Seven questions to ask when planning your corporate holiday event

Black Friday can create some dark times for event planners

The day after US Thanksgiving, which is always on a Thursday, is the biggest day for retailers – it is known as Black Friday. The term’s origin is that it is the day in the year when retailers go from being financially in the red to becoming profitable and going into the black. In other words, all the pressure of securing a successful year falls between that late November Friday until the last crush of sales on Boxing Day.

Seven questions to ask when planning your corporate holiday event

Black Friday is also the unofficial kickoff for Christmas celebrations. Although, Canada does not celebrate Thanksgiving in November, it does seem to be adopting Black Friday. Even Canadian automobile dealers now have Black Friday sales. Apparently, Canadian retailers have long looked for an official beginning to the Christmas shopping season. Typically, Canadians would begin their Christmas shopping after the first snowfall, which retailers found a little too unreliable.

The Black Friday to Boxing Day phenomenon highlights the Canada-US cultural connection. Canada adopts the Black Friday, and the US begins to pick up on Canada’s Boxing Day.

Sadly, the beginning of the holiday season does not necessarily mean the beginning of universal joy. In an article by Ray Williams in Psychology Today, he points out that psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals report a significant increase in patients complaining about depression. Remarkably, one North American survey reported that 45 per cent of respondents dreaded the festive season.

One of the contributors to this holiday stress surely must be the corporate Christmas party. Given all that is happening during this festive month, organizing the corporate holiday event is one of the toughest assignments for the special events professional.

It is an assignment that has grown more complex over the years. Historically, it is a religious holiday. In today’s secular, multicultural society extra care is demanded so that nobody feels alienated or excluded. Additionally, impaired driving and harassment laws have imposed potential liabilities on hosting corporations that must be managed carefully.

It is also an awkward social time. Normally people who would seldom mix socially are drawn together in events of supposed bacchanalia bonne amies. I vividly remember a number of Christmas office parties where the CEO would shoot icy stares at the executive team telling them to stop talking to each other and mingle with the other employees. There are others who just do not feel comfortable in any large social setting but do feel obliged to attend. The office’s potted plants are no more intensely studied than at these events. Of course there is always the fear that someone will do something really embarrassing, which these days is more career limiting than ever.

One issue that is particularly challenging for event planners is whether or not to include spouses at the corporate holiday event. This is a no-win situation. On the one hand, many spouses whose partners spend long days at the office and travel for weeks at a time throughout the year want to be included just once. In many ways, their sacrifices for the employer are greater than their spouses. Would it be too much that once a year they receive a little recognition for their contribution?

On the other hand, spouses are often required to attend these events when they do not know anyone, the evening is filled with incomprehensible – and not very funny – inside jokes and their spouses leave them stranded as they yuk it up with their pals.

For either good or bad, if both spouses work the whole issue is further compounded, especially if one could not go to the fun party while the other had to go the deathly event.

To further complicate matters, it does seem that the needs of the wife attending the husband’s event will be different than the husband attending the wife’s event. Wives will generally receive only the most vague direction about what to wear. Frankly, given the male ego, husbands will worry about being seen as simply a wallflower at the wife’s event.

Fortunately, one area in which great progress has been made is with same-sex couples. I recall in years gone by gay colleagues who would have to find “someone” to go with them to the event. One can only imagine the hurt and stress that this would create.

Finally, there are those who do not have anyone to take either out of choice, divorce or bereavement. Whoever organizes a table for seven?

The end of the year is also frequently the time when annual bonuses are awarded, always adding another tension to the corporate event.

The reality is that the holiday season is stressful for many. The corporate holiday event can either add to that stress or become an evening of warm friendship and fond memories. It is up to the special events professional, among other things, to counsel their clients on the inclusion of spouses. They could start with the following questions:

  • If spouses are to be included, what are the plans to make them feel welcomed and comfortable?
  • Has research been done and circulated regarding the spouses’ backgrounds and interests so that they are not just anonymous strangers?
  • For whatever reason, is it understood that it is perfectly acceptable for an employee not to bring a guest?
  • Is the seating plan designed to make for interesting tables of conversations for the spouses as well? (A table full with the finance guys spending the evening discussing audit policy can be bit turgid for everyone else.)
  • Are the corporate hosts assigned guests with whom they can engage while their spouse is mingling elsewhere?
  • Are there gifts for the spouses they will actually like?
  • Above all, will the most senior host at the event be sure to propose a toast acknowledging the spouses’ importance and contribution to the organization throughout the whole year?

For all the stresses of the holidays, it is a rare time of friendship and caring which everyone should share and enjoy.

Happy holidays!

About the author:

George Bothwell has spent a career leading marketing and communications strategies to build corporate reputations in North America and Europe. He has acted as the senior marketing and/or communications officer at Bank of Montreal, Barclays Bank and Atomic Energy of Canada. In these capacities, he has held the corporate responsibility for special events including annual meetings, franchisee events, media conferences, financial analysts’ briefings, employee meetings and major sponsorship programs such as the Olympics. He began his career in the Government of Canada where he was Departmental Assistant to the Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce; Secretary to the Foreign Investment Review Agency; and Vice Consul and Trade Commissioner at the Canadian Consulate in Philadelphia. After leaving the Government of Canada he was Vice President of Communications and Environmental Affairs for Coca-Cola Canada and Director of Packaging for Coca-Cola Europe. He has managed marketing and communications programs in Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia. During his career he has lived in Ottawa, Toronto, Philadelphia, Brussels and London. He currently runs a consulting practice focusing on marketing and communications issues.

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