Ottawa companies get creative in rethinking traditional holiday office parties

Businesses and organizations look for fun but safe options for holding year-end celebrations with employees
xmas
Christie Shayler, social media and event manager for TRUEdotDESIGN, has come up with a top-10 list of ideas for a 2020-friendly holiday event in lieu of the traditional holiday office party. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Employers everywhere are putting on their jingle bell thinking caps this year to come up with fun alternatives to holiday office parties that don't involve COVID-19 – the "gift" that keeps on giving for local businesses.

Don't panic, the last thing any boss wants to do is cancel Christmas.

Welch LLP, an Ottawa-based chartered professional accounting firm, has been doing some team brainstorming, trying to figure out a good Plan B. It normally hosts a large dinner-and-dancing event at an upscale location, such as The Westin or the Fairmont Château Laurier. The party draws some 250 people, if not more.

“Our annual Christmas party has been an important tradition for Welch for many years,” incoming managing partner Jim McConnery told OBJ. “We appreciate the opportunity to connect as friends and colleagues, with some formality. That’s part of our culture, what brings us together as an organization.”

xmas
Jim McConnery, incoming managing partner at Welch LLP. Photo by Caroline Phillips

At Welch, most of its staff – about 85 per cent – are working from home these days.

“We’ve been scratching our heads trying to figure out what we can do to bring people together in a virtual environment that still has a fun type of component,” said McConnery, adding that the firm's events committee has been gathering feedback. "They have some pretty good intel on what staff and partners appreciate.”

McConnery believes it’s important the firm takes the time to toast its milestone moments, from its retiring partners to its newly designated chartered accountants, even if it has to be done through digital platform technologies. The entertainment portion of the virtual event has yet to be decided.

"In light of the shift to a virtual Christmas celebration, we will redirect the funds that would normally be spent on our Christmas party to charity and to the employees," he said. "This is a perfect opportunity to give back to the community and to share Christmas cheer with staff."

Welch is still working out the fine details but expects its gifting to staff will also support small, local businesses, said McConnery.

It's challenging to figure out how to host an online celebration, he acknowledged. It's a learning process, involving trial and error, and a risk that the final results won't please everyone. People are generally pretty understanding, he said, "as long as you show that you're doing things in a positive way and that you're trying to adapt."

Welch has donated $17,500 to the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation, which has been the beneficiary for the last several years of the firm's annual Grand Casino fundraiser, normally held in the fall. It had to be cancelled this year due to the pandemic. Candace Enman, president of Welch Capital Partners and vice chair of the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation (ORCF) board, presented the funds to the ORCF's new president and CEO, Michael Maidment, during a ceremonial cheque presentation.

Welch is challenging other companies to also give back to the community with money they're saving from their cancelled holiday parties.

The firm's Toronto and Renfrew offices are also making donations to charities.

holiday
Candace Enman, president of Welch Capital Partners and vice chair of the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation (ORCF) board, with the ORCF's new president and CEO, Michael Maidment, for a ceremonial cheque presentation at the Cancer Foundation's Maplesoft-GumDocs Centre for Cancer Survivorship.

Ottawa-based marketing firm TRUEdotDESIGN has been making a list (and checking it twice) to figure out some alternatives for its clients, most of which are in the world of real estate, architecture and home building design. Its social media and event manager, Christie Shayler, says some of their clients have a holiday party budget that they’re still looking to use in some way.

“They’ve come to us asking for ideas,” said Shayler. “It’s a really good opportunity for people to support local, as well as support their employees.”

Suggestions include Pop Up Party In a Box from Chic + Swell's Carole Saad and her partners at Ottawa Pop Up Events, Bar from Afar cocktail kits, gourmet meals and wine pairings from Curated by Beckta, Escape Manor's online team-building INTERPOL experience, MDRN's virtual photo booth, a holiday tailgater party, a popcorn and movie night, volunteering and more.

It wasn't hard to come up with suggestions, said Shayler. “Everyone has pivoted so nicely to come up with creative solutions."

holiday
From left, Catalina Viau, owner and creative director of MDRN Photobooth Company, at their showroom in Kanata with Christie Shayler, social media and event manager at Ottawa-based marketing firm TRUEdotDESIGN. Photo by Caroline Phillips

A year-end celebration of any kind might be just what people need right now, said Shayler, while pointing out that many employees are still working from home and remain relatively isolated from their colleagues.

“This is a really a nice way to reach out to employees to let them know their employers care about them,” said Shayler.

Amanda Julia Events is offering custom-designed holiday “party packs”; virtual cocktail-making classes in partnership with Cocktail Catering; and virtual dinner parties, in partnership with local restaurants. All options can be personalized or customized to fit different budgets, industries, clientele and staff members.

The hospitality industry has been pulling together since the pandemic began. Chic + Swell Event Designers is offering the "party in a box" experience but is also working with Bar From Afar to include its unique cocktail care packages, and with Derick Cotnam from My Catering Group for that added food component. My Catering Group does canapés, cheese and charcuterie platters, and prepared dinners.

"There's strength in numbers," said Cotnam, who believes they only stand to benefit by sharing each other's networks and promoting each other.

— caroline@obj.ca