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Best New Ideas for Office Holiday Parties

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Year-end office parties move in new directions this year.

Last year, many of the 800 attendees at the Astellas Pharma Inc. year-end party arrived toting toolboxes from home. Not the usual accoutrements for a celebratory luncheon in Chicago’s Hyatt Regency O’Hare hotel ballroom. But the focus of their holiday party would not be Champagne toasts but building 40 brand-new bikes for kids living in a local shelter.

“We had some really eager employees,” says Jenny Kite, associate manager of corporate communications for the international pharmaceutical company’s Northbrook, Ill.–based affiliate. Astellas’ annual holiday party has included a charitable facet for many years. In 2010, partygoers put together close to 1,500 toys to donate to a local Boys and Girls Club. So in 2011, they enthusiastically embraced the plan to put together the bikes. The kids from the shelter arrived at the end of the event, and each was surprised with his or her own bike, as well as a poster and a backpack full of goodies.

“It was fulfilling in a way that a traditional year-end lunch could not be,” says Kathy Miller, president and owner of Total Event Resources, the Schaumburg, Ill.–based strategic meeting and event-planning company that pulled the party together.

With the economy still unsteady and many companies concerned about appearances, the traditional year-end party is undergoing a transformation. Even companies that are on financially firm footing are hesitant to put dollars into a splashy year-end event, says Terry Singleton, president/COO of CCP Events Inc., an Atlanta-based company specializing in interactive themed events, conference planning and production services.

Today’s Party Goal: Low-Key

“The majority of companies have significantly reduced their budgets or have decided not to hold a year-end celebration,” says Singleton, who is also president of the International Special Events Society, an association for professional event planners. Those who are going forward with their parties are generally opting for something low-key, he adds. “Most companies shy away from the event that looks like it cost too much,” he says. “Even if they are spending the same amount of money [as] prior to the economy woes, [event planners] have to make it look like they are spending less.”

The year-end event at Spot Trading, a Chicago-based options-trading firm, certainly reflects the roller-coaster ride of the last decade. When the company was founded 13 years ago, the owners took its whole staff of eight employees and their spouses and families on an end-of-year trip to celebrate and thank them for their hard work at the start-up. As the firm grew, that trip, often organized by Total Event Resources, became an annual tradition, eventually mushrooming to about 250 attendees—some 130 employees, each with a significant other and many bringing along the whole family. Over the past decade, the group visited a variety of U.S. and Canadian hotspots, from Mont Tremblant in Quebec to Dana Point, Calif.

“The annual trip has been a part of our culture,” says Ed Haravon, partner and chief administrative officer at Spot. “Especially when we were growing by 20 or 30 people a year, it was a great opportunity for new people to meet old people, forge friendships and get to know each other socially.”

But when the financial markets were roiled in 2010, the company took a different tack, opting for a staycation party at the Chicago History Museum followed by an overnight at the James Hotel downtown. Last year, the company contracted further, opting for a single evening sports pub–themed event.

“There was tremendous business uncertainty in the financial markets—a lot more than we were used to,” says Haravon. “Just from a focus perspective, in terms of planning, we really needed all hands on deck to be certain we were ready for anything the market threw at us.”

Haravon acknowledges that the employees were disappointed at the change, but he says they weren’t really surprised. “We’re a pretty transparent firm in terms of how we’re doing, and communication between leadership and the general employee base is pretty strong, so people were aware,” he says. “It was an easy case for us to make, given the events in the marketplace, that this wasn’t the right time to put our focus on a big trip.” While annual trips may be a thing of the past, the company hopes to surprise employees with an out-of-town jaunt every few years.

“There are people at the company…who have never experienced the year-end trip,” Haravon says. “It’s a part of our culture that I don’t think we want to completely disappear.”

Facebook Fears

Spot Trading’s situation is far from unique. “Things do feel genuinely bleaker than they have for many generations,” says Rohit Talwar, global futurist and CEO of Fast Future, a U.K.–based strategic consultancy. “We can see our economic woes require more than a quick fix—a party won’t put things right.” But Talwar also sees another reason for the toned-down year-end event: social media. “With camera phones, digital cameras, Facebook and YouTube, everything can be captured, so we are more reluctant to let our hair down in front of people who are not genuinely close friends,” Talwar says. “In previous eras, in part we felt it was part of our benefit package, and we also felt some compulsion to ‘show face’ and attend. We were all pretty relaxed about what happened at the party. Now everyone is a little more serious and anxious about our careers, austerity has set in, job cuts are biting and we don’t want to give employers an excuse to sack us.”

Talwar says he thinks the year-end party is an interesting barometer of society and business in general, and in that regard, he imagines the current focus on interactivity will make its way into corporate holiday events. “There is a general explosion of interactivity—be it games, TV or live entertainment,” he says. “We want to be part of the experience, and we want stories to tell afterwards.”

In addition to the corporate social responsibility events, he foresees teams getting together at each other’s houses for a BYO or potluck-style event, or hosting an event like that in the offices. Other possibilities include a focus on creative expression with a low budget, like internal talent shows or a collective creative activity like everyone learning a dance then performing as a flash mob.

Whether it’s a BYO office party or a trip to California, the year-end party should remain an important part of corporate culture, says Miller, of Total Event Resources. “Ultimately, people are motivated by being around other people,” she says. “There’s no better way to build camaraderie, to thank people and to inspire them.”

Jeanne O’Brien Coffey writes frequently about business travel and employee motivation from her base north of Boston. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Northshore magazine and numerous print and web outlets.

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