Out of the GIFT BOX

Meetings & Conventions Out of the GIFT BOX November 1999 Current Issue
November 1999
Out of the Gift Box.

Out of the GIFT BOX

Eight new twist on the conventional holiday bash

By Carla Benini

At some companies, the annual holiday party is as predictable as paying taxes. Employees know what's coming: festive invitations, long buffet tables festooned with garlands and ivy, a jovial Santa bellowing holiday salutations, perhaps an electric menorah set near a Christmas tree.

Bah humbug. Creative planners are putting new twists on the typical bash, meshing themes that are retro or futuristic, even some that have absolutely no connection to the season. Another tactic: Skip the holiday season and hold a party after the new year, when calendars for venues, catering companies and employees aren't as full, stress levels are lower, and Y2K is less of an uncertainty. "It's a very strong trend to do [holiday parties] in January," says Meg Holland, president of Events Unlimited Inc. in Newton, Mass. She finds better availability and much better negotiating power during this typically low season for venues.

So, leave the tinsel in the box this year and consider alternative themes that are sure to bring joy to the corporate world.

Going mod
Linda Surbeck, CEO of Master of Ceremonies, a special events company based in Louisville, Ky., conceptualized a futuristic Merry Millennium theme for a tobacco company. The room is done in a palate of metallics, pinks and purples, with silver metallic rain curtains separating the cocktail and dinner areas. Chairs are covered in stretchy metallic spandex, and tables are laid with mylar and set with funky centerpieces. From the ceiling hang 20-foot-long icicles sculpted from fabrics. The focal point of the room is a Christmas tree created by stacking foam-board reproductions of the company's logo (in this case a tobacco leaf).

So near and yet so far
Richard Aaron, CMP, president of meetings and events for New York City-based Mallory Factor, created an Across Time Lines to the Millennium party, at which revelers are transported to a different country and culture with each change in course. Attendees may "take off" from South America, where salsas and chips, plantains and Brazilian snacks are served. Dinner might be in India with a selection of curries and chutneys. Dessert is in Australia, where the first New Year's parties will be celebrated. Executives are encouraged to don flight attendant uniforms, and entertainment follows the flight path, presenting music from various pit stops.

The metamorphosis
Change, transformation and the advent of a new year were the inspiration for an avant-garde gathering planned by Barbara Lee Cohen, president and CEO of Chicago-based Productions USA Inc. Room decor is "cosmic," with stars hanging from a lowered, black-draped ceiling. On stage are scenes of a rising and setting sun and moon, all projected by lights. Roaming the party are actors impersonating celebrities Shirley MacLaine, Dennis Rodman, Madonna who are known for transforming their personae. Guests can even transform themselves, at least on paper: An area is set up where people can choose another body for their heads and see the results on a photo-generated printout.

The cocktail area features food on TV dinner-like plates and vintage refrigerators stocked with beer.A sitcom sit-in
Chicago-based Paint Me A Party Productions offers a St. Nick at Night event that capitalizes on the Nickelodeon cable-TV channel's collection of syndicated treasures. Sally Schwartz, president and founder of Paint Me A Party, suggests sending out mock TV Guides as invitations. Decor includes a cocktail area strewn with La-Z-Boy recliners, TV trays heavy with food on TV dinner-like plates and vintage refrigerators stocked with beer. Shows from the '60s and '70s theme each table; tabletops hold sitcom-specific trivia, vintage ornaments and Santa hats for everyone. While the disco music blares, TV monitors play Christmas episodes of classic programs.

Red all over
One event takes a color and themes it to the extreme. Rita Bloom, president of Creative Parties Ltd. in Bethesda, Md., opts for a daring red. A bar labeled "Caught Red-Handed" is enclosed by a cell-like structure; guests must reach between the bars to grab a drink. A "red hot" pizza station displays pies on ironing boards. Wackier props include a mannequin diving into a bathtub filled with red Nerf balls. Decor extends to the rest rooms, where stalls are draped with red curtains and lit with red candles. Of course, attendees are asked to wear red.

Stocking hop
Jingle Bell Rock is the apropos title of an event planned by Mary Tribble, president of Mary Tribble Creations in Charlotte, N.C. The corporate holiday party is everything '50s, starting with the 45-inch records that serve as invitations. Decor features a retro color scheme of teal and pink. A Christmas tree trimmed with musical notes and 45s is set next to a vintage convertible Mustang overflowing with wrapped presents. Santa is poised on a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and waitresses don poodle skirts. One area of the room is a "greaser hangout" where attendees get temporary tattoos. During the band's breaks, '50s tunes blast from a jukebox, and a Twister board is laid out on the dance floor. Even the food is vintage Americana: meat loaf, peas and mashed potatoes.

A toast to neuroses
For the holiday-crazed attendee comes Santa Claustrophobic and his Aviophobic Reindeer: 12 Steps to a Happier Holiday, a theme being pitched to a group of Silicon Valley Gen-X workaholics by Paint Me A Party Productions. The room decor is strictly white to mimic a sterile psychiatric ward. Inflatable furniture (to avoid any sharp edges) occupies bar areas. Dinner consists mostly of soft foods, because there are no knives on the table, of course. The menu might include the likes of Jell-O molds or mashed potatoes. Nurses attend to the crowd, serving beverages in beakers. And Santa isn't offering gifts here; attendees tell Claus which of their neuroses they want addressed, and he pulls an appropriate self-help book from his bag of goodies.

A family affair
Give workers the gift they cherish most: family time. Mary Tribble says she is receiving requests for kid-focused, weekend-afternoon events. Centerpieces are toy-themed, with giant jack-in-the-boxes, hobby horses and brightly colored packages. Face painters create holiday motifs. Kid-friendly food stations offer peanut butter-and-jelly canapés and chicken fingers, and a station is set up for cookie decorating. A cost-saving option: Forgo the full bar and offer beer and wine, as people tend to drink less alcohol when their children are present.

If the budget allows, ask employees for information about their children in advance, then buy appropriate gifts and have Santa distribute them. Another nice touch: family portrait-taking.

Attendees design and assemble centerpieces, which later are judged.Get artsy
Tap into attendees' creativity with a museum event conceptualized by Paint Me A Party Productions. The party begins early with a session in which attendees who are given berets to wear for the evening design and assemble Christmas tree centerpieces, which later are judged. Among other artistic endeavors, guests make gingerbread houses and create a collaborative paint-by-numbers mural that covers an entire wall and eventually reveals a holiday message. A martini-mixing station invites revelers to tint their drinks with food coloring. Instead of linens, tables are wrapped in brightly colored plastics. The food is upscale and, of course, artfully presented.

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