Put down that mistletoe and let us talk about good cheer and bad risks. Hosting company holiday parties certainly cheers up the end of year receipts for hotels and restaurants, but we shouldn’t forget the folks down the hall in risk management. Every year the Journal offers a refresher course on what we call cheer management for the most wonderful and riskiest time of the year in hospitality. Let’s talk about what to do when planning for all the things that can go wrong when merrymakers gather for holiday festivities.
This year’s list of things that can be naughty and not nice:
- To party—or not to party? Company sponsored holiday parties are far fewer nowadays than in years past. This trend has been underway for some time, especially among large employers, but COVID-19 made such gatherings essentially impossible for the last two years, so the following cautions apply to a much smaller population now. But bear in mind that smaller, more informal get-togethers carry all the same risks, whether we are talking about a local company affair with a few dozen invitees or a club or association festivity—or even an extended family affair. Indeed, these more intimate parties may well require more work on your part since they don’t have their own risk management people to make certain that guidelines are in place and observed.
- Open bars: The good news is that fewer organizations offer open bars nowadays, but this should not distract you from the need for portion control with all types of alcohol.* Ticket systems with no cash bar can keep the cheer from overflowing. When making arrangements with the party’s sponsor, always be very clear about how drinks will be limited/capped. You also need to be clear about the procedures for dealing with guests who arrive already a few drinks into the evening. It’s up to the event sponsor to control guests’ expectations and back you up in maintaining control.
- Children: Most events are adults only, but some family and social club gatherings include kids, and that brings a whole kit of additional risks. Two key examples are holiday plants, many of which are poisonous, and the ubiquitous choking hazards of everything from parts of table ornaments to many hors d’oeuvres. Classy finger foods for adults can be a choke hazard to children who don’t know how to handle them.
- Getting home: Getting guests home in one piece is easier now than in days of yore because we have Uber and Lyft as well as old-fashioned taxis, but we still have to make certain that guests use these services. Ask the sponsor to set up a pre-paid ride share for the event. Have safe parking for those wise enough to know they can’t drive home. Make it happen.
- Food allergies: These are always lurking but people are less cautious at a holiday party. A limited, choose ahead menu is best if the sponsor understands the risks—this accommodates the vegans and other special diet folks as well.
- Entertainment: If you are looking at a larger event with scheduled entertainment, confer with the sponsor. We all know how sensitive people can be nowadays. While an inappropriate musical act or comedian may not present a physical hazard, there is a ripe potential for reputational risk that could dog your venue for years to come.
- Security: Depending on where your venue is located, any large event involving numbers of people and alcohol may call for a formal security presence. Again, talk this through with the event sponsor and keep in mind that one of the most dangerous locales at night is anyone’s parking lot.** (BTW, is your outside lighting up to snuff?)
- Keep it clean: Premises maintenance is always key to minimizing slips and falls and similar types of risk. Holiday events put an even higher premium on keeping floors and other facilities clean, mopped, and so forth. Year-end weather doesn’t help. This is the worst time of all to have a slippery entrance or puddles in the restrooms. Too much cheer can make your guests clumsy and even more likely to slip on a postage-stamp-sized pool of melted snow.
You can’t keep overly cheerful guests from saying things they shouldn’t to the CEO or getting handsy with club members or having profound morning-after regrets about the interactions of cocktails and canapes,*** but you can help them get home in one piece. That’s the spirit, after all. As my old Swedish grandfather told me, any Christmas or New Year’s party you can walk away from wasn’t all bad.
*All forms of alcohol—back in 1959 your then under-aged correspondent got seriously blitzed on brandy balls. Gee, they tasted good—thought it was just flavoring. Then I tried to stand up.
**Personal experience again—some years ago your correspondent ran into a serious physical altercation leaving a high-society New Year’s gala at a thoroughly upscale venue two blocks from city hall in a major city, with no security in sight. Not good.
***Combining alcohol and saturated fats is the royal road to serious heartburn in the near term and steatohepatitis (advanced fatty liver disease) in the longer term. Quite a garnish to put on a hangover. Yeah—more personal experience.