Ditch the crackers and the mince pies – Christmas parties are moving into immersive territory. Stuart Derrick explores the new world of fantastical party experiences

Photos: Emma Nathan (Gingerline)

Taking the plunge - The Mad Hatter and Alice dancing underground

The Christmas party is the major annual opportunity for companies to thank staff and clients – and motivate them for the year ahead. Some staff look forward to it for months, and will be disappointed if it fails to deliver.

In recent years there has been a noticeable trend towards getting guests actively involved in events, and the rise of immersive experiences, such as those from Secret Cinema, You Me Bum Bum Train and Les Enfants Terribles, shows how this can be achieved.

Many corporate parties rely on a theme, but the immersive approach takes things to a new level. Such events take their cue from immersive theatre, which doesn’t so much break the fourth wall – the imaginary divide between audience and performer – as smash it to bits.

‘The level of detail and planning within these productions is second to none and, at times, jaw-dropping,’ says Daniel Smith, head of sales and events at Troxy in east London. ‘There are no spectators, and the audience has no option other than to play a part.’

Immersiveness is a journey as opposed to a theme, explains Kieron Vanstone, director at The Vaults in Waterloo. ‘The trick is to take that journey and not drop the façade for the time they are with you. That actually makes things a bit tough for Christmas as there are set elements.’

If it’s tricky, you may wonder, why bother? Well, for one thing, it’s a time of year when you can afford to be brave, says Suz Mountfort, founder of immersive dining company Gingerline. ‘There are only so many times we can have a turkey and cranberry meal in one year. Save the traditional meal for the actual day and use the Christmas season to experiment and push the boundaries.’

Successful immersive events are all about attention to detail. We spoke to the experts to find out how you can get in deep.

Taking the plaunge - Zafferanos Twisted Circus

Everything starts with the venue, says Alice Hodge, founder of The Art of Dining. She recommends finding the venue first and fitting the immersive theme around it rather than fretting over making a venue work. ‘This Christmas we are having a Tudor Feast at Sutton House in Hackney, one of the oldest buildings in east London. It looks the part already, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.’

An atmospheric venue sets the scene, says Jo Moody, creative director of Zafferano, which recently catered for a Victorian-themed Twisted Circus in a graffiti-covered railway arch beneath Waterloo station. ‘It’s hard to immerse someone into a world when the setting is entirely incongruous with the story. Finding a fitting venue will also help your budget as a lot of the additional styling and set dressing will be done for you.’

For the brave client, the ultimate immersive venue experience is a secret party, according to Simon Lockwood, creative director at The Brewery. ‘Not knowing where and what the event is until the day of the party creates a sense of mystery.’

Taking the plunge - actor in character

Some Christmas party specialists provide a complete immersive experience that you can buy off the peg. The O2’s Twelve Days of Christmas: Party in a Pear Tree features three floors filled with experiences inspired by the popular Christmas carol, such as French hen stilt-walkers, a five-ring gypsy fair and a secret party room filled with drummers drumming.

Suz Mountfort at Gingerline says that paying close attention to detail is crucial if you want to ensure that the spell isn’t broken. ‘From the moment someone receives the text message detailing the event location until the second they leave, they are in our world. If they drop out of the immersion, then we lose their attention.’

The choice of decor needs to be in line with the overall theme and can be remarkably intricate or very simple, reckons Hodge. ‘Sometimes we go all out, plan an event for months and every corner of the room has been considered, and then sometimes a party might only require good lighting, nice tablecloths and loads of flowers.’

Taking the plunge - a spread from Twisted Circus

Forget the predictable three-course sit-down meal: in the immersive world, food can be fun.

Charlie Harry Francis, owner of experimental foodsters Lick Me I’m Delicious, says Christmas is a time to amaze. ‘The days when guests just wanted to be fed are gone. They go to events because they are a celebration and an experience.’

Known for its playful food experiences, such as liquid-nitrogen ice cream and a candy-floss shooter, Lick Me I’m Delicious is going one step beyond this Christmas with alcoholic, mulled wine-flavoured mist served in a bubble tent.

Of course, you won’t make it through the night on candy floss. Jonathan Morris, commercial director of No.11 Cavendish Square, says that although dinner and drink receptions are still the cornerstone of a party, clients are looking for a more flexible food offering, such as bowl food and food stations. ‘We are seeing a break away from sit-down affairs,’ he says, ‘and in many cases it is about creating an experience that combines the best of both worlds.’

The world is your immersive oyster. Gingerline offers a dining format where guests pluck food from trees, enjoy soup served by actors dressed as crash-test dummies, and dive into ballpits to hunt for cocktails. Sounds off the wall, and it is.

Taking the plunge - Stormtrooper in Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back

By its nature, an immersive event is entertaining in a more holistic way than other forms of entertainment. Samantha Burton, head of events at Merlin Events London, thinks actor-led experiences are growing in popularity. ‘We’ve worked with immersive theatre companies, including Les Enfants Terribles at Madame Tussauds, to appeal to a wider audience and bring our experiences to life.’

It’s worth remembering that a Christmas event may have a broad cross-section of guests, so consider just how ‘out there’ things should get. At The Vaults, Kieron Vanstone once created a lake where guests could sail a boat through a sea of mist. ‘It was a thing to behold,’ he says, ‘but in practical terms you had people dressed in their finery worried about falling in and ruining their evening.’

Christmas at The Vaults this year is inspired by Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus, which features a magical circus that pops up overnight and then disappears the next day. Competing illusionists will try to outdo each other while entertaining the guests.

Taking The Plunge - Gingerline Siberian Circus  STAFF
People tie an event together, and never more so than when it’s interactive. Selection of staff, preparation, training and the specific skills required can vary widely from one event to the next.

‘For the event to be a success, it is important to find exactly the right staff,’ says Diana Sanni, sales director of the Lola Staffing agency. ‘We tend to receive very detailed specifications for immersive events, reducing the pool of people who would be suitable – for example, an event might
require staff who are six-foot tall, blonde and can speak French.’

Pinning down your theme and requirements is therefore essential. Sanni recommends not leaving things to the last minute as staff are a limited resource during party season.

The agency, which has supplied event staff for events such as the 21st anniversary celebration for the sitcom Friends and a Downton Abbey-themed dinner at Royal Hospital Chelsea, also recommends a full briefing of staff, and sometimes one-off training prior to the event.

Alice Hodge at The Art of Dining says staff should be sensitive to exactly how immersive guests want things to be. Some gatherings require more time for mingling than others, meaning staff should perhaps take a step back from their character and the narrative of the event. Others want the full immersive experience – so staff should be coached to spot the difference and know when to stand back and when to go all in.

The Best Blank Canvases
Fancy doing it yourself rather than buying off the peg? These spaces will host your immersive wizardry…

+ Nine Adam Street (020 3757 8403)
A Robert Adams-designed building just off The Strand, it can be transformed for groups of up to 250.

Icetank Studio (020 7240 4600)
This contemporary white space is an intimate venue handily located in the centre of Covent Garden.

Studio Spaces E1 & E2 (020 7613 0545) Two multipurpose event options in east London. E1 (Pennington St) is the largest, with three spaces that can host dinners for 278 guests and receptions for 600; the smaller E2 (Kingsland Rd) has studios over two floors.

Tobacco Dock (020 7680 4001)
For those who need a larger canvas, there are 30 event spaces in the undercroft of this historic Wapping venue.

White Space (020 3301 4727)
This aptly named venue near Leicester Square is about as central as you can get. It caters for receptions of up to 100.

Asia House (020 7307 5454)
A Grade II-listed Marylebone townhouse that combines subtle period touches with white-space elegance. Hosts receptions of up to 400.

Lumiere London (020 7620 4570)
As well as functioning as photography studios, Lumiere’s three spaces can be hired for events. The White Studio offers the best blank canvas.

Shall we tell the guests?
Some of your staff may not be fully on board with the immersive concept, which raises the question: should you prepare them in any way, or does that spoil the surprise? We asked the experts…

+ Suz Mountfort, founder, Gingerline ‘Without a doubt, yes, you should prepare them. The environment you create will be spoilt if guests feel that you are putting them into an experience that is unsafe or uncomfortable for them.’

+ Tim Stevens, MD, Best Parties Ever ‘If our visitors knew every aspect of the celebrations before they arrived, the feelings of amazement and wonder would be drastically reduced.’

+ Simon Lockwood, creative director, The Brewery ‘We will often encourage guests to theme their outfit so as to give the experience a communal sense of immersion.’
+ Jonathan Morris, commercial director, No. 11 Cavendish Square ‘Creating a back story will play a big part in how far guests need to prepare. Preparing guests ahead of an event not only creates anticipation and builds excitement, it also encourages them to communicate during the evening.’

This article was first published in Squaremeal Christmas 2016