The holiday office party is feeling like work

The holiday office party is feeling like work

Crain's Chicago Business by Elizabeth Blackwell
Date: Monday, December 17, 2013
Category: Business of Life
Photos by Scott Shigley

At most Chicago companies, the holiday party has been on life support in recent years, with open-bar bashes replaced by BYO snacks in the conference room. This year, however, cautiously optimistic news about the economy seems to have loosened year-end budgets, and local event planners are seeing an uptick in bookings and overall spending. But they say many companies also are demanding that their annual gathering have a business goal.

That's right: The company holiday party is no longer about letting loose or blowing off steam. The focus is on corporate team building, with events structured to bring co-workers together in new, unexpected ways. The goal is to make the party fun, but also, in a sense, more like work.

“Companies feel it is appropriate to spend money this year, but things are still somewhat tight,” says Marc Halpin, CEO of Kapow Events Inc., a Chicago-based event-planning company that allows members to book venues and menus online, along with add-on experiences such as wine tastings or sporting events. “If they're going to pay for a party, they want bang for their buck.”

That might mean booking a craft beer and gourmet food pairing at Public House or a pizza-tossing party at Bar Toma, or adding interactive experiences such as a whiskey tasting, scavenger hunt, table-tennis tournament or casino games, rather than the standard cocktails and appetizers in a hotel banquet room. Kapow recently planned a real-life, grown-up twist on the game Clue for Redbox Automated Retail LLC at Crimson Lounge downtown. Led by professional actors, Redbox employees were assigned characters and costumes, then guided through activities and clues to solve a mystery. “Having another element beyond the venue and the food has become very important,” Mr. Halpin says.

Devin Robnick, director of sales at Chicago-based Revel Global Events, which has planned parties for the Chicago Cubs and the University of Chicago, has staged parties around the vintage game trend. “We bring in some classic games like vintage pinball, pingpong and foosball—think arcade chic.”

The activities need not cost a fortune. “New spins on the classic deejay are a great way to save on the cost of a whole band but still get a more interactive experience,” Ms. Robnick says. Ideas include a deejay with a vocalist or groups such as Bill Pollack's Hot Pink, which combines a deejay and two violinists.

Another increasingly requested add-on is a photographer or videographer to capture memories of the evening. Mr. Halpin attributes this to growing interest in team building; sharing the pictures later at a staff meeting or on a company's website can prolong the good feelings generated by the party, instilling a sense of camaraderie.

Throwing a company party that doubles as a team-building exercise has been a recipe for success at Parties That Cook, a San Francisco-based culinary events company with offices in Chicago, Seattle and Portland, Ore. Revenue grew 100 percent year to year from 2009 to 2011 despite the sluggish economy, Chicago manager Brandy Fernow says. “Food is a universal language.”

Corporate-focused cooking parties, which range from small-plates menus to Iron Chef-style competitions, can be held at downtown restaurants, suburban demonstration kitchens or a CEO's home. Parties begin with a half-hour of mingling over appetizers and drinks; then guests are divided into teams of four to six to prep and cook a dish under the guidance of a professional chef who doubles as a host. For the finale, the group gathers to eat the meal they prepared.

For companies with a strong community-service bent, Ms. Fernow suggests booking a “Cooking With Kindness” party, where a group of up to 50 gathers at a family shelter to cook a meal for residents.

The appeal: Colleagues are encouraged to work together toward a common goal, but in a nonwork-related setting. “The structure encourages involvement, and communication is essential,” says Ms. Fernow, who left a job as a litigation consultant at Ernst & Young to go to culinary school. “We use recipes that are easy to read and execute, so everyone starts off on a level playing field.”

“We are very focused on team-building events and feel small team outings really help to bond and reward employees,” says Linda Tran, area sales coordinator at Chicago-based CareerBuilder LLC. She works regularly with Kapow to plan team-focused outings, including a sushi-making class at Union Sushi in River North and scavenger hunt/bar crawls around the city.

Ms. Fernow says that though clients have been willing to spend a bit more on holiday parties this year, ordering favors such as gourmet chocolates or aprons with the company logo, restraint is still the order of the day. “Everyone is doing more with less,” Revel's Ms. Robnick says. “No one wants to be perceived as going over the top or spending frivolously. The days of the open checkbook and the open guest list are gone.”

In the past, company holiday parties often were open to husbands and wives, but that is no longer the norm; limiting guests to employees not only keeps costs down but also ensures that partygoers will be chatting with their colleagues rather than the boss' spouse—furthering, again, the all-important team building.

Though companies may be looking for assurances that a holiday party makes solid business sense, they recognize that a year-end bash—which may be the only employee-appreciation event held all year—needs to feel like a celebration, not a meeting. “Clients want us to create a memorable event,” Ms. Robnick says. “No one wants a cookie-cutter holiday party.”

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