Last Updated on August 14, 2020
Fireworks in the sky ending a memorable work holiday party. The end of the year is approaching, and profits are healthier than ever. You have created a worthy reputation as one who throws a memorable work holiday party. The staff and managers are all in support of the tradition continuing, of course, and yes, even you enjoy it. The planning, preparation, and costs involved all seem insignificant compared to the glow you see in the eyes of employees on the night of the event and the positive office chatter that carries on for days and weeks after. How could anyone argue against it?
Before the idea runs away on its own, there are some practical considerations any good business owner should evaluate first. Before pulling out the credit card, consider these suggested steps to consider before hosting your next “Best-Ever” work holiday party.
Choosing a date
If you plan early enough, there is a strong likelihood you can host a great company holiday party at the place you want, on the date you want. Wait too long, however, and you risk a big disappointment. Venues that have the capacity to entertain a large group, whether restaurants or banquet halls, get booked early. This is especially true for dates around the holidays. If you want to hold a holiday party around the Christmas and New Year time of the year, this means November, December, and January.
A word about December, in particular. The practicality of holding a work holiday party in December ends about 10-15 days before Christmas. Anything later than that, up through Christmas itself, will result in low attendance. People are simply too busy preparing for their family get-togethers and shopping. If neither of these is the case, the pace of life around town is usually so rapid, it keeps many people home. However, if your group is a fearless one with a high spirit to “take it to the limit,” you may just find a good near-Christmas deal at a venue that has room to book your event.
November is indeed earlier, but the “Holiday Season” certainly kicks off after Thanksgiving, and the days after it until mid-December are “prime time” for employee holiday parties. Be prepared to work harder for these dates because of the high demand, but in terms of the best timing for attendees, you cannot do better.
January is becoming a more popular choice for owners, and the feedback from attendees is positive, too. The weeks after New Year’s Day are a bit “empty,” relative to the weeks before, and many folks will jump at the chance to do something that gives a sense that the “fun times” have not completely passed by. Focus on the first two weeks—not longer—because then all sense of “The Holidays” will have faded and your event could appear completely out of season.
How to Read the Booking Terms
How far in advance to book your work holiday party depends on supply and demand, of course. If you are in an area that has high demand, you may need to consider locking in a date as early as a year in advance, or even more! The terms for such a reservation could surprise you, too. Many banquet halls require as much as a 50% deposit at the time of booking.
A formal hall for banquets, work parties, and gatherings. The rest of the fees are commonly broken into two more payments. You will be required to supply an approximate headcount a few weeks in advance, then a “final” headcount a shorter time before the event. That will set up a minimum balance you will be charged. Any “no shows” will still cost you, but if the number rises on the day of the event, they will not go hungry—but you will be charged extra for them. As is the case with all business transactions, much depends on the relationship between the client and the business, so your specific terms may be different.
Where to Host a Work Holiday Party
Where, exactly, will all your attendees fit? That depends on what they will be doing. Is this a sit-down dinner party? Is it a reception with dancing? Maybe a strolling appetizer and cocktail soiree? Will it be held indoors or outdoors—or both? The need to find a suitable location and just “book it” often jumps to the head of the “to do” list but do consider what kind of event this will be, too. If a venue is reserved entirely before any thought is given to the type of activities to be conducted, you may be forced to redesign the activities due to space or floorplan limitations.
Matching projected attendance with venue capacity is a key consideration when deciding where to host a work holiday party. The experience should be comfortable, with enough space per person to breathe and move, but not so open that the event appears under-attended. Many banquet facilities have differently sized rooms or halls that can offer the right size for your holiday work party. You may also find different floorplans—some with side rooms, or terraces, for smokers to use.
Coordination with the Banquet Sales Coordinator
Do not forget to share your activity plan with the banquet sales coordinator before you book a facility. The knowledge of what you want to do will help guide you into the best room. Letting the salesperson know after the fact—or the night of the event—is absolutely a recipe for disaster. The facility may have restrictions that would disable your ability to conduct certain activities. Want examples?
- Insufficient A/C power for a band, lighting, sound
- No house audio for a speech by the CEO
- Local ordinances limiting sound at night
- Smoking restrictions
- Alcohol restrictions (yes, there are still “Dry” counties)
- No available dancefloor (dancing on the carpet—are you kidding?)
There should also be thought given to the venue location. In most cases, the best location is close to where the business is. Employees are used to the route to and from work. As evidenced by their recurring presence at the office, the commute is acceptable. Forcing a work holiday party at a venue far from your business will result in low attendance and negative reviews. If possible, keep it close.
Work Holiday Party Ideas
We think this is the fun part. It is also the hard part. What kind of party do you want to host? The question should really be, “What work holiday party ideas will result in maximum attendance?” The “why” of partygoing deserves the most attention and effort. Why will employees come to your event, whether it is after a day of work or on a weekend? A good place to begin this analysis is by knowing your audience. Are the attendees used to fine dining and elegant surroundings? Is the staff a blue-collar team that gets together informally at a corner bar on Fridays for wings and beer? Are the attendees young and primarily single, or mature and married? Trying to find the perfect mix of atmosphere and activities for a mixed group can be challenging, to say the least.
An overarching guide to the style of event you will host may be best defined by the style of clothing typically worn by your employees when they are “off the clock.” This may not give you the easy answer, but it could be a factor to consider. Is it a casual group who wear jeans, or do they more often slide into slacks and golf shirt? You do not want to throw a party where everyone feels obligated to wear something outside the comfort zone for some and not others.
The Holiday Party Common Ground: Themes Work!
It may seem impossible to decide on a style that can satisfy everyone, so consider a “Themed Work Holiday Party” idea, fostered successfully by the owner of That! Company, Ken Knorr.
Knorr has hosted over a decade of holiday work parties for his staff and management, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and are of different age groups. Embracing a themed party concept creates a neutral field in which everyone comes together.
“Isn’t that really the idea?” Knorr asked. “We get together. We eat, have fun, celebrate, and we are together. Spouses, coworkers, shoulder to shoulder with managers, all having a good time.”
That! Company holiday party themes have included Pirate, Medieval, Roaring 20s, and Heroes/Villains, to name a few. The purpose of a theme is to create a destination that is neutral territory from the day it is announced. Every attendee can be creative in what they wear (and how much they spend), while the focus stays on participation. Choosing a theme can be a highly interactive process, too. Knorr’s team is given time to produce ideas that are considered as a group, eventually narrowing down the list to one that is popular with everyone.
Entertainment at Work Holiday Parties
After a theme has been chosen, the question then moves forward to what will keep the attendees interested once they arrive? This presents a fork-in-the-road scenario where a discussion of food and beverage is called for. The decision of what and how to feed your guests can entirely influence how the event will flow. Are the guests going to remain seated throughout, or will they be comfortable to stroll and snack their way across an open floor plan? Again, having tried both, Knorr has experience with the subject. His description of the differences between a holiday work party that stays stationary versus one that moves more freely seems well-examined.
“We’ve tried sit-downs with a band. People tend to just stay in their seats next to the same people all night. Well, the idea is to bring people together comfortably—I found that technique just didn’t do it so well.”
The experience left Knorr searching for activities that would encourage interaction among his guests (guests to a That! Company work holiday party are the employee plus a “significant other”). He tried Polynesian Flame Dancers one year.
“That was pretty cool. People were very impressed with the performance, but it only lasts a limited amount of time, and you really can’t repeat that every year.”
The answer to the question of what holiday work party entertainment or activities are most successful may be the one Knorr currently favors.
A Sure Bet for Entertainment
Casino Nights are a popular work holiday party activity. “Our ‘Casino Night’ has worked out extremely well. It generates a lot of interaction at multiple game tables that run all night long. Everyone ‘wins’ and no money comes out of pocket—in fact, my job is to make sure the players never run out of money.”
Knorr walks the floor and regularly checks-in on the guests while injecting instant liquidity into the frenzied gambling atmosphere by taking stacks of freshly printed ‘Casino Cash’ and tossing them into the air. Guests scramble to gather as much as they can and return to their tables to place their next bets.
A DJ plays a nonstop list of high-energy tunes that work well as background music—but very few dance and only one or two choose to take the mic and share a Karaoke performance with a crowd that is clearly focused on winning more chips at Roulette, Black-Jack or Craps.
But if the money isn’t real, why is there such a fervor to win? The answer lies in stage 2 of the work holiday success formula Knorr has adopted.
“We end the night with a raffle. We line up dozens of prizes—some as small in value as $25 and others that are worth several hundred. Guests exchange their casino chips at the end of the night for raffle tickets. They use them to enter drawings for as many prizes as they want. They can load up on one prize or spread them out; it’s their choice.”
The Food & Beverage Decisions
If the goal is to support the mobility of your guests and enhance interaction, a sit-down dinner is not likely the best choice for a group larger than what a single table can seat. A walk-up buffet is less formal and gives an opportunity for guests to enjoy dining at their leisure. It can also be less costly than a served dinner.
Keeping close to the budget is a balancing act of sorts. If you are trying to keep the food expenses low, there are categories of foods that typically can help with that. Pasta, rice, and noodles used in recipes are among the least expensive meals you can order. For variety, consider an ethnic twist on noodles, for example, a Thai recipe. A Mexican themed event could include rice, and of course, there is always Italian pasta to be enjoyed. These ingredients will fill the belly and leave some change in your pocket.
Keeping it Light
If you are concerned with the appearance of being overly frugal, price out some fancy hors d’ oeuvres as a possibility. Since you will be serving a smaller quantity of these, the cost should be manageable, and it will add a touch of elegance to the experience.
For a smaller group in a sit-down affair, another way to trim costs is to serve smaller quantities. This is a definite consideration if you are hosting the event in the afternoon. In doing so, you could find attractive pricing for a more elegant dish your guests would enjoy.
If you decide to rent a space that has no food preparation ability, there is the possibility of bringing food trucks to supply the catering. This might fit very well if the outdoor space is pleasant and spacious, the weather is reliable, and the attendees are fit and casual. A “volume discount” could be arranged with a limited menu so each truck can send out meals quickly and consistently. Tickets would be distributed to guests on arrival and exchanged for food at the truck. Try to give a couple of choices in styles of food and give advanced notice of the types of food prepared by the trucks so folks can get excited (or eat a meal before coming).
Alcohol is typically “expected” at a holiday work party, but liability is a primary concern for any business when alcohol is served during a “business function.” Knorr supplies one drink ticket for each guest, and after that, a cash bar is available if guests wish to buy more drinks.
“There is no good outcome from promoting consumption of alcohol at a work function,” Knorr said with a seriousness only a business owner could express. “The liability, the regrettable behaviors, words spoken out of place, DUI risks and God forbid, an auto incident while impaired—it simply isn’t worth it.”
It also helps to keep costs under control. After hiring entertainment, renting the facility, serving dinner, and buying raffle prizes, the tally can be significant.
Work Holiday Party Invitations
The invitation is as important as all the planning described so far. If people do not develop excitement, anticipation, and a desire to reserve the date on their calendars for your event, it is doomed to failure. Think about a room that is half-full, with empty chairs everywhere. It could have devastating consequences on future work holiday parties, not to mention company morale.
Okay, stop thinking about that! It is a pretty bad thought, but it will not happen at your event, will it? The solution is to promote the daylights out of it. Early and often; as they say in voting, is also true in holiday work party promotion. Be creative, be authentic, and ask for a commitment. You need to have a headcount at least a week before the party, so make it easy for guests to RSVP. Consider multiple methods of communicating the invite: email, video, departmental meetings, CEO messages, and any other way you can conveniently reach employees. The fact is, people procrastinate unless there is a deadline, and you cannot afford to make the deadline the day of the event. You could include incentives for early responses (extra raffle tickets for a special “Early Responder” prize).
On the Day of Your Party
Try to assemble your key event assistants early in the process. Give them access to the information and contacts they need to help you do the considerable volume of work in planning and carrying out the event. Make it clear what each team member is responsible for doing and be sure you recognize them at the event. Prepare yourself, the host with a welcome speech, any special announcements during the party, and a final salutation of thanks and goodwill. Recognize company accomplishments with gratitude and respect. At no time should this be a platform for discouraging words or calling out individuals for falling short.
Your assistants should keep the timeline of events on a steady course, communicating with the catering, entertainment, or house staff throughout the evening. They should be empowered to make decisions and bring only to your attention concerns they cannot resolve without executive powers.
Finally, be sure you are relaxed. Make the day a simple one that includes just the fruits of your labors. Put other work aside and attend your work holiday party as a congenial host, confident and gracious to all guests, both familiar and new. Smile and laugh at every opportunity; show the world what a great leader you are both at work, and outside of work.