On Dec. 18, a festively decorated double-decker bus will stop in New Jersey and New York City to pick up the few employees of Consultancy Media, a broadcast media studio and production company. Each will be handed kits containing prepackaged snacks, rubber gloves, hand sanitizer and a themed face mask, which they will be required to put on before boarding and sitting 8 feet apart.
A masked bartender will serve a “Very Consultancy” cocktail,” which guests will occasionally lower their masks to sip. They will pass around a karaoke microphone with gloved hands and — somewhat muffled — belt out everything from Frank Sinatra to heavy metal Christmas tunes as the bus travels past several light shows.
Since no escorts are allowed, the event will meet Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s COVID-19 cap of 10 people at a New York gathering.
Welcome to the office holiday party, an annual rite already imperiled by anti-harassment reforms that now must try to keep a most unwelcome guest, the no-longer-novel coronavirus, from spoiling the fun.
To put it mildly, this has been a tough year for corporate America: furloughs, layoffs, pay cuts; juggling parenting or elder care with work (or picking up other people’s slack). Now throw seasonal affective disorder into the mix.
“I have been giving mental health talks for large employers, and they’re coming to me saying employee morale is lower than ever,” said Dr. Nina Vasan, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Taking a moment to recognize efforts and having fun as a team can help to elevate low spirits, and therefore many employers are adamant about plowing ahead with a holiday celebration. But throwing a party in late 2020 isn’t remotely easy, even for professional event planners and producers.
“No lap sitting”
Cynika Drake, 41, president of Lavish Lifestyles Concierge in New York City, said her No. 1 goal was to keep clients, employees and vendors safe. (No. 2 is to show them a good time.) She took a COVID-19 tracing course given by Johns Hopkins University and a class about mitigating viral transmission, contact tracing, positive symptom protocol and enforcing guidelines through Health Education Services.
In August, Drake and her colleagues began setting up a drive-in “winter wonderland experience” for a local law firm. Servers dressed in Santa costumes were going to deliver cocoa on roller skates to guests in cars as carolers, jazz musicians and a pianist performed.
But on Nov. 13, local virus protocols tightened, and the party is being revamped. The new plan, Drake said, “will likely include Santa delivering warm brownies, hot chocolate and a link to a playlist of holiday tunes” to employees’ homes.
Keith Willard, 51, owner of Keith Willard Events in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has put together an outdoor scavenger hunt for a corporate client. “Each guest will be given a pair of binoculars (to allow social distancing) and company-branded masks,” he said. The clues lead guests to a barn for a dinner with tables of two, 10 feet apart. Executives will appear onstage while masked servers deliver meals and holiday gifts to tables.
But with the virus surging, Willard and his client are deciding if it’s safe to proceed. If not, he’ll get to work on a virtual proposal. “It’s never been this hard,” he said, “and we don’t have an easy job to start with.”
JoAnn Gregoli, 55, owner of Elegant Occasions by JoAnn Gregoli, has been going all out to wow her holiday clients with lower contagion risk: building an ice-skating rink in the parking lot of a Connecticut corporation, creating a drive-in retro diner for another company — “We are hiring a band to play ’50s music, and people can dance around their cars to experience an old-fashioned sock hop,” she said — and renting a beach in Miami for a client’s socially distanced picnic, “temperature checks upon arrival.”
And Heather Roonan, 36, a content manager with GigSalad, an entertainment booking service, said that companies were still hiring performers for parties but that their services were continually being modified. Santa may toss out gifts, but he isn’t getting anywhere near partygoers — “and definitely no lap sitting,” Roonan said. And since singing has a higher risk of viral transmission, companies are requiring at least 10 feet between guests and carolers.
On the bright side, stressing about looking cute but professional at these mixers will most likely no longer be a problem.
The Product Analyst, a tech review site in Memphis, Tennessee, was going to scrap its holiday event, but the staff requested one so they found a compromise: a PPE-themed soiree. “With safety as the theme, we can assure a low-risk party, with double the amount of fun,” said the company’s corporate wellness expert, Alicia Hough, 31. She’s challenging her colleagues to turn masks, gloves and gowns into costumes like Avengers characters or spacesuits.
Digital Air Strike, a consumer engagement technology company in Scottsdale, Arizona, is, according to CEO Alexi Venneri, saying “Giddy-up to 2020” with a party at MacDonald’s Ranch. Seventy staff members in Western attire will “choose their own adventure: explore the desert on horseback, relax on a hayride or ride in their very own stagecoach,” she said.
In the past, the company has had holiday boat rides around the San Francisco Bay with Vanilla Ice performing and partied with Wayne Newton at his estate in Las Vegas. This year, the company is requiring employees to stay outdoors and wear custom face coverings, and it is prohibiting spouses or dates. “We will feel very safe, especially since we are spreading out all the activities,” Venneri, 49, said.
Less relaxingly, AllTrails, an outdoor fitness app in San Francisco, is organizing its 50 employees into small groups to hike, mountain bike and trail run on paths with the least amount of foot traffic — located with the company technology, naturally. “Dogs and festive attire will be welcomed,” said Meaghan Praznik, 32, head of communications.
At Test Prep Insight, in Sacramento, California, “Given the constraints put on us by COVID, both physically and financially, we’re doing something a little off the wall for our holiday party this year,” said John Ross, 33, president and CEO. His team is meeting at a mountain for sledding, snowshoeing and a snowman-building competition. “I am bringing supplies — carrots, old scarves, etc. — and the first-place team will win $200 in Amazon gift cards,” Ross said.
When it was time to host an annual office holiday gathering, Daniel Penzing, 34, general manager of Maze of Our Lives, a marketing company in Schaumburg, Illinois, was at a loss. But Jan Neubau, 37, technical director and head of the party planning committee, drew from his German background and decided to turn the company’s parking lot into a market with bratwurst, fried doughnuts and hot wine. Neubau said he was hoping people remembered that their co-workers “are not just Slack or Zoom robots.”
Office Christmas parties have been big deals to companies like SmileDirectClub, which in recent years hosted its Christmas party at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, with on-ice activities, photo booths and Nashville Predators locker room tours. “Our team members look forward to it every year,” said the company’s chief people officer, Cheryl DeSantis, 50.
This year, the company is offering a catered boxed lunch at the manufacturing facility in Antioch, Tennessee, for the team working on-site. Remote employees will party virtually with games like Price Is Right White Elephant.
And if you’re looking for inspiration across the Atlantic (“The Office,” after all, began as a British series), Christopher Panteli, 33, owner of Leominster Fish Bar, is taking his employees to let off some steam at a local go-karting track. “It will be a 50-lap marathon, and the winner takes a huge Christmas bonus,” he said.
Since Panteli announced his party plans, go-karting is all his staff talks about, he said. It’s “a way to mask the cold bleak reality we have all been living with for the majority of the year.”
Crafting with colleagues
For many, a virtual party is the only option this year. And employers know it’s going to take a lot to get their staff excited about spending more time in front of a computer. Thus, planners are getting extra-creative with virtual celebrations, compelling interactivity.
Unexpected Virtual Tours is offering virtual ugly-sweater-making contests (for $34.99 a sweater kit will be mailed to each guest) with add-on options like the “Feminist Treat Box,” which includes Stacey Abrams and Kamala Harris confectionery, a Ruth Bader Ginsburg mask and an “Empowered Women” kitchen towel.
For $200 per guest, Don’t Let the Day Go By is offering virtual oyster shucking parties. The company is also hosting gingerbread house decorating, as well as a blackjack master class with Mike Aponte, one of the MIT students who won millions in Las Vegas, as chronicled in the book “Bringing Down the House.”
For a fee starting at $15,000, AccessElite will connect corporate clients over videoconference to Courtney Holston-Toph, an artist in Newport Beach, California, to offer ideas for a company mural to be live-painted through Twitch. “Digital prints are mailed to remote workers for their home offices as a way of giving everyone a piece of the company culture they helped create,” Holston-Toph said.
Other companies are avoiding Zoom altogether, like SEMRush, a digital marketing solutions company in Boston, which is having a livestream “Netflix-style Christmas party” during which employees click a link to bounce between four interactive channels for experiences like standup comedy, DIY bath bomb workshops, science lessons or a “Black Mirror” virtual quest where attendees guide an actor through a mission.
Spotify, Pandora and LinkedIn employees will be doing face masks together — and not the protective kind. Scratch Goods will send them the ingredients — rejuvenating face masks, a bamboo brush and facial oil — needed for an at-home facial, which they will apply together on their screens.
Intel is hosting its holiday event in virtual reality with the help of Event Farm, an experiential marketing company in Atlanta that is also working with Facebook, Dell, LG and Bosch. “Partygoers will download the VR software on their personal computers, design their avatars and mingle with co-workers using their computer’s audio, all while enjoying wine and prepping meals alongside a celebrity chef — meal kits will be sent to their homes ahead of time,” said Ryan Costello, 41, a founder of Event Farm.
For Thanksgiving, Hormel mailed out turkey taco and cocktail ingredients for guided tutorials, as well as led attendees through a dessert-making and table design demo, all topped off with a Boyz II Men live performance. The company won’t yet reveal its Christmas plan, but Paul Zahn, 40, the host and planner it hired, promised it would be “next level!”
In the meantime, many employers are scrapping parties altogether and planning to go big in 2021 instead — when, if all goes as hoped, they can bring back the open bar.