Creative, cost-effective corporate parties

I was recently joking with a good friend of mine who works in finance, asking him whether the lifestyle depicted in the movie, The Wolf of Wall Street was really what life used to be like for him, and whether he missed those days. His answer was pretty short. “Not really, but yes.”

The reason I asked was because as an event planner and caterer, the movie stuck in my brain for reasons a non-event professional would never be able to understand. It wasn’t the insanity of their lifestyle, or the complete lack of morality that intrigued me, it was something altogether less deep: it was the parties. They looked absolutely legendary! Any time I watch a movie that displays eccentric and limitless celebrations I wonder to myself what it might be like to be the event planner behind those over-the-top events, with boundless budgets and no limits.

There is no doubt that if you are in this business long enough you will get the chance to work on some pretty spectacular affairs, but for most of us this is the exception and not the norm. For those of us who rely on corporate business we see much more modest choices being made, and never has this been more the case as with corporate holiday parties.

Corporate clients, very aware that every dollar spent must be justified, have become more responsible than ever, with many of their events being scaled back or even cancelled.

From this to this

One of the most obvious of the cut backs is the move from seated dinners to less costly stand-up receptions or briefer budget-conscious cocktail parties. To succeed, our job is to anticipate these changes and offer our clients options. While the revenue may drop and likely the profit as well, to retain the business we must find more economical ways for our corporate clients to host holiday events which still meet their goals.

Here’s an example. One of our clients is a media company for whom we have catered a corporate holiday event every December for the past seven years.

This client started as a division with a couple of hundred staff working in a highly competitive arena. At that time the goal of the party was to reward their intense hard work and success achieved through the previous 11 months. A seated six-course dinner with curated wines followed by an after-party was their choice of direction.

Within a couple years the company had grown and been absorbed by a much larger conglomerate who had very a very different idea of what the holiday party should be. With about 700 employees, the shift was made to a stand-up reception/meet-the-president holiday event with elaborate food stations, but still featuring some pretty impressive wines. Later, as the company continued to balloon (now 1,200 employees) we were tasked with finding innovative ways to keep the holiday party relevant for this client and yet reasonable in budget. The result? We moved to a more casual ‘themed’ event. For early 2016 it was a speakeasy concept hosted in an empty warehouse. The employees loved the event, getting into the theme and dressing up for the occasion, while our client was equally thrilled that we were able to cut per-person costs by almost 30% and help them accommodate their numbers, all without sacrificing the integrity of the event and the party’s goal.

The reality is that our business has changed. We are expected to work harder and deliver results with tighter budgets and shorter timelines. This is not just the case for corporate holiday parties but for all corporate events. Here are some things to consider when faced with these types of challenges:

Consider venues that may have fewer amenities but may also come at a lower cost. The cost to decorate these venues can escalate quickly so when appropriate, theme the party to take advantage of the locale and existing architecture. In the case of our corporate client, a warehouse was easily transformed into a ‘speakeasy’ with inexpensive props, lighting, and mix-and-match furniture. Even the entrance through a back alley (which would never have been acceptable for a normal holiday party) added to the allure.

Scale back on the type of food, not the quantity. Since you will likely have to host guests over the dinner hour you still need to feed them a substantial enough meal, but consider your ingredients and prep carefully. Use less expensive options in an interesting way (a 2009 lobster tagliatelle station became a 2016 ricotta and sweet pea stuffed ravioli station, for example). Consider your prep costs, too. The less prep there is, the lower your labor costs. You can pass some of those savings on to your client.

Pulled pork mini meal

Lower your infrastructure. Even with food stations, you have considerable rental requirements—which can add up. For events with 100 guests or less we will often do passed ‘mini meals’ which are effectively the same portion size as what we might serve from a station but can come straight out of the kitchen instead.

Fun action station that makes sandwich building quick and interactive

Keep in mind how much the format affects the budget. Seated dinners require more room (bigger venues = higher rental cost), more rentals (full seating, linens, centerpieces, multiple courses, etc.), and more service staff than stand-up receptions and cocktail parties do.

Lighting can add a lot to a room's décor

Get creative with your décor ideas. Though orchids may have been in the cards in past years, look for alternatives like potted plants (which can often be rented and returned to florist) or greenery and candles.

Champagne or sparkling cocktails might have been all the rage in the past but fortunately, spirits and craft cocktails are now popular. These can be considerably less costly.

Help your client make the right decisions with their budget. Often a client will be unwilling to provide their budget, but the more you can learn, the better equipped you will be to stretch it out. With repeat clients look at past budgets and guest counts; if the guest count goes up and the budget is remaining the same you know you will have to get creative. If the guest count is going down make sure your client understands that some elements will be affected, but not all. Obviously food and bar will come down but venue rental won’t drop, for example.

The bottom line is to keep the corporate holiday business we will all need to work harder than ever for our clients. In return…we get to keep them!

Sebastien Centner is the director of Eatertainment Hospitality and Eatertainment Special Events & Catering, Toronto, Ont. He can be followed via Twitter @sebcentner.

Sebastien Centner

Director | Eatertainment Events & Catering

Sebastien Centner is the Director – Eatertainment Events & Catering, Toronto, ON, Canada. You can find him online @sebcentner and @eatertainment.