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: ‘It’s about A-type sales people and the executive branch’: Under the shadow of omicron, the office party has a new, exclusive vibe

Last December, Keith Willard and his party planning staff were assembling fresh flowers, bitters, dehydrated grapefruit, and ham so companies could celebrate the holidays with Zoom
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events on how to make a bouquet, a tasty cocktail or a charcuterie board.

This year, the south Florida-based wedding and corporate event planner hired actors to stage a Christmas village where corporate party guests drive through and have a gift waiting for them. He’s also figuring out socially-distanced hotel ballroom seating charts and has more sanitizing gel than he knows what to do with.

Tonya Hoopes, of Hoopes Events, a Utah wedding and corporate event planner in Salt Lake City and the Park City area, had a quiet holiday season last year. Five companies sought her help getting gifts to staff. The to-do list for Hoopes’ 21 in-person parties this December includes verifying that the catering wait staff is fully vaccinated at one company party she’s orchestrating, and ensuring vendors can supply customized coffee mugs in time for another one.

In Portland, Ore., Nora Sheils has seen a jump in holiday party demand this year, as both the founder and CEO of Bridal Bliss and the co-founder of Rock Paper Coin, software for event planners and vendors. But because of labor shortages, she’s had to scrounge to find catering operations with enough staff to handle the corporate parties on her schedule.

On the flip side, Sheils also has to arrange the distribution of swanky gifts, including one tech company that’s giving out $150 bottles of Pinot Noir to 100 employees at its holiday party. She views these gestures as a genuine “thank you” from companies to employees, but also as an enticement for workers to stay as millions have quit their jobs.

This holiday season, the in-person company office party is returning — and it’s a food-and-drink encapsulation of today’s uneven economic recovery. These events are all over the map in how they look and feel, reflecting the wide array of return-to-office policies as the country re-opens and grapples with the effects of the delta variant and the emerging omicron variant.

The corporate party “is back, I would say, in a smaller, more intimate form,” said Hoopes.

“The corporate party ‘is back, I would say, in a smaller, more intimate form.’”

— Tonya Hoopes of Hoopes Events

“In 2019, it was about being inclusive of the entire staff,” said Willard, of Keith Willard Events. “In 2021, it’s about A-type sales people and the executive branch.”
Companies are well aware of that dynamic and want to get back one day to the 2019 version, he said. But for now, the businesses he’s working with want to make an event for the people who want to be there.

“You want to keep the troops happy. It’s a reward for people working hard all year. What that is for people is very different now,” he said.

Forty percent of companies said they were planning holiday parties this season, according to a recent poll of more than 400 employers by Seyfarth at Work, a human resources consulting firm. That’s up from 6% in 2020, but down from 75% in 2019, the survey noted. The firm, a subsidiary of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw, noted the survey concluded Dec. 1, in omicron’s very earliest days.

The party planners MarketWatch interviewed are sometimes working parties with rules and restrictions, like requiring masks except when eating or drinking and smaller guest lists. But other parties do resemble a pre-pandemic event without ground rules.

One example of the range: Hoopes and Sheils do not have any parties with vaccination proof requirements for guests, but Willard has plenty that require vaccine proof — including a recent 50-guest yacht party. Willard has a stack of COVID-19 test kits at his house and he’s struck a business relationship with a vendor that can do on-site testing.

Omicron is making some party hosts hesitant

The traditional holiday party season comes at a time when more people are getting back into the office. Labor Department numbers show a shrinking number of people who are working from home. In November, 11.3% said they were teleworking because of the pandemic. That’s half the amount in January, when 23.2% of workers said they were working from home due to COVID-19.

Now throw in the omicron variant, which popped on the radar after Thanksgiving. Some early findings suggest the variant could be mild and Pfizer
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/BioNTech
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laboratory results suggest it could be countered with a booster dose. But omicron underscores how quickly things can still change in a pandemic that’s grinded on for almost two years.

“We’ve got companies that are planning holiday parties and I know they are going to pull the plug on them,” said Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth at Work. “They are getting signals of discomfort” from workers about gathering under the circumstances, he noted.

Some employees are too ready to party

Deciding on whether to host holiday parties can be a tricky public health call for some companies, but there’s another factor to consider: employee behavior. It’s been a while since some people have partied with co-workers and there’s a risk some don’t remember how to celebrate responsibly, Weiss said.

“People have been chomping at the bit for an opportunity to let loose and reconnect with each other,” he said. Employers need to know their workforce to determine the risk, he said.

He’s already seen evidence that some employees need reining in at festive group gatherings. Three new company clients have already sought advice and assistance from Seyfarth at Work after problematic holiday parties this year, Weiss said. In one instance, a company’s overnight trip ended with three drunk executives and a bellhop swimming in a Los Angeles hotel fountain, Weiss said.

At another party, two accounting staffers raced forklifts and damaged $12,000 in products at an Illinois warehouse. On the day of a beverage distributor’s party in Nevada, the company hired an armed guard to stand sentry over the alcohol so no sticky-fingered workers would filch anything ahead of the bash.

“Some companies ‘fear either a spike in conduct complaints and/or a spike of COVID cases. Either, or both, will be caused by an event that’s two hours in length.’”

— Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth at Work

Parties as spreader events? A boozy moment spawning bad blood, internal complaints or lawsuits? Why bother? Some companies “fear either a spike in conduct complaints and/or a spike of COVID cases. Either, or both, will be caused by an event that’s two hours in length,” Weiss said.

To host a holiday party or not to host is a longstanding question for companies, Weiss said, “but it may have more resonance than ever.”

Today’s corporate holiday events are driven by business calculations and something deeper, planners said.

“People like to gather. They like to have that festive fun. We need to reward employees, but do it in a way that still feels comfortable,” Hoopes said. With each of her corporate clients, Hoopes gets the sense there’s no expectation of attendance for anyone who doesn’t feel like it.

“A lot of companies are missing that team cohesion,” Sheils said. When it comes to her holiday party clients, “a lot them do truly want to show their appreciation to their employees,” she said, “and they don’t want to lose anyone right now,” she later added.

Some companies are viewing the event as a morale-boosting strategy, Willard said. On the other hand, “I feel like they want something to look forward to, a little bit of normalcy.”

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