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November 27, 2023

Company holiday parties poised for bounce-back year after pandemic lull

HBJ PHOTO | SKYLER FRAZER General Manager Julia Miller stands inside the Bristol Event Center’s 30,000-square-foot facility, which opened for business this fall.

With the holiday season now underway, some venues are seeing increased booking activity as companies plan in-person, end-of-year celebrations after a few less-than-normal years following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following 2022’s bounce-back year for in-person events, the 2023 holiday season is poised to be another step toward normalcy, experts say.

Many companies are once again planning in-person holiday parties for their employees, and clients in some cases, offering further proof that certain COVID-19 hesitancies are leaving the public consciousness, even if things like hybrid and remote work are here to stay.

Those who run event venues see the ramped up holiday party season as representative of the industry’s rebound, after some tough years during the pandemic.

“There are so many positive things happening in the events industry this year,” said Julia Miller, general manager of the Bristol Event Center, which opened its doors this fall. “As a whole, the industry saw attendance numbers increase this year based on previous years, especially since COVID. We and our planners are seeing our clients want to have a holiday party and want to be in person.”

In-person bookings

Office holiday parties have gradually returned since the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the globe in 2020.

Last year, 56.9% of companies said they were having in-person holiday parties, according to global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., up from 26.6% in 2021, and just 5.3% in 2020.

Despite just opening, the Bristol Event Center has several company holiday parties scheduled for December, Miller said. The 30,000-square-foot facility has different event areas that can host smaller parties with a few dozen people, or up to 500 guests in the 9,400-square-foot main ballroom, which can be split in half for smaller gatherings.

“I do believe that more companies right now are planning in-person events, they know that people have this desire to interact together and get out of the office,” Miller said.

Jillian McFarland, director of catering and events at the Hartford Marriott Downtown, said her venue has seen not only repeat holiday party customers, but new bookings from companies that want to get their employees back together following years of no end-of-year celebrations.

“We probably started booking out about six months ago, and are already sold out for our peak days,” McFarland said.

Hartford Marriott Downtown has a large ballroom that can host up to 500 people, and a smaller room that can accommodate up to 150 guests. There’s also a restaurant dining space that can be booked for private events. McFarland said the venue did do some holiday party bookings in 2022, but it was clear that many companies still weren’t comfortable with large in-person gatherings.

“The numbers weren’t as high (last year), and this year we’re noticing more people turning out for these events and maybe aren’t as cautious as last year,” McFarland said.

Robin McHill, director of sales and marketing at the Marriott, said the venue is booked by companies from a wide range of industries, including insurers, financial firms and manufacturers.

Bringing the party back

Andrew Lattimer

For some, the decline of the company holiday party predated the COVID-19 pandemic. Accounting and consulting firm CliftonLarsonAllen is hosting its first big companywide holiday party since 2007, said Andrew Lattimer, a managing principal based out of CLA’s West Hartford office.

“Back in 2008, when we had the financial crisis, we kind of stopped (holiday parties) and started doing just some more things in the office,” Lattimer said. “In the last ten years, we’ve done things where we have some appetizers, maybe drinks and hot chocolate, but more things that were just in the conference room on a Friday afternoon. But our events committee felt like they really wanted to do something a bit more formal this year.”

Lattimer said he thinks it’s important for staff to meet and have quality time outside of working hours, and a holiday party is something CLA employees were asking for this year. Minneapolis, Minnesota-based CLA has three Connecticut offices spread across the state, so the firm picked a banquet hall in Prospect for this year’s local holiday celebration.

“Especially in these times, I think it’s important for people to have something that they’re feeling good about,” Lattimer said. “There is obviously a cost to doing it, but the truth of the matter is that it’s also a ‘thank you’ to the employees that have been working hard all year, and we want to recognize that. People want to get back together, they want to get back to celebrating together.”

Eric Hogarth

Wethersfield-based financial planning firm Johnson Brunetti has typically hosted holiday parties in a different capacity. Johnson Brunetti Partner Eric Hogarth said the firm hosts a holiday brunch with both employees and clients as a way of celebrating the year and connecting names with faces. The firm collaborates with local nonprofits to use the party as a fundraising mechanism as well.

The pandemic put the annual event on hold for two years, Hogarth said, but it returned in 2022. Johnson Brunetti’s 2023 holiday brunch will take place next month in Haddam.

More than 200 clients are expected to attend the event, which will include a coat and toy drive, Hogarth said.

2024’s convention climate

Beyond this year’s holiday season, venue operators said they expect a continued uptick in event activity in 2024.

“We think it looks like a good citywide convention year here in the city, so that’s very positive,” said McHill, from the Hartford Marriott Downtown. “Much like we’re talking about holiday parties kind of being back to their full level of greatness from pre-COVID, we’re seeing that in the citywide convention realm as well, relevant to events that are happening at the Connecticut Convention Center.”

Miller, from the Bristol Event Center, agrees that the events industry is primed for another bounce-back year in 2024, as it moves further past the pandemic.

“Looking ahead to 2024, I just feel like we’re going to see the numbers get even stronger for events,” Miller said.

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