With budgets tight and the public mood against any kind of corporate excess, workplace Christmas parti es fell out of vogue last year. Mike Fletcher reports on the revival of the festive way to motivate staff.
What a difference a year makes. Just 12 months ago, UK employees were facing up to a holiday period without the annual Christmas party, cancelled as a recessionary measure. Brands that were going ahead with a festive thank-you to staff, were even booking venues under aliases to avoid media detection amid an economic climate that frowned upon anything that could be perceived as vaguely extravagant.
This year, though, brands such as Tesco and Yahoo! are happy to confirm the Christmas party is firmly back on the company calendar, with venues reporting strong seasonal demand.
Tesco is entertaining 350 of its staff at Knebworth House in Hertfordshire, while Yahoo! will be enjoying a Bavarian-themed evening in the Moet et Chandon Champagne suite on the eighth floor of The Penthouse in London, overlooking Leicester Square.
'It's going to be a great night, with a log cabin, the smell of roasted chestnuts, two-pint steins and Bavarian food,' says Lord Jason Scott, event co-ordinator at The Penthouse. 'Our run of sell-out bespoke Christmas evening events started on 23 November, owing to demand from local retail groups who want a celebration before the hard work begins on the high street. We're now extending our offer by selling lunches, and our last evening booking falls on 23 December. It's for a big financial institution that has decided to bring back the Christmas party to motivate its staff.'
In 2009, a 'Say thank you at Christmas' campaign was launched by the chairman of one of the UK's biggest party organisers, The Concerto Group. Mike Kershaw was giving interviews to television, newspaper and radio journalists as he urged employers to show their appreciation to staff at Christmas. He was even invited to 10 Downing Street to spread the festive message to the then business secretary Peter Mandelson. This year, the campaign has returned and Kershaw is using social media to maintain the message.
'I like to think that everything we did and the support we received last year has had a positive impact on company directors deciding to go ahead with their 2010 Christmas parties,' he says.
'We've almost sold out every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night at Old Billingsgate and our portfolio of 22 venues is selling extremely well.'
Maria Duddin, general manager at The Brewery in the heart of the City, has noted a welcome increase in high-capacity party bookings from legal, financial and insurance companies, but believes that venues will have to continue to adapt their offer to attract the Christmas-party market.
She says: 'People expect more for less money and require higher standards of food and service. We've adopted a restaurant-standard of food and invested significantly in a 'peculiar wood' theme and table settings for this year. The days of the three-course dinner, white chair-covers and pick-a-wine are over.'
Lisa Hatswell, corporate events manager at The Merlin Entertainments London Eye and chairman of Unique Venues of London, a collective comprising almost 70 venues, agrees. 'Member companies are reporting an uplift in Christmas-party bookings but they remain cautious and are conscious of providing a higher level of service and entertainment,' she says.
Kershaw concludes by summing up the feelings of many venue organisers: 'The mood is a lot more positive, although no one can afford to be complacent. We're all focused on real value for money, creative themes and top-notch service across both exclusive and shared party nights. If we all get it right this year, we'll improve the health of the Christmas-party market for years to come.'
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