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How some Philly small businesses are rethinking the office party during the pandemic

By December 17, 2020December 18th, 2020No Comments

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A lunch at a local restaurant. A catered office meal. A special happy hour at a nearby bar. Karaoke. Flyers games. A formal event at a hotel or the Reading Terminal. These are just a few of the ways that small businesses in the Philadelphia area celebrated the holidays in years past. But not this year.

“In past years, we tried to rotate our holiday party at a different bar or restaurant in different neighborhoods in the city,” said Tara Sulimay Acosta, the owner of Sulimay’s Salon & Barber Studio in Fairmount and Manayunk. “Unfortunately, this year we will not be having a holiday party.”

Thanks to COVID-19, just about every small business has had to rethink their office holiday party. Most of these annual affairs have, not surprisingly, gone online or have been canceled altogether. Acosta says that her business is trying to abide by all recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Our collaborative goal is safety,” she says. So no party this year for her.

But not everyone is canceling. Sure, there’s a global pandemic going on and — at least in Pennsylvania — most gatherings are forbidden for the rest of the year. But does this mean that you can’t have your annual office party at all? Not necessarily. There are still ways to celebrate and provide some bit of bonding for your staff during what has been a very difficult year for many.

“Smaller companies are holding online cooking demos, wine tastings and the like,” says Kate Stockton, president of Stockton & Partners Meetings and Events, based in Center City. “It’s a great way to engage a small team and to learn something new.”

Some small businesses are arranging special online classes, while others are overseeing trivia quizzes, streaming movies, doing group meditations, and even using outside services to arrange online scavenger hunts or to solve mysteries. They’re combining the fun with special gifts, like locally sourced products and certificates for nearby restaurants.

Carley Mack, who co-owns Penns Woods Winery in Chadds Ford, is going forward with her holiday party, but this year, like so many others, it will also be all online.

“First, we are planning to all jump onto a Zoom call and then we are going to treat our staff to a virtual vertical wine tasting,” she says. “We can talk and chat and drink and experience the aging of our wines and a toast to bring on 2021.”

Mazda T. Miles, a strategist at Philadelphia’s Perfection Events Inc., says that a few of her colleagues have mentioned some “cool workarounds” like a “drive-in movie event, or a virtual party where everyone received an opportunity to order their meal in advance. The biggest challenge has been the process of planning itself,” she says.

That’s because holding an online event isn’t just about setting up a Zoom call. Experts like Miles advise planning and coming up with ways in advance to keep the call engaging and intimate. Guests need a reason to spend another hour at the screen, and because they can “leave” at any time, the energy and impact has to last throughout the program. Stockton recommends that her clients call attention to the moment by expressing gratitude, take some time to create a few fun topics in advance to talk about, and make sure to test the technology in advance. “Lighting, audio, and camera proximity make all the difference to the viewer,” she says.

Other companies are showing their appreciation in other ways. Stockton says that some of her clients are giving their employees extra days off during the season or extending a holiday break into the first week of January, and many others are sending their teams individual gift baskets or premium gifts.

Or, then again, you can wait, like the owners at Penns Wood Winery are doing. Even though they’re having an online “party” this month, they still plan to hold an in-person holiday party in the spring, when (we hope) things start getting back to normal, and the weather is more accommodating. “That way we can enjoy each other’s company outside and away from the office,” Mack says. And in what they hope will be better circumstances.

Holiday parties, regardless of whether they’re in-person or virtual, have one thing in common: They’re an opportunity for a business owner to show appreciation to staff, partners, and customers. But it doesn’t end there. For many small business owners, this year’s holiday parties are a way to show how much they care for the community around them by purchasing local products and ordering more from nearby restaurants.

“We all need to support each other during these most difficult times,” Acosta says. “We are hoping that next year we can sit around a table and break bread together again at one of the amazing restaurants in our beautiful city.”

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