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Firms shifting to mix of virtual and in-person holiday parties during COVID

Jillian Weston, forefront, owner of Jillian's Circus, an

Jillian Weston, forefront, owner of Jillian's Circus, an Oceanside-based online marketing company, with her staff. Weston decided this year to do a mix of virtual and in-person holiday festivities. Credit: Liz Degen Photography

During pre-COVID times, companies would already be gearing up for their holiday parties.

But this year comes with uncertainty and companies have to be more creative with how they spread holiday cheer with some firms planning distanced gatherings and others incorporating virtual fun into their holiday festivities.

"It’s a very different year," says Hillary Needle, president of Hillary Needle Events, Inc., a Dix Hills-based event planning and marketing firm. "Companies are focused on their employees’ health and safety first and foremost."

She says many firms are still trying to figure out what they’re doing.

"I get a lot of calls asking for guidance on how to handle the holidays this year."

Needle recommends first reaching out to the DJ or entertainment firms you’ve used in previous years to see if they’ve pivoted to a virtual event platform "so businesses can still support these struggling entertainment companies."

There are a host of virtual options to consider like perhaps a team-building activity where you send employees an activity such as a wreath-making kit they can do together virtually or a virtual wine tasting working with a winery to send mini-bottles to employees and have a sommelier discuss the wines, Needle says.

Jillian Weston, owner of Jillian’s Circus, an Oceanside-based online marketing company, decided this year to do a mix of virtual and in-person holiday festivities.

In past years, she had a larger gathering at her offices or at a restaurant, but that wasn’t an option this year. So she mailed out paper invitations to about 100 clients and vendors with the date, time and a Zoom link for a virtual holiday gathering. She even included the recipe for a specialty drink called "Jillian’s Circus Jingle Juice" they can make at home.

There will be a live performer providing music, an event host to keep the fun going, and attendees will have the opportunity to play a virtual escape room game with prizes for winners, Weston says.

Then after the Zoom event, she will take her five staff members to an outdoor igloo at a Rockville Centre restaurant to celebrate the holidays.

She said it works out because over the years she’s had clients across the country that couldn’t attend their holiday party and who now can.

Virtual gatherings will be more the norm this holiday season.

"We’ve gotten a massive uptick in inquiries and sales for holiday business socials," says Ed Stevens, CEO Of Dallas-based Preciate, which offers a virtual socializing platform for businesses and teams.

Their platform allows attendees to virtually move around a party room and simulates a "real" party environment. For example, voices get louder when you virtually move toward a person and lower as you move over to another person. Hosts can also pick backdrops like a snowflake theme and music that is custom curated by Preciate so participants can enjoy music as if they were at a real-life mixer.

"The most popular channel for parties is the Jazz channel," says Stevens, noting there’s a free version of Preciate Social limited to 20 people for 40 minutes. For an unlimited version, pricing varies based on different plan options.

While there are virtual options available, many companies' plans are still in flux, says Cindy Mardenfeld, president of Deer Park-based Infinity Relations, which does event planning, media outreach, strategic planning, social media and marketing.

She thinks plans "this year will be last minute if anything’s going to happen," given uncertainty around COVID and cases rising.

But virtual options will likely be utilized including virtual holiday gift exchanges, Mardenfeld says.

At Melville-based Genser Cona Elder Law, employees will do a Secret Santa gift exchange using, says managing partner Jennifer Cona.

They will also do a socially distant holiday party on Dec. 11 for about 30 employees with individually packed lunches, she says.

They would normally go to a restaurant, but staff preferred not being in a public environment, Cona says.

They’ll also decorate gingerbread houses, paint ornaments and play games in the office while observing distancing.

For their charitable initiative, the firm is sponsoring a holiday drive-thru with the ELIJA School, which serves students on the autism spectrum. Employees will work with students to set up the displays for the event, to be held at the ELIJA Farm in South Huntington. The display will have different themed decorations and lights, and the public can attend in their cars.

"We always want to do something hands-on," Cona says.

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Fast Fact:

One year after nearly 76% of companies planned to hold holiday parties, just 23% of companies are planning a year-end celebration this year, and 74% of those will be virtual events, according to a survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.


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