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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.

Why you should start planning your company holiday party now

Ahh, the relaxation (or chaos depending on how things go for you) and is over. There’s that sweet period after Labor Day when summer activities come to an end, but the busy holiday season hasn’t yet begun.  You might think it’s time to kick back and wait for the holiday madness to take hold, but if you’re in charge of your company holiday party, it’s the prime time for you to start your planning.

You might be saying “Ugh. I don’t even want to think about that yet!” But time flies quickly when you think you have plenty of time to plan. That’s why we’re going to talk about several excellent reasons you should be starting to plan your company holiday party now.

1. Don’t miss out on the perfect venue. 

December and January are party-centric for most people and companies, so there is competition vying for the best venues on the best dates. It’s going to be hard to find a venue that checks off all your party needs and wants if you are booking only a few weeks ahead of time. Just about everyone starts their party planning around the same time, and booking a venue is first on everyone’s list. By getting an early jump on the planning,  you have a better chance of snagging the venue you really want instead of having to compromise on the date or location. Think of all the stress you’ll save yourself by not having to scramble for a venue plan B, C, or D because the venue you were planning on (in your head) was already booked. You’ll also get plenty of accolades for having grabbed a prime party location that will have everyone in a festive mood.

2. Score the perfect venue at a discount.

The only thing better than booking the exact venue you wanted is locking it in at a discounted rate. Venues like to fill up early (saving them the stress of last-minute scheduling as well) and they will often reward those who book well in advance. You’re more likely to get discounts when booking months ahead, and not just on the venue. You might also be able to pull off discounts on catering, bar and drinks, rentals for linens, tables, and chairs, or other party necessities. The closer to the date you wait, the more in-demand a venue is going to be and you’ve lost your leverage so to speak. Waiting can mean fewer or lesser discounts or even no discounts are available. The more you save, the more money you have to spend on the fun stuff!

3. Throwing an epic holiday party takes time.

Since the holiday parties come around every year, it can be hard to come up with something fresh and new that will leave an impression. Instead of everyone forgetting the same old holiday party right after the eggnog runs dry, you want the water cooler to be buzzing about how amazing that holiday party was well into February. If you have your venue booked ahead of time, it’s probably the biggest thing you can check off of your party to-do list. Even though where you have the party is a big deal, you want to make the rest of the details are equally amazing. By planning early, you’ll be giving yourself plenty of time to concentrate on table settings, centerpieces, décor, music, and other fun details. Instead of hastily throwing some last-minute food and decorations from the dollar store into the tables at the venue and hoping for the best, you’ll give your creative juices some time to get flowing. With all that time you’ve given yourself, your un-stressed (at least from party planning) brain can think of a ton of new ways to make this year’s party truly epic. Fire up that Pinterest holiday party board and get visionary.

4. Be a hero and book the best entertainment.

As was mentioned above, one of the most important details of an amazing holiday party is the music. There are plenty of DJs around, though, like venues, the best ones will get booked up quickly. For those looking to take the company party to next-level awesome status, there’s the job of booking a live band. If you miss out on your favorite DJ, it’s not too difficult to find another one who can get the job done. But when it comes to booking live entertainment for your holiday party, the most amazing live bands are even more in demand (and rarer). Usually, you will need to book a live band 2-3 months in advance. You’ll want to give yourself time to check out some samples of their work (even see them play if possible) or talk details which also takes some time. The earlier you’ve nailed down the DJ or live band, the more time it gives both of you to discuss the particulars. It makes it more likely that they will be able to accommodate any special requests that you just can’t party without or customize the entertainment for you.

5. Give yourself time to take company culture into consideration.

Each company has its own culture, personality, or “flavor” so to speak. Maybe not a detail that you had previously even thought about, but giving yourself time to take these factors into consideration and plan accordingly can go a long way in helping your party reach epic status. Finding ways to embrace your company’s culture, celebrate individual or company accomplishments, think of team-building games, or come up with creative awards to give out (think less cringy Dundy Awards for all you Office fans) can take a bit of time and ingenuity. But a well-thought-out party can help employees cheer each other on, deepening workplace friendships (which according to Harvard Business Review  significantly increases employee satisfaction. Who doesn’t want that?).

6. You won’t have to go it alone.

A collaboration or party planning committee can definitely help relieve some party burden off of your shoulders (that whole “many hands makes the load light” thing). But with busy lives, it can be hard enough to coordinate your own schedule let alone several others to find time for party planning. Collaborating with others to make this year’s party the best yet can be an excellent idea, just give everyone you want to be involved enough time to get in the game and do their part well.

7. Everyone else needs time to plan, too.

The holidays are busy for everyone, not just party planning aficionados. If you are going to put a ton of time and energy into planning the best company holiday party ever, you want everyone to be there to enjoy it. By securing a date and location early in the game, you give everyone enough heads up to make sure the party is put into their schedule, increasing the number of guests who are likely to say yes. It also helps your fellow employees look forward to ending the year on a high note. When they can see the epic party light at the end of the long work tunnel, everyone has something amazing to work towards.

So, instead of feeling that rising panic and sense of party failure doom rising up as you eat your Thanksgiving leftovers, planning ahead will let you enter the holiday period calm and unstressed (at least about planning the party).

Give yourself plenty of time to make all the details perfect, and let it be your holiday gift to your fellow employees.

Scheduling Time Frames

3-4 months ahead:

  • Know the budget you have to work with
  • Choose your theme (if you are doing one)
  • Make the guest list (it is important to know how many to possibly expect when choosing a venue)
  • Get a date and location booked
  • Go over the details of venue or rental contracts and put down deposits
  • Have an idea of what kind of menu you want and book the appropriate caterer (if the venue doesn’t do its own catering)
  • Book the entertainment (DJ or live band) and go over the playlist or any special requests
  • If you are looking to hire a valet, this is the time period to do it
  • If you are going to recruit a planning committee, now is the time to get everyone together and delegate responsibilities

2 months ahead:

  • Create and/or order invitations
  • Get mailing or email addresses for everyone on the guest list
  • Decide on games, activities, and/or awards. If doing custom awards, order those now
  • If required, make second or final deposits on venues and rentals
  • If you are having a photographer, now is the time to book

1 month ahead:

  • Firm up the guest list and send out invitations
  • Go over food and drink menus with the venue or caterer
  • Order or start making decorations and centerpieces
  • Put together sway bags/party gifts
  • Hire or assign coat checkers, security, set up/clean up crew, and other day-of roles
  • Eat your Thanksgiving dinner in peace knowing you’ve got it all covered

1 Week and counting:

  • Double check with any who haven’t RSVP’d and send out reminders to those who replied Yes
  • Get any party decorations or supplies that can be picked up at the store
  • Check in with everyone assigned a role or task to make sure they’re on track
  • Confirm timelines with the venue, vendors, or other hired companies (photographers, linen delivery, etc.)
  • Get excited to par-tay

Day of/Go Time:

  • If possible, remind everyone in the office or company when to arrive.
  • Get to the venue early to greet, assist, or speak with any vendors, staff, volunteers, or other party committee members
  • Make sure everyone who has a role (coat check, greeter, security, etc.) knows what they should be doing
  • Breathe deep, give yourself a high five, and get your party on!