Office holiday parties shun booze and tinsel, push guac and pickleball

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Many companies are moving away from the champagne, sequins and “Secret Santa” gift exchanges of office Christmas parties crystallized in public consciousness through TV shows like “The Office.” Instead, business leaders are opting for year-end celebrations cut totally free from seasonal connotations.

That impulse is part of what led education technology company Outschool to explore options besides the typical dinner-and-drinks routine at a bar decked with boughs of holly. The startup’s staff opted to do something completely different this year: a pickleball lesson.

Outschool isn’t alone. Many companies are looking for fresh ways to bring teams together for the holidays, which is part of what’s led to a spike in demand for outdoor spaces, according to Derek Callow, chief executive officer of a startup that rents out private pickleball courts and pools called Swimply.

The office holiday party has been declared a thing of the past several times, including after the Great Recession, #MeToo and Covid-19. And then, just as reliably, people have hailed its comeback. For many companies, however, the celebration never really disappeared — it just looks a lot different now. This change stems from an effort to be more inclusive and create the kind of camaraderie that’s difficult to build on a Zoom call.

Angela Robinson, a marketing coordinator at corporate events company Teambuilding.com, which works with big names from NASA to Harvard University, said she’s seen an uptick in companies booking virtual murder mysteries or “The Great Guac Off” — a team guacamole-making competition — instead of specifically holiday-themed events.

Part of this trend, Robinson said, is about not focusing on one holiday over others. The shift also gives companies the opportunity to move away from making drinking the main activity.

“There are many reasons organizers would want alcohol not to be at the center of these gatherings — firstly, for safety reasons and to prevent potential unprofessional behavior,” Robinson said. “This also ties back into inclusivity — employees may not drink for religious reasons, sobriety, or because they just don’t enjoy it.”

Melanie Zelnick, CEO of corporate event planning company Glow Events, whose customers include a range of tech and finance powerhouses from Netflix to Andreessen Horowitz, said that the days of full-out red-and-green festooned Christmas parties are long gone for her Bay Area clients. But it’s only in the last few years that any remaining vestiges have been swept away.

Before the pandemic, a few festive wreaths would’ve probably been fine, Zelnick said. Now, though, “clients say, ‘Hey, not even a tinsel Christmas tree,'” she said. “With everyone being so mindful, the closest you can get to holiday is a winter crystal-and-ice theme, where we just lean into what the weather’s like that time of year.”

While Glow’s events are more akin to traditional parties — with food, drinks and music — than pickleball lessons or a guacamole-making contest, the immersive experiences they design, many of which encourage guests to come in costume, are a far cry from your basic open bar.

One company is throwing a 1920s golden-era soiree, complete with gin martini bar carts and lots of art deco. For one that went the wintery route, Glow’s bringing in an ice bar and building a giant art installation with glowing blocks that look like ice cubes. And though both parties will serve alcohol, drinking is downplayed. Zelnick declined to name the companies.

“None of our clients support taking shots or anything like that at holiday parties,” Zelnick said. Glow keeps all of the beverages it serves on the weaker side to keep employees safe. Still, the event company doesn’t want to water down a cool cocktail: It’s bringing in ice luges for the crystal-and-ice bash. “It’s manned by a bartender, where they throw the cocktail down and it chills it and makes it still a fun experience — without encouraging that typical ice luge behavior,” she said.

Another firm is transforming its office space into outer space. Each floor will take on its own motif, with special cocktails and entertainment: from the moon landing on the first floor, with black-and-white hues and a giant inflatable moon; to a green-and-black alien-themed level; to Area 51, a rust-colored desert production.

Instead of a traditional party, Edgewell Personal Care Co., the owner of Schick razors and Banana Boat sun care, hosted a candle-making workshop for some of its employees in France. The company also recently offered discounted tickets to a Bridgeport Islanders hockey game for Connecticut employees as a way of celebrating the holiday season. While these outings aren’t necessarily in lieu of all traditional holiday events, Edgewell’s culture teams at offices around the world are encouraged to put a local spin on celebrations, a spokeswoman for the company said.

Behind many of the off-the-wall celebrations is the desire to make it memorable, Teambuilding.com’s Robinson said. Above all, it’s a chance to reward staff, she said: “Not only do parties honor the holidays, but they are a chance to celebrate the company’s achievements and thank employees for their hard work.”

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