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A 10-Step Plan for your Best Corporate Holiday Party Ever!

Planners from across Canada share their tips and ideas to making your holiday event the talk of the town

By Sherryll Sobie

The 10-step Plan: Experts from across the nation share cutting-edge ideas on how to make this year’s corporate holiday party the one everyone talks about—and not for the wrong reasons.

Buzz. Planner Kristina Chau, Not Your Average Party (www.notyouraverageparty.ca), suggests setting up a Facebook page dedicated to the event or creating a hashtag on Twitter (using the # symbol to form a subgroup e.g. #HolidayParty). But don’t bare it all right off the top. “Just drop little teasers to pique interest,” says Chau. Day One: link a photo of the appetizer. Day Two: post a riddle about the venue. Build hype, clue by clue. For workplaces that forbid social networking, similar results can be achieved using an internal bulletin board or company intranet.

Budget. On the top end is the $50,000 circus-themed party Kristina Chau organized for 150 guests at The Academy of Spherical Arts (www.sphericalarts.com), a 20,000 square foot former billiard factory in downtown Toronto. A fire-eater wowed guests while “cigarette girls” circulated with trays of popcorn under drapery fashioned like a Big Top. Event planners tiptoeing across a budgeting tightrope can scale down without sacrificing quality. Throw an hors d’oeuvres cocktail party at a venue with built-in entertainment. AME (www.amecuisine.com), a Japanese restaurant and lounge bar in Toronto, offers hands-on mixology classes. “It’s meant for smaller groups but it’s quite the experience!” says Chau.

Décor. If Oakville, Ontario-based Leslee Bell could give just one piece of advice it’s this: start early. The president of Décor & More (www.decorandmore.com) strongly encourages corporate event planners to start a minimum of four months out, and more if your client wants a brand new concept. Although Bell has designed built-from scratch extravaganzas—imagine indoor ice rinks and horse-drawn carriages—budgets often dictate a new hubcap rather than a reinvented wheel. Pricing can range dramatically from $10,000 and all the way up.

Theming. Unabashed Christmas themes to a politically correct patchwork quilt of seasonal celebrations, theming for corporate holiday parties runs the gamut. At the same time, a new trend is starting to emerge. “We’re getting away from theming and going toward striking a mood instead,” says Leslee Bell. The “mood” is mostly minimalist: clean, contemporary lines, lots of open spaces: Tables and chairs draped in white with one bold, splash-of colour-statement like a hot pink floral centerpiece. “It’s a kind of South Beach look and feel,” says Bell.

Food. Deck the food stations with samplings from around the globe using fresh, local ingredients. Chef Evelyne Gharibian of Toronto-based Hearty Catering (www.heartycatering.com) serves crowd-pleasers like cauliflower/potato curry in coconut milk, ricotta-spinach cannelloni smothered in Béchamel sauce and goat cheese ice cream—all made with a variety of homegrown ingredients. “We cook with lots of local specialties: spelt, heart-shaped walnuts and the most delicious freshwater trout,” Gharibian says. Draw attention to the food’s origin with menu boards at each station detailing the homegrown ingredients, and encourage station chefs to chat with the guests and spread the locavore love.  

Entertainment. “The traditional corporate holiday entertainment still has a place, but there’s a whole new list of ideas to shop from,” says talent rep Kim George, president, Limelight Communications in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia (www.limelightgroup.com). Case in point: Limelight’s roster includes award-winning stage actor Jeremy Webb, who entertains with his intimate, one-man performance of A Christmas Carol. Groups can end the evening with a post-show reception hosted by Webb in character as Mr. Hum Bug himself. Says George, “event planners could contact their own local theatre groups and see if they can develop programs similar to what Jeremy does with A Christmas Carol.”

Theme Drinks. Montreal-based Mixoart Bar Entertainment (www.mixoart.com) takes tending bar to a new level, where bartenders are bottle throwing circus performers with PhDs in mixology. Hire them for a couple of hours or an entire evening; flair bartenders will whip up a splashy 10-minute show or a quick deconstruction of the evening’s theme drink. Owner Fabian Maillard says the first step to selecting a theme drink is to know your budget, and then meet with a mixologist to discuss the process. They will stir your imagination with concoctions like Cherry Kiss Me, a bright red rum cocktail garnished with a cacao rim and punctuated with an impaled Maraschino cherry. Prices start at $300. 

Fun Extras. “Try to push clients outside their comfort zones because it’s a once-a-year special occasion,” says 21-year corporate event planning veteran Martin van Keken, CEO, MVKA Productions in Vancouver (www.mvka.com). His suggestions? Living statues to greet guests, actors to snap photos of the “celebrities” as they arrive, then display them on framed LCD screens hanging throughout the venue. Surprising elements, sprinkled at regular intervals throughout the event, will keep your guests teetering on the edge of wow. 

Gifting. Don’t underestimate the power of parting gifts: they make a lasting impression. Toronto-based Erin Breckbill, director of corporate sales, by Peter and Paul’s (www.bypeterandpauls.com) takes it one step further: give the gift centre stage as the centerpiece for the tables. For example, place flowers in an elegant decanter artfully surrounded by four wine glasses. “Your guests will be able to look at their gifts throughout the night, and then anticipate receiving it at the end of the event,” says Breckbill. She also encourages branding the centerpiece/parting gift with logoed ribbons in company colours. 

Follow up surveys. Sean Collins, sponsorship manager of Oomph (www.oomphevents.com), a full service conference and event planning company in an Edmonton, Alberta, says follow-up surveys may be conducted at the event in-person, or immediately post-event on-line. To encourage a good return, offer a prize incentive that is meaningful to your group like a two-night stay in a coveted local hotel. Questions should be open ended, the answers anonymous and always leave room for comments, which is where you typically find the “nuggets.”

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