Trim Holiday Party Costs Without Seeming Cheap

After another year of layoffs and cutbacks, struggling small business owners may be tempted to scale down or cancel this year’s holiday party. They should resist that impulse, and instead involve employees in planning a memorable celebration that costs less, says Dawn Bryan, author of The Art and Etiquette of Gift Giving and founder of New York City consulting firm Qualipedia. She suggests business owners engineer an event that reinforces company culture—without worrying about breaking with tradition. Bryan spoke recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein; edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Karen E. Klein: Why is it important to have a company party, particularly for small businesses that have cut back during the past few years and may feel this is an expense they can forgo?

Dawn Bryan: It’s important to convince your staff that you know who they are, you understand their concerns, and you value what they’ve done over the last year. Having some kind of reward for them builds better unity, boosts their morale, and gives them a sense of pride in their work and their organization.

You recommend involving employees in the planning process. Why?

Most CEOs or office managers pretty much do the same thing each year. Their secretaries or HR departments handle it. It’s a top-down situation. If you want to be a company that emphasizes employee input and innovation, you’ll be much better off if you customize a party for your company culture or the culture you’re trying to build.

Ask a social member of your staff to help with the planning or create a planning committee. Give them a budget and some ideas; as the CEO you may be surprised what they come up with and how different it is from your vision.

What are some outside-the-box suggestions for holiday parties?

You can treat everybody to a sports activity or a cultural event. If you get group tickets, they are much cheaper. If you have a lot of young families, you might take everyone to the circus and hand out coupons for cotton candy.

One company I know in the South goes to the zoo every year, with their families. They reserve picnic tables outside that they decorate, they put out picnic baskets, and Santa Claus shows up. It’s a load of fun and it becomes a unique company tradition that everyone looks forward to.

You make the point that it’s O.K. to hold a party after the holidays.

Over the holiday months, people are too stressed, there are too many things going on, and babysitters are hard to get. Most companies have extra work to do over the holidays anyway, and a lot of employees take time off.

The act of having a party in January shows consideration and appreciation for employees’ lives, and it’s a treat and a welcome respite at what is typically a slow time of year anyway. It’s easy on the budget, because prices are typically reduced, reservations are easier to get, and you can negotiate with restaurants and other venues that are booked solid in November and December.

What about the timing of a party: Is it best to do it at work during the day, or in the evening, or on a weekend?

I feel it’s not a bad idea to do the party in the daytime. It gives people a few hours off from work, while not using up their free time. You can have a brunch, a lunch, or a breakfast, and you can cut costs by not serving liquor. Do a buffet and you save on plate service.

The idea of pulling together employees and their families in the evening, when they may live a long way from work, is a lot more difficult. But again, it’s important to customize it to your company.

What suggestions do you have for businesses that are hurting for cash but want to do something to recognize their employees?

Join forces with another company for your party and share expenses. Get everyone on board for a charity event or volunteer to serve a holiday meal; these activities are particularly meaningful this year when so many people are hurting. Make a donation to your employees’ favorite cause.

What would you say to the CEO who absolutely cannot afford to throw a party this year?

Do something else that rewards your employees. Maybe people have been griping about how hard they’ve had to work since the company has downsized. Give everybody an extra paid day off for the coming year. Or give them a half-day off to shop in the week before Christmas. If you can throw in a local gift card with it, so much the better.

If you are negotiating with insurance providers this time of year and you find you can make a change that allows you to do more for your employees at the same cost, that’s a great thing to announce at Christmas.

So what’s important is some kind of formal recognition, in the long run?

Absolutely. It might be a personal thank-you note. I headed a nonprofit organization in the 1990s and I always spent the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s writing personal thank-you notes. Ten years later, I’ll see somebody on the street and when they introduce me to their family, they’ll say, “Remember that note we hung on the refrigerator? It was from Dawn!” It’s a small thing, but most people were very proud of it.

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