Small Business

Holiday Parties More About Bonding Than Bling

Karen Leland|Special to
Photo: Don Bayley | Getty Images

When Fred Conover, president of Boston-based Conover Tuttle Pace, and his staff go to party hard at holiday time this year, they will do it with a group of fifth graders.

“We wanted to have an event where our employees could celebrate, but also contribute something back,” says Conover. “So for the past few years, we have shared our party with the Red Sox Scholars.”

The Scholars are a group of 25 academically talented, economically disadvantaged fifth graders from Boston-area public schools who are granted college scholarships.

Each member of Conover’s staff at the advertising and public relations agency, adopts a scholar for the holiday and buys them a gift or two. Then, on the day of the party, the entire team descends on Fenway Park and spends a few hours visiting with the kids. Afterward, the staff members’ spouses and significant others join the group and they modestly eat, drink and be merry at Fenway.

“To hear stories from kids who are overcoming challenges in their everyday lives and doing an amazing job of turning those into a positive experience really brings the holidays into focus,” says Conover. “I don’t think any of our staff wish we would go out somewhere and just eat a fancy meal, drink and have a good time. With this, we get to enjoy ourselves and so much more.”

There is a rise in the number of businesses that are planning holiday celebrations that blend fun with bonding and frugality with functionality.

“What we are seeing is that holiday events are being reprioritized to be less frills and more authentic to the current company culture,” says Chris Smith, partner at Arryve Consulting, a Seattle-based management consulting firm specializing in strategy. Smith suggests that small businesses are taking into account the kind of year they had in 2011 and planning their holiday party accordingly.

“For those companies who have had layoffs and budget cuts, they still want to celebrate, but it’s been scaled back,” says Smith. “Now instead of a big, formal, sit-down dinner with a band, the team might go out for a more casual dinner or have a cocktail party or social hour instead.”

Or, bypass the holidays altogether and save the celebrating for when your employees really need a boost: like in January.

Christine Drinan, CEO of New York-based Galavante says that by taking her 28-member team to a Russian restaurant for an evening of “caviar, Bellini and bonding” a month later, when restaurants have relaxed requirements for a minimum spend on food and drink, and she can cut her costs by two-thirds.

Maneesh K. Goyal, CEO of MKG, an experiential marketing agency, says that while companies like Galavante reflect the overall trend of small business holiday parties being less over the top, there is also a move toward making them more about creating an experience for the employees.

Ultimately it's about building relationships and bonding, and experiences are better for that than just having a fancy dinner.
Maneesh K. Goyal

“What staff are longing for is not luxury but experience,” says Goyal. “Instead of champagne and caviar, we are seeing more craft beer and food trucks.”

Goyal says that small businesses are designing experience-based holiday parties by doing such things as calling up the local culinary school and hiring students to come in and do a cooking class or teaching staff how to make a gingerbread house; taking staff on a tour of a local brewery; or having a photo booth at the holiday party instead of a big band.

“Staff want something that is palpable and fun,” he says. “Ultimately it's about building relationships and bonding, and experiences are better for that than just having a fancy dinner.”

As for Arryve’s seasonal event, Smith is right in line with Goyal’s way of thinking. His company’s celebration includes an Arryve-Idol singing competition and a company slide show that highlights the firm’s community events throughout the year.

“This balance of having fun and showing the firm cares seems to be what sets this event up for success,” says Smith.

So, for many companies, bling is out and bonding is in. "Extravagance isn't what companies are going for in their holiday anymore," says Goyal. "Instead, it's all about increasing morale and the sentiment of the season."