by By Lisa Grimaldi | July 01, 2009

Picnic insideOne of the most traditional, simple and, if done right, cost-effective events to foster esprit de corps or just show appreciation is the company picnic. It doesn't have to be a big-ticket affair --  e.g., gourmet eats, carnival rides, custom decorations -- to be effective. As Greg Jenkins, owner, Long Beach, Calif.-based Bravo Productions, says, "Picnics are about fun, and fun doesn't have to cost a lot of money."

Following are ideas from industry insiders on how to plan a memorable and budget-friendly picnic:

General tips
Have a goal. Attach an objective to the picnic, just as you would do with an awards show or any meeting. Is the picnic about morale boosting? Is it honoring administrative staff? Be clear about the goal.

• Limit the guest list. To keep numbers down, hold an employee-only event this year. Some staffers might be disappointed the invitation isn't extended to their families, particularly if such was the case in previous years. Honesty is the best policy here: Let employees know you're economizing on the picnic but still see the value of hosting one. They will understand; they're doing the same in their personal lives.
• Hold it on a weekday. Not only are picnic venues less expensive to rent during the work week, but employees will be more like to attend, says Murrel Karsh, president of Windy City Fieldhouse, a Chicago firm that specializes in organizing company picnics. Single 20- and 30-somethings are the toughest to get to the event, he notes. "They typically want their weekends free for softball games, to attend weekend festivals, go to the beach." Also, families with school-age children often have sports and other activities on weekend mornings. Particularly if families are not invited, the weekday time frame is a better option.

• Negotiate rates. Suppliers are well aware of the economic downturn. Take this opportunity to negotiate price with entertainers, rental companies, caterers, etc., and get the best possible deal.

Site savers
• Go all-inclusive. Pick a site such as a state park, which already has picnic amenities (tables; volleyball, tennis and basketball courts; a swimming pool and recreation areas). State parks typically charge reasonable, all-inclusive flat fees based on group size.

• Stay on-site. Hold the picnic on the company's grounds or parking lot, advises Greg Casella, CPCE, owner, San Jose, Calif.-based catering firm Catered Too and president of the National Association of Catering Executives. Employees won't have to go out of their way to attend, and you will save on rental fees for portable rest rooms, security, parking and, in some cases, tables/chairs and transportation.

Food and beverage
• Let them do it themselves. To save on staffing costs, set up a few stations where guests can participate in creating the meal. For example, set out large containers of melted butter with jumbo size brushes, and let attendees brush their butter on the roasted corn on the cob. Likewise, a do-it-yourself ice cream sundae stand will be more cost-effective than a cotton candy stand that requires special equipment and an operator. Or, have comany executives serve employees, dishing out food from behind the buffet table or manning the barbecue.

• Pour more. To save money, forgo cans of beverages in favor of larger pitchers for lemonade, iced tea and water. If beer will be served, consider kegs.

• Go whole. Think seasonal fruit and whole pieces (e.g., apples, oranges, pears) rather than fruit salads. You can get more bang for your buck with whole pieces, especially if you buy in bulk. In addition, whole fruits don't require bowls, cutlery or a container, which saves those costs.

• Stretch the budget with skewers. Instead of serving whole steaks, grilled fish or grilled chicken breasts, serve kabobs (chicken, beef, seafood and all-vegetable), which require smaller amounts of food items.

• Pick paper. One way to make tables picnic-festive (and save on rentals of tablecloths): Use recycled butcher paper (about $30 for a 36-inch by 1,000-foot roll at paper supply stores) secured with double-sided tape. Dress up the surface with ink stamps of the company logo, or if children are included in the event, invite them to decorate with drawings (provide colored markers or crayons for each table).

• Make it BYO seating. Save on picnic table and bench/chair rental fees, which can run about $120 for every six-to-eight attendees, by asking employees to bring their own chairs or beach blankets. (Note: This is strictly for events that do not include clients.)

• Create table teams. Assign employees to tables (by department or other categories) and charge them with theming and decorating their "station." Give each team a very humble budget and encourage creativity.

Fun and games
• Showcase talent. Use internal talent for entertainment. Singers, instrumentalists, jugglers, dancers, comedians, even magicians among the staff would be thrilled to perform for their colleagues at minimal or no cost.

• Make it a competition. Take the above idea a step farther and stage a talent show, where employees compete in a format styled like American Idol or America's Got Talent. Let attendees vote on the winners.

• Go back to basics.
Traditional company picnic activities -- a tug of war, egg toss contests and potato sack races -- might sound cheesy, says Greg Jenkins, but they really work for a broad range of ages and fitness levels and use inexpensive equipment. Use laughably cheap trophies as prizes.