Chicago weather tends to behave in unexpected ways – snowstorms plaguing citizens well into Spring; 80-degree days surprising us in early November. Snow doesn’t usually come when we want it, and when it does come, it’s often sleet or too light or too heavy or too icy. Thus the common quip Chicagoans share with a cab driver or a coworker, “Hey, who ordered all this snow?” Come Christmas, when we don’t get all of the snow we ordered, we get together for the annual family and company holiday parties. It may not seem as magical as a silent, white blanket across the landscape on Christmas morning, but in Chicago, company Christmas parties can have a magic all their own.
Pick a party to match your organization
Do your employees love Renaissance era paintings? How about astronomy? Or ballet? Chicago is packed with culture, science, craftsmanship, and the arts. Many of the city’s museums have packages for private parties or offer evening hours for adults to enjoy the exhibits and atmosphere (and cocktails) sans rugrats. Go see the Joffrey production of the Nutcracker. Or dress up in classy attire for a night under the stars inside the Adler Planetarium. Maybe your team is more informal and outdoorsy. Lincoln Park Zoo’s annual Zoo Lights event runs for several weeks during the holidays. Bring the kiddos if you like. Buy your employees some hot chocolate and enjoy the sleepy sundown animals under the dark leaves and bright lights.
Some companies prefer dinner and a show. Some, just dinner. Every organization is different, and each one is an amalgamation of the tastes of its staff. Get a good read on what everyone likes and how coworkers prefer to socialize. Every plan for a successful holiday party began with matching the venue and schedule to the people participating. Keep drive times in mind. If most of your employees work in the suburbs, it may be tough getting them downtown, and vice versa. You don’t have to pick an activity that is perfect for everyone – that would be nearly impossible. Instead, find a good compromise. It will help to bring this up at the next company-wide or management meeting. Once you can get everyone’s opinions, you can begin calling venues. Once you’ve narrowed down the options, bring the shortlist to upper management. Remember to consider employee input but that someone has to make a final decision.
Set a date that doesn’t show up the holidays
As soon as you pick a place, pick a time. Confirm with the venue and determine by when you need a head count for them to hold your place. Ask about the minimum party number – you want to make sure that your company is large enough to meet the party rate. Then, send out invitations en masse and create a spreadsheet for listing who is going, who is their plus one, any kids in tow, dietary allergies or restrictions, and any special needs that may come up in a party setting. If you list all of this out, it will be easier to track who has responded, remember what you need to bring up with the venue, and add more information as it materializes.
Careful about scheduling around the holidays. Dhanu Sankranti falls on December 16th. Christmas spans December 24th to 25th. Hannukah, the 22nd to the 30th. Kwanzaa starts on the 26th. And the Solstice is on the 21st. All of this is capped by the Western New Year. While some coworkers won’t mind attending a party on or around a holiday they observe, others may appreciate some consideration. Ask ahead of time which days employees are taking off for vacation or the holidays and whether anyone has dates which are specifically unavailable. Though it sounds unorthodox, some companies choose to host their holiday party in November or January. It just makes puzzling out logistics less painful than such a packed month as December.
Répondez, S’il Vous Plaît
Make the itinerary clear in the invitation email and whether plus-one’s or children are allowed at this shindig. As RSVPs trickle in, you can track everything and then send the doc right to the venue. Now you’re probably glad that you made that excel sheet. You don’t want an RSVP window so narrow that invitees feel the crunch and opt out for convenience’s sake. So instead, give them a window as wide as possible and approach them individually. When you send out reminders to the whole team, no one takes it personally, so they take their time responding. That’s a problem. After sending out a reminder, call or visit each invitee and bring up the party. Once approached openly, most employees will be happy to quickly check their schedule. Unless a significant other’s schedule is sent out week-to-week or someone’s having trouble finding a good babysitter these days, most folks in your organization don’t need more than a day or two to figure out their availability. Get in touch with them so that they can get it over with. If you need menu selections for a fancy dinner, catering, or a tapas bar, include links (and pictures if possible) in the invitation email. Discuss some of the culinary options at the next company meeting. If you can get them salivating, they will be that much more eager to look up the menu and pleasantly agonize over their tough choices.
Dinner & Drinks
Allergies are always the first thing that comes to mind, but the real problem area comes from the picky eaters. Iris doesn’t eat spicy food, Ivan doesn’t like barbecue, and the VP of marketing yacks at the smell of fish. Letting each attendee pick their own dish solves most of these “preference restrictions” right off the bat. How much food is not enough? How much is too much? Buffet style also goes a long way to making everyone happy. That said, all-you-can-eat isn’t the same as all-you-can-drink. Usually a dinner setting helps to pace drinking and limit the empty glasses staff are cleaning up after you. Especially with parties far from the office or far from home, a plan for getting everyone home safely or tucked into a local hotel room bed is key. If your organization is large enough, you can get a good rate by renting a block of rooms. As each guest arrives, task an employee with asking who their DD is. It can be the subject of some small-talk, but it’s a seriously good idea to find this out early. Some hosts will also follow the meal with coffee and desserts, followed by an alcohol-free activity to sober everyone up before the long trek back. This works both ways – start everyone on appetizers before dinner or drinks so that they have something in their belly.
If you are thinking of selecting a venue known for their excellent cuisine, you don’t have to search far. The Robey hotel in Wicker Park is a perfect location to end the night without anyone having to drive home, but it also boasts the delicious comfort food of Café Robey and sits across the six corners from Café Cancale, a hip French seafood and raw bar. The top floor features the Up Room, where guests can explore adventurous drinks while overlooking the Northwest side of the city. Speaking of, Cité is another excellent French restaurant, this time on the lake, rotating from the top of Lake Point Tower and gazing down on the water as well as across the gorgeous skyline. This spot would likely be the beginning and end of the night, but with the multiple course package they offer large parties, an extended stay won’t be a problem.
Activities and Entertainment
If you are looking for something other than a nice dinner or a glorified cocktail hour, Chicago and surrounding suburbs are bursting with opportunities. Whirlyball is the hot, new sport that’s sweeping the nation and inspiring party-goers of all ages. Basically, it’s hockey in bumper cars, but it is raucous, clean fun. The facility boasts dining options, a full bar, bowling, large lounge areas for open plan events, and an enclosed Whirlyball court. If you are looking for other outdoor spaces, Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL is just about an hour from downtown. They close for part of the off-season, but the staff decorates the trees for the holidays and turns the visitor plaza into a hay maze and games area for families during the fall. It’s a beautiful place to visit after a fresh blanket of snow.
Perhaps your crew is made up of homebodies and quiet hard workers. They may enjoy the muted but joyous tables over at board game café Bonus Round, where you can book events to sit down with your team over a gaming marathon with hot cocoa and scrumptious pie. Board games are a growing pastime in Chicago. Work Christmas parties are the perfect event for the cozy familiarity of beautifully illustrated cardboard and carved wooden pieces, all while introducing your employees to something new they haven’t played before.
Maybe your business has its own space great for hosting, whether a warehouse, an office, an executive’s home, or a co-working space where functions are allowed. You might want to save some cash and keep everyone out of the cold by ordering in. Chicago is a hotbed for local bands, comedy and improv acts, classical performers, and Santa Clauses (usually around Christmas). Services like Thumbtack and thebash are great for seeking out and hiring local talent to perform at your company Christmas party. Chicago theaters can put you in touch with improv troupes and standups who perform for corporate events often and have material and templates prepared ahead of time. Some great entertainment is more interactive, like pop-up painting classes that can teach your employees to create beautiful, snowy scenery – Bob Ross style! You may even consider using fun, light activities as opportunities for team-building this holiday season, like office scavenger hunts and small group arts & crafts.
The Season of Giving
Let’s not forget the point of holidays, religious, secular, or otherwise, is to come together. That may be to honor someone or something. It may be in remembrance or reverence for past events. Or to celebrate an idea or a culture. The point is that we are coming together, joining in a community experience, respecting and appreciating one another. There are few better ways to show appreciation than giving someone a thoughtful gift. Many cultures around the world take gift-giving seriously. The holidays are a season of giving, an opportunity to show your employees how much you care and facilitate them giving gifts to one another. Maybe this is just asking everyone to help out with the party or to bring a dish to the pot luck Hanukkah dinner. Maybe you’d like everyone to go around saying something they appreciate about the folks sitting next to them. But it can also be a tangible gift, of course, such as a favor or a Secret Santa present.
Most corporate events feature a nice goodie bag at the end of the night – not something employees should expect but a nice little “thank you” to complete the festivities. If this gift is just work-related, such as stationary, employees might think it doesn’t come from the heart. How about something that shows you know they have a life outside of the office? Such as some sweets or preserves or a book you know they’d enjoy? Maybe something they can use at work but which isn’t about the job? Like a custom mug or a pleasant desk amenity. Whether as a replacement or in addition to gifts for your crew, Secret Santa and Holiday Bingo are fun ways to kickstart gift-giving among the troops. Plus, either of these can work as a great activity around which to center the night. If there are any kids attending, ask the parents if they wouldn’t mind coordinating a Junior Secret Santa for the little ones. The big red suit himself (or herself) can show up to the party to pass out presents and eat cookies, and the parents will appreciate you giving the children something to grin about.
Bringing it all together
Coordinating this whole thing shouldn’t require the skills or budget of a wedding planner doing the royal wedding – although it may feel like that sometimes. Type every step out, or get it down on paper. Set yourself some deadlines so that the final few days aren’t a crunch. Separate all elements of the party into the “must-haves” (e.g. dinner, transportation, Secret Santa), and the “like-to-haves” (e.g. Santa Claus, live music, view of Lake Michigan). That way you know which to give priority to. And don’t just ask for general help from employees or colleagues, give them specific tasks they can work on. If you are already getting assistance, it doesn’t hurt to delegate.
Holiday parties involve spreadsheets, memos, receipts, codes of conduct, budget documentation, and expense reports. These all need to be consolidated and distributed, shared with the right personnel and approved by you or another colleague. All of this can be done in Contentverse, a content management tool that makes it easy to organize and track your organization’s files. Made right here in Chicago by local solution provider Computhink (that’s us), Contentverse doesn’t just handle documents for events but has capabilities to support everyday business processes in any industry, with automated workflows, secure file sharing even outside the company, and email notifications for files that need approval. With Contentverse, your Chicago company Christmas party will go off without a hitch.
We know that this article is reaching you with many holidays already passed or just around the corner, but planning ahead is the best advice you can get. Book in advance. Call early. Get RSVPs a month or more before the date. If anything, you can lose some of your “like-to-haves” this year and start getting ready for 2020’s Chicago company Christmas party – an absolute blowout for sure! It may be occasionally too late to do it all, but it’s never too early to be prepared.