Tech company holiday parties will be less merry and more virtual in 2021

The pandemic wiped out the company holiday party. Will it ever come back?

Man video chats on phone while holding champagne bottle

Get ready to close out 2021 just the way you started it — over Zoom.

Photo: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

In Silicon Valley, the company holiday party isn't just for eggnog and Secret Santa. It's a lavish venue for revelry, imagination and massive expense.

After 2020 ruled out large corporate gatherings, some companies are now ready to resume year-end soirees. But venue managers say their bookings haven't yet recovered, with more companies avoiding the spread of COVID-19 by holding remote events.

"We're probably at between 10% and 20% of what we would normally do," said Jordan Langer, founder and CEO of the events company Non Plus Ultra.

Langer's company manages party venues in Denver and the Bay Area, including the 400,000-square-foot warehouse in San Francisco where Facebook held its 2019 Game of Thrones-themed holiday bash.

Another party turned a 250,000-square-foot NPU venue into a Lake Tahoe-style ski lodge, and a third featured a dance floor surrounded by seven or eight "vignettes" with different themes, including an arcade, a hairstyling station and an art wall.

"It just kind of exudes the brand of these companies," Langer said. "Having one of the cooler holiday parties or product launches or any sort of event is marketing spend more than it is on HR budgets."

But this year, Langer is hearing of more companies either planning smaller holiday parties — keeping the guest list to a department, rather than throwing a companywide bash — or holding a virtual party instead.

Both Google and Facebook confirmed to Protocol that they're skipping any major holiday parties this year, with Facebook foregoing any in-person events until at least January.

How will holiday parties look in 2021?

San Francisco's Exploratorium — a popular party venue for its hands-on science exhibits and 3,500-person capacity — has hosted tech companies' holiday parties with themes like "Alice in Wonderland" or "The Wizard of Oz," said Amy Adkins, the museum's director of rentals and concessions.

This year, the Exploratorium is behind where it would have been in previous years, but has already booked a number of smaller parties in December and January. The museum continues to receive rental inquiries as COVID-19 case counts drop in the Bay Area, Adkins said.

San Francisco's vaccine mandate — as well as the vaccine mandates that many tech companies have already implemented — has made clients more confident, though many are still exercising caution.

For example, both Adkins and Langer are hearing from clients who want to hold parties outside in order to prevent virus spread.

"That's definitely a shift," Adkins said. "We're not often talking about how to engage the outdoor space towards the December and January timeframe."

And food service will have a greater emphasis on grab-and-go offerings, Langer said: bento boxes rather than buffets.

How Brex is doing the holidays

Brex, the business credit-card provider in San Francisco, closed out 2019 with a roaring 1920s-themed party with food, drink and live music for its 250 employees (a workforce that has since quadrupled in size and grown more geographically distributed).

"I don't think that's going to happen quite as much anymore," said Brex's chief people officer, Neal Narayani. "I think we're going to see a lot more of these virtual recreations of events like that, maybe even in smaller cohorts."

This year, Brex canceled a 1,000-room venue in Dallas where it had planned to hold its annual all-hands meeting, which was to double as a year-end celebration. Even with vaccines curbing the spread of COVID-19, it seemed too risky to hold such a large event this winter.

Instead, Brex is planning a two-hour virtual all-hands meeting that will involve guest speakers and DJ sets from some "big personalities in the company," Narayani said. Managers will also get a budget to hold holiday gatherings for their teams, either virtually or in person (for small teams based in the same city).

Can virtual events ever be fun?

A Zoom happy hour or a two-hour meeting — executive DJ sets or no — surely can't hold a candle to a 2019-style holiday party. So, how do you do this well?

Brex has suggested managers get creative with ideas like virtual white-elephant gift exchanges, gingerbread contests, virtual Airbnb Experiences, candle making or chocolate tasting.

For the all-hands, Brex is taking inspiration from online content creators and Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, Narayani said.

"There's a real experience out there that comes with digital media," Narayani said. "YouTube influencers are able to pull in tons of people to look at their content, and we're trying to replicate that versus using Zoom to make a PowerPoint presentation better."

To that end, Brex uses the virtual event platform Welcome, which promises to make virtual events "feel like an Apple keynote."

"It's a much more immersive, interactive experience, and we do the best we can to really make it emotional, really connect people to each other in those experiences," Narayani said. "It doesn't replace being in person. It's just, you do the best you can while you're virtual to make something exciting."


This carbon capture startup wants to clean up the worst polluters

The founder and CEO of point-source carbon capture company Carbon Clean discusses what the startup has learned, the future of carbon capture technology, as well as the role of companies like his in battling the climate crisis.

Carbon Clean CEO Aniruddha Sharma told Protocol that fossil fuels are necessary, at least in the near term, to lift the living standards of those who don’t have access to cars and electricity.

Photo: Carbon Clean

Carbon capture and storage has taken on increasing importance as companies with stubborn emissions look for new ways to meet their net zero goals. For hard-to-abate industries like cement and steel production, it’s one of the few options that exist to help them get there.

Yet it’s proven incredibly challenging to scale the technology, which captures carbon pollution at the source. U.K.-based company Carbon Clean is leading the charge to bring down costs. This year, it raised a $150 million series C round, which the startup said is the largest-ever funding round for a point-source carbon capture company.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol covering climate. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.

Why companies cut staff after raising millions

Are tech firms blowing millions in funding just weeks after getting it? Experts say it's more complicated than that.

Bolt, Trade Republic, HomeLight, and Stord all drew attention from funding announcements that happened just weeks or days before layoffs.

Photo: Pulp Photography/Getty Images

Fintech startup Bolt was one of the first tech companies to slash jobs, cutting 250 employees, or a third of its staff, in May. For some workers, the pain of layoffs was a shock not only because they were the first, but also because the cuts came just four months after Bolt had announced a $355 million series E funding round and achieved a peak valuation of $11 billion.

“Bolt employees were blind sided because the CEO was saying just weeks ago how everything is fine,” an anonymous user wrote on the message board Blind. “It has been an extremely rough day for 1/3 of Bolt employees,” another user posted. “Sadly, I was one of them who was let go after getting a pay-raise just a couple of weeks ago.”

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.


The fight to define the carbon offset market's future

The world’s largest carbon offset issuer is fighting a voluntary effort to standardize the industry. And the fate of the climate could hang in the balance.

It has become increasingly clear that scaling the credit market will first require clear standards and transparency.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

There’s a major fight brewing over what kind of standards will govern the carbon offset market.

A group of independent experts looking to clean up the market’s checkered record and the biggest carbon credit issuer on the voluntary market is trying to influence efforts to define what counts as a quality credit. The outcome could make or break an industry increasingly central to tech companies meeting their net zero goals.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (


White House AI Bill of Rights lacks specific guidance for AI rules

The document unveiled today by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is long on tech guidance, but short on restrictions for AI.

While the document provides extensive suggestions for how to incorporate AI rights in technical design, it does not include any recommendations for restrictions on the use of controversial forms of AI.

Photo: Ana Lanza/Unsplash

It was a year in the making, but people eagerly anticipating the White House Bill of Rights for AI will have to continue waiting for concrete recommendations for future AI policy or restrictions.

Instead, the document unveiled today by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is legally non-binding and intended to be used as a handbook and a “guide for society” that could someday inform government AI legislation or regulations.

Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights features a list of five guidelines for protecting people in relation to AI use:

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories