It’s that time of year when employers roll out the red carpet for their staff, in appreciation of the hard work they’ve done all year.
Company parties done well can improve camaraderie among your team, and increase their pride in (and loyalty to) your brand or business. Company parties done poorly are the nightmares of management, and common fodder for sitcoms and movies. It’s important to get this right.
But if you’re not a party-planner, it can seem overwhelming — especially if you haven’t really started yet! You can still try to hire a professional, but if that’s not in the budget or you’d rather do it yourself there are a few things you should know. From planning, to food and entertainment, to the big question of alcohol, we talked with five professional event planners and got their insights and wisdom on how to pull of a great company party. While planning be sure to read our articles on how to Avoid a Fa-La-La-Lawsuit.
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas: Planning the Company Party
If you haven’t started planning yet, you may be feeling a little rushed, but you still have time. Before you start hiring vendors and printing invitations, though, make sure you take care of a few best practices first.
If you have already started planning, it’s not too late to pause and make sure you’ve considered the same things.
Strategies like event budgeting and focusing on the purpose of the party, and considerations such as spouses and speeches, can sometimes be the critical factors in party planning. You want to create an event that makes everyone comfortable, and leaves everyone with fond memories, so start here:
Start where you start with any work project: on the budget.
Francine Ribeau founded Francine Ribeau Events in 2007 after nearly a decade of experience in various parts of the industry. FRE is a highly respected name in the wedding industry in Southern California, but their work takes them all over the world. That experience has taught Ribeau a lot, and not the least about expecting the unexpected.
Make sure to create a realistic budget that leaves room for unexpected costs and takes into consideration all the little things that may be missed. – Francine Ribeau
Make sure the budget is complete, but not too tight. With that done, plan your party from your budget, rather than trying to work out a budget for a party you’ve already ordered.
With nearly 2 decades of experience producing events, founder of One Up Entertainment, Eyal Simko, has produced everything from TV shows to high-end private parties. A staple in the events industry, One Up Entertainment takes their events to a whole new level by bringing their clients visions to a reality.
There are several things to consider when planning a holiday party but the most important one is budget. This will give you a realistic understanding of how large and extravagant, or how cozy and intimate the holiday party will be. – Eyal Simko
It’s important to make a list of priorities and divvy out the budget so you can ensure you get what you want. – Francine Ribeau
Before you consider catering, or debate live music vs DJ, decide on a budget. The details of the event need to come out of that financial plan.
Know Your Crowd
Don’t plan the party that you want to attend. A successful holiday party is based on your staff, so you need to know and consider your employees before you start making plans.
Kalena Brose is an event planner and designer in the Bay area, and a member of the International Special Events Society’s Northern California Chapter. She believes the key to a great event lies in your audience.
Know your audience! All offices are a mix of personalities and tastes. Make sure there’s something for everyone at the party: food, entertainment, drinks – everyone should feel welcome and appreciated. Please don’t make your vegetarian employees suffer through the usual portabella mushroom burger. Show them you care and hire a caterer that can make a wide array of tasty foods for a variety of diets. – Kalena Brose
Simko agrees that tailoring the event to your staff will create much better memories for everyone.
If you know your workforce is a bit on the shy side, avoid having games to get them involved. This may make them feel uncomfortable in front of their co-workers and management. Games such as movie trivia or name-that-tune can sometimes put people on the spot, and it creates an uncomfortable situation for everyone. If you know your crowd is a dancing crowd, make sure you hire the right entertainment (DJ, band, performers) that will be able to interact and get them up and dancing. – Eyal Simko
What if you don’t know your employees that well? Put together a team to help you plan the party. It will take a lot of pressure off you, spread out the work, and give you more insight than you might have on your own.
Remember the Purpose
There will be a lot of details to arrange, but as you iron out your plans remember the reason for the party in the first place, and you’ll make all the right decisions.
When planning any party or event, it’s important to keep your guests’ comfort and enjoyment at the forefront of your planning efforts. Holiday parties are usually a company’s way of thanking their staff for a year of hard work, so make sure you keep that appreciation in mind and think of ways to show it to your employees. – Kalena Brose
Holiday parties boost employee morale. It creates a stronger bond amongst employees, departments, management, and an overall company culture, so invest in your employees and remember why you’re throwing this event in the first place. – Eyal Simko
The food, music, entertainment, and decor will all be easier to line up if you remember who and what you’re designing the event for.
3 Often Overlooked Details
Even the best-laid plans can unravel or get stuck in a rut if something gets forgotten or overlooked. Here are three things that only experience can teach about event planning, to help make your company party a success:
- Expand the guest list. If you really want employees to relax, let them bring a date.I think it is important that employees are able to invite their significant other, this changes the vibe exponentially – suddenly the party becomes more about life and not about work. – Francine Ribeau
- Provide clear instructions. Let your guests know what to expect to help keep everyone comfortable and happy.Make sure the invitations clearly state the scope of the party. Is it formal attire? Casual? Cocktail attire? Are you serving a full dinner, or just light hors d’oeuvres? This way it gives your employees a good heads up of what to expect. – Francine Ribeau
- Stop talking. Most employees expect some kind of speech from the boss (although few would be upset if you skipped it altogether), but keep it short.You also want to avoid long and overbearing speeches by management. The employees are excited to come and celebrate the holidays and want some time off of work, so keeping your speeches brief and concise will give more time for people to enjoy their night and get their minds off of work mode. – Eyal Simko
The little things can really enhance or really put a damper on a holiday party. Think about corporate parties or events you have attended in the past: what little details made for a really great night?
Figgy Pudding? Let’s Talk About Your Menu
One of the first things people look for at a party is food. Even the best party will only be, “Okay” if the food is terrible. On the other hand, the worst party is forgivable if the food is good.
AV Event Design is an event production company with a focus on integrated audio, visual, and media. Wedding Sales and Marketing Manager Jade McNeil has been developing a passion for event design her whole life.
It’s all about the food! Make sure there are a variety of options that will cater to every guest’s taste buds. Featuring a buffet station where chefs cook delicious entrees on the spot is an unexpected and elegant way to add to an event. – Jade McNeil
If you don’t have a big budget to work with, Brose has some great tricks for cutting cost with compromising quality — and even adding an extra element of fun.
A heavy hors d’oeuvres party can save quite a bit of money over the traditional holiday dinner, and increases the opportunities for mingling amongst co-workers. I recommend having appetizer displays in different areas to encourage movement around the room. A great way to get employees involved and save money is to have a dessert potluck and competition. By limiting the potluck to just desserts, you can cut down on the usual stress and mess involved with a full potluck, and the competition will encourage participation. Guests can sample the treats, and make a quick vote for their favorite. You can award the winner with a gift card (maybe to a baking goods store), small gift, or even an extra day of PTO. – Kalena Brose
How and what you serve will depend a lot on your employees and your budget, but one thing is certain: prioritize the food!
Is the food going to be catered, is the banquet hall going to provide the food, or will it be a potluck where employees bring their favorite dish? There’s plenty of ways to go about it, but one thing is for sure: people connect over food! – Eyal Simko
Here We Come A-Caroling: Party Entertainment
You don’t want guests to eat and run, so what else do you do? What activities or extras should you include? What should you definitely not do? Music is always a primary consideration, you may or may not want other activities, and since it’s a holiday part — what about gifts?
Music will set the tone for any party. A jazz trio will create a quiet, classy atmosphere in the same party that would be fast-paced and energetic with the right DJ. And a good entertainer will help improve the mood, no matter what genre you decide on.
A great band or DJ really can make or break an event, and I highly suggest you not sacrifice on this portion of the budget. – Francine Ribeau
Everyone loves a good dance party, so having a designated dance floor and the right music is the best way to ensure holiday party success. A live band or musical act is always my personal favorite, but make sure you choose a performance that everyone will enjoy. A DJ is another way to go, as long as the playlist gets all your guest out on the floor! – Jade McNeil
Simko has had a lot of success by combining what are usually considered two opposing options.
Think outside the box and incorporate a DJ with live musicians that are capable of adding that live element to the music. At One Up Entertainment, we’ve been able to incorporate live musicians to accompany our DJs, and it’s been EXTREMELY successful. With a band, you get roughly 100 to 130 songs they can cover. Those are the good bands. But what happens when someone wants to request a song? The band is left helpless in accommodating to the musical needs of a party if it is not in their repertoire. A DJ has the versatility to take ANY request, play all sorts of genres, and our live musicians know how to riff and add that live element. This way you still feel like you have a live band playing, but with the ability to hear virtually any song you request. – Eyal Simko
Even if you’re on a very tight budget and your only option is to organize a Spotify playlist, consider your staff and the atmosphere you are trying to create. Don’t mix jazz tunes with dance numbers or people will never know when it’s safe to hit the floor.
Some people love party games, some people make a quiet exit when an MC tries to start organizing the crowd into teams. There are several ways to make everyone happy, though, so don’t worry.
- Optional activities. Have some fun games or activities planned, but don’t try to make everyone participate.Keep things fun by incorporating activities that encourage interaction, but don’t make it a requirement. Rarely does everyone in a room want to be forced into playing a game or singing a song, but something like a photobooth or walking magician can draw guests into the party spirit, without bothering those that aren’t interested. – Kalena Brose
- Side activities. Some things — like a photo booth — can be provided for guests to use at their own pace.Create a theme and try to encourage that theme throughout. Activities to keep guests engaged, such as a casino party, keeps guests busy and and having fun. Bringing in a photographer, photobooth, or step-and-repeat will give your event an extra wow-factor, because everyone loves that red-carpet feeling. – Francine Ribeau
- Visual activities. Something that doesn’t require active participation is a great way to draw in those who would rather not participate in other activities. Collette Simko is the high-energy founder of Events by Collete, the #1 rated event planner in San Francisco.Always have an activity, such as a poster or “yearbook with photos” to sign for an end of the year party, for example. Have a slideshow or visual entertainment for those who don’t want to socialize. – Collette Simko
It’s okay if everyone doesn’t participate. Just because someone stays at his table all night, doesn’t mean he isn’t having a good time, so be a conscientious as you can — provide a variety of activities — and let everyone decide how they want to party.
It is a holiday party, after all, so Santa should at least make an incognito appearance.
Try and think of different ways to interact with your employees and give away prizes. The raffles are fun, but it’s been done. With raffles, luck is the only thing that you’ll need to win. Try incorporating different games and/or activities that could serve as a way to give away prizes. This will allow employees to show off their skills or work in teams to win. – Eyal Simko
McNeil likes getting the staff involved in the gift giving, which can add some fun to the party and help build your team together.
Secret Santa is one of my favorite holiday party activities. For a company party, it really gives employees a chance to get to know one another. Be naughty and give a hilarious gag gift, or be nice and give a gift from the heart. Either way it’s always a great time! – Jade McNeil
Remember when you were a kid, and you got to leave a friend’s birthday party with a little gift of your own? Let’s be honest: no one is too old for a goodie bag.
Everyone loves free swag. Consider teaming up with a few local vendors to act as sponsors, and hand out swag bags to employees with their products. – Kalena Brose
Gifts bags are always appreciated by the employees. As a company, you can strategically create a gift bag with branded merchandise. Branding is key, and if the gifts are useful, they will utilize these gifts in their day-to-day lives. This could yield a positive company culture and a great sense of connectedness to the organization. – Eyal Simko
When guests leave a party with something new in their hands, they’re sure to have fond memories of your company party. It doesn’t have to be a huge expense — gift exchange games or vendor support are two great options for relieving the cost — which means it really is the thought that counts!
A Cup of Good Cheer: Alcohol At The Company Party
Finally, there is always the question of alcohol. Should you serve alcohol at a company party, and if so — how? There is always a risk of over-consumption that can lead to awkward situations at best, and dangerous situations at worst. (Not to mention the cost.) On the other hand, people appreciate being treated like adults, and your employees would probably like to know you trust them to have a beer or a glass of wine with dinner.
Brose suggests using drink tickets, or hiring a classy bartending vendor, to help keep things under control.
Alcohol consumption is always a concern at holiday parties. To reduce costs and limit consumption, you could take the drink ticket approach and offer each guest three drinks on the house. Alternatively, you could hire a reputable bartending company that will keep an eye out and cut off anyone that’s had too much to drink. No matter what, it’s a good idea to avoid any self-serve alcohol. Some people don’t know their limits, so it’s important to have a professional keeping an eye on things. – Kalena Brose
Another approach is to skip the hard alcohol altogether.
A trick to keeping it light and fun is try not serve any hard alcohol during the event (keep it to wine, beer, and champagne). Also, giving guests a set amount of drink tickets when arriving to the party will insure everyone’s safety while there and when heading home. – Jade McNeil
If you know your staff and trust them to drink responsibly, you may be comfortable offering a variety of alcohol. In that case, Eyal Simko has one more suggestion:
If you plan on having an open bar at your event, take into consideration the end of the night. Providing shuttles and transportation to avoid driving under the influence is something that is greatly appreciated by employees. Depending on the budget, this may or may not be feasible, but if there’s room in the budget for transportation, I highly recommend it. – Eyal Simko
If you can’t provide shuttles, at least have cards from some of the local cab companies — or make up your own that feature a few options — available on the bar and near the exits.
Putting together a great company Christmas party doesn’t have to be stressful. Get a few volunteers together to help, and start with that budget. Then, take it one step at a time — food, music, activities, gifts, etc.
If you and your staff just don’t have the time to do it yourselves, you can always hire a pro, of course. Collette Simko’s best advice is just that.
The holidays can be tough to plan as many vendors are busy planning other client events, and getting their attention is like trying to search for gold at times. Place your stress on us as this is what we handle best. Allow us to be the ones that deal with last minute hiccups. – Collette Simko
However you do it, remember that the goal is to show your employees how much you appreciate the hard work they put in all year. If that remains your guiding motivation, it will be hard to mess it up.