How to party like a pro
Let’s face it, most of us have less party-planning chutzpah than Martha Stewart has in one spatula-wielding hand.
Between work, family and holiday shopping, employee holiday parties can seem like the fruitcake that sits in the corner, waiting to be dealt with.
Sorry to break it to you, but ideally, you would have started planning your company’s holiday party last winter, said Beau McCallum, celebration planner for Emerald Bay Events. Luckily, for all the slackers (likely about 90 percent of us), it may not be too late.
The perfect place
Party planning agenda item one — find a venue.
To do this, envision what type of event you want to throw and how many people will be there, then find the right space based on that criteria, McCallum said. If an elegant evening with dancing is your goal, McCallum recommends something like the high-ceilinged Majestic on N. Forest Street. If it’s a swanky black-tie social, McCallum recommends reserving something like Emerald Bay’s waterfront room at the Bellingham Yacht Club. If you want a night full of music, a facility well equipped for musical needs, like Broadway Hall, is a good choice, he said.
Michael Williamson, chef and owner of Essence, A Catering Company, also recommended considering whether or not the venue provides things like chairs and tables, which can be expensive to rent yourself. Chairs run about $2 each and tables about $14 each to rent.
Another option is to throw the party at your business, if you have enough space. Last year, Cascade DAFO’s resident party planner and assistant to the CEO, Rebecca Walls, decided to shave 10 percent off the holiday party’s total price by hosting the event inside the company’s facility.
The event, for 371 of Cascade DAFO’s employees and family members, ended up being more intimate, and children got to see where their mom or dad worked, Walls said.
The fabulous food
The next thing to do is to secure a caterer if the venue does not offer a menu. In late August, Williamson said his catering company was already getting booked for upcoming winter holiday events.
Consider your budget first and then go from there when looking for a caterer. McCallum recommended spending between $50 and $150 per person for the entire event.
Also consider what type of food you want served. Maybe your party has a theme that can be complemented by a menu, and different caterers specialize in different cuisines, Williamson said. Do you want to do simple appetizers, a buffet or a sit-down dinner?
Sometimes it’s prudent to consider your employees’ cultural or ethnic tastes, as well. About 50 percent of Cascade DAFO’s employees are Vietnamese-Americans, a group that typically embraces more meat products and less cheese, so she and her caterer, Emerald Bay Events, planned the dinner buffet accordingly.
If the sound of all that planning gives you a headache similar to one after a night of champagne guzzling, another option is to simply hand all or some of the planning over to a professional.
Kim Jeppson is in charge of party planning for Signs Plus’ holiday event, and highly recommended hiring an outside party planner to organize it. As an office manager and controller for the business, she booked an evening at the Skagit Valley Casino for the company’s holiday party last year that included a buffet for 45 of the company’s employees and spouses. She appreciated that the venue offered an event coordinator to organize everything.
McCallum said an ideal party planner will ask a lot of questions and listen to what you want, not dictate the party details.
“Going through someone else takes a lot of stress off, especially when everyone is so busy anyway for Christmas,” Jeppson said.
The scripted social schedule
With any holiday party, having the event scripted is one key to avoiding chaos, a social standstill or early departures.
Make a written plan, including the MC’s announcements and the flow of the party’s events, he said. Starting the evening off with a warm up or game can induce people to socialize in a structured setting, which will help them feel more comfortable with new faces. Nametags are always a good idea, too, McCallum said.
“Having a party scripted is of the utmost importance,” he said. “People don’t want chaos.”
Having good entertainment is also a party “do.” String trios, magicians or jugglers can be an inclusive focal point, and Williamson agreed.
“Otherwise, people are going to sit around and talk shop,” he said.
McCallum also recommended handing out bonus checks for an extra party punch at the event.
“If you show them really good appreciation with entertainment, a wonderful meal and bonus checks given out at the night of the party, they love that,” he said.
At Cascade DAFO, the company takes it a step further with gifts for all of the employees’ children, in addition to bonus Fred Meyer gift cards for employees. For last year’s party, Walls purchased age and gender-specific gifts for 119 of the employees’ children.
“It is so fun to see these children open these gifts,” she said. “They are tickled pink.”
What to avoid
Here are some final tips on mistakes to avoid.
Waiting until the last minute to plan
Using the same venue and same theme every year — guests will get bored
Assuming you know what your employees would want out of an event. Try sending out surveys and asking them for their input and feedback.
A few tasty menu options
Three sample holiday party menus for three separate budgets, from Essence, A Catering Company
Budget ($23.95 per person):
Supreme baby reds (poached prawns and lemon crème fraiche), baked brie, heavenly spreads (white bean, roasted garlic and rosemary, Nicoise olive tapenade, roasted walnut basil pesto served with crackers and artisan breads), butternut squash ravioli, gourmet antipasto, green beans with pine nuts.
Moderate ($35 per person):
Served tapas style: marinated olive selection, smoked paprika-spiced almonds, tortilla Espanola with Romesco sauce, Ahi tuna crostini, green beans with pine nuts, roasted Yukon potatoes with garlic aioli, grilled lamb skewers with chimichurri sauce and grilled salmon with lime cilantro shallot butter.
Money is no object ($55 per person):
Spanish spiced almonds; Pont l’ Eveque cheese platter with poached figs and toasted raisin bread; five spice duck breast crostini; potato crepes with smoked salmon, Montana paddlefish caviar and crème fraiche; Greek orzo salad; green beans with pine nuts; and grilled lamb skewers with polenta and wild mushroom ragu.
Planning an event for clients
If you are planning a party for clients, McCallum said to keep it separate from your employee party.
For clients, the shindig should be more of an appetizer and beer and wine social hour, full of networking and opportunities to impress.
McCallum recommended offering elegant appetizers, such as oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms and a sommelier to pour glasses of wine.