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Planning a Corporate Holiday Party? Get Inspired by What Other Companies Are Doing This Year

Event producers throughout North America share what their corporate clients are looking for in 2020—and what they have planned for their own teams.

Holiday Party

To say it’s been a difficult year is an understatement—which means it’s more important than ever to connect with and celebrate with your team this holiday season. We may not be gathering for an all-out affair, but there are plenty of ways to create fun, meaningful celebrations from afar.

To get some ideas and inspiration, BizBash caught up with eight event professionals throughout the U.S. and Canada to learn what their corporate clients are asking for this year—and what they're planning for their own teams. Here are some ideas: 

1. Help employees connect and celebrate their accomplishments.
Whether you're hosting something virtual or in person, don't sacrifice the personal touch. For example, Evan Babins, marketing events manager for Equitable Bank in Toronto, is shifting the bank’s typical 900-person holiday party into a purely virtual celebration this year. “We will be having our CEO and top execs share their feelings on the holidays, and we will be recognizing our anniversary accomplishments internally: 5-, 10-, and 15-year anniversaries,” Babins explains. “Where we would normally take photos during the cocktail hour of all our winners, this year we asked everyone to send in headshots that will be inputted into the presentation for all to see.”

And Amy Shey Jacobs—creative director of New York-based Chandelier Events and its new Don’t Let the Day Go By virtual event division—is working with her corporate clients to plan virtual holiday celebrations that “exceed the tired virtual happy hour,” she says. “Our goals are not only to entertain and thank their employees but also to build and maintain company culture and connections.”

For one global company, Jacobs and her team recently produced a virtual game show and cocktail speakeasy for new employees who had never actually worked in an office together. “Even their top executive had just been hired in the last six months. So making these experiences not only special but tied to the opportunity to connect are more important than we even realized," she says. 

2. Consider personalized trivia contests and game shows.
For the Equitable Bank holiday party, Babins notes that when the main presentation is complete, programming will shift into a company-wide trivia contest with questions about pop culture and other categories—as well as questions about the staff and the company. “This year has brought on so many challenges, but as good event profs, it's our job to take those challenges and migrate them to victories for our teams, our staff, and our clients,” he says.

Jacobs also recently produced a virtual game show for Spotify, complete with a live emcee, chat capability, and Who Wants to Be Millionaire-style personalized questions about everyone on the team. “We take the virtual game show to the next level by making the questions unique and specific to the group,” she explains. “This helps to break through the monotony of Zoom, but introduces the players to each other in a way they may never have thought of before.”

Virtual Wreath-Making ClassEntire Productions hosted a virtual wreath-making class for its employees. "There was so much left over that I repurposed it and now my whole house smells amazing," says the company's communications specialist Madeline Raithel.Photo: Courtesy of Entire Productions3. Host a holiday-themed interactive activity.
Lisa Marks, the owner of Calgary-based Brand Alive and a former head of events for enterprise corporation company Shaw Communications, observes that employers are going mostly virtual this year—but that doesn’t mean the interactive element is going away. “Some unique ideas have come to light, like self-built experiences, events in a box, at-home projects with a virtual component, Zoom calls with Santa for families, etcetera,” she says. “Some ideas may even be great to apply in future years.”

Entire Productions is noticing a similar trend; the San Francisco-based event production company is currently planning virtual team-building activities for Google throughout the month of December. “Popular activities are chocolate-, snowglobe-, and wreath-making, all of which we send the complete kits to the attendees' doors and have an engaging teacher to lead virtually,” says Madeline Raithel, the company’s communications specialist. 

For its own team, Entire Productions opted for a virtual wreath-making class last week. “Our team, like many others that we serve, haven't seen each other in person since March,” explains Raithel. “It was nice to see them over Zoom for non-work-related reasons, and the wreaths came out beautiful. Our friend Monica Lomas from Verde SF was able to hand-deliver overflowing foliage kits along with shears, gloves, wire, and fun add-ons."

Another idea? Jacobs recently developed a gingerbread house workshop for a group from Syneos Health. "First, we shook up Winter Mules with ingredients we shipped out to [the employees], and then we got to our decorating fun in a two-hour event hosted on Zoom," she says. "We partnered with a high-end bakery to create the gingerbread houses, frostings, and candy specced to [Syneos Health's] brand color, and added a special corporate touch with a chocolate-dipped Oreo emblazoned with their edible logo.”

4. Promote meaningful conversations.
Taylor Buonocore-Guthrie, co-founder of New Jersey-based company Convers(ate), finds that clients are looking for meaningful holiday gifts and experiences this year—something she calls “celebratory team building.” “They want to create one-of-a-kind experiences where colleagues learn new (and important) things about each other,” she explains. “So, we create holiday celebrations that are interactive, conversation-focused virtual gatherings.” Experienced facilitators direct the conversation and provide question prompts, keeping the conversation lively and relevant; Convers(ate) also offers a box set of its conversation-sparking game as a gift option. “Our question prompts are personal and fun, and also relate indirectly back to the group's mission and/or the moment in time.”

5. Extend it beyond one week.
Because we could all use a little extra celebration this year. 
“We are doing a virtual ‘Spirit Week’ of events for our employees,” says Deanna Nwosu, the in-house event manager for Cleveland-based company Foundation Software. “Each day we'll send a photo of our company elf to all staff from a restaurant in town. If they guess where the photo was taken, they'll be entered to win a gift card from that location." Nwosu is also organizing a daily photo challenge, with topics such as holiday pet costumes, holiday home decor, ugly sweaters, and cookie or cake decorating; employees who submit a photo will be entered for prizes. 

“In addition, we'll have three live virtual events for staff to participate in,” she adds. “The first is a virtual visit with Santa—[employees'] kids are sending us their lists and we'll mail back a personalized response from Santa. ... For the adults, we've got a wine and canvas (from home) event, as well as a trivia night. We gave our employees lots of options to celebrate the holidays together, but apart.” 

6. Opt for memorable, interactive entertainment.
Don't sacrifice the entertainment options, even if you're going virtual. Raithel notes that Entire Productions’ “EntireVariety” show has been a popular holiday request from its corporate clients. “Fortune 500s are coming to us to produce their virtual holiday parties and segment their company messaging by weaving in world-class entertainment, engagement tools, and thoughtful giveaways,” she says. “This format not only keeps your attendees engaged, but it leaves them on the edge of their seats.”

Virtual Gingerbread House WorkshopDon't Let the Day Go By's Amy Shey Jacobs recently developed a Gingerbread House Workshop, where her team led a group of employees "through the festive fun (and cheerful mishaps) of building gingerbread houses together," she says.Photo: Courtesy of Don't Let the Day Go ByJacobs adds that her team has produced virtual speakeasies for clients such as Adobe, Spotify, and Sema4 Genomics. The offering works as both a sales tool—replacing the typical wine-and-dine experience—and as a holiday party option. “The virtual speakeasy, a unique mixology experience with our partners at Muddling Memories, has been continuously popular since our launch. We've added seasonal touches with hot cocoa experiences and seasonal cocktail kits, as well as wine, bourbon, tequila, and whiskey tastings," she says.

Currently, Jacobs is working on a 100-person virtual event for a luxury cosmetics company. Guests will choose between two interactive entertainment options. The first is a mixology lesson, “where they mix a sparkling cocktail incorporating notes and experiences from a perfume [the brand is] launching in 2021. Guests will actually get to spray the edible essence as a garnish,” says Jacobs. “The other guests will partake in a 'floral therapy' session with our partners Caroline and Takaya from Buunch, where they will explore the healing and meaningful qualities of aromatic florals that we're sending ahead inspired by the perfume.”

7. Get some friendly competition going.
For its internal holiday party this year, Showcare is transforming its own virtual platform into a “holiday-themed bonanza,” says the company's community manager, Jillian Cardinal. “We have a mix of new and familiar faces on our team, so we wanted to ensure the fun and merriment leads to connecting. We love gamification, networking, and prizes, so we will play '2 Truths and a Lie' and 'Who’s That Baby' and have a holiday-themed scavenger hunt around our homes. Team members will search for items such as a holiday sweater or festive hat, and will receive bonus points for keeping them on throughout the party.” Cardinal adds that the virtual party will also include roundtables based on favorite classic holiday movies, and attendees' responses to “What’s in your cup?” to get guests mingling.

8. Keep it simple.
Think through the ways your company normally celebrates together, and how it can be adapted in a safe way. For example, Holly Fauble, marketing and events leader at Jeff Gordon Chevrolet in Wilmington, N.C., typically plans a Thanksgiving potluck dinner where the dealership’s 200 employees share homemade dishes and cultural dishes. This year, she transformed that idea into a socially distanced food truck festival.

“A large tent was rented and I hired four food trucks with different themes (authentic tacos, burgers, pizza, and barbecue) and asked my favorite local catering and bakeshop to make 225 gourmet miniature pies for employees to take home,” Fauble explains. “We kept the service window from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. to eliminate large crowds, and implemented sanitization stations and distanced bistro tables for employees that do not have an office or personal workspace to enjoy their lunch at. … It wasn’t necessarily glamorous or out of the ordinary, but our pivot plan created a lasting impression on the employees and local vendors.”

More inspiration for 2020 holiday parties:
Tech the Halls: Plan a Safe, Socially Distant Corporate Holiday Party
How to Organize a Virtual Gift Exchange for Remote Teams

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