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7 Tips & Ideas for Planning a Memorable Company Holiday Party

Some people love them and can’t wait for it, others dread them and invent creative excuses to get out of going. Everyone knows the company holiday party is coming up, but this year the pressure is on you to make it a party everybody looks forward to, to plan a memorable event that goes down in the company holiday party record books. Eek!

It can be a busy time of year for everyone, including party planning pros, and it’s easy to get distracted from planning the details. But we know you don’t just want to slap together a half-ass party, you want to carefully organize a party that kills. That means getting an early jump on things to make sure you have enough time to do it right.

Now some might feel that planning the company holiday party isn’t very important—after all, it’s not like you have the pressure of impressing your fussy Martha Stewart-esque mother-in-law or your aunt whose holiday affair is magazine-worthy year after year. You just need some deli meats, chips, and sodas and everyone is happy and grateful, right? Not quite.

Company holiday parties are often combined with the idea of an end-of-year employee appreciation gesture. What kind of message does a poorly done party send to the employees? It sends that message that nobody really cares enough to put some effort into it. That doesn’t really smack of appreciation nor does it make people look forward to attending.

We’re not saying you need a million-dollar budget or to make party planning your other full-time job (but if you want and can spend the time and money on a blow-out bash, by all means, go for it). Whatever your budget or party style, here are some tips and ideas for making this year’s holiday party the best one yet.

1. Use your budget wisely but generously:

7 Tips & Ideas for Planning a Memorable Company Holiday Party

Possibly the least-fun part of party planning, knowing your budget and planning for it might call for some resourcefulness or creativity on your part. But no matter what your party budget is, don’t skimp, use it to the full.

As was mentioned above, company holiday parties are often a show of employee appreciation, so you want to make sure they feel appreciated to the best your budget allows. It’s also important to keep in mind the overall financial state of the company. If it’s been a lean year, you don’t want employees thinking the company shirked their yearly raise to spend money on an all-out extravaganza. That will have no one in a very festive mood.

2. Make it entertaining:

7 Tips & Ideas for Planning a Memorable Company Holiday Party

You don’t have to break out your old Backstreet Boys or Britney choreography to entertain your colleagues or employees (in fact, you almost definitely shouldn’t, though we know there’s a 50% chance of it happening anyway once the eggnog gets flowing). But for this one, it’s definitely better to call on the pros.

A DJ is a fairly safe choice (though we all probably have a DJ horror story or two), they can offer some background music or let everyone dance to some party favorites. But let’s be honest, it’s hard to really differentiate one DJ or one DJ-emcee’d party from the last.

If you want to really kill It in the entertainment department, a live band is the way to achieving god-like party planner status (cue the sun rays and chorus from the sky). Live music infuses a room with energy and even those who prefer not to break out their Elaine Benes dance moves can sit and enjoy a great performance.

Finding the right band can be slightly tricky, though, given the fact that there are a number of factors to consider—the type of music the band plays, are you able to see a sample of them in action, do you want dancing or background music, what music will your guests appreciate? An easy way to avoid all that calculation (who wants to add math into this equation?) is by considering a brass band.

Gaining in popularity again, many brass bands go far beyond the stereotypical march music (though some can throw one heck of a second line parade which is always a fun way to turn up a party). A great, modern brass band can play anything from Beyonce to light background jazz. The great part about working with live musicians is that they have more flexibility to tailor the music to your exact wishes. That means not just the type of music you want, but also the sound and energy level can be more easily tailored to meet the atmosphere you are going for (it can feel like DJ speakers have only one conversation-shattering volume).

Aside from music, there are also other fun details that fall under the party entertainment category– photo booths, funny props for photo ops, party games, scavenger hunt (photo or real), karaoke, some companies even hire entertainers like magicians, Elvis impersonators, and face painters—you get the idea. Consider your company culture and the venue, but go on and creative with it.

3. Food and Drinks (the really important stuff)

7 Tips Ideas for Planning a Memorable Company Holiday Party

It’s hard to call it a party without it, food and drinks (alcoholic or not, depending on your company) are a staple. Everyone expects it, but it can be easy to fall into a rut of the same party foods year after year. Again, depending on the venue and how you want to play it (Sit down dinner? Finger foods? Potluck? Catered? Snack only?) there are a number of choices. You know the basic must-haves that will work for your party, but here are some additional ideas to make the food and drink portion a bit extra for your event.

  • Have a gingerbread house or gingerbread man decorating contest
  • Similar to a dinner cruise, have various food stations. If you are doing it in the office, have a different type of food category in each department or in different areas around the space. For example, you can go low-key with categories like soup, salad, dessert or get a little more exotic with various ethnic foods (Mexican, Italian, Thai, etc.) It can be catered or pot-luck.
  • Extreme ice cream sundae building competition
  • Have an extravagant build your own hot chocolate bar
  • Hire a food truck to cater (pizza, empanadas, bbq, ballpark foods, etc)
  • Host a holiday craft cocktail-creating competition (find out who really should have been a bartender)
  • Carnival/boardwalk themed snacks—popcorn, soft pretzels, funnel cake, cotton candy
  • Candy bar—not as in a singular bar of candy, but a variety of fun or holiday-themed candies in large jars or baskets and little bags or boxes that they can be scooped into.

Just a side not one safety, if you are planning on serving alcohol, have ways to make sure guests stay safe. Provide help getting ride sharing or have the number of taxi companies on hand and readily available. Hire a limo or car service to take people home or prearrange to have a few designated drivers (who you are sure won’t be drinking) available to take people home. No one wants to have a fun night end with police involvement.

4. Pick an unconventional venue:

7 Tips Ideas for Planning a Memorable Company Holiday Party

There’s no rule that says your holiday party has to be in the office, a rented hall, or ballroom of a hotel/party venue. When you start thinking outside the party venue box, there are quite a number of fun places to hold a party. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a “party” in the conventional sense—it could be more of a company outing. No need to limit yourself to just these, but here are some ideas for party/outing locations that stray from the norm.

  • Breweries/Wineries:
    Some are able to host parties, but if you’d rather not stick to one place, rent a limo or party bus and take everyone on a tour of the local breweries or wineries (or really mix it up and go to both).
  • Golf course/range:
    Many courses have clubhouses for hosting parties, but if you live in a moderate climate, give employees who love the links the opportunity to get out on the green for the day. Those who don’t play can watch from the shade with drink in hand.
  • Group bowling:
    Another type of venue that is used to holding parties and hosting large groups, bowling is a great way to have some indoor fun and maybe a little friendly competition. Divide up into teams or create leagues (you can have leagues for every skill level from  gutter bumper set to the 300 Club). There are plenty of snacks and beer for those who prefer the sport of spectating.
  • Dinner/party cruise:
    Even in places where the weather is far from tropical, some dinner/party cruise ships on rivers, larger lakes, or even the ocean offer holiday sailing. You may take advantage of fireworks cruises on New Year’s Eve or other holiday events. Some ships even let you rent out the whole thing for hosting a private party.
  • Parks:
    For those who live in warmer or temperate climates, getting outside might be just the treat everyone wants for the holiday. Many parks have pavilions or picnic areas (check if you need a permit or reservation) that are ideal for a nice relaxing, low-key affair.
  • Winter sports:
    In spots where winter is in full effect by the holidays, there is still plenty to do outside of the office. Ice skating rinks often have rooms to host parties and can accommodate large groups, sometimes at a discount. The same is true with ski resorts. The more adventurous types can hit the slopes and then meet up with those relaxing by the fireplace for some hot chocolate or spiked cider.
  • Art Gallery:
    It’s not unusual for art galleries to host various events, giving them the facilities for hosting a party. Some will even arrange to close their doors to the public or cordon off part of the gallery to allow for a private party. Class and culture all in one.
  • Art classes: If you think your team would rather create art than look at it, you’ve got options there as well. With the popularity of sip and paint venues, finding a place for a group art class can be easy (you may need to book well in advance for a larger group). In some areas, group pottery or ceramic painting sessions are also available. Get those creative juices flowing!

5. Do a different theme:

7 Tips Ideas for Planning a Memorable Company Holiday Party

Generally, the theme of a party is…well, holiday. There might be some Santa or Mrs. Claus suits, even an elf or two thrown in. Having a Christmas theme with costumes or doing a winter wonderland with fake snow, twinkling lights, and abundant candy canes can be fun, but don’t be afraid to mix it up.

  • Transport everyone back to another decade with a Great Gatsby party, sock hop, disco, or  80’s theme.
  • If you are having the party at an upscale venue, device a color theme: white and red, black and silver, etc.
  • Maybe everyone is already sick of winter—go head and have summer in December (a spin on Christmas in July) with a tropical or Hawaiian theme.
  • Give your party diversity by incorporating traditions from a variety of cultures and  celebrations

6. Create great giveaways:

And the winner is…who doesn’t hold their breath waiting to hear their name called? Door prizes can be a great touch and show a little added level of appreciation. Your budget doesn’t have to be huge and incorporate elaborate or very expensive gifts, most people are just excited to win free stuff. But they are more excited when it is well thought out and useful.

  •  Gift cards to local restaurants, spas, movie theater, or stores
  •  Winter/holiday mugs with hot chocolate kits, tea, cookies, or other  treats
  • Tickets to a local show or event
  • Popular tech items like wearable step trackers
  • Extra paid day(s) off
  •  Snack baskets
  •  High-end chocolates
  • Bottles of wine or scotch
  •  Skincare baskets

The list is by no means comprehensive, there are tons of great gift ideas that don’t have to break the bank and allow for your crafty side to do its thing.

7. Get help from a pro:

7 Tips & Ideas for Planning a Memorable Company Holiday Party

Your company might have a generous budget, but time to dedicate to terrific party planning might be lacking. There’s no shame in getting some help with party planning. If you have the means, consider hiring a professional party planner. You can collaborate so that some of the details or main ideas have your signature on them, but it will be more efficient to have them take care of the bulk of the work. This way no details get overlooked, no time is taken away from the daily work schedule, or no need to stress out planning after hours.

Regardless of your budget, theme, or level of decoration, the most important thing is to know your guests and do your best to be reasonably sure everyone has a fun and safe time.