Yes, it’s the biggest bash of the year – but we’ve got your back. Read on for all the advice you’ll need to avoid a nightmare before Christmas
Tobias Gourlay Illustrations:
Stephanie Von Reiswitz
You can’t have a bash without the cash, so find out exactly what budget you’ve got to play with and use it wisely.
At some point, someone’s going to have to dip a hand into their pocket. When you approach the bean counters, remind them that the government gives every business a £150-per-head tax break for the annual staff function.
To make the most of your budget and avoid expensive surprises, look out for all-inclusive party packages. Small groups can save significant sums by going one step further and booking a shared night (the added bonus here being that last night’s object of affection will most likely be returning to a desk on the other side of town – not the other side of a partition).
For maximum cost-cutting, be prepared to negotiate with suppliers – and don’t dismiss anyone as too expensive until you’ve talked them through your budget. If you’re able to be flexible and avoid the most popular dates, they may just do you a deal. Failing that, the non-essentials will just have to go. First out: the +1s. Office parties are best kept for employees only anyway.
Remember the maxim about looking after the pennies. Too many organisers go into the red because they don’t keep on top of small expenses. Ringfence the essentials – anything that goes into your mouth, pretty much – and be prepared to get austere about everything else.
And so the bureaucracy begins. Make no mistake, this is a time for hyper-efficiency.
If you’re dealing with a cast of hundreds, opt for paperless invitations that allow you to gather RSVPs in a single place on your desktop. The fact your guests can reply at the click of a button should encourage them to come back to you quickly. Emails are, of course, cheaper than printed invites too.
Smaller gatherings might suit a more personalised medium, but remember: whichever way you choose to deliver, timing is of the essence. Social calendars are like waistlines – they bulge most in December and January – so make your claim on people’s time early.
Time to put the little people first…
‘Let’s please the boss by choosing a venue that’s just around the corner from his house.’ It’s a common line of thinking, especially within smaller businesses.
Thing is, the Christmas party isn’t really for the big man. It’s for everyone. In particular, it’s for the junior ranks, who spend the year performing mundane tasks for relatively little reward.
The least you can do is spare them a thought at Christmas. So, when booking the venue, think about what’s convenient for the majority of guests and let that guide your choice of location.
Be considerate in your timing, too. If there’s a department with a big end-of-year deadline on a Friday, don’t force them out late on the Thursday night. They’ll be much more fun the following Wednesday.
VALUE FOR MONEY
Tight budget? You can save on decorations with a shrewd choice of venue.
Rooms with great views need very little dressing. The same goes for spaces with impressive architectural features or a focal point – like an open kitchen or cool cocktail bar. For a vintage party, pick a space from the right era and you could save a packet on theming. By hosting your Roaring 20s party in an art deco venue, all you’ll need to do is set a dress code. Your guests will bring the feathers and pearls to complete the look. Encourage them by setting the scene with a beautiful invitation in black, white and gold.
THEMING & DECOR
Tricky one, impressing both bosses and fellow colleagues. It can be done, though, we promise.
Yes, it’s Christmas, but that doesn’t mean you need to stick to a festive theme. Save that for your living room. Anything branded ‘novelty’ should be avoided like the plague: tacky tinsel just won’t cut it. On the plus side, Kev from HR won’t be able to dress as Santa and ask everyone if they want to see his sack. The answer’s still no, pal.
Keep it simple – you don’t want people to have to spend a fortune on a costume. You’ll only be resented if Sheila on reception ends up having to shell out £80 on an unflattering Wonder Woman dress – by her, and those who have to see it.
Photo booths. Get one in to capture the action. This way guests will get to show off their costumes and keep a memento of the great event you’ve pulled off. The dress-up boxes that usually accompany the booth will help to keep your evening bang on theme, too. Even better news: in 2016, the latest tech pumps out much more than just a few polaroids. Hire from the best and guests will be able to turn stills into GIFs and go full-on video (slo-mo, if they want). Or just blow them away with a booth that doubles as a wind tunnel (google it) that will turn even the most composed visage to rubber.
Atmosphere not what you thought it would be? It’s time to shake things up with a classic party game…
Apple bobbing Place apples in a bucket of water. Then sit back and watch your colleagues get drenched as they growl at fruit.
Balloon sandwich Pairs of guests race with a balloon between their bums. The first pair to cross the finish line (balloon intact!) wins.
Charades Make plenty of cards and enforce a time limit for each go. Especially funny when everyone’s had a few.
The frozen T-shirt Soak two T-shirts, tie into knots and freeze overnight. The first team to put one on (it’s not as easy as it sounds) wins.
FOOD & DRINK
Get the catering right and a memorable party should follow.
We can’t stress enough: no party element is more important than food and drink. Ask for a tasting. If your caterer refuses, move on.
You might have noticed that healthy eating is a thing these days. Well, people are more conscious of what they’re drinking too. Be sympathetic – and inclusive – to teetotallers. Serve virgin cocktails that look like the real thing. If you offer orange juice as an alternative to fizz at the champagne reception, it might just be viewed as a touch unimaginative.
Remember: hungry guests will not be happy guests. Turkey dinners will quell most appetites but, if you’re keeping everyone on their toes, look at bowl food (or ‘mini meals’) over canapés. They’re more substantial and usually cheaper.
Sitting down for turkey and trimmings at some point? You’ll need a seating plan.
Long game Organise early and deliver late. It’ll take longer than you think to negotiate your way through this social minefield and you’ll need to account for last-minute changes.
Ready to mingle Use your imagination and think about arranging it so that guests have a chance to mix with colleagues they might not otherwise meet.
The awkward squad Don’t be tempted to stick all of the office crackpots together. It’ll be blindingly obvious what you’ve done and a shade embarrassing for all concerned.
Golden rule: know your audience. An email quiz might help, and once that’s sorted…
Foreground music You’re not selling tickets, so plump for the tribute act over the real thing – Slyde over Slade – unless you thrive on big insurance premiums and outlandish rider requests.
Background music It shouldn’t really be noticed. Tick the budget box by hiring musicians who can switch from lilting acoustic ensemble to party-hard function band without missing a beat.
Table/strolling entertainers Send them out early and watch the ice melt. More generally, if your budget’s tight, front-load the evening’s performers – after a certain point you won’t need much more than an iTunes playlist to keep spirits high.
Speakers and cabaret Going down the comedian route? The middle of the road is the safest place to be, but someone who’s popular (and funny) will come with a hefty price tag. An after-dinner speaker is a solid option for a corporate bash.
Participation activities For something a bit different, get a bucking bronco in: they’re easy to source or book a venue where one is installed.
Moving the office en masse could easily be an admin nightmare. Done right, it’s as easy as A to B.
Getting there Call in a party bus for larger groups. Blacked-out windows and on-board karaoke will ramp up the VIP factor before you’ve even arrived anywhere. For smaller groups, you could always take the tube – at least you’ll cheer up the commuters in your fancy dress. You could even go a little off-piste: rickshaws are easily pre-booked these days and they’ll be ready-prepared with blankets to keep things toasty.
You’re the GPS If everyone’s going home first before the party, they can probably get there under their own steam. Just email out directions beforehand and choose a location that’s easy to find.
Traffic jams An elegantly managed arrival gives guests an upbeat first impression. If you’re bussing guests in, make sure staff are braced for a bottleneck. There’ll be a lot of hands reaching for champagne flutes at the same time.
Hail, hail When the party’s over, don’t skimp on taxis. Ensuring everyone gets home safely is a priority.
THE NEXT DAY
Careful management is as important the morning after as it is on the big night itself.
As a successful party draws to a blurry close, don’t assume that your guests know how to look after themselves in the difficult hours that follow.
If you’re handing out goodie bags, include water and a midnight snack. Gastropub nibbles such as posh pork scratchings or gourmet crisps go down well. Best to throw in a barf bag too.
When (not quite) everyone’s back at their desks the next morning, lay on a survivors’ breakfast. Whether you call in a full-blown caterer or just park a street-food ambulance outside reception, the protein delivered by, say, salmon and eggs will alleviate the pressure on seriously stressed livers.
SETTING THE DATE
+ December is the proper time for a Christmas bash. Even the Scrooges on your staff will be in a good mood.
+ January’s a good option if you want to thank the team for a successful past 12 months.
+ You’ll struggle to conjure ready-made festive cheer in November. Avoid.
+ Lunch is usually cheaper than dinner, and employees will be grateful for time out of the office.
+ Mondays and Tuesdays are another thrifty option, but your guests might end up limping through the rest of the week if it’s a particularly heavy one.
MIND YOUR MANNERS
Avoid dinner-party faux pas with these tips from Debrett’s Basic Rules of Table Manners.
+ Napkin Placed on your lap, never tucked into your shirt.
+ Cutlery Wait until everyone has been served before picking up your knife and fork.
+ Side dishes Do your bit by offering them around the table, and hold them to help your neighbour.
+ Speed Eat at a relaxed pace and don’t wolf down course after course.
+ All done Knife and fork – tines facing upwards – together on your plate.
+ Compliments To the chef, always.
OUT WITH A BANG
There’s a reason why fireworks displays are held at the end of a night – and we’re not talking darker skies. Rockets are expensive and organisers who invest in them are shooting for maximum impact by saving the best for last. This trick works for Christmas parties too. Whether or not your budget stretches to pyrotechnics, be sure to give guests something to talk about on their way home, be it a great goodie bag, a surprise midnight hog roast or a one-night-only performance from the office band. What’s that? You didn’t know Penelope on reception could play the double bass.
This article was first published in Squaremeal Christmas 2016