by Louise M. Felsher, CMP, CMM | November 01, 2005

For many companies, the modern holiday party has become more of an obligation than a celebration. Happily, even if the venue has long been booked, there still is time to give such year-end events a more meaningful and memorable twist.
    With a little extra thought and planning, holiday parties can provide firms with a tremendous opportunity to foster unprecedented networking and team building.
    The key is to throw an event that encourages interaction, connections and discovery. Following are some planner-tested suggestions.

Mix it up
Appoint ambassadors. Ask staff extroverts or long-time employees to act as social directors during the party. Their role: to seek out the shy and/or new employees and pull them into the fold, invite them to sit at their tables and/or introduce them to others during the course of the event.
    Level the playing field. Ask managers to be servers or to assist the paid wait staff. Putting top brass in service roles can help to reduce intimidation the rank and file might feel in their presence.
    In this regard, try using a democratic dress code. Supply caps and gowns to celebrate the “graduation” to a new year, or provide kimonos for all, so the suits and grunts will be on equal footing.
    Engineer the seating to enforce cross-functional networking and discourage any possible hierarchical cliques.
    Forgo round tables to promote creative congregating. Some ideas:
    " Set up TV trays around couches for a living room feel.
    " Have picnic tables and benches brought into the ballroom.
    " Arrange thatched tiki huts (available from party suppliers), camping tents or even large beach umbrellas around the room (all furnished with pillows and mats for seating) for cozy, intimate gathering spots.
    Ditch the dishes. Ditch the formal plated dinner or buffet in favor of family style dishes on tables or, if seating is less formal, individual picnic baskets. 
    Rethink the bar. Rather than an open, all-you-can-drink bar (along with the financial and legal considerations of such), consider some alternatives.
    " Offer a wine-tasting by giving attendees several petite flights (glasses) of varietals from the same vineyard, typically from different vintages.
    " Serve just one type of trendy alcoholic drink, such as cold sake or Hpnotiq, the neon blue-hued elixir made from vodka, tropical fruit juice and cognac.

Be Philanthropic
Give the event a charitable twist.
Is there a cause that would be particularly meaningful to the company or individual employees?
    Consider asking employees to do a “pantry purge” and bring nonperishable food items to the party, to be delivered to a local shelter or food bank. Or, have the staff participate in a coat drive via the Salvation Army or other organization.

Calendar Switch
If you have not yet announced a date or booked a venue, why not try the novelty of throwing a holiday celebration after Jan. 1? Not only will you have a greater choice of venues, but prices typically plummet in the low season following the holidays.
    Another financial consideration: The new fiscal year might allow for a larger budget for festivities.

Party Share
Rather than limit the event to your firm’s employees, why not throw one with strategic colleagues, such as vendors or customers? Shared costs can allow employees of both firms to enjoy a grander celebration, and employees can build relationships with people they typically don’t get to see in a social setting.