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Friday, September 11, 2009

Creativity can help companies ring in the holidays
Boston Business Journal - by Keith Regan Special to the Journal

As the leaves fall and the number of pages on the calendar dwindles with the daylight, many businesses are starting to turn their attention to their annual end-of-the-year events for employees, customers and business partners.

Although the economic realities — and the perceptions of how it appears to be partying when times are difficult — might argue for laying low, many businesses still want to reward and thank their employees for their work over the past year. That’s especially true since dozens of events were canceled last year at the height of the economic distress.
“It’s different than it was last year, but I still don’t know how many people are in the mood to talk about holiday celebrations this year,” said Dave Dvorak, vice president of catering and convention sales at Sheraton Boston. “We’re putting the focus on the company saying thank you and we appreciate what the associates have done during the past year. Businesses are more open to the idea of a thank you event.”

Of course, companies are also more focused on the bottom line than in many other years and, hotels such as the Sheraton are seeking to address that need for value, offering lower-priced event packages, reward programs — the Sheraton offers bonus points that a business can donate to charity — and more creative party options.

For instance, hotels and party planners are pushing the idea of combined holiday parties, with two or more smaller firms combining resources to share event space and other amenities.

Other suggestions include building holiday events around charitable volunteer or community service work or having employees attend an event as a company, said Chantal Boxer, co-owner of Boston-based Fini Concierge, which offers hourly event and party planning among its services.

“This year the scenarios are a little bit different than in the past,” Boxer said. “We’re encouraging people to plan early and spend some time thinking about what their budgets is and really define what they want the focus or the goal of their event to be.”

Local businesses are fortunate to have a city full of existing activities that can be leveraged as well, Boxer added, from an afternoon of ice skating on the Boston Common Frog Pond to volunteering as a team at a soup kitchen or shelter.

Or, a business could encourage employees to take part in a toy drive and then have the wrapping and distribution of those gifts be the focus of a get-together.

“Everyone loves to get dressed up for an event and have a few drinks and some food, but we’re seeing a lot more companies looking to use their resources to help others in ways that can actually strengthen bonds even more,” said Boxer, whose firm recently opened a Cape Cod office and provides a range of personal assistance to business and private clients.

“People feel good about their fact that their money is being invested that way,” she said.

Scott Alpert, director of sales and marketing at the Westin Copley, said while many years the prime holiday dates would already be booked by early September, many businesses are clearly waiting longer to book their events.

“Most years, the holiday window is filled in three to four months out,” he said. “Right now we’re seeing some bookings, but a lot of the dates are still available.”

Like other hotels, the Westin Copley is creating a number of affordable themed event packages that keep event attendees on hotel property, reducing travel and other costs while still creating varied and interesting events.

“There’s no question companies still want to do that networking and team-building and acknowledging their the efforts of employees over the course of a very tough year,” Alpert added. “Businesses are looking for value and there’s a lot of room for creativity to make that possible on a budget in times like these.”