Virtual activities replace lavish office holiday parties amid pandemic, but promise interactive fun

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- All this week, we've been looking the new way to holiday in 2020. The office party is changing since employees won't be able to gather together. However, companies and event planners have some ideas to reward employees for enduring hardship during the pandemic.

"No one wants to dance in front of their computer on a Friday night," said Melanie Zelnick, associate director at San Francisco's Glow Events.

In a normal year, Glow starts planning and booking arrangements in the spring for holiday parties as small as 20 or events as large as 2,000 to 3,000. This year, there's a last-minute rush of bookings as companies scramble to come up with a practical yet fun alternative.

The over-the-top office party with spectacular entertainment, food and libations, a favorite choice among big-spending tech companies, isn't feasible due to COVID-19. Event planners say companies have often spent top dollar to reward employees at holiday time.

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"They range from the lowest is probably $250 per person to $800 per person," said Sheila Dizon-Burns, founder of San Francisco's Event Solutions.

This year, she says companies are asking her to create gift boxes costing the equivalent of what they'd spend on a lavish event. She showed ABC7 News what she called a tapas picnic box.

"It's like having a picnic at your house," she said. "And hopefully you have a virtual event that coincides with it, or you can just enjoy it at home."

Other boxes she showed off might feature custom-printed apparel or a cashmere throw or exotic delicacies. As she mentioned, a virtual event can be held to tie into a box sent to each employee.

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It could be a charcuterie class, for example, which Glow Events said is very popular.

"We'll ship out, you know, all of the different kits and the supplies and make sure everything arrives on time," said Glow's Zelnick. "And then we'll be there to support you during the entire Zoom experience to make sure that everything goes really smoothly."

It could be a cookie decorating class, something that Kellie Knezovich of Pretty Little Bakers teaches over Zoom with plain home-baked cookies she sends out along with icing to decorate them.

"You really truly can be super creative with this one," she sad. "It just looks like a - we call it a frame cookie. Nothing spectacular." Then she turned it over, and it was decorated with an ABC7 logo with a Santa hat.

Kellie has discovered that a decorate-it-yourself cookie party works because it's interactive and creative. As a bonus, employees with kids at home can get them to join in.

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"Hey, you get cookies, you get to decorate, do whatever you want," she said. "Draw a smiley face on a Christmas tree, whatever it may be, and then you get to eat it. It is so perfect."

And virtual office parties work well during the daytime.

"You can do it during the day, during normal working hours, that feels like a treat alone because employees are kind of getting the day off," said Glow's Zelnick.

Some companies are trying to line up a few surprises, such as a big name entertainer who can perform live or recorded. Performers don't have to travel, and they can do their act from a home studio. The party organizers don't have to worry about sound and lighting. "They can pre-record all of that in advance and then give us the footage and we can, you know, upload it somewhere, and it can still feel really special," noted Glow's Zelnick.

This season's office party may not be the same as last year's. But it won't leave employees saying "bah humbug."

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