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Holiday Parties With Open Bars: Mistake or Necessity?

Event industry professionals weigh in on the pros and cons of offering employees unlimited amounts of alcohol at end-of-the-year celebrations.

Planners suggest tapping vigilant servers or bartenders, who can help ensure guests don't overindulge at an open bar.
Planners suggest tapping vigilant servers or bartenders, who can help ensure guests don't overindulge at an open bar.
Photo: Nadia Chaudhury/BizBash

The holidays are typically a time to indulge, but is it a mistake to treat your staff to countless cocktails at the company holiday party? Whether a planner is working with a tight budget or concerned with potential drunken outbursts from employees, there’s a lot to consider when debating the inclusion of an open bar. Event industry professionals shared their thoughts on the matter, enlightening us on everything from how to save money on a bar tab to whether or not those drink tickets actually work.

"Every holiday party needs some holiday cheer. I really like the current trend of creating a more intimate bar experience by using a bar cart. This allows for an 'open bar' at a holiday party. However to prevent chaos at the bar, we like to create a signature holiday cocktail with bar signage which provides instructions for how to create the cocktail. [It's] a fun way to allow the guests to be their own bartender. The drink can be be premade but your bar has items that will enhance your guests' drinks such as cinnamon sticks or ginger chunks. If for whatever reason you decide you don't want to have an open bar for your holiday gathering, still remember that guests love a fun holiday drink or treat, so think creatively about having a 'hot chocolate bar' or 'holiday spice juice bar' or a 'cider bar' with cold and hot varied flavored ciders."
April Gray, director of events and operations, the Todd Group

"I really think it depends on the size of the company throwing the party. If it's a new business or a small business, I don't think anyone expects them to be really lavish. Just treating the office to a great dinner and some drinks, whether open bar or just wine and beer, is a great way to celebrate together, and it's always good to see our co-workers outside of the work roles we only see them in. However, if the company had an incredible year or it is a large corporation that can afford to, I always say treat your employees as generously as possible. It comes back 10 times. We never regret treating people well, only not well enough."
Cara Kleinhaut, owner/founder, Caravents Inc.

"The bottom line for us is we will be as accommodating to our clients as we possibly can be, while fusing what’s legal and making sure that guests have a good time. When it comes to a corporate holiday event, if the client is attempting to mitigate cost or the level of consumption, the best thing to do is a cash bar from the get-go or a limited amount. I don’t recommend placing bottles of wine at the table because you’re not necessarily monitoring the consumption at a private event, and we’ll never place a bottle of wine at a table if there are any minors. Many times clients will want to do free beer and wine and make guests pay for distilled spirits. That’s not very politically correct, for lack of a better term, for guests because it becomes discriminatory. O.K., if you want free beer, you’re fine, but not if you want a free martini. There’s a strong misconception that distilled spirits inebriate greater or quicker than wine or beer, and that’s just not true. Have you ever seen anyone drunk off beer? The answer is yes."
John Radovich, owner, Bartenders Unlimited

"A holiday party is usually a company’s way of thanking their staff for the year of hard work—so why not pay for their drinks too? Even when you distribute drink tickets, guests are less likely to stay past their three-drink limit, and miss out on the rest of what could be a great party. These days when more people are concerned with the budget, it’s also great to partner with a vendor who will charge you based on consumption rather than per head."
Abby Borden, event coordinator, Along Came Mary Events

“We’ve done [security at] several holiday parties over the years, and it’s a different ballgame from major events we tend to cover like award show dinners, fashion shows, or diplomatic events. We always tell bar staff and bartenders that if they notice that someone is drinking too much or on the way to being sloshed, to let us know so at least we can keep an eye on them or follow them around to make sure they don’t get out hand or cause a disturbance. Holiday parties these days are really about the open bar, and it really doesn’t mean much if people are given a limit with drink tickets because that doesn’t mean they can’t get a ticket from a friend. But we can always put out floaters for slight observation to keep an eye on things and make sure no one is acting inappropriately."
Mike Zimet, owner, Mike Zimet Enterprises

"An open bar at a holiday party is an open invitation for trouble. While we encourage our staff to have fun and celebrate a job and year well done, we try to limit consumption and instead turn our holiday party into a cause event; deliver toys to the disadvantaged; invite underprivileged children to sing carols with us or any activity to encourage the spirit of giving back."
Vince Thompson, C.E.O, MELT

"From my experience, it's fairly simple. If you want the party to last, you keep the bar open. Obviously, you hope you've invited mature adults who know how to handle themselves, but there's no substitute for vigilance by the bartender and/or another responsible party. I'd rather cut one or two folks off entirely than ask everyone else to pay for their drinks. After all, they're our guests."
Ladd K. Biro, president, Champion Management L.L.C.

"I think that there are pros and cons for an open bar at a company holiday party. Of course, you want to thank your employees and congratulate them for exceptional service the past year, and throwing a holiday party is a great 'thank-you!' Drinks can get expensive if you have a holiday party at a local bar or restaurant, so having the open bar does promote a charitable act on the employer or the company’s behalf, especially when your staff works together day in and day out. Requiring them to attend a party that they also have to pay to attend, to me, does not give reason to celebrate when you have spent the past year together working side by side. The downfall to an open bar is that some people may not know their limits, and being over-served at a holiday party can lead to some lines being crossed, and appropriate judgment may be skewed. I think that all employers want to reward their staff at the end of the year, and if you are going to throw a party, you need to do it right and not make your employees pay when the party is typically after work hours. You just have to pray that everyone is an adult and can make responsible decisions."
Brian Worley, co-owner, YourBash

"The open bar is something that helps put guests at ease and allows the proverbial walls to be let down. At the same time, it can be what causes some to do things that they would normally not do. While we always provide drinks at no cost at our company parties, we also ensure that we are aware of the condition of our employees and make it our personal responsibility to keep them safe."
Jeff Kirk, C.O.O., Corporate Magic Inc.