10 Tips for Planning an Amazing Company Holiday Party

They're not always everyone's favorite, but holiday parties are a staple for most companies. They're also a great opportunity if planned carefully. If you've been tasked with planning the annual employee Christmas party for your company, your goal should be to get the most out of your special event while keeping costs manageable. By carefully evaluating the best way to approach and execute this holiday party, you can create an experience that not only boosts company morale but also increases employee satisfaction and retention levels across the board.

It's important to start with the basics—what theme should the party have, where should it take place, how many people are coming, when should it happen, and what food and drinks will be served during the occasion—before moving on to specialized planning and event execution.

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Nail Down the Basics for Your Holiday Company Party

Employees in a meeting wearing Santa hats
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Of course, like any other event or project, you need to create a project plan that identifies the event details for the employee holiday party. Theme, venue, time, date, guest count, food and beverage selections, decor, and event agenda must all be considered before you begin to execute your event.

Every good party needs these core elements to be successful, but not everything has to be set in stone before you begin locking in the details (like securing a venue, booking a caterer, or planning an agenda).

Although there are many ways to approach these decisions, and choices about higher-level ideas like theme and timing often fall on executives of the company instead of the event producer, it's best to work with a team to decide which details are right for your specific company.

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Choose the Most Effective Time to Hold Your Event

Workers celebrating Christmas in the office
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The best time to hold an employee holiday party is probably during the lunch hour. Historical holiday party data from Battalia Winston shows a growing trend in this direction, reflecting that nearly half of corporate events in 2013 took place during the lunch hour.

Unfortunately, not everyone may have the opportunity to participate in the event because someone must stay back to answer customer calls and keep business moving. But a lunch-hour event curbs costs and reduces the obligations on employees’ personal time and commitments.

If you do decide to go with an evening event, you'll have to consider which night is best. While some may think that Friday is the top choice because most employees will be off for the weekend, it's also the most popular day of the week at restaurants and other venues—in other words, the most expensive time. Few organizations will want to consider Sunday evening, so it seems the next best option may be Monday night, as it's usually the slowest night at restaurants.

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Consider Hosting a Party in the Off-Season

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Instead of defaulting to the annual Christmas or Thanksgiving party, why not consider hosting an event that's specifically for employee appreciation, when nothing else is clogging up the office calendar?

Early October and late January are great times to hold an annual appreciation party. Off-site venues are more available, and you can save money on catering expenses and party packages during an off-season event.

One drawback to creating an annual appreciation party instead of a traditional Christmas party is that employees might not remember this tradition as easily. A little extra hype might be needed to make sure people mark it on their calendars.

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Choose a Team to Help Execute the Event

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The quality of your planning team will directly correlate with the caliber of your event. It's important to find the right size team and select members that are skilled in making a memorable get-together.

A smaller group of individuals will likely make the planning more expedient and cost-effective, but many organizations involve a large committee of individuals so that more employees' voices are represented in the planning the event. Since party planning will take time away from members' regular work responsibilities, it's probably best to create the smallest possible team that's still representative of your company overall.

No matter the size, you should select individuals for their ability to positively influence other employees. An appointment to the planning team can also be used as a reward or incentive. The organization's event planner should work with an empowered leader in human resources or marketing—someone authorized to approve the plan—to help drive these decisions and choose the best members of the team.

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Create a Cost-Effective Holiday Party Menu

Catered food buffet line
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When it comes to choosing what to feed your employees during your holiday party, a number of tricks can save money while still providing an excellent meal. Plated meals are often more cost effective than buffets, and they allow for a more elegant presentation than having everyone stand in line and serve themselves.

Of course, your menu needs to reinforce the theme of your event, and you should try to choose items that incorporate your event colors or brand, but that doesn't mean you need to rent expensive holiday linens and other decor.

Selecting modest items or fresh fruit for centerpieces, limiting alcohol consumption, and hosting at a venue that has standard holiday decorations and food pricing options are all excellent ways to cut costs while giving your employees a good experience.

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Decide on Alcohol Consumption Levels and Limits

Staff toasting with wine at a holiday party
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For years now, organizations have been limiting the alcohol at holiday parties for a variety of reasons This cap is one of the easier ways to control the budget, and it limits distraction from the message of the event.

Still, most employees don't want to attend a company party that doesn't feature some form of alcoholic beverage. For this reason, you want to narrow your booze selection or even create cheap signature cocktails to reduce costs and keep intoxication levels down.

You might also consider limiting the menu to only wine, closing the bar early, or offering drinks only during the meal to help cut costs further and limit the risk of employees getting too rowdy at a company event. In any case, you should definitely check your insurance policy to make sure you're covered if any issues arise from alcohol consumption.

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Remind Employees of Proper Etiquette

Drunk man with a wine bottle at a staff holiday party
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The best advice for everyone who attends a holiday party is to make sure you remember etiquette for arriving and making others feel comfortable. But it's also a good idea to lay out any specific ground rules in an office-wide memo beforehand.

Etiquette mistakes to avoid at the holiday party include avoiding excessive drinking, eating, complaining, arriving too early or leaving too late, wearing improper attire, and bringing excessive guests—all of which can not only impact others' experiences at the event but also company costs.

Although an annual company holiday party is meant to bring the team together and lower inhibitions around the workplace, remind your guests that they still represent the company even when attending this after-work event, and are therefore expected to behave in a manner suitable for the workplace.

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Consider Setting up a Gift Exchange

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In general, many organizations include a gift exchange between employees at their holiday parties. However, if the organization is larger, perhaps this is best left at the departmental level rather than at the all-employee event. Organizing on such a scale can prove difficult, especially if you're unfamiliar with certain departments and their employees.

However, if there is a gift exchange, it's a good idea for the host or organizer to put a financial cap on the gifts—perhaps $10—to avoid awkward issues associated with gift pricing.

Additionally, setting up a "white elephant" or similar type of all-inclusive gift exchange where everyone in the company is invited to participate on an individual level could help prevent organizational nightmares where one guest doesn't receive a gift because another forgot to bring one.

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Consider If Fundraising Is Right for Your Event

Christmas gifts in a toy drive box
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Food, clothing, and toy drives are part of the culture in many organizations, and some even encourage cash donation drives. Still, consider whether your company-wide employee appreciation party is the right venue for a fundraising opportunity.

While it’s very useful to highlight a particular cause for the Christmas party, it may be helpful for the organization to encourage only noncash gifts and in-kind donations that may benefit the charity being supported. This way, everyone is allowed the option to offer a gift at a value that fits their own personal budgets.

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Evaluate Vendor Sponsorships for Your Event

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Some people may think getting vendor sponsors is a great way to offset the costs of their annual holiday party; however, event planners and their clients may want to stay focused on the party objective of appreciating employees rather than outsourcing costs to sponsored vendors.

Employees often feel that the cost for these special events should be covered from an employer's operating budget. If the organization cannot afford to host an appreciation event for its employees or if it’s not part of the business plan for any reason, then the employer shouldn’t seek outside revenue to cover the cost through sponsorships.