in a beverage dispenser versus bottled water.

Rosa-Mosena also encourages planners to shop around for entertainment. Some disc-jockeys will charge thousands of dollars for their service. Ones that are just as good can be found for $650. A three-piece band or a single string instrument such as a violinist also can be a cheaper alternative for a more formal event.

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

Lane held her party on a Monday night when many businesses in Valley Junction are closed.

“You have to pick a date when you think most people can make it,” she says, adding that only one employee was unable to attend. “Most people are busy on the weekends.”

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 work day or right after work is one way to include employees who may have busy schedules.

The company owner has the ultimate say in what happens at the holiday party, but planners suggest he or she 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 locally to choose from for the event. It can be as basic as hosting the party at the office to renting an elaborate events center space. “A lot of them are looking for some place to have it that’s nice but isn’t going to cost them a fortune,” Rosa-Mosena says.

She’s also tasked with finding a space that doesn’t break the party budget, which can be a challenge with some venues costing $4,000 or more just to rent the space. One of the most cost-effective places to hold an event is at a community center, she says. For an event with fewer than 150 people, a community center can often be rented for $350 or less for an entire day.

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 for
businesses with fewer than 100 employees.

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

Rosa-Mosena had one client that transformed its entire place into a golf course and had each department create a hole.

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 a potluck and then the rest of the afternoon off. Or, they could cater in a brunch with mimosas or a bloody Mary bar, and then play games with the rest of the day off.

“The most successful parties we see have an interactive, creative element,” Toyne says. “Make a contest of oldfashioned 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, Sure Payroll reports.

There are a variety of off-site options for holiday gettogethers, 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 Event, a planning company that organizes events that include corporate parties.

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 spot employees’ ticket at the very least.

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

Lane chooses a different Valley Junction restaurant and business to host her party each year. She likes to “keep the economy going” and support her fellow business owners. Employees receive a gift card to a local retailer and shop together. Afterward, they go to a Valley Junction restaurant for dinner and entertainment.

“Employees always come because they know it’s going to be fun because there’s gifts and there’s going to be games,” Lane says.

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 a 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.

One of Rosa-Mosena’s clients wanted a casual party that focused around Iowa — games such as corn hole, horse shoes and a football toss where located on one side of the party space with the formal eating area on the other.

Décor can add to the space and also enhance the party’s theme. Decorations can include 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.

Rosa-Mosena says incorporating the company’s colors and logo into décor such as napkins and table center
pieces can be done inexpensively. If the company has banners or posters, those can be used to save money. Décor doesn’t have to cost a lot to look nice, she says.

For one client, Rosa-Mosena took small white boxes and filled them with shredded paper. She set inexpensive photo holders inside and had the company provide her with images from its 50 years of business. Everyone enjoyed looking at the pictures, and it was a simple, yet cheap, she says.

Rosa-Mosena recommends looking for deals during the holidays for cheap décor. Some businesses are trying to get rid of poinsettias for the holidays. She purchased several for $5 each, which made for cheap decorations.

The holiday season is a time for giving, and the company’s annual social gathering also 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

Bonnie Rosa-Mosena,
owner of Perfect Events

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.

Entertainment also is an important component of the holiday party, Rosa-Mosena says, adding that most
companies seek advice for something that’s different beyond the traditional cocktails and appetizers. Some
want a more formal event with a disc jockey or a band; others want to include families and children, and have a
Santa Claus who passes out gifts.

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. Music also is a way to incorporate entertainment into
the event. This can range from live, acoustic musicians to a karaoke machine that gets employees involved in the
action. comedians, game shows, trivia games or casino or card games also are popular alternatives.

Shopping is most of the entertainment for Lane’s employees, but then they meet at a restaurant for games,
trivia and gifts. This year, each employee brought a gift to exchange and also received one from Lane.

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 10-15-minute performance 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 guest
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 its and its employees’ 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.

Everyone likes a laugh, and gag gifts can be a way to do this. Make sure any gifts are kept clean and nonoffensive, 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 ping-pong table or video
games, and then offer gift cards to local businesses as incentives to play.

Bingo, raffles and casino game nights also are popular entertainment options. Prizes don’t have to be expensive and can be purchased from a dollar store without looking or being cheap, Rosa-Mosena says. She had one company that had small, cheap prizes for its games, and then gave away gift cards, a television and a Yeti cooler as larger prizes.

5. The extras

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

Cooking classes are an option, and there are a couple of places within the Des Moines area that offer them. This is an experience that can enrich the employee’s life 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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