The scene was set for embarrassment.

It was Company X’s annual office Christmas bash, and the cocktails were generously being served up by the volunteer bartenders (read: junior employees). Thing was, nobody had instructed these same employees that the company’s co-op interns, many who were actually under-age, should not be handed a gin-and-tonic without first showing an ID.

Wait. It gets worse. One partying youth ended up getting soused and making a pass at the boss’ spouse. Merry Christmas.
“It was an absolute mess,” says the party planner relating this anecdotal tale of woe (she is quick to point out she had nothing to do with this particular corporate event). “Anybody who knew anything about planning a party would have urged for professional bartenders, or at the least, semi-trained volunteers.”
 
ALL I WANT FOR X-MAS IS A DREAMY EVENT
Planning a holiday party can be a Herculean effort, or a simple snap. It’s the difference between employing an amateur garage band or a professional DJ. Or the difference between trying to do it yourself, or picking up the phone to consult the experts.

Creating a schedule and a budget is a priority, say area advisors and those familiar with the party planning scene.

“I would say the first thing is to plan as early as possible and identify your venue,” says Julie Clayton, sales director at the Newport Aquarium. (Last month, the aquarium opened its “Currents” ballroom in a 6,000-square-foot space atop the “Rainforest” exhibit, featuring the cuisine of chef Jean-Robert de Cavel.)

Carol Amrine at Golden Rule Catering in Amelia definitely concurs. “Reserve the location and catering in advance — and for holidays, it is best to do it by October.”
“Many venues give first priority to repeat clients and clients who book well in advance,” adds Marsha Burton, director of sales and marketing for the Oasis Conference Center in Loveland.

 If you don’t have time to visit potential venues, (and who does?), you can have someone tour the sites for you. Some venues even come with their own planner, or you can hire someone independently. Independent planners can find a party room for you, and although you have to pay them a fee for that service, they can negotiate favorable cancellation policies and other terms you might not have known were flexible, which can be a huge help in the long run, say those in the know.

In negotiating with caterers, decorators, reception halls, entertainment outfits and audio/visual companies, you and your planner can exercise some leverage. The planner brings existing relationships and certain economies of scale to the bargaining table.
Another upfront decision is the family issue. “Are spouses coming? Are kids coming?” asks Tina Bojack, special events sales manager at Dave & Buster’s in Springdale.  Bojack notes the presence of family, especially children, may change the tone of the event and the venue selected.
Throughout the entire process of selecting a location, maintaining flexibility and some room to maneuver is key. “Make sure you have a place with variety, especially in today’s world where not everyone will eat beef or chicken,” observes Terrol Lieberum, director of sales and catering at the Sheraton Cincinnati Airport.

MISSION STATEMENT

Like anything in life — or business — you need a mission, a sense of purpose. Early on, you should think about why you are having a holiday party: To offer clients the opportunity to network with employees? Purely to please customers who are new business in the past year? Or to somehow attract potential new clients with media coverage in “Cincy Scene” or similar social page attention?
Preparing a budget in advance is critical.

“Determine your budget; remember to account for invitations, food, beverages, taxes and gratuities, entertainment, decorations, prizes and gifts, parking/valet services and audiovisual equipment, “ says the Oasis Center’s Burton. “When researching venues, find out what amenities are included, and consider your guests’ dietary needs. Above all, expect outstanding customer service. Your venue and vendors should have a genuine desire to make your party a success.”

The professionals will advise you to be realistic in your tastes and reach. Don’t try to plan a Dom Perignon event on a Coca-Cola budget. Banquet organizers who tell you they can provide a feast for a five-spot a head are pulling your leg. Truly classy venues and menus cost money.

That said, there are some ways to defer costs. Linking yourself with a charitable cause, for instance. A worthy beneficiary can pay off in more ways than one. While some money will go out the door to the non-profit agency in question, you’ll pick up some return in terms of reaching a new audience (the patrons and board members of that charity) as well as some bouncing baby tax write-offs come the new year.

THE FOOD’S THE THING

Beyond booking a venue and preparing a budget, selecting the menu and theme is critical.

“For a great office party, you have to have great entertainment,” notes George Rees at the Savannah Center at Chappell Crossing in West Chester. “We sit down with company management and create a theme. … The food is always the same at office parties, so try to create a cuisine that is not expected and goes with the theme.”

“Have a specialty drink to set the tone for the evening (a martini, etc.),” suggests the Sheraton Cincinnati Airport’s Lieberum. “Have two different rooms — one for the reception and one for dinner so guests don’t feel cramped into one space. And always remember a good dessert! It is the last thing guests get and the last thing they remember.”

Of course, once the big decisions have been made, there will inevitably be a series of small decisions to contend with, say planners. There are myriad details, including amenities, accessibility, ceiling heights, sound and lighting, food and beverage, types of tables, chairs and other equipment, in-house services, other events taking place in the facility, adequate parking, and so on.

CONSIDER THE HISTORY

If your company held a holiday party last year, and the person in charge of that party has been relieved of that duty, ask yourself why. Did something not go right at the 2006 holiday bash? Do the bosses want to see some new burst of creativity? Or is the purpose of management to economize costs (if the switch is budget-driven, that needs to be made clear upfront so you can find consultants who provide chic on the cheap).

OTHER TIPS:
•  Consider a venue that comes pre-decorated for the holidays. “If you’re not in the holiday mood before you came here, you will be when you leave,” says The Cincinnatian Hotel’s Stephanie Lockwood.
•  Keep ease of transit in mind when selecting a venue. “Make the party customer friendly with a convenient location” that offers accessible parking, notes the Golden Rule’s Amrine.
•  Don’t overlook the importance of insurance. If liquor is being served in any way, you and your employer can be held liable for any auto accidents that result. (Many local insurance firms such as Cincinnati Financial offer one-day riders.) Yes, the venue may be insured as well, but don’t forget that lawyers may look for everyone with deep pockets.
•  If you represent a large corporation with thousands of employees, consider splitting the festivities into multiple events over the course of different evenings. This allows you more flexibility in choosing slightly smaller venues. (Consider the example of Carl Lindner’s American Financial, which books its legendary parties over two nights at Music Hall.)
•  If you are having the party in your corporate tower rather than an off-site venue, go easy on the eggnog, mistletoe and other X-mas schtick. A little of that goes a long way in a business setting.
•  Don’t set a dress code that isn’t a fair indication of the event’s poshness. Requiring black-tie of attendees, who then show up to endure a chips-and-dip repertoire, is a recipe for disaster.
 •  Finally, think about not just this year, but the next. As Will Greiner, director of the Sharonville Convention Center, points out, “Many organizations, at the conclusion of their party each year, will go ahead and reserve a date for the following year.”
Most of all, stick with the pros. Anything else could turn out to be, well, a fruitcake decision.
 
 
Top 10 Tips for Planning a Holiday Office Party
1.  Don’t have the office party at the office. Offices are full of PCs,  desks, piles of files, and reminders of work to be done. This makes it hard for your employees to get into the holiday spirit. Move the party off-site to a more festive venue.
2.  Let your staff “buy in” to the party. Solicit suggestions well ahead of time, either by questionnaire or suggestion box, on such topics as theme, location and dates.
3.  Make employees with young families feel welcome. Simply put, don’t exclude parents of young children, even if you don’t feel that toddlers should be at your company’s event. Consider providing child care (perhaps in an adjoining room in the venue). Making employees pay for their own baby-sitters (who frankly earn premium wages during the holidays, if they can be found at all) won’t encourage them to attend.
4.  If you are planning to hand out an office gift, don’t give one with the corporate logo emblazoned on it. This is not the time to market the company. A simple $5 gift that is practical will be more appreciated than a $20 promotional item.
5.  If it’s vital to you that every single one of your employees attends the office party, then plan it during workday hours. You can’t reasonably expect 100 percent attendance by staffers on their own time, especially when December is so full of holiday shopping chores and competing special events.
6.  Consider scheduling the holiday party for mid January. Ask your employees what they think. Many may find their schedules less pressured. And, your bonus is that prices for venues, caterers and the like may be much better in a slow month such as January.
7.  Refrain from turning the holiday office party into an annual meeting or business summary of the year.
8.  If you plan on shaking your employees’ hands all night as a way of congratulating them, keep one hand free from icy cold, wet drinks. No one will appreciate a frigid, damp hand-shake. Also, keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket and use it frequently. You don’t want to be the Typhoid Mary that helps spread a winter bug that decimates your workforce!
9.  Don’t say “Merry Christmas.” A phrase such as “Happy Holidays” covers more bases, especially for employees who are Jewish or come from other faith backgrounds. Better yet, issue a hearty “Well Done.”
10. Have discreet cards printed up that suggest the phone number of a local taxi company, and remind employees that you are happy to pay for their cab ride home if they imbibe just a bit too much. It will be a small cost for you to pay. But it’s a wise investment in your company’s future and well-being. A single tragedy on the road will undo any good will you might be trying to instill, and could cast a depressing shadow for years.