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Ah, your office’s winter holiday party. A time for themed drinks and regrettable sing-alongs. A time to reflect on the year with colleagues and deal with a headache the next morning.
And if it’s the end of 2020, and you work in finance or at a big law firm, it’s a time to sit on a Zoom call for another hour (but this time, it’s for a professionally planned party) and open up the fancy gifts your employer sent home — like a Hermès travel bag or snacks and beverages to eat together, apart.
Firms known for their opulent year-end parties are ditching in-person events for safe and often cheaper remote alternatives during the coronavirus pandemic, companies and event planners around the US said in interviews.
Company leaders are concerned about adhering to safety measures as new coronavirus cases have spiked to devastating new levels around the US this month. They’ve canceled even small socially distant in-person plans and opted for fully remote gatherings, plugged-in party planners told us.
They are also just as worried about the optics of spending money for fun and games as firms tighten their belts during the economic turmoil and some resume layoffs, a sentiment reminiscent of those around parties in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
The global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimated that just 23% of all companies it polled said they planned to hold holiday parties, down from 76% a year ago.
Most of those will be virtual events, according to its October survey of 189 US human-resources representatives across industries. Just over 1% of them said they planned to hold in-person gatherings “without any precautions.”
Firms don’t want to have a ‘let them eat cake’ moment
Up until mid-November, two of Marcy Blum’s financial-services clients had planned to hold small socially distanced holiday dinners for senior leadership. Then new coronavirus cases started rising aggressively.
Blum is a veteran event planner who founded the New York-based Marcy Blum Associates and has been noted for planning soirées like LeBron James’ secretive 2013 wedding. She was touring a yacht in Miami for an event there — where guests will receive on-site tests — when we called her one recent afternoon. A client was looking to hold an outdoor birthday party after initial plans for gathering at a nearby hotel were thrown out the window.
Blum has held large in-person events for the two financial clients, one a bank in the Midwest and one a New York-based hedge fund, for the past few years. Blum, along with the other event planners we spoke with for this story, declined to specify her clients.
Since both clients recently pulled back on plans to hold in-person events, Blum will help send out packages to the firms’ employees: One will come with food and beverages, and the other is still being planned.
Corporate clients are concerned with the optics of an in-person or over-the-top gathering, Blum said.
“In the best scenario, they don’t want to look like they are throwing money away,” she said, adding that leadership was generally concerned with appearing like they were acting in an out-of-touch “let them eat cake” manner.
When it comes to budgets, there is “no comparison” between in-person and virtual events. For instance, a headline entertainer for a Zoom event could cost in the neighborhood of $35,000, while in-person talent would come out to several hundred thousand dollars, she said.
One executive who knows a thing or two about headlining an event is Carla Harris, the vice chairman of global wealth management and senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley. Harris, who has been with the firm since 1987, is a gospel singer and for the past two years has given a holiday performance for charity with other Morgan Stanley employees at the Apollo Theater in Manhattan, New York.
This year, the firm is taking the show, “Holidays From Harlem with Carla Harris and Friends,” virtual. Hundreds of employees globally submitted auditions to participate virtually, according to a description of the event seen by Business Insider — and 28 singers were selected to perform. The show benefits children’s hospitals.
PayPal is another company planning a fully remote affair this year. The digital-payments company is headquartered in San Jose, California, and has about 25,000 employees globally. It usually holds dozens of holiday parties for PayPal’s offices around the world — this year, not so much.
PayPal plans to hold a virtual global holiday party, hosted on a custom PayPal-designed videoconferencing platform, that will run for 29 hours straight. There will be magic shows, a spokesperson said, as well as origami-folding and cooking workshops and games of drag-queen bingo.
Employees are meant to access the party, scheduled for mid-December, at any point during its open window, and leaders at the company will host events at different times. The company is also planning to send gifts to employees from local businesses.
RBC Wealth Management, headquartered in Minneapolis, is choosing not to hold a firmwide party. Some groups within the business are opting for virtual gatherings, though, like one manager who is hosting a virtual cooking class with a restaurant group. Another is planning a virtual happy hour with a bartender showing how to make cocktails and mocktails, a spokesperson said.
Hopefully, the tech works
One recent afternoon, when we called B. Allan Kurtz, the managing director of the New York venues Ziegfeld Ballroom and Gotham Hall, he was in the middle of planning an event for a bank. In past years, Gotham Hall has held holiday parties for firms including the private-equity giant KKR, Reuters reported four winter holiday seasons ago.
“Everybody’s biggest concern is the internet,” Kurtz said. “How many times have you been at an event and the video was supposed to roll and didn’t? Well now, that’s your whole show.”
Both midtown Manhattan venues he oversees are usually booked solid with holiday parties for financial-services companies and law firms and other corporations. This year, his venues have created elaborate online platforms that clients can use as a backdrop for their celebrations, and he has been planning a handful of virtual holiday parties and assisting banks and other clients in creating gifts to send to staff, he said.
By mid-November, he’d hoped to be able to hold at least hybrid events — part in person, part virtual experience — but firms are shying away from planning any in-person interactions. The bar is high for keeping employees entertained while they’re already sitting at home all day in front of their screens.
“You’re not at a four-hour party where you’re there from 6 to 10. You have peoples’ attention an hour and a half, max,” he said. “How long are people going to sit in front of their computers?”
Execs are definitely sensitive about how bashes look right now, even if they cost less than a typical year’s plans, he said: “Nobody wants to be an elitist,” he added.
Wells Fargo Advisors, headquartered in St. Louis, is another instance of a firm relying on technology for part of its holiday experience and its balance of holiday cheer with an uncertain moment for Wells Fargo employees.
The wealth manager created an online “wall of gratitude” where employees can post messages to each other and is hosting a series of speakers on the importance of “gratitude,” a spokesperson said. The firm is also shipping out home kits for baking and decorating sugar cookies.
Wells Fargo Advisors has about 12,900 financial advisors around the US and thousands of other representatives. Its bank parent had 274,900 employees as of September 30, though it has laid out plans to aggressively cut costs through means such as layoffs.
Some smaller firms are also opting for custom gift ideas. Priya Kumar, the founder and chief event planner of the New York- and Los Angeles-based Premini Events, said several of her hedge-fund clients were going the route of giving employees customized legacy gifts or a mental-health day instead of a party.
“People are Zoom’d out,” she said. “They’re already on it for work. They want relaxation, some sense of normalcy.”
One New York hedge-fund client is planning to send employees overnight bags by Hermès — the luxury brand that sells bags and other high-end goods that retail up to tens of thousands of dollars — with encouraging notes about looking forward to the day they’ll be able to get on flights and travel normally again.
Another hedge fund Kumar works with frequently has a five-person staff and chose to create customized gifts for each employee. In that capacity, she works with clients on branding and delivering those gifts.
How some law firms are celebrating, virtually
Large and midsize law firms are also working to plan festivities.
Yvette Ostolaza, a partner at the global law firm Sidley Austin, said the firm was considering outdoor-gathering opportunities for the holidays so employees could practice safe social distancing.
Ostolaza, who is a managing partner at the firm’s Dallas office, said in a recent interview that they might go to a drive-in movie theater “with a holiday bent on it.” She had already taken part in a drive-in movie-theater event earlier this year where moviegoers could be together, sort of.
At the law firm Chamberlain Hrdlicka, the managing shareholder Larry Campagna said the firm had given employees in its Atlanta office $75 to buy turkeys, and they planned to hold a virtual turkey dinner sometime during the holiday season.
Campagna has already participated in his share of virtual gatherings this year. Employees in the firm’s Houston office were invited to a virtual wine tasting hosted by a vineyard, with Chamberlain Hrdlicka shipping wine to their homes so people could taste remotely. He said he hoped more people would sign up for the event by the time it was held.
And at a virtual conference on tax disputes hosted by the University of California, Los Angeles, in October, he was asked to host a virtual wine- and cheese-tasting room with about 20 participants. So he took out a glass of wine.
“Not one other person had wine,” Campagna, who works in Houston, said. “It was still only like 4 Pacific time.”
Reed Alexander contributed to reporting.