Gone are the days of the tuxedo and evening gown, the formal meal and the agenda-driven holiday party. This year's company holiday event is casual, fun and hip like this set-up by Accent on Cincinnati at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza downtown.

This season's holiday parties are focused on a casual atmosphere that promotes mingling and socializing.

"In the last three to four years, people are doing more hors d'oeuvre selections that allow their guests to socialize more than doing larger dinners," says Don Vonderhaar, Jr., owner of Vonderhaar's Catering.

"People want more of the social aspect, so that people can mingle and talk throughout the meeting, more than a formal agenda," he says.

High-top tables and lounge furniture including sofas and chairs provide a more relaxed setting, rather than having guests sit at the same table all night for a three-course meal. Themed food stations, such as Italian, Mediterranean or Chinese, are a twist on the large buffet and can be scattered throughout the room to encourage mingling and mixing.

"We have a huge inventory of lounge furniture, and that really has been a huge trend and continues to be a trend, where people can just kick back and hang out ... and that's not just young people," says Joe Rigotti, creative director of Accent on Cincinnati. "A lot of companies don't know how to have fun, so we help them do that."

Accent on Cincinnati is a destination management company, handling events, parties, sales meetings, even experiential marking. "With the way the world is going today, you have to wear many hats and really be as accessible as you can to your clients," Rigotti says.

Event management companies can be a real boon to party planners who might be overwhelmed by the details of food, decorations, music, entertainment and venue space.

Know Your Budget

Event planning can be fun, but knowing your budget and your spending priorities is key.

"Definitely have your budget in mind and figure out what is most important that you want to spend your budget on," says Mary Burns, wedding and social event sales manager at the Savannah Center in West Chester.

Party planners must know what their company and colleagues value most. Is a live band important or can someone download music and create a play list? Do decorations take priority over entertainment?

"In today's world, it always comes down to budget. And in the last several years it comes down to perception as well. A lot of events are kind of over-the-top in appearance," Rigotti says.

But over-the-top appearance does not necessarily mean over-the-top budget. Even a small budget can go a long way if managed correctly.

"It's no big deal if you have a small budget. We're going to try and produce the event as best we can to give you the biggest bang for your dollar," Rigotti says.

For sparkle be sure to have a few standout or exceptional items such as goat cheese and raspberry tartlets (a Vonderhaar's specialty) can raise the bar for the overall menu. If there is a budget for liquor, focusing on several classy cocktails might be a better bet than having a variety of lower-quality drinks.

Just don't skimp where it counts.

"People aren't going to care about their photo with Santa if they left the party hungry," Burns says.

Fabulous Flexibility

Appealing to a variety of people is important when it comes to choosing music, food and event space, especially with today's global and multicultural workforce.

"You can never please everybody in anything that we do. It's finding the balance of what can please most people and allow the greatest percentage to have fun," Rigotti says.

Event spaces should fit the size of the event and offer flexible services. The Savannah Center has more than 16,000 square feet of ballroom space that can accommodate up to 1,200 guests, but the space can also be segmented into smaller sections to accommodate smaller parties.

The center is a one-stop shop, with a full-service culinary staff and in-house lighting company, Prestige Audio Visual. Their list of vendors includes transportation, hotels, even fireworks.

Savannah Center also offers a special holiday package. The package extends into 2012 for companies planning more culture-neutral "end of the year" or "beginning of the year" celebrations in lieu of the traditional holiday party.

Communicating with guests ahead of time is an easy way to determine what is expected from the event and if any special adjustments need to be made to the venue or to the food, such as offering vegetarian and gluten-free options. If no feedback is available, having a variety of options is a good fallback.

"Try to have a variety of foods that will cater to all needs," Vonderhaar says. "When you're hosting a party, you want to make sure everyone has a chance to enjoy what's going on. You can't please 250 people all the time, but if you make the effort, at least the effort's been made."

Be Open-Minded

Themed parties are a growing trend. A themed party gives party planners an opportunity to arrange for specialty food, music and entertainment. Party attendees can even be encouraged to dress for a theme, such as Hawaiian or 1970s.

"We have one company doing a'50s theme, and they asked if they can bring in roller skates and do that," Burns says.

Inexperienced party planners or new companies might need help developing their party concept or theme.

"If they don't have a concept, they need to be open as we throw out ideas or concepts. They need to be receptive," says Rigotti. "You can't, as the planner, only rely on your tastes. You have to think that you are creating an event for 200 people."

For something more adventurous, try a river cruise. Destiny Yacht and BB Riverboats both offer holiday-themed parties that can be customized to suit your needs. At Destiny Yacht, bring your own music and plug into the ship-wide sound system to rock on.

"We have noticed that a lot of parties enjoy playing games for gift exchanges. The groups tend to be a little small, and their events become very intimate," says Dawn Krollmann, co-owner of Destiny Yacht.

Hire circus entertainers from The Amazing Portable Circus or Circus Mojo to wow your guests. These companies offer a variety of acts like acrobats, magicians, clowns, jugglers and living statues. For hands on fun, schedule a circus arts workshop with Circus Mojo and watch your coworkers spin plates or roll around in giant wheels.

Be open to trying color schemes outside the traditional red and green. "Gold, blues and greens seem to be pretty big right now," Burns says.

True Holiday Spirit

Other themes are focused on social responsibility and holiday spirit.

"One of the big trends is going green. We see a lot of corporate clients going to plan a more green party," Burns says. "We are a green facility. We are heated and cooled with geothermal units, which are located out in our natural five-acre lake. We have done other things throughout the building to reduce our carbon footprint by 60 percent."
Companies are also doing charity-themed parties that give back to the community. Companies can sponsor a charity and solicit donations, or have guests bring canned goods or clothing. One company parked a storage pod outside and filling it with donated goods the goal of their party, Burns says.

"If you have the chance to celebrate and have some goodwill then pass it along," she says. 


 
PARTY TIPS

Plan early so you have time to explore the options. Rely on the venue's event coordinator or the restaurant manager to guide you through the planning and preparations so you can enjoy the party, too. Keep things moving, festive and remember this is not a business meeting so keep shoptalk to a minimum.

Food and Drink
~ Include options for vegetarians and those onspecial diets.
~ Include drink options including alcohol-free punch, water and soda.

Getting There
~ Place business cards on tables with the numbers for taxi companies in case driving home is not the best idea for all party-goers.
~ Consider a car service if the event is a distance from the workplace or you will be moving from one location to another. Companies including Executive Transportation in Covington can help set up the arrangements that work best for your group.

Rock On
~ Live music adds excitement, even dancing, to an event, but book early in the season.
~ Disc jockeys can be a great investment, especially one with master of ceremony skills who can move things along.
~ Control the playlist by assigning someone to bring CDs or load an MP3 player with a mix of holiday and dance music. Many venues have in-house systems so you can plug and play.

Deck the Halls
~ Simple white lights can set the mood for magic.
~ Decorating with evergreens and ribbons can be elegant yet simple.
~ Small votive candles are warm and inviting.
~ Arrangements of brilliant red poinsettias can be decorating highlights and, at the end of the party, be taken home by guests.
~ Many venues will already be decorated "” so, you can check that right off the checklist.

Another Thought, Or Two
~ Will spouses and significant others be invited? How about children? These can change the size of the party, the tone of the evening, and figure into venue and menu choices.
~ Why go it alone? Set up a small group of employees to help make decisions. Provide a budget and let them select the venue and make other decisions.
~ Suggest a dress code so those who want to wear jeans aren't surprised when a co-worker shows up in a fancy party dress.


LOCATION RESOURCE DIRECTORY

Cintas Center
Located on Xavier University's campus; 300,000-square-foot center is three facilities in one "” arena, conference center and banquet center; on-site catering; state-of-the-art audiovisual capabilities and free parking.
(513) 745-3428 
www.cintascenter.com.


Destiny Yacht Center
All-inclusive packages for unique river adventures. Cincinnati's largest privately owned yacht; spacious triple decks and luxurious interior; accommodates up to 149 guests. 
(513) 921-3210 
www.destinyyachtcharters.com.


Newport Syndicate
The Newport Syndicate is celebrating 16 years of business. It offers a variety of private banquet rooms perfect for wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners, corporate affairs and social events. The Syndicate features a Grand Ballroom with an open floor plan, elevated stage and special lighting, as well as other unique rooms. 
(859) 491-8000 
www.newportsyndicate.com.


Oasis Conference Center
Located in northeast Cincinnati, the Oasis Conference Center is known for its exceptional service and creative cuisine. The Oasis offers free parking, professional event planning and festive menus and décor. Event space varies from an intimate dining room setting to expansive ballrooms, with room for up to 2,000 guests. 
(513) 583-8383 
www.oasisconferencecenter.com.



SERVICE PROVIDERS

Davis Catering
Whether hosting a private wedding reception or a corporate event, the Cincinnati Club, located in the heart of downtown, is a convenient and elegant setting with top-rated cuisine provided by Davis Catering. Large, elegant European-style rooms, with unique décor, have served the Cincinnati community since 1923. 
(513) 241-3464 
www.cincinnaticlubbuilding.com.


Vonderhaar's Catering
A full-service family owned and operated catering company serving the Cincinnati area for over 42 years. Choose from a variety of menus or customize one that includes stylish buffets, elegant sit-down dinners or interactive food stations. We are also able to provide bar & beverage service, rental services and a variety of other equipment needed for your occasion. 
(513) 554-1969 
www.vonderhaars.com.