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."