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Vidula Patel* will always remember Christmas 2003 as the biggest disaster of her professional career. She had just started her second year working in the human resources department for a large MNC in Mumbai, when one day, her boss approached her with a request.
"I was swamped with work at office and my sister was getting married, so I was already really busy. Then, one day in early November, the head of human resources casually asked me: 'Will you please organise the office Christmas party?"'
While unprepared and unsure, Vidula had a reputation to maintain.
"Up until that point, I was the office whiz-kid. I thought to myself, 'Vidula, it's a party. You've hosted a dozen parties. How difficult can it be?' So, I accepted the task."
But from the start, the process proved more difficult than anticipated: Co-workers weren't happy with the date and venue. She didn't plan enough activities and games. She overshot her budget by Rs 50,000. There was too much alcohol and not enough food.
And that's not even the worst of it.
"Two uninvited guests had too much to drink, and got into a loud but silly fight. One of them, in his anger, ended up driving home from the party in a very inebriated state. It was a complete disaster. My reputation took a big hit following The Christmas Party from Hell."
Thankfully, Vidula's boss gave her a chance to redeem herself the next year, by assigning her the 2004 Christmas Party. This time, Vidula got it right, and the party was a huge success. With rocking 2005 and 2006 office parties under her belt as well, Vidula now considers herself an expert on the subject.
Abhishek*, on the other hand, organises parties for a living. His family owns a catering and party planning service in Goa [Images], and he has managed the day to day operations for the last five years.
"No two parties are identical, so you must always remember what makes your particular party special. With an office Christmas party, for example, there are two main components that distinguish it from others: it has a clear theme (Christmas) and a formal group of guests (coworkers and their families)."
Here, Vidula and Abishek explain what to do and what to avoid when setting up the office Christmas party.
Create and follow a timeline
"As with any large project, you must organise and execute a plan of action. Remember that, even though you're planning an event that is supposed to be fun, it will still require a lot of hard work from you," Abishek says.
According to Vidula, first decide on the date, time and venue. Because your coworkers have differing schedules both inside and outside the office, it's your job to find the time and place that accommodates the most people.
"As far as the date, try to ensure that the following day is a weekend or holiday, so people don't have to come into office. As for time, earlier in the evening is better than later, as people will be less inclined to party too late. I scheduled the 2003 party for a Monday night at 9 pm. Big mistake. Some people drank too much and didn't leave until 2 am! They were quite hungover the next day at work. Other people were too worried about office in the morning, so they didn't enjoy themselves. In later years, I always scheduled the event for a Friday at 7 pm. What a difference! People danced the night away guiltlessly, but still ended at a reasonable hour. Plus, no work the next day!"
After establishing the date and time, you must send out invitations. Be sure to do this at least a month in advance, so that your coworkers can make provisions and plans.
"In 2003, I made three mistakes with the invitations. Firstly, I sent the invitations in the first week of December, only two-and- a-half weeks before the party. Well, nearly half the office cancelled on me because they said I didn't give proper notification. I was mortified! Secondly, I didn't specify that each person was only supposed to bring one other person: his or her significant other. Some people brought their whole families, while others brought two and three friends. We ran out of food because of the extra mouths, and two uninvited guests actually got into a drunken fight. Finally, I had the invitations printed up by a local shop, with white lace and a glossy surface. They were beautiful, but crazy expensive! Now, I just send an e-mail to the whole office. It's easier. It's cheaper. It's better," she maintains.
Once you've created your timeline, follow the list point-by-point, checking off items until you reach the big day.
Create and follow a budget
"What most people don't realise, when setting up a party of this magnitude, is how expensive it is! In 2003, my budget was quite substantial, but I still went over by Rs 50,000. I felt like an owl when I had to turn in the receipts to my boss," Vidula remembers.
"I wanted the ambience to be perfect, so I spent a lot of money decorating the place. I now know that it isn't the money you pour into it that matters; it's the time and foresight. For example, I bought sterling silver jugs and stuffed them with candies for each table's centre-piece. They were nice, but so expensive! The next year, I found some inexpensive plastic jugs and wrapped them in tin foil. Nobody seemed to notice the difference."
Vidula is also wary of big-ticket acts and performers.
"In 2003, I hired a DJ who is well-known on the local music scene. It was a terrible decision. Because he is established in the industry, he was very flippant about the entire affair. He didn't answer phone calls and showed up a half-hour late. Then, he only played certain types of music: hip-hop and trance. All my coworkers, especially the older ones, didn't care for it and actually asked him to stop before the party itself had even ended."
But, according to Abhishek, one should never cut corners on cost when it come to food. You should designate three drinks, a few pieces of finger food and one medium portion of the main course for each guest.
"Quality and quantity, the two rules regarding food. No matter how nice the party is, if the food is either terrible or not plentiful enough, the event will not be a success. Also, make sure you can meet all dietary needs. Meaning, if your office has many vegetarians, you better have something more than a salad for them!"
"Alcohol should supplement your party, complement your party, but never dominate your party!" Vidula asserts, pounding a fist on the table for emphasis. "In 2003, I made the mistake of making alcohol the central focus of the party. There were people playing drinking games and taking shooters of hard alcohol all night long."
Abhishek echoes this sentiment. "As organiser of the event, your guests' behaviour reflects directly on you. So don't encourage people to get wasted, especially at the office party. Remember, in certain cases, the police can even hold you liable if your guests act out of line."
Now, when Vidula organises an office party, she sets a four drink limit for guests, and insists they drink water in between alcoholic beverages.
"One or two drinks help people shed a few inhibitions and let down their hair, so to speak. It encourages inter-personal communication between people who might not know one another outside a professional capacity," she says. "But once people start drinking for the sake of drinking, you're in big trouble. Hidden resentments, personal vendettas and secret flirtations are all more likely to surface during a moment of drunkenness."
"I didn't know this when I first planned one, but the philosophy driving office parties is simple: promote harmony and camaraderie between the company's employees," says Vidula. "Plus, it's meant to celebrate Christmas. It may seem obvious, but there absolutely must be a Christmas slant to your party."
There are countless options: a Christmas scavenger hunt, a costume contest, decorating the company Christmas tree, and Vidula's personal favourite, a Christmas carol contest.
"In 2003, I relied on the DJ and the drinks, which was a horrible decision. Most people stood around with only a few friends, drinking heavily and barely dancing. Now, I insist on a company Christmas carol contest. People are assigned randomly to teams, and each team must sing a handful of carols in a capella syle (singing without the accompaniment of an instrument). The heads of each department serve as judges and moderators."
According to Vidula, these types of games are the best, because they force unfamiliar people to work together towards a common goal.
"After all, that's the aim of all corporations: to get people from different backgrounds to put aside their individual interests and work as a team."
"The biggest mistake people make is acting like the office party is a normal party. It's not," Vidula insists. "If you've been assigned the company party, it's because your boss believes in your organisational and communication skills. Treat it like any other high priority assignment, because you'll certainly be judged on your performance."
And according to Abhishek, while it is demanding work, the rewards for overseeing a good party are two-fold.
"One, your bosses will be impressed with your professionalism. That leads to raises, promotions and job security. And two, your coworkers will always associate your name with the kick-butt party, which is a good way to be remembered!"
*Names changed on request to protect privacy
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