Corporate parties are a chance to leave a strong impression, both on employees and as a way to generate buzz in the business community. Luckily, the Tristate is full of charming meeting places with a plethora of catering and decorating options to make your company's next holiday bash a tailored, unique experience. What's the best way to make your employees happy? A wide array of dinner options? Having every amenity they could possibly want onsite? Lavish ballrooms, or transforming meeting places into winter wonderlands?


Convention centers and other meeting places often have their own caterers and decorating teams, willing to work with you to make your party perfect. But make sure you actually have a space to throw a party. "Most importantly, book early," advises Will Greiner, director of the Sharonville Convention Center. "Many organizations, at the conclusion of their party each year, will go ahead and reserve a date for the following year. Some put off the decision on a site because they're not quite certain what they want to do yet."

Don't worry if you haven't yet made up your mind on decorations, entertainment or dinner. Greiner says, "The details can be worked out later."

So, how to find the space right for your company? Many places in the Tristate can accommodate anywhere from 10 to more than 1,000 people. Be sure to consider several aspects of a meeting center: Will it have enough parking for everyone? Will an opulent ballroom fit your company or will a modern, streamlined setting be more appropriate?

There are centers that cater exclusively to the corporate crowd, such as the NKU METS Center in Kentucky (short for Metropolitan Education Training and Services). Businesses can hold events there without employees having to worry about getting to conference rooms amid hotel guests, says Linda Bickel, operations manager and director of client services. "You don't have to worry about other people, kids running through the hallways to get to the pool," she says.

Which brings up another detail to keep in mind: flow of your guests. It's wise to visit a venue before booking so you can figure out if the rooms are big enough and close to each other, if putting the buffet in a certain spot will create too much of a crowd, or if you should designate areas on opposite sides of the room for food and drink to increase mingling.

When you do share a hotel with other guests, there are plenty of lodging places in the Tristate to help set that holiday mood, whether you're looking for the bustle of the city, or the tranquil atmosphere of a snow-covered county lodge. Because of its downtown location, The Cincinnatian Hotel (located at Sixth and Vine Streets) gives guests the opportunity to stay in a hotel close to shopping and carriage rides. Plus, the hotel is decorated with animatronics ranging from families in period dress to Santa and his elves. "If you're not in the holiday mood before you came here, you will when you leave," says the Cincinnatian's Stephanie Lockwood.

Or there's the Marcum Conference Center & Inn, located on Miami University's campus. The histo

ical colonial decorations, fruit and swaths of greenery create a homey feeling. Jane Gaitskill, the Marcum Center's social event planner, says that during the holidays the inn at the tavern is "extremely popular with its ambience, couches and its own bar." The tavern can hold 40 people for a seated dinner, more for a reception. And plenty of other spaces are available, along with hotel rooms, meaning that employees and coworkers can stay overnight and turn the party into a mini-vacation.

The Beach Waterpark might be on your mind in the hot summer months, but there's still plenty to do there once the weather turns cold. "You wouldn't recognize it in the winter time," says the Beach's Kate Howard. "We string up miles and miles and miles of holiday lights." The Polar Palace, constructed in the park's wave pool, is heated, carpeted and decorated with Christmas trees and oversized presents. The temporary structure can accommodate up to 500 for entertainment and food, which comes from their pre-set luau menus, but the staff can customize offerings. One year, Howard remembers, a company had them bring in a big screen TV so sports fans could take in that night's Bengals game. And if you're offering door prizes or other games at your company event, the Beach staffers can run the games so no one has to miss out on the festivities.

After a meal and/or some games, your employees and co-workers can check out Holiday Fest at the Beach, which runs from Nov. 24-Jan. 7. Guests can take paddleboats around the lazy river, visit the live nativity scene, take toboggan rides and watch the swans in Swan Lake. Of course, they can visit with Santa, too.


Steve Hennigan with Deco Dining at the Cincinnati Museum Center says that some clients have spread the holiday spirit by wrapping Christmas lights around the tree-lined drive leading up to Union Terminal and offering carriage rides to the front door. Inside, the architecture makes the building "the perfect place to hold an event because it brings back the nostalgia of art deco and the sense of romance that comes with train travel."

Dinner on the Public Landing, the history museum's recreation of the Cincinnati riverfront circa 1860, makes for a memorable evening. With cobbled streets, apothecary and printing press storefronts, a steamboat and a faux Ohio River, the Public Landing can seat more than 100 people and provide a dose of history at the same time. "It's like doing an event on a movie set," Hennigan says.

Scenic views can be real crowd pleasers, and the real Ohio River has plenty of them. The second floor of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has floor to ceiling glass walls, providing a look at the river, Great American Ballpark and northern Kentucky. If your party involves people flying in from out-of-town offices, you might want to book a venue that gives a true Cincinnati experience.
The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, with its famous Festival of Lights display, can also provide a cheery holiday backdrop for your party. From the Safari Lodge to the new Frisch's Theater in the P&G Discovery Forest Education Building, the zoo has plenty of meeting spaces with customizable  menus. The zo'™s Katie Gilday calls it a "Dinner by the bite" meal that encourages people to mix and mingle. The menus have various features, some better suited for adult parties, others accommodating kids and adults. Gilday mentions that there is plenty of hot beverages on hand as well. The zoo has plenty of staffers and even elves available to help out, hand out presents (which many companies purchase from the zo'™s gift shops) and more. "It's endless, the stuff that we can do to make it special," Gilday says. Party-goers can take a stroll around the zoo and take in the millions of lights strung up the area, including the new Holiday in Lights show with lights choreographed to a medley of popular holiday songs. Guests can also watch ice carving demonstrations and take a train ride. But what's a zoo without animals? Despite the cold weather, plenty of animals are still available for viewing, including tigers, lions, polar bears, red pandas, snow leopards, reindeer and more.

Or what about horses? Nothing says Kentucky like horseracing, though you might not think to take in a race during the winter. But that's exactly what you can do at Turfway Park in Florence. With "blank canvas" rooms, as the park's Jack Gordon puts it, your holiday party can be whatever you want it to be. He recalls past parties with speakeasy themes, jazz clubs and county bar line dancing. And swanky club themes are enhanced by the horse races. "Ninety percent of the place is glass, so you can see the track," Gordon says. "You don't think that when there's a blizzard outside there's someone on a horse, racing." And that "wow" factor is what a lot of companies are craving. As Gordon sums it up, gatherings such as these have "that VIP value"¦this is a party that not everyone is going to go to."

Plus, Turfway has an extensive television system with screens in nearly room, so if the action is going on elsewhere, party-goers can still check it out. Take note: high-tech, wired company outings are becoming a popular new option. From Turfway Park to the NKU METS Center, you can get interactive with fellow guests in a few different ways. If employees are at a satellite office too far away to attend the event, use video conferencing capabilities to bring them into the festivities. Or, try automatic polling. Instead of using it for a training session, pre-programmed trivia questions about the company, holiday carols, etc., can serve as Jeopardy-esque ice-breakers.


Many of the aforementioned venues offer catering, often through an exclusive on-site caterer. Village Pantry Catering is the exclusive caterer of the Sharonville Convention Center, meaning they can offer clients deals. "At our convention center, if the client is having a full meal, then the room, the set up and clean up are all provided free of charge," says the Sharonville Convention Center's Greiner. "They simply pay for the food & beverages."

Many caterers have a special holiday menu. Sometimes it's posted year-around on their web sites to make planning parties easier. Call ahead and schedule a tasting so you know not only how the dishes taste, but how they're presented as well. And don't be afraid to ask for special requests. As long as you give caterers enough time for a "heads up," they should be able to accommodate your company's needs.
"Catering is always custom," says Scott Moody, one of the owners of Karl'™s Bistro Italia in Florence. The point of a caterer is to provide guests with the food they want, not some pre-packaged deal. And though Karl'™s name hints at Italy, the restaurant can provide a variety of European and Asian cuisine.

Plenty of places offer packages with a choice of two entrees along with side dishes and dessert. Hennigan at Deco Dining, however, says that dining stations are quite popular. "It's popular for people give their guests options during the holiday season," he says. With food stations, guests can have made-to-order culinary options from pasta to sushi.

Dessert trends keep expanding as well, says Jennifer Sobik of Meeting Creators, LLC. She's seeing chocolate fountains everywhere nowadays. It's another way for everyone to customize their own dessert, from the salty-sweet snack of chocolate-covered pretzels to the decadence of strawberries and chocolate. Plus, all that warm, cascading chocolate makes for an interesting visual.

Caterers usually offer an array of tried and true dishes, but most also take care of special requests. "We've made people's old recipes, Aunt Martha's cream cake," Moody jokes. If you have a special requests, anything from vegetarian entrees to a specific recipe you want served, Moody says 10 business days prior to the event is usually enough time to get the job done.

Plenty of restaurants can accommodate custom requests as well. Lockwood mentions one instance at the Palace Restaurant, housed in the Cincinnatian Hotel, where chefs prepared a lovely meal for all the guests, save for one. In an homage to an inside joke around the office, someone requested that a co-worker be served Spam decorated with pineapple and cloves. No problem at all, she says.


Depending on the location of your holiday party, there might be plenty of parking for your guests (The Sharonville Convention Center, for example, has 1,000 free parking spaces), but if your meeting place is strapped for parking, set up a shuttle service. Rick Bravo, general manager for Executive Transportation, says small companies sometimes arrange for shuttles. They don't need a fleet of vehicles, but have too many employees to squeeze into a few co-workers' cars. And who wants to get stuck as the chauffeur anyway? And, if cars aren't your style, there are always limousines.

Shuttle services are a good alternative if there's going to be alcohol at your party.

If you'd like valet service, check with people at your venue. They can probably recommend a few services they'd worked with for other events.


If you don't have time to visit potential venues, (and who does?), you can have someone do it for you. Don't rule out the option of a party planner. Some venues come with their own planner, or you can hire someone independently. Independent planners can find a venue for you, and although you have to pay them a fee for that service. They can negotiate strict cancellation policies and other terms you might not have known were flexible, which can be a huge help in the long run, says Sobik of Meeting Creators.

It's usually office administrators who are asked to plan parties, on top of all their other responsibilities. "The biggest thing that we offer is saving people time," Sobik points out. "The closer you get to an event the more time it takes."

She's found that one of the most convenient options she can offer clients is online event registration. Instead of responding to paper or e-mailed invitations that must be sorted through by a fellow employee, everyone can go online and RSVP for the event, day or night. "No more spreadsheets," she says. "No more paper shuffling." No more going from office to office or cubicle to cubicle either. "Clients don't have to collect credit cards. They don't have to deal with credits if a person wants a refund."

Sobik points out that service charges at meeting place can be an additional 17 to 23 percent, and that's on top of the gratuity you're supposed to pay if you're using a reception hall or meeting center's private caterer. The average gratuity for food and beverages is 18 percent. There are also cancellation policies to consider. Venues sometimes want a large chunk of their fee up front, which can be anywhere from weeks to several months ahead of time. Independent event planners are used to negotiating strict policies. "If you don't know any of this you're wasting money," Sobik says. "We feel we can help people spend their money more wisely."

In negotiating with caterers, decorators, reception halls, entertainment outfits and audio/visual companies, you and your planner can exercise some leverage. "That is what's on the client's side: they want your business," Sobik notes. "It doesn't hurt to ask. Worst thing they can say is no." She says she comparison shops, looking for various options to meet clients' needs. Even if there are hitches in getting the party together, the point is to make the event appear "seamless to the people out front."

Otherwise, be sure to use the event coordinators supplied by the reception center. Really use them. Clearly and specifically communicate your expectations up front. "Make a list of questions and do not be afraid to ask those questions," says the Marcum Center's Gaitskill. Getting as many of your concerns out of the way as soon as possible will mean less headaches along the way and a memorable party for everyone in the office.