Seems like you were just dusting off the mistletoe the other day and now the holiday season is about to roll around again. That often means some serious party planning.

Don’t panic. Whether you’re in charge of planning an office Christmas party or family bash, certain rules apply.

“Have a budget before you make any phone calls or inquiries. This will determine a lot of factors for you, from the day of the week to the menu that will fit your budget,” suggests Julie Clayton, sales director at the Newport Aquarium (which includes the Currents ballroom).

“Determine your budget. Know how much there is to spend before researching venues,” echoes Marsha Burton, director of sales at the Oasis Conference Center. “Time and effort can be saved by knowing what venues are within your range. The budget should include, but not be limited to, invitations, food, beverages, taxes and gratuities, entertainment, decorations, prizes and gifts, parking/valet services and audiovisual equipment.”

When discussing your party with a given venue, find out what amenities are included. “Some venues will charge individually for every request; others have package deals, especially during the holiday season,” says Burton. “Many upscale venues can offer china, linen, tables and chairs, centerpieces and additional holiday décor at no additional charge. Look for a venue with complimentary parking; your guests will not be expecting additional charges upon arrival.”


“Ask their cancellation or rebooking policy,” suggests the Aquarium’s Clayton. “You never know in Cincinnati what the weather will be like, so you need to know your options in case it snows and your guests cannot get there.”

And look for ways to “wow” your guests. “Many times this is a company’s way to say ‘thank you’ for a job well done,” says Clayton. “The wow does not have to be over the top, but even a simple gesture such as a champagne toast or a small gift as they leave.”

“Plan, call, reserveearly. It’s nevertoo early to make calls and plan, but it could be too late,” advises Erica Robinson-Gripp, event specialist at The Alleen Co., a full-service party planner with everything from dance floors to casino games in its rental inventory.

“Don’t stress out about the little stuff,” she adds. “Your guests will enjoy themselves even if the tablecloth color does not exactly match the invitation.”


The experts suggest you rely on the expertise of your location’s/caterer’s event coordinator. “They know what works well and is most popular,” says Debbie Roe-Dixon, the director of catering at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza. “Ask for recommendations for entertainment and décor.

“Plan an element of surprise for the event,” Roe-Dixon continues. “It can be as simple as Santa Claus arriving to hand out gifts or as elaborate as a Chocolate Fantasy dessert station. A predictable event can be boring, so surprise your attendees with something they did not expect.”

“Plan a party with a fun and unique theme, like a ‘Key West Christmas,’” observes Jeff Blom, marketing director at CoCo Key Water Resort at the Sheraton Cincinnati North. “A fun theme makes the event become a conversation piece in itself and helps break the ice for employees and spouses not familiar with one another.”

Pinpoint your priorities early on, Blom says: “Plan a menu, music, entertainment and décor to suit the theme of your party. People may not remember what the invitations looked like, but they will remember if the food was good or bad.”

And don’t be afraid to think out of the box. At EnterTrainment Junction, for instance, the train museum is pulling out all the stops for the season, creating a virtual North Pole with Santa, Mrs. Claus, reindeers and even a rendition of a Charles Dickens X-mas classic. “You’ll be going through the actualChristmas Carol,” says owner Don Oeters, adding that the street scenes will be decorated and come complete with strolling, costumed vendors. “Christmas and trains are kind of synonymous, I think,” adds Bill Balfour, the general manager of the new model train complex.


“You can always scale back, but make sure that you start out with enough of everything you initially may want and need,” says Kathy Crowley, marketing and sales manager at the Marcum Conference Center & Miami Inn at Miami University. “This includes space availability, food options, décor and so on. Details can always be refined up to the last minute.”

Use one contact person to communicate with the event planner and venue on details and orders, emphasizes Crowley and other veteran planners. “You will get more accurate results and a much more successful event if the planning team selects one person to be the ‘go to’ person for decisions. Event planners, hotel and banquet staff should all know before the event who to contact when decisions need to be made.”

Whatever you do, know your audience. “Keep in mind what the attendees’ needs will be rather than your own,” says Crowley. “Menu selections and comfortable seating arrangements of the group are key to a successful event.”

“Be creative. Use decorations, lighting or other technology to make your event memorable,” says Mark Wallisa of the METS Center. And be flexible. “Saturdays are the busiest days for holidays parties, so select another day or evening and try something new — a new theme, venue or activity.”

Don’t consider a venue that won’t let you do a taste test. “Prior to selecting a menu, taste test the top menu items to ensure the quality of the food and presentation is exceptional for the event,” says Wallisa.

Keep the needs and wants of your guest list firmly in mind throughout the process, advises George Rees, chief executive officer and president of the Savannah Center. “Select a date for your party that not only assures your venue is available (but) gives your guests ample time to clear their calendars.

“Make a guest list and then cull it carefully to assure a good mix — those who will enjoy the event while being able to network to mutual advantage,” says Rees.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Refrain from turning the holiday office party into an annual meeting or business summary of the year.

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.

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.”

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.Time

Organizing that Christmas bash need not stretch the budget, nor your patience.