Build a Better Holiday Party with the Right Options and Venue

by Anne Nisbet, Staples® Contributing Writer

Whether it’s a potluck lunch in the office or a dinner cruise on a tour boat, a great office holiday party starts with proper preparation. If party planning is unfamiliar territory, don’t let it stop you in your tracks. As a small business owner, your skills identifying goals, gathering information, building a budget and developing timelines are precisely what you need to put together a successful event.

And just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you have to manage the entire project, either. Tom Holland, owner of Pacific Telecom Services in Seattle, delegates the party planning to a few of his staff, providing parameters regarding budget and numbers of guests. “Someone always wants to be involved, which is helpful,” he explains. “You need to make sure the party reflects the nature of your business and your brand, so it’s important to put together a team that can execute your vision.”

Set the Tone & Scope

Determining the tone is crucial because the venue itself says a lot about the gathering. A formal seated dinner communicates a sense of ceremony and decorum. A bowling party conveys informality and play.

“As a small business, it’s really important to build loyalty and nurture relationships with our employees,” says Maria Stuart, co-owner of R. Stuart and Co., a winery located in McMinnville, OR. “In our early years, I would bring lunch and we’d open a few special bottles.” Later, in an effort to make it more special, Stuart and her husband hosted the party in their home, inviting employees and their guests for hors d’oeuvres and cocktails.

Expectations also play a role in the conceptual process. “New York City is completely different than Philadelphia,” says Irene Silver, senior customer relations manager with Party Rental Ltd. in Philadelphia, PA. “In Manhattan, it’s all about the look, what’s new and what hasn’t been done before,” she comments. “Our Philadelphia clients are much more low key in their choices.”

Finally, are you including guests and/or employee family members? The number of guests determines the size of location you’ll need, as well as the budget.

Holland juggles several parties a year for his employees as his company has offices in Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles. “We’ve done a mix of parties with employees and guests and with employees only,” he says. “Every year is a little different. Ultimately, the choice is typically budget driven.”

On Site or Off?

“If you can afford it, go off site,” suggests Holly Cunningham, president of Hollyberry Baking and Catering Company in St. Louis, MO. “Your employees come to the office every day. Inviting them elsewhere automatically makes it more special.”

Stumped for venue ideas? “Most caterers have a list of venues on their Web sites,” Cunningham says. “All the legwork is done and you don’t even have to commit to a specific caterer to access the information.” Refer to these lists for ideas, and then determine which venues can accommodate your headcount and location preference.

What if going out is out of the question? “You can have a beautiful office, but if it’s not designed for movement, it won’t work well,” Cunningham cautions. “Too many cubicles, and people can get trapped.” She recommends having an event specialist look at the space with a critical eye to determine its suitability for the type of event you’re planning.

Regardless of the venue, consider how guests will arrive and depart. If they use public transportation, are bus and/or subway lines nearby? If the event is off site, what are the parking rules and valet services? If alcohol will be served, consider having a car service on standby for guests who may overindulge.

Food & Drink

The tone, scope and location all influence what you serve:

  • Food: Is your style McDonald’s or Ruth’s Chris Steak House? Consider the associated cost of a meal at or from each location, and multiply it by the number of employees (and guests) to get an idea of potential costs.
  • Beverage: Time of day, location and nature of your business influence whether you splash out on a full bar or keep it low key with a craft soda station or espresso cart.

Other Considerations

Here are some other important things to keep in mind when planning your office holiday party:

  • Venue Restrictions: If your group likes to rock all night, make sure noise ordinances don’t require the DJ to quit at 10 p.m. Envisioning an intimate, candlelit evening? Check that an open flame is okay, or invest in battery-operated alternatives.
  • Liquor Policy: If you use a venue, can you bring your own booze or do you need a licensed caterer for alcohol purchase and service? If you provide the liquor, check with your state agency for any necessary permits — and with your attorney and insurance agent for other practical considerations.
  • Rentals: What’s included in the rental: tables, chairs and kitchen access? You may need to bring in rental equipment, which means confirming site access for delivery and pickup. Verify what your venue or caterer provides and what they (or you) need to rent in order to execute your event.
  • Décor: Is the venue decked out in holiday finery? Or do you need to bring your own greenery, lights and fake snow, and then pay someone to put it up?
  • Labor: Caterers and restaurants provide staff. If you go the DIY route, think about recruiting help outside the office so employees can enjoy the party. Culinary schools and private clubs may have students or staff you can hire. In some states, union members are required to perform certain tasks. Check with the venue manager so you understand who does what and why.
  • Gratuity: Restaurants typically add a gratuity to the food and beverage total. Off-site caterers usually bill hourly per server and may or may not add a gratuity to the total. Ask in advance so there’s no sticker shock when the bill arrives.

Don’t forget to mark your calendar with contract deadlines, when you have to provide a headcount to the caterer and deadlines for any self-assigned to-do items, including reviewing the elements you delegate.

Use this information to plan your office holiday party and the deliverable will be fun — for your employees and the boss.

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