News & Politics

Yes, Some DC Companies Are Still Having Holiday Parties

Virtually, of course. But it's a challenge making a Zoom party not feel like one more Zoom meeting. Here's how some are doing it.

Coronavirus 2020

About Coronavirus 2020

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Among the many things cancelled by the Covid-19 pandemic this year: the office holiday party. According to the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, just 23 percent of companies they surveyed in October planned to hold a year-end celebration; of those, 74 percent would be virtual.

The number of firms planning parties may have dropped even further as the holidays approached. “Most of our corporate clients reached out to us about a virtual holiday party,” says Kawania Wooten of Howerton + Wooten Events. “Then, they all nixed the idea for various reasons. I think that some of them probably gave up because of finances and some gave up because of pandemic fatigue.”

HuffPost/YouGov survey didn’t find much interest in virtual holiday fetes, with just 7 percent of respondents saying they’d be “very enthusiastic” about one—perhaps no surprise after nine months of staring at screens for virtually everything.

Event planner Aimee Dominick admits that she was worried how festive some virtual events might be, but has recently seen a shift in tone: “Because of the vaccine being on the horizon, it’s not as sad as I thought it would be. It’s this, ‘Okay, we’ll see [everyone] on Zoom, that’s fine. We see the light at the end of the tunnel.’ Everyone feels up for something different.”

Here are the different things that some local employers are doing—including ideas for enlivening virtual celebrations, as well as other ways to reward and bond employees after a trying year.

The Gamers

Many companies hosting virtual parties are betting that employees will enjoy a little friendly competition. “We are doing more and more online game shows like Family Feud and Kahoot. We can do up to 2,000 people at a time on Kahoot,” says Steve Rothenberg, president of Talk of the Town, a party entertainment company in Rockville. Employers are hosting trivia contests, bingo, and virtual escape rooms, often pitting departments or floors against one another to win prizes such as Amazon gift cards.

If it’s not a battle of wits, it’s a battle of skill. At Motley Fool in Alexandria, employees could sign up to receive a gingerbread kit and take part in a house-building contest.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of buy-in for, ‘Hey, it’s a cocktail party, let’s all just get together on Zoom with a drink,’ ” says Dominick. “There has to be some reason, some activity, like guided trivia competitions, or sing-alongs where you are hiring someone to play piano and play live requests.” Dominick suggests having a moderator who is outside the firm leading discussions. “You don’t want to feel you have to be on the whole time,” she says. “It’s much more relaxed if someone else is driving the bus. The point of the holiday party is to relax and do something fun and not have it feel like work.”

The Mixer

If the idea of a holiday office party over Zoom makes you want to drink, you’re in luck. Some companies are doing virtual cocktail classes.

In some cases, says Jamie Kutchman, founder of custom-gift firm Marigold & Grey, companies ship employees a gift box ahead of time with most of the tools they need to make drinks. Other companies send ingredient lists and a gift card for employees to purchase booze on their own. A number of local mixologists, including Carlie Steiner and Sophie Stich, offer virtual, interactive classes.

While there is interest in mixology, Kutchman says: “Usually 50 percent of our [gift] requests involve alcohol. This year it’s far less. You’d think it would be more, but people are concerned about employees struggling with mental health, working at home, jammed in a house with kids who need to be homeschooled, and they are trying to look out for employees.”

Dominick says she has clients offering virtual classes where employees can make either a cocktail or an alcohol-free mocktail—say, a pomegranate mule where the vodka is optional.

Other companies looking to do an interactive activity settle instead on a cooking class, with pasta-making being particularly popular. Dominick also has had employers send their staffs a make-your-own pizza kit from Occasions Caterers.

The Drive-By

If you’re the kind of person who likes to pop into a party for a few minutes and make a quick exit, this is your year.

At Axiom Resource Management, a government contractor in Falls Church, managers were given budgets they could use for team celebrations. One manager chose to dress up as Santa, sit outside one of the offices, and hand out year-end bonuses and holiday treats to his staff.

While Talk of the Town’s Steve Rothenberg has set up many a virtual Santa visit for companies this year, one client requested a Santa in a giant snow globe, so employees could swing by safely with their kids. Tara Melvin, founder of Perfect Planning Events, says some clients have hired caterers to prepare holiday meals, then arranged for employees to do a safe drive-by pick-up. Motley Fool, meanwhile, invited employees to do a drive-through holiday light show with their families.

The Gift Box

Jamie Kutchman says that despite all the cancelled events, her business has doubled this year because of the surge of interest in gift boxes. “You can’t really replace a party, but with a gift box you can try to accomplish some of the elements that a party can do for a company—meaning, employee appreciation,” she says. “We have businesses spending $200,000 for employee gifts, for one order.”

Among the most popular gift boxes, Kutchman says, are ones with cozy-at-home items such as throws, candles, and snacks; family activity boxes with puzzles and s’mores kits; and “immunity boxes” filled with sleep spray, vitamin C packets, bath soap, tea, and more.

Rothenberg has seen companies give out Bluetooth speakers and Airpods. At Advanced Simulation Technology in Herndon, employees are getting a gift box with a LL Bean hat, snacks, hand warmers, hand cream, and a little bottle of bourbon.

Kutchman is working with one company that had to cancel its sales-incentive trip in 2020. “They’ve come to us and said, ‘Hey, can you come up with a gift box that replaces that?’ How am I supposed to do that? It’s a lot of pressure.” What she came up with: a beach bag stuffed with gifts including a beach towel, a Corksicle, and a JBL mini-speaker. “Everything is in bright tropical colors to cheer them up a little bit,” she says. “On the bag it says, ‘See you next year.’ ”

The Socially Distant Gathering

Some companies haven’t given up completely on the idea of gathering in person.  At Axiom Resource Management, one manager used his team’s funds to do a socially distant happy hour outdoors at a winery.

“Some companies are getting smaller groups together, but even that is informal,” Dominick says. ” Because the optics of that—if someone gets sick, it doesn’t look responsible.”

The Charitable Pivot

That HuffPost/YouGov survey that found little enthusiasm for a virtual holiday party found the most enthusiasm—three quarters of those polled—for companies to instead use the money for cash bonuses.

“We’ve seen people decide to skip the holiday gift and do bonuses since it’s been a rough year for people,” says Aimee Dominick.

Other companies have looked outward, at the long lines at food banks and the ominous stories about the many Americans facing eviction. Says Dominick: “We’ve also seen companies doing something small virtually and then directing the rest of the money to a worthy cause.”

Editor in chief

Sherri Dalphonse joined Washingtonian in 1986 as an editorial intern, and worked her way to the top of the masthead when she was named editor-in-chief in 2022. She oversees the magazine’s editorial staff, and guides the magazine’s stories and direction. She lives in DC.