For many, a highlight of the end of the year is the annual holiday parties they get to attend — not only those hosted by friends and family, but corporate events hosted by their own company, clients or others in their business network. But while it's exciting to get an invitation to a holiday party, actually planning one can be quite a bit more challenging. That's especially true when the budget for the gathering has been cut or keeping costs down is priority for the organization.
But just because you have to save money on a holiday party, doesn't mean you can't still create one that's memorable and gives the impression that you pulled out all the stops.
"A holiday gathering isn't about the favors or the dessert," says Sarah Narcus, owner of Olio, an industrial event venue just north of Boston, and previously owner of Without a Hitch, a New England event planning company. "It isn't about the lighting or the furniture. It's about celebrating accomplishments and the holiday season, and thanking employees for all of their work."
To that end, we spoke with several corporate event planners who offered up these suggestions for creating a holiday party without dropping too much coin.
Think outside the standard venue
Getting creative with the choice of venue is a way to find savings for your event. If weather permits, holding the event outdoors might be a worthwhile option.
"Just because the temperature drops, doesn't mean outdoor events are off the table," says Gail Michalak, vice president of marketing and communications at sales company Cydcor, who helps plan events for the organization's hundreds of sales teams. "The colder weather could be a great opportunity to consider hosting an ice-skating event or a family snow play and sledding party. In warmer climates, a winter picnic our outdoor team building event could be fun, as long as guests are encouraged to dress appropriately for the weather."
Just because the temperature drops, doesn't mean outdoor events are off the table.
Gail Michalak, vice president of marketing and communications at sales company Cydcor
Another strategy is to select an all-inclusive venue.
"Plan your holiday party at a restaurant or bar that has food, drinks, furniture, music, and interesting ambiance and decor already in place," suggests Anna Yevzelman, co-founder of New York City–based corporate event planning agency Moonage Events, a member of the International Live Events Association (ILEA) New York Metro Chapter.
She explains that this cuts down on the need to pay outside vendors to bring all of these elements in, which would add extra costs and logistics.
"The decor of the restaurant may also lend inspiration to a unique theme," she adds.
Rethink the photobooth
Encouraging attendees to create personal mementos of the holiday party is a great way to encourage sharing on social media and for it to have longer-term impact. But rather than renting a photo booth with all the bells and whistles (including a high price tag), you can encourage this kind of interaction with minimal spending.
"It's easy to build your own party photo op," says Michalak. "A few fun props, costumes, and an interesting backdrop are all that are needed to keep your guests busy snappy silly group shots all night long."
She adds that the pics "serve as the perfect party favors. Guests can take home prints or download images to keep" and encourages planners to create and promote a custom hashtag for the event to help boost the organization's brand or at least make it easy for attendees to see one another's posts.
Limit the bar options
A cash bar is one way to save money, but can make a negative impression on attendees. But that doesn't mean the organizer has to offer up anything behind the bar and deal with the bill later.
Contact local music colleges and schools for students that are willing to perform.
Anna Yevzelman, co-founder of Moonage Events
"Instead of extensive open bar options, select a crowd-pleasing themed specialty cocktail (or two) and three to four of your crowd's favorite wine, beer and liquor options," says Yevzelman. "If you know the crowd will die down early, switch to an on-consumption bar versus per-person open bar for the last hour of the event."
Get scrappy when it comes to entertainment
One of the biggest line items for a holiday party can be the entertainment cost. But you can still create high-impact moments without footing the bill for a big-name act. Yevzelman suggests sourcing up-and-coming talent through band agencies and music vendors by asking if they have any new and fresh acts that are trying to gain some experience.
"Contact local music colleges and schools for students that are willing to perform," she adds. "Get inspiration from the performance lists / calendars of local bars and small venues and contact the musicians directly."
Add a philanthropic element
Many studies have found that giving boosts a person's level of happiness more than receiving. So, while guests rarely turn down a nice gift bag, your event might have extra impact (without costing you anything) by incorporating a charity-focused activity.
"Set up a table with art supplies and inviting your guests to write Christmas cards to kids at a local children's hospital or seniors at a nearby old folks' home," suggests Michalak.
She also suggests hosting a charity raffle, which gives guests the chance to win prizes (donated by business partners or other local businesses) with the money going to a good cause.
Be thoughtful about food/beverage choices
Food and beverage are vital ingredients to any successful party. But a planner has a lot more flexibility than they might expect in selecting these.
"More and more, holiday gatherings and switching to a heavy apps and station style meals," says Narcus. "Attendees love this format so that they aren't stuck sitting at a formal dining table for a plated meal or buffet, and it can save on costs considerably for both staffing and food. Many companies are also opting to go with beer and wine only, maybe with one or two signature drink options, and guests are happy to partake."
Choose an off-peak time or date
There is savings to be had by looking for dates and times when your event is not going to be facing stiff competition. For example, ask whether the event has to be held in the evening.
"If hosting a full dinner is too costly, think about scheduling your event slightly earlier or later in the evening and sticking to tapás, small bites, or dessert," suggests Michalak. "Daytime events can be just as festive – wow with an ultra-elegant brunch, or offer a hosted coffee and espresso bar complete with a spread of freshly-baked treats."
An even more unconventional idea: Hold it after the holidays.
"Many venues and vendors discount weekdays and January/February dates," says Narcus.
Of course, you'll want to make the theme match the time of year. Instead of emphasizing the end of the year, stress "new beginnings" or "2020 kickoff" and put the focus on plans for the year ahead.
Not only will you save money, but as Narcus suggests, "Your employees will probably thank you for not having to squeeze in another commitment in December."