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1 Ask yourself why
What do you want to achieve from the party? Is it an opportunity for top brass to communicate with staff and update them on the year past and year ahead (not forgetting to thank them for their hard work, obviously), or do you just want everyone to let their hair down? You need to decide this before doing anything else – everything from the venue and timing to the theme will follow.
2 Set the budget
It’s easy to get carried away when planning a Christmas party (or any party, for that matter). Find out precisely how much money is available, and then be a tyrant with yourself. Small elements may seem inexpensive individually, but soon mount up. And remember, there’s a tax break worth £150 per head for annual work social functions that are open to all employees… Take advantage!
3 Plan the guest list
Naturally enough, the guest list follows on from how much money you have to spend. A vexing question is whether spouses should be invited. Our advice, particularly for larger parties, would be no – the Christmas party is a great time for company bonding and socialising with colleagues. Do make sure, before you nail down a date, that the key invitees – your directors, for example – are able to make it. Which brings us to…
4 Set a date
There are times to sound out colleagues for their opinion, and times not to. Setting a date for the party definitely belongs in the latter category. You’re never going to get agreement from an office with more than four employees – and if you do ask and end up with a date colleagues can’t do, you’ll be in trouble anyway – so you might as well be a dictator. Bear in mind, though, that the office usually empties a few days before Christmas Eve, so think about aiming for the first half of December. And, as ever, you’ll get a better deal with a venue if you book Mondays or Tuesdays.
5 Lunchtime or evening?
A tricky one, this. There are advantages to both. With a lunchtime do, you lose an afternoon’s work. But the flipside to that is it creates enormous goodwill in the office. Also, it can work out a lot cheaper, as the corporate tab can be closed by 5pm when everyone can be left to fend for themselves. The early finish may also ease the collective office hangover next day. Meanwhile, evening do’s have the potential to turn messy, but then it’s Christmas and there’s a long tradition of bad behaviour to be upheld…
6 Private or shared?
Do you want to organise everything yourself, or buy into a shared party night? Bear in mind that there are dramatic economies of scale to be achieved by buying into one of the many off-the-peg Christmas party packages on the market. ‘We’re able to spread, say, a £100,000 production budget over 20 events, which saves a fortune,’ explains Stephen Lawrence of The Ultimate Experience (tel: 0845 263 7121, squaremeal.co.uk/ue). Buying a table at a shared night makes great sense for smaller companies, too, as a thumping party atmosphere is guaranteed.
Late summer and autumn sees London’s top venues and caterers holding their Christmas showcases. You might have missed this year’s, but keep them in mind for 2012. And if you still haven’t booked, ask for a private tasting. For a true indication of what the food will be like at your party, request a tasting at a similar-sized event so you can see how the kitchen performs when the pressure’s on. Don’t forget about your wines either – test them alongside the food you’re serving. Hey, it’s a dirty job, but you need to know exactly what you’re buying into.
Think of the long term when you’re dealing with suppliers. Your Christmas party arrangements next time around will be a whole lot easier if you’ve cultivated good relationships. Always try to speak to the same person at every company – as they get to know you, they’ll be able to offer a better service. And make sure they know you’re dealing with them out of choice and would like to give them your business again. If the party goes as planned, chances are you’ll be called upon next year.
9 Pick a theme
That’s assuming you want one. And if you do, pick it before you choose your venue. Dressing an inappropriate venue to match a theme costs more than choosing a venue that matches the theme in the first place. ‘Pick a theme that either sex would be happy with, and junior and senior members of staff,’ advises Jonathan Morris of 11 Cavendish Square. ‘At least give them an option. Our Christmas party this year has a Moulin Rouge/ masked ball theme. There’ll be two boxes with masks, one for men and one for women. Guests can either take one or not.’
10 Pick a venue
There’s a balance to be struck here. Yes, there are countless venues to choose from, so remember that it’s a buyer’s market. You can hang on for a late deal but bear in mind that the best Christmas dates at the hot venues can get booked many months, or even a year or more, in advance. Re-visit your aims, budget, theme and whether you’re looking for a private or shared party, as well as looking ahead to all-important transport links and factors such as closing time.
In a competitive market such as the events industry, margins are always tight. Keep this in mind when you negotiate. You’ll have more success (and enjoy better relations with your suppliers) if you press for added value rather than a lower rate. Popular add-ons include: free soft drinks with spirits, an additional room for no charge, lighting and production extras, a staffed cloakroom facility, early access to the venue, free nibbles, taxi marshals and food package upgrades.
A verbal contract, according to legendary Hollywood producer Louis B Mayer, ‘isn’t worth the paper it’s written on’. At the very least, make sure that even if you’re operating without a formal agreement, everything that has been agreed is on email, filed safely. The last thing you need when a supplier fails to deliver is to be searching hopelessly for an electronic record.
13 Set the menu
You probably don’t need to be told to look beyond ‘turkey and all the trimmings’, which has suffered a spectacular fall from grace over the past decade or so. ‘No one’s particularly interested in turkey – we might get two or three people out of every 120 ordering it,’ says The Ultimate Experience’s Lawrence. Rib of beef is a much more appealing festive option. Christmas pudding might be traditional, too, but it won’t be top of anyone’s list for dessert. And always remember to ask guests in advance if they have any special dietry requirements. >>
14 Charge their
…But don’t go wild. At one Christmas party not so long ago, three employees were sacked for fighting. They successfully claimed unfair dismissal on the grounds that by providing a free bar their employer had condoned their behaviour. Use your common sense. Make sure that there’s plenty of food from the word ‘go’ to soak up the alcohol – fatty foods like nuts slow the absorption into the bloodstream. You’ll want to avoid laying on free spirits… Vodka luges, for instance, are asking for trouble. Fine wine with dinner is a classier use of your booze budget.
15 Don’t fall for fables
There are lots of myths floating around on the subject of religious festivities. If you’re having your party in the office – generally not recommended –
Christmas decorations such as trees, tinsel and lights don’t breach the Equality Act 2010. However, the health and safety police might well have some issues so, yes, you should carry out a risk assessment in case someone accidentally ingests a bauble.
Don’t feel obliged to lay on games. Some people love organised fun, others will disengage. Be mindful of this. Also tailor your games to the size of your group. For instance, quizzes based on in-jokes won’t work for companies larger than a couple of dozen employees, as a good proportion of your colleagues won’t know that Jim from accounts is a huge Jonas Brothers fan. That kind of schtick doesn’t travel beyond departments.
So tricky to get right, this. If you’re at a shared party night you’ll (hopefully) enjoy top-quality acts. ‘Only book packages with entertainment,’ says 11 Cavendish Square’s Morris. ‘If there’s nothing going on between the courses it just becomes a staid dinner.’ If you’re organising the party yourself, your offering will depend on your budget… Make sure you see any prospective acts before booking them, and remember you’ll pay for what you get. Be realistic. Don’t think you’ll get Jimmy Carr quality without forking out.
You might know what to expect from the party, but your colleagues won’t. Start dropping hints. Pick out at least one big talking point for people to look forward to, whether it’s the food or entertainment or venue. People won’t notice what you’ve splashed out on unless you flag it up in advance and create a buzz. >>
Make sure you send out an email itinerary with detailed information about timings and what’s expected. If you want your colleagues to buy into the party, at least do them the courtesy of explaining what’s happening at it in advance. Consider including a printed map. If you’re organising a Christmas lunch, be particularly sure to flag up in advance when the corporate card is going to be put away and your guests will be left to fend for themselves. And whether you’re serving snacks and canapés or a full meal, your guests should know at the outset.
If you work for a larger company, nominate someone in each department to be your point-man (or girl!). They can pass on information, drum up enthusiasm, keep tabs on who’s attending and generally provide valuable back-up. They can also be your ‘ear to the ground’ for feedback from guests afterwards.
Booking cabs or buses from the office to the venue is a no-brainer. But do consider what happens afterwards. It makes sense to end the event while public transport is still running – an 11.30pm finish gives everyone a good chance of catching the Tube. Be aware that if anyone experiences a nasty incident on their way home from an office function, your company could be held liable.
A brief speech from a grande fromage will be appreciated, providing the emphasis is on ‘brief’ – no one has ever complained about a short speech. Make sure any would-be orators are drilled thoroughly to keep things to the point. And then drill them again. And again. There’s a time and a place for a corporate monologue, and the Christmas party isn’t it. Anything over three or four minutes and you’ll lose the audience.
23 The Naughty Step
Everyone has a tale of bad behaviour at the Christmas party… Entertaining though they may be, you want to avoid anyone making (too) much of a fool of themselves at one you’ve organised. If guests are more mature, you probably won’t have any problems, but make sure younger members of staff know to keep things under control. A brutal pre-party pep talk threatening to unleash the wrath of God on any mugs who go overboard on the drink won’t win you any friends, but do make sure guests know they’re still representing the company.
24 Goodie bags
A nice touch. You needn’t go overboard on the budget – a little bit of thought will go a long way. Our favourite goodie bags have included something to nibble on the way home, a small gift, a spot of reading material and a bottle of water to ease the hangover. Much more useful than branded stress balls and pens.
Putting a selection of photos of the party in a public file on the company computer network will go down well in the office next day. Do make it clear – as tactfully as possible – that any photos showing drunken behaviour that reflects badly on the company shouldn’t be posted on social networking sites… You might want your firm’s name to be known all over the world, but not in this context. v&e