The best gift of all to the hospitality sector this holiday season is the return of corporate Christmas parties.
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While some companies managed to find a way to hold celebrations virtually over the past couple of pandemic-interrupted years, it lacked the usual cheer and left many in the events sector with a lump of coal on their bottom line.
This year, the in-person party is making a revival as the province enters the first December since 2019 without any COVID-related health orders in place.
“It’s bringing millions and millions of dollars back into the community,” said David Howard, president and founder of The Event Group. “This Christmas season is bringing a lot more business and dollars back into the industry.”
He said that over the past 2½ years, the event sector has been ravaged by pandemic effects, which led to many people leaving for other professions.
Ernie Tsu, president of the Alberta Hospitality Association, said being able to host Christmas parties this year is critical for local restaurants, bars and hotels as they try to make back some of the revenue lost due to the pandemic. He said the sector has rebounded to about 2019 levels.
Letting loose seen as means of improving mental health and sense of normalcy
“It’s critical, not just in terms of finances, it’s critical for mental health for people, for every entrepreneur and small business in our industry, in any industry for that matter, to get back to normal revenues and normal staffing levels,” he said.
Lesley Plumley, owner and creative director at LP Events, also pointed to the mental-health aspects of hosting large, in-person events this year.
The trickle-down effect is boosting the sense of normalcy that can bleed into improving confidence in employees going back to work or coming together as community, she said. It gives people confidence in going to these events knowing they are going to be safe and healthy, she added.
She said maintaining her own mental health was critical over the past three years as her business of 20 years was decimated, through circumstances entirely out of her control.
“Mentally, it was it was one of the hardest things that I have ever had to go through in my career,” she said. “But we maintained and were able to make it through on the other end. It wasn’t easy.”
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She said staff took pay cuts and did everything they could to pivot the business with hybrid and virtual events, but it was not the same as having activities in person.
One of the big challenges Howard has faced is companies trying to make last-minute arrangements due to being uncertain about what unforeseen circumstances might arise. He said a number of companies are having to pivot to holding parties in the first couple of months of 2023. Clients are also already booking ahead to next year.
Plumley said her outfit is at maximum capacity with 22 Christmas parties between Nov. 16 and the end of January. In many cases, clients have had to book mid-week parties just to find a venue.
LP Events is also booking throughout the region, with shindigs in Kananaskis, Bragg Creek, Canmore and Lethbridge.
Corporate Christmas gatherings trimmer than in pre-pandemic times
Many of the parties are smaller than they would have been pre-pandemic. If a company was booking for 5,000 guests in 2019, Plumley said, it is probably doing 2,500 this year, with an eye on being fiscally responsible.
Some companies are also starting to book retreats instead of parties, something she has not seen before but this year has two such events.
“One (client) in particular did talk about their mental health and the morale-boosting for their staff,” said Plumley. “What is great about that is they get to get a bit of the work done. They don’t have to do it in January at the beginning of the fiscal year. They’re doing it at the end of the year. People seem to have a little bit more energy this year.”
Howard said despite budgets being tighter this year, companies are still trying to acknowledge their workers and are often tying in charitable causes with the parties, while cutting back on decor, gifting and other areas.
Plumley said she is also seeing the influences of Calgary’s burgeoning tech sector and Hollywood, with plans emphasized on lighting instead of chairs or other elements. In many cases, she said it is taking priority right after food.
“They’re spending (money) on kind of cool digital lighting, so that it’s another wow factor for the guests when they walk into a room,” she said. “They see it in the movies, they see it online and they’re like, ‘we need to have this.’ ”