As part of our new series of features taking a look at the projects that PAs and EAs are tackling, we speak to Jo Parkin (pictured, below), Assistant to the VP of Customer Development at Alpro UK, about organising the annual company shindig…
Tell us about a brief you were given for a company Christmas party (number of guests, what you needed to find in a venue, theme, etc).
My brief for our Christmas Party is usually a private party within one hour travelling time for 65-70 people, including one night’s accommodation. Speeches and an introduction need to be facilitated at the beginning and require a memorable location to celebrate a great year. This is one opportunity to say thank you to the staff for their contribution to the success of the company. In the past we have had some very special black tie evenings and the girls in evening dresses, but this particular year they wanted something different – but were unsure what.
When did you start planning the event?
Summer – the earlier you start, the easier it is. You have a full choice of venues and more options available, as well as being able to allocate more time to the event over six months rather than panicking at the last minute.
How did you find the venue?
I am always on the look-out for new venues so I create connections with venues directly, as well as using a venue finding agency to assist where needed. I had been contacted by Warwick Castle earlier in the year and had already saved the idea as a future option. I was also looking for two venues – one for the party and one for accommodation.
And how did you come up with the theme?
Once the location had been agreed, as distance was my first priority, I then looked into how we could theme it. Once we decided on a full medieval banquet in a castle I chose to run with a full medieval theme.
What were your objectives in terms of entertainment and catering?
Requirements are always: Reception drinks for staff to mingle; a good quality three-course dinner, and entertainment had to be fun to get everyone involved. I went for a medieval banquet on long tables with medieval entertainment.
What were the main challenges you faced?
It is always hard to please all invitees and you will always have a minority that will ask for changes. Some staff were wary of doing fancy dress. However, as the event became closer, more and more staff bought into the idea and enthusiasm increased.
I also had to plan departure coaches at various times to ferry staff back to the hotel. In the past I had chosen one venue for the party and accommodation.
Planning the schedule of the evening so you have a good balance of professional gathering and a great party for all staff is important.
Remember, they will talk to friends and family after the event and if you create a special evening this will last in their memory for the rest of the year.
What did you learn during the project?
If you feel a theme will really work for your party, then stick to your plan and fully promote the reasons why this will be a fantastic night. Remember you have seen the venue and are one of the best to advise on a theme.
Promoting the evening several months before really helps get everyone motivated and excited before your event has even started.
Tell us about the suppliers you chose to work with to tackle the project?
I used a venue finding company to organise the payment and major details, which then saves time to plan the finer details in the months prior to the party.
I also used a fancy dress costume company to assist the invitees with hire of costumes
What feedback did you get from your bosses and colleagues?
They loved the location and everyone was able to have a fantastic party in our own private space.
What are the biggest pitfalls one can face when planning an office party?
Drink availability and management of an open bar. If you start serving lots of alcohol before dinner, attendees will get very tipsy early on, so you need to pace the evening out. I have wine and beer on the tables, but only half during dinner, and then I add a second round of bottles during the main course. If you have a bar account set up this needs to be monitored regularly and a rules set in place on which drinks are not allowed on account. For example, I avoid £10 cocktails or lots of shots going on the account.
What advice would you give to a PA/EA who is planning an office party for the first time this year?
Have fun choosing and planning the event! Remember you have to be excited about the location, theme, food etc before your staff can.
Confirm the budget in advance and what is the company policy for allocation of drinks, free bar, etc.
Send out a hold date invite in all expected invitees’ diaries four months before – this helps get full attendance for the event.
Challenge the price if you feel the price per person is too much. If you are doing early bookings then this is much easier than a last minute request.