It’s official: The majority of company holiday bashes are budget-conscious. In one recent survey, only 16 percent of workers said they’d characterize their company’s holiday party as “lavish.” As a corporate event planner, you want to build camaraderie, demonstrate appreciation, and show off your good work—all without breaking the bank.
As you plan, remember it isn’t cheating to ask people what they will love! Gathering input and suggestions early on in the process helps to build buzz for the event. For the lowdown on some easy polling tools, check out this article on post-event surveys. Before polling, narrow down your request for input and clarify that the sky is NOT the limit. (Without parameters, people will ask for a holiday party in Honolulu.)
Use these budget-friendly tips to design an event that employees (and your clients) will love.
The highest costs for corporate holiday parties are for venues and menus, so we kick off by offering ideas for reigning in the expenses in those two areas. Then we move on to creative ideas for affordable holiday party themes, activities, destinations, and games. Use these budget-friendly tips to design an event that employees (and your clients) will love.
Explore low-cost office holiday party venue ideas:
1. On-site office parties
- Pros: It’s hard to beat the price, or the convenience, and that makes on-site parties a common choice. One 2018 survey found that a little more than one-third of office holiday parties were held on-site. Starting the party a bit before the end of the workday means people enjoy the added perk of wrapping up early.
- Cons: Everyone is still at work.
- Tips: Try not to hold the event in the same room with all of the desks and cubicles. Think about larger gathering area, such as the foyer, the cafeteria, or a lounge or conference room. Include food and games to mark the occasion and set it apart.
2. Celebrate at the boss’ house
- Pros: A very personal and warm gesture from the boss, and a venue price that clocks in near zero dollars.
- Cons: Boss or no, not everyone is up for entertaining. Also, depending on the size of the staff vs. the size of the house, this one is either a possibility or a total no-go.
- Tips: Venue costs may be low, but the boss won’t be hosting AND cooking. Either make it a potluck or add in a catering budget.
3. Rent an Airbnb for the evening
- Pros: A homey feel, and not too pricey. Plus, it’s a new place for everyone to enjoy.
- Cons: There will be additional work for decorating, setup, catering, and serving. Homes are unlikely to have sit-down space for a large party, so consider a “snacky” menu and make sure there’s plenty of room to stand.
- Tips: This option is best for low-key groups. Still, double-check noise ordinances and cleaning fees.
4. A budget-friendly banquet hall or restaurant
- Pros: These are purpose-built to give people the exact thing you probably want: an indoor place to socialize, celebrate, and break bread.
- Cons: These can be pricey, and also run the risk of being ho-hum.
- Tips: To keep the budget down on these popular venues, control your timing. Forget a Saturday in December; look in November or January (when people are less busy anyway), and consider mid-week. And banish the ho-hums altogether: For unique venues for corporate events, check out venue sourcing site Kapow.
Budget-friendly ideas for company holiday party menus
In 2018, about half of companies with a holiday party used outside catering. If yours will be one of them, think about the time of day: a lunch or between lunch and dinner catered party will be more cost-efficient than a catered dinner. Here are some food options for office holiday parties on a budget:
5. Everyone pitches in for a holiday potluck
This is the lowest budget option! The drawback is that it demands work from your employees, plus the food won’t be hot unless you provide chafing dishes.
6. Cold cut sandwich platter or pizza
These are usually the lowest-budget catered options. They are generally crowd-pleasers, but find out who in your ranks might be lactose intolerant, gluten-free, vegetarian, or have other food sensitivities that would prevent them from enjoying the meal with everyone else. Then include gluten-free, cheese-free pizza in the order, as well as salads minus the croutons and cheese that often gets tossed in with the greens.
7. Brunch (but later in the day)
This option does double duty as a fun, unexpected theme. End the work day at three p.m. and serve up some combination of Bloody Marys, sparkling wine, Belgian waffles, toasted bagels with cream cheese, quiche, salad, tea cakes, tea sandwiches, tea, and coffee. It’s brunch, and eggs and other brunch items are filling and affordable. And because it’s mid-afternoon, people will likely have smaller portions than they would need if they were combining breakfast and lunch.
8. A catered meal with a potluck dessert contest
Let people know to save room for all the dessert sampling to come. Award first prize (by juried panel or by vote) for best homemade and best purchased dessert. Here’s a visually appealing and super-easy idea to give you a jump: peppermint bark.
9. Food truck catering
Food trucks are on-trend, fun, delicious, and often less expensive than full catering. They can pull into the parking lot of a venue, or even into the office parking lot if you go that low-cost route. Stay mindful that food trucks in December might be more feasible in SoCal than Maine, so use your judgment.
10. Low-cost food activities
An event where the food is an activity. Budget-friendly options include hot cocoa bar, ice cream sundae bar, or taco bar. These activities (and their high-budget cousins: full cooking classes) appeal to the innate human enjoyment of coming together over food. They also provide an all-in-one cost for activity and menu. Remember that if one type of food is providing both sustenance and activity, it’s extra important to make sure that there are options that will work for everyone.
11. Classic catered reception (but with low-cost offerings)
This is the spendiest option on the list. To keep costs down, opt for lower-cost mains, like pasta or taco bars. If the event is appetizer-based, display a bounty of less costly items, like fruit, cheese, and crackers. Circulate or display costlier fare in small waves.
Low-cost office holiday party themes
The right theme can be a money-saver and, as a bonus, help streamline your event planning checklist. A little decor can go a long way, and all elements of the party—food, activities, and guest outfits—can support the decor.
12. Roaring twenties
Go for black and gold decor and dress. Set up a few stations to play dominoes or Yahtzee.
13. Sixties throwback
People who weren’t around might know the era from Mad Men, all big hair and vintage apparel. For food, think deviled eggs, Jell-o salads, and cocktail shrimp.
14. Totally eighties
Bring neon back. Side ponies, legwarmers, and acid-washed jeans, too. Can somebody hook up Tetris in the conference room?
15. Hawaiian luau
This party theme is so popular, finding affordable decor that makes a splash is easy. Just head to your local party supply store, and your party room will have a tropical flavor in no time.
16. Ski mountain
Have people wear ski sweaters, ski hats—or even ski pants, coats, and goggles. Head outside for a snowball fight if the weather allows.
17. Fire and ice
Create a mashup of the above two ideas. Divide the room between tropical island and snow, or suggest that people to dress for a ski party, but decorate for a luau.
Who doesn’t love the circus? Set up a ring toss or other carnival games, with coffee shop gift cards and small games as prizes. Grab some inexpensive supplies online and set up YouTube on a big screen to teach scarf juggling or plate-spinning.
Unique corporate holiday party ideas
‘Experiences’ are the new ‘things.’ The options below land at a range of price points, but once again, specific planning to fall outside peak holiday season can give the higher-priced items a more approachable cost. Here are some nontraditional ideas:
19. Wish tree present-wrapping party
Partner with a local non-profit organization to provide gifts for a vulnerable population, such as seniors, kids in homeless shelters, or families living in poverty. Set the Wish Tree up in the office and attach gift tags with suggestions for gifts and the first names of recipients provided by the organization. In the weeks leading up to the holiday party, employees can take a tag off the Wish Tree and then put unwrapped presents (with the tags taped on) underneath the tree. For the holiday party, provide a catered lunch, along with wrapping paper, ribbons, tags, and bows to wrap the presents and prepare them for a festive donation.
20. Holiday wellness party
There is already plenty of booze, snacks, and stress around holiday time. Buck the trend and go for healthy snacks that will leave people feeling good. Fold in a fitness or wellness activity like yoga, Zumba, meditation, relay races, or Sweatin’ to the Oldies. Maybe take a poll on which ones people would appreciate most.
21. Ice rink party
This is a n”ice” winter theme. Maybe have a best winter hat contest, and offer a party-room activity for non-skaters too.
22. DIY escape room holiday party
Escape rooms are all the rage! If escape rooms are outside the budget, check out the range of DIY (or DIY-with-help) Escape Room design options.
23. Hatchet throwing party
Yes, really. They teach you how to throw a hatchet. Most are BYOB. It’s an unusual and fun experience that has a bonus team-building element.
24. Museum Hack
Museum Hack team-building activities are “small-group tours for people who think they don’t like museums.” These are great holiday outings for offices situated near museums offering the unique program.
25. Bus-based tours
Skip the sit-down meal, which is a savings already. BYOB and (depending on the rules) snacks, and go on a tour of holiday lights. Some cities have entertainment-based bus tours year-round, like Nashville’s uber-popular comedy-country music extravaganza Nash Trash Tours.
Inexpensive office holiday party games and activities
26. Guess the candy
This is a blindfolded test that just requires a lot of bite-size candy. If the player guesses the candy in one bite, they win a prize.
27. Holiday tradition show and tell
Interested employees can bring pictures, props, decorations, food, and/or games for a “show and share” of their holiday traditions. Have people sign up, and agree on a time limit in advance.
28. Holiday ‘award show’ party
Hold a silly award show. Let employees vote ahead of time, or assign a superlative for everyone. (Ideas to get you started: Best desk/office decor. Smallest dog in the office. Most interesting hobbies outside of work. Best jewelry. Best ties. Most likely to be the first in the office. Drinks most coffee. Most hilarious. Readiest with a .gif.)
Low-cost company holiday party invite tips
29. Free and easy
There are plenty of free online invitation-plus-RSVP sites to make your life easier. For a corporate event, best bets include Paperless Post, Pingg, or Evite.
30. Crafting the guest list
Sticking to employees only for the holiday is a budget-saver because plus-ones can quickly balloon the guest list. If you go this route, it’s truly best to avoid evenings and weekends for the party—as that excludes your employees’ partners.
Grab and adapt your favorite suggestions from the list above for holiday parties that make people and budgets happy.