For several days in early December, employees at Ubisoft will don a designated holiday tuque, pick up a cocktail kit and, one at a time, walk through an immersive experience imagined by the company. Like in an escape game, each player will make his or her way through three specially designed rooms and complete a task that will eventually lead them to a gift. A few days later, they will enjoy the culmination of their holiday party, an online event that will see artists and acrobats performing, all of it under this year’s theme of “clandestine cabaret.”
It’s a departure from the big in-person holiday parties of the past for the Montreal-based video game company with 4,000 workers. But that doesn’t seem to bother employees, who clearly want to celebrate.
“It’s the best response we’ve had for a holiday celebration in many years,” says Karim Sy-Morissette, a project manager at Ubisoft.
Office holiday parties will once again be limited by pandemic restrictions. While last year many companies opted for small-scale events – if any – and almost all of them were virtual, this year people have more interest in celebrating. That has forced companies to get creative. Most events are still online, caterers and event planners say, but after another long and stressful year, offering employees something special is top of mind for many companies.
For large organizations, groups of no more than 25 seem to be the “magic number,” says Natalie Ho, national director of event sales for Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality.
“We have groups that are hosting 25 dinners for 25 people all across the span of about a week,” she said.
Planning office parties this holiday season has been a “roller coaster,” Ms. Ho says. As recently as late September, many clients were planning on grouping together hundreds of people but have since changed their minds, opting for smaller numbers or virtual events instead.
Still, it hasn’t stifled the desire to celebrate.
“We actually saw a record number of holiday party inquiries,” Ms. Ho said.
Janet Salopek, president of Salopek and Associates, a business and human resources consultancy with offices across Canada, notes that companies are looking at optics as much as anything when it comes to event planning. They want to be seen to be taking COVID-19 seriously, and for that reason are focusing on small or virtual events. But some are thinking even further outside the box.
One of Ms. Salopek’s clients is rewarding its employees with time off – up to an extra week – instead of asking anyone to do another Zoom event, she says.
For companies planning virtual events, some are sending food and other items to employees’ homes for them to enjoy during the celebrations.
Judy Reeves, owner of Edge Catering in Vancouver, says most of the in-person gatherings she has been hired to cater are between 10 and 20 people. Many companies have chosen Ms. Reeves’ delivery box option, which includes holiday food platters and wine.
Deliveries of food, wine and holiday treat boxes are especially popular among corporate clients this year, says Michelle Kuenz, co-owner Great Events Group, in Calgary.
“It’s a way to be inclusive for everybody because there are still some people who are not vaccinated,” she said.
Companies holding virtual celebrations again this year are looking for more entertaining options than last year, says Arthur Kerekes, director of live and virtual experiences at Toronto-based Fusion Events.
“It’s all about entertainment this year,” he said.
Especially popular is a 10-piece band that performs a “choose your own adventure” concert, where party guests at home get to vote on music from different decades the band should play, and even finer details such as which instrument should get a solo during a particular song.
So too has interest been high in events that feature Cash Cab host, Adam Growe, quizzing executives on trivia as other employees chime in with their answers from home, Mr. Kerekes said.
Not surprisingly, it is the in-person events that require the most creativity from party planners and companies.
Even among people who do want to get together in person, not all of them have the same comfort levels.
To help address different comfort levels at holiday parties this year, one Toronto event planning company has created a wrist band system, with attendees opting for red, yellow or green wristbands.
“Red means ‘keep your distance.’ Yellow is ‘you don’t have to keep your distance but don’t touch me.’ Green is ‘I’m up for hugs if you ask,’” explains Dawne Eisenberg, co-founder of Pop Events. “It kind of takes the awkwardness out of situations.”
For company family parties, drive-through events are particularly popular this year, Ms. Eisenberg says.
Her company recently put together one such event for Chrysler employees and their children in Brampton.
Guests were able to drive to a hot chocolate station, then on to a gift station while being entertained by a magician, Ms. Eisenberg says.
It is an ideal choice for many companies, none of whom want to put children at risk, Ms. Eisenberg says.
“There are no live children’s events that are happing indoors,” she says.
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