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Company holiday parties are making a comeback, but many employers have a plan B

TORONTO — When the December holidays near, Lee Piccoli will thank his staff for a year of hard work over an informal toast at his homebuilding company's Guelph, Ont. office.

TORONTO — When the December holidays near, Lee Piccoli will thank his staff for a year of hard work over an informal toast at his homebuilding company's Guelph, Ont. office.

But his colleagues will have to wait until February — and hope that COVID-19 cases stay low — for a chance to dance the night away at a dive bar the founder of Fusion Homes plans to rent for the evening.

"In the past, the February party has always been employees and significant others, but we're just going to do be sensitive to the current environment around COVID...and because after being apart for a year-end-a-half, we really need that opportunity to reconnect," said Piccoli.

His decision to limit guests at the annual bash and change plans if the health crisis worsens are just two of the ways companies are trying to balance the topsy turvy nature of COVID-19 with their desire to mark the holidays.

While some companies are forging ahead with in-person holiday gatherings, others have opted for virtual events or decided to deliver gifts to workers in lieu of a party. Some have even cancelled the festivities.

Caught in the middle are restaurants, party venues and caterers hoping to eke out a profit, but still nervously watching to see if rising cases in some provinces spook business owners out of their plans.

"'What is your cancellation policy?' is the biggest question we are getting," said Kevin Mazzone, the general manager of Vancouver catering service Lazy Gourmet.

Companies are keen to have a plan B, so Lazy Gourmet is offering the chance to switch parties to virtual from in-person, as long as clients give two week's notice.

The switches aren't easy. Mazzone must secure workers in a labour market starved for staff, deal with product shortages caused by global supply chain backlogs and adhere to client standards.

"When you're changing from a 200-person party at a venue to catering boxes, business have sustainability plans, so you can't just go to the market and buy anything," he said.

"All the packaging needs to be sustainable and compostable... and we're finding that being able to stock all of these items is difficult."

But Mazzone is confident he'll prevail and is pleased to see parties return, even if many aren't as big as before.

Lazy Gourmet has bookings for two large parties, 25 smaller events and a slew of deliveries and lunches on Dec. 10 and 11 alone. Pre-pandemic, it catered five large parties and 25 smaller events on a single weekend.

A Lightspeed Commerce Inc. survey of 2,000 restaurant owners, managers and guests showed only four per cent will host a corporate holiday event at a dining establishment this year and only 18 per cent will order to-go catering for a festive party.

Many are also cancelling parties this year because staff are uncomfortable with the idea of physical gatherings, tired of video conferencing or simply not in the mood for celebrations.

Manulife Financial Inc. is forgoing a party, but giving each of its workers $50 to spend on an act of kindness helping a person or community in need.

Renée Pittet, director of business development at Calgary's OneWest Events, said none of her company's corporate clients are moving ahead with in-person parties for their workers' families because children under 12 have yet to be vaccinated.

However, many are holding in-person events for staff, though the guest lists have been pared back and anyone attending must be fully-vaccinated and complete a COVID-19 test in advance.

The biggest corporate holiday events OneWest is involved with will host about 200 or 300 people, way down from the thousands it would serve pre-pandemic.

"We certainly see that people are eager to bring their employees together, but they don't want to rush it," said Pittet.

"When you're not back in your office building, it's tough to say, 'I know we're not at the office, but what about joining 2,000 of your colleagues and let's throw a party.'"

Instead, companies are pushing back parties to next year or asking OneWest to prepare gifts to deliver to worker or stages to serve as a background for virtual events.

Clio is one of the many companies marking the holidays virtually, rather than relying on its annual tradition of flying in hundreds of employees from all corners of Canada and the globe.

Before the pandemic, the Burnaby, B.C. legal technology company put up workers in hotels every January, said Clio's vice-president of people, Natalie Archibald.

Staff were treated to parties, bonding, annual awards and goal setting in lieu of a December gathering that too often clashed with crammed schedules.

This year, they'll log on to virtual sessions with colleagues, performers and Clio executives and find a package at their doorstep with snacks and a high value gift.

While it's too soon for Clio to know whether it will return to its pre-pandemic holiday celebrations, Archibald doesn't expect the company to completely shed its virtual gathering because many employees are comfortable with remote work.

"There are folks that have made life decisions to move to different parts of the world and it would be quite difficult for them to take a few days out of their life to travel across the world," she said.

"What we want to do is make sure that everyone has an opportunity to participate and celebrate in the way that feels good for them."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2021.

Companies in this story: (TSX:LSPD, TSX:MFC)

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misstated Fusion Homes' office location.