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Company holiday parties return, sort of

Amid recent surge in COVID cases, the end-of-year bash comes with questions once more.

In pre-COVID-times, holiday parties - like tech firm Vertica's in 2018 - were a loved-and-hated part of corporate culture. Now, like so much else, they're in limbo.Jessica Rinaldi

Back in early November, preparations began for something that didn’t happen much last year: the corporate holiday party.

In Kendall Square, William Kovel, chef and owner at Catalyst Restaurant, heard from companies thinking about how to celebrate safely. Could they host a small group? A larger one? Keep everyone outside under heaters in the December cold, or allow flexibility with rescheduling?

Things were generally looking up. Life science companies, which have largely been working in-person, were starting to book. Kovel — who said that, prepandemic, 65 percent of Catalyst’s December business came from end-of-year work parties — was looking forward to hosting festive gatherings again.

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But as the season inched closer, COVID case numbers surged. And uncertainty grew. Again.

“We’re seeing a few [work parties], but everybody is pretty hunkered down,” said Dusty Rhodes, president of Boston event planning firm Conventures. Even at the parties that are still happening, Rhodes said, her focus has been accurately estimating head count so as to not over-order food and drinks. “It’s just caution, caution, caution.”

Cases in Massachusetts are up again — up to more than 4,800 new cases a day, almost the same number of new daily cases the state saw a year ago — though vaccines have meant less severe illness and death. And though early information about the Omicron variant seems to suggest less severe symptoms than prior iterations of the virus, public health authorities are still urging caution as they study it.

That has companies taking a wide range of approaches to getting everyone together to celebrate what has been a very long year.

Some are still going forward with holiday parties — employees are vaccinated, plans have been made, and no one is banning larger gatherings at this point. Others are taking another look at their parties, choosing to cancel, reschedule, or replan events, in part recognizing that an outbreak at the holiday party may keep workers from spending time with families and loved ones later in the season.

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Rhodes herself, who usually hosts a large holiday party for her staff, skipped it last year and this year opted for some Chinese food in the office. With her clients, she said, she’s been trying to manage expectations.

If employers go forward with parties, Rhodes said, they should recognize that some workers might not feel comfortable coming in, especially those with young, unvaccinated children or immunocompromised family members. Spouses and family members may not make the invite list this year. And no one, Rhodes said, is being shy anymore about asking vaccination status when you RSVP.

“They’re being quite upfront,” Rhodes said. “There was a lot of tiptoeing around the issues. Now, you either are vaccinated or you are not, and you’re either welcome or you are not. And that was not the social landscape six weeks ago.”

The Christmas tree was lighted recently at Boston Common. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Still, for the people who host the parties — restaurants, bars, event planners, and caterers — the uncertainty is another financial hit.

“We had to give up all of 2020 in the restaurant for the holidays,” said Matthew Schrage, director of operations for Serpa Hospitality, which owns Atlantico, Select, and Grand Tour. “And there’s something really special about being in a restaurant in the holiday season. The lights, the conviviality. There’s a lot of joy to be had. And I’m really looking forward to that.”

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Jason Goodrow, senior director of marketing at Kings, said the group of bowling and entertainment complexes has been seeing more interest from companies for corporate gatherings since fall. Part of the appeal is that workers can wear their masks while bowling or playing arcade games, or remove them for eating and drinking if that’s what they prefer.

The key, he said, is “being flexible and really being as empathetic as possible. We understand that people are concerned and their events may change.”

That flexibility means letting companies rent out the full facility during hours when the location isn’t typically open — so companies can host parties during the day — longer cancellation windows, and reduced deposits, said Leo Fonseca, Kings’ chief operating officer.

“Business has picked way back up,” Fonseca said. “But I think there is a lot of uncertainty going into winter with what’s going to happen when everybody gets forced back inside.”

For corporate leaders, the key is being attentive to how comfortable their employees are, said Laurie Halloran, president and chief executive of life sciences consulting firm Halloran Consulting Group. Her company had a smaller party last week, with employees making wreaths and eating a spread of chicken wings and mac and cheese. Roughly half of the 150 employees came.

“It was so much fun to be around the table, looking at and commenting on each other’s wreaths,” Halloran said.

They are tentatively planning another party in their new San Diego office in March, where they’re eyeing a conference room with exterior-facing doors and a lot of airflow, Halloran said. It will still be a holiday-themed party, spring be damned, she said.

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“People have had a challenge to readjust, because everybody kind of felt this was over,” Halloran said. “And the adjustment has really thrown everyone into a ‘when is this ever going to end’ kind of mood.”

And for some companies, anyway, that means the holiday party will once again have to wait till next year.


Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.