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It’s the night of your office Christmas party, and your taxi driver is egging you on to do shots during the ride to the venue. When you arrive, a doorman checks your name against the list, teasing you about your Santa hat. Inside the sprawling venue, you search room by room for coworkers you actually like, have a bit of a dance, and then run into your boss in the loo.
This isn’t a fantasy of years gone by — this is a virtual office party, with otherwise out-of-work actors playing cab drivers, bouncers and bartenders, interacting with guests via video. Events company Hire Space builds these virtual parties in a platform with a game-style user interface called Big Top, built on the Sparkle software used to build a digital Burning Man. Just like in a game, attendees can navigate through a map of virtual rooms, such as a comedy club, bingo hall, and jazz cafe, as well as a smoking area and loo. “It has that agency you get at a party,” says Will Swannell, CEO and co-founder of Hire Space, with guests exploring until they find the room with the right vibe and friends. And those rooms — loo included — can be personalised to look like the office toilets or the pub down the street.
“When they get into the taxi, they’re reminded to put their virtual seatbelts on and that they can drink and smoke — if their housemates will allow,” adds Swannell. That helps get people into the mindset that this isn’t work, this is a party, he says, even if they are staring at their laptops.
Instead of getting drunk at a mid-tier restaurant on a December weekday, this year office Christmas parties will be at home and virtual — but there’s much more to them than a Zoom quiz in Santa hats. Event planning companies have pivoted to virtual, offering remote versions of everything from karaoke and escape rooms, to murder mysteries and drag shows. “I’d urge companies to think beyond quizzes, or sharing a drink on Zoom with their co-workers this year,” says Edward Poland, Hire Space cofounder. “It really is possible to elevate the office Christmas party beyond a dystopian pseudo-meeting to something special, experiential and memorable, while supporting the events and entertainment industries, which have suffered.”
To make it feel a bit more special — and to use up that annual Christmas party tax break — some party planners will ship gift boxes to staff with supplies for virtual cocktail masterclasses, gingerbread house making kits, cheese tastings and shared cooking lessons. One company offered a bespoke Great British Bake Off starring former contestants. Zing Events shifted from in-person team building events to Virtual CSI, a festive choice for fed-up coworkers, saying such remote activities are up 55 per cent versus last year, while workplace hologram company Spatial is being used to host VR parties with personalised 3D avatars, and IT services company Velocity is using VR headsets for a celebratory session of virtual paintball.
Mike Walker, managing director at MGN Events, says companies can choose from 60 different activities to weave together into one night for a personalised experience. Some take it a bit too far: one company wanted to hire out a famous venue to live-stream a private performance from a symphony orchestra. “It wasn’t the Royal Albert Hall they had in mind, but it was something of that calibre,” he says. “I don’t know if they’ve got the budget for it.”
There are more classically festive options. Back in the early days of lockdown, farms and petting zoos offered Zoom calls with their animals, so it’s no surprise the same is happening with reindeer. Nick Dean, co-owner at Woodbine Farms, says he’s been contacted for virtual tours of the stables as part of corporate office parties — though, as yet there’s been no requests for the antlered animals to take part in Zoom calls. “It’s a new thing for us,” he says, adding that filming at the farm means they already have broadcast quality cameras.
Boo Productions is offering pre-recorded greetings from Santa as well as video visits for families, though as yet hasn’t had any companies requests for St Nick to join a Zoom call to interact directly with staff. Instead, the requests are as part of a wider streaming event. “There’s all kinds of requests from corporates where they’re having something else happening [on Zoom], like a magician, and Santa comes on at the end of that,” says managing director Susi Freitag.
Given the awkwardness of drinking with colleagues over Zoom — “people don’t want another pseudo meeting”, says Swannell — it’s best to have a few activities, so streamed entertainment or organised games are proving the most popular options. But as with VR paintball and Virtual CSI, not all of them are holiday themed. Nor is Swamp Motel, but it’s still getting holiday bookings. This immersive theatre company, co-founded by Punchdrunk creative associates Ollie Jones and Clem Garrity, pivoted their spooky show to a virtual experience that starts in Zoom but takes players through an investigation into a missing person that sends them poking around corners of the internet, where clues have been left waiting.
Hunting down a missing person may not sound very Christmassy, but the company can also ship out cocktails and deliver pizza. “The experience of doing it isn’t dark, it’s a lot of fun,” says Jones. “There’s food and drink to add to the Christmas vibes a little bit.”
The shift to virtual office parties is no surprise given the pandemic, but the quick pivot by the event planning industry has been hard work for less money. “It really is as much stress, we’ve still got the time pressure of delivering on a certain day at a certain time,” says Walker. “But the challenges are different. What happens if the link goes down?”
And, he notes, though there are fewer costs, in particular around venue rentals, there is also less revenue, especially if food or drinks aren’t included. “Christmas was always that nice little boost at the end of the calendar year and obviously there are good profit margins on alcohol sales,” says Ellie Bull, head of sales and marketing at London events business CCTVenues.
That’s one reason why CCTVenues is still offering in-person events, including its “baubles of six” package, with staff split into government approved groups of six in different meeting rooms that are linked up via video conference while staff dressed as elves will ferry gifts and treats between the rooms. The idea is yet to have any takers, she says, and part of that is down to a lack of clarity about what will be allowed in December versus what was allowed in October. “I feel like there’s a little bit of confusion in the industry as to whether this counts as a business event, which were allowed to go ahead up to 30 people,” she says of the previous rules.
Under the current tier three nationwide lockdown, all in-person events are banned, but with the rules potentially changing at the beginning of December, what will be allowed? A cabinet office spokesperson couldn’t say, and refused to clarify if an office party would have been an allowable work event back in October. “We can only confirm the guidance as it stands,” the spokesperson adds, adding only that “Christmas will be different this year”.
Regardless of the rules, Walker says no corporate risk and compliance department is going to want the entire staff meeting up during a lockdown. “That sends out the complete wrong message,” he says. “Even if the government allows it, demand has just fallen completely away. So we’re focusing on 100 per cent virtual at the moment.”
And that means not only Christmas but office parties will be different this year — whether it’s a basic Zoom quiz or a bonkers immersive extravaganza with drag show, live reindeer and actors playing at cabbies. On the upside, there’ll be no queue for the loo or the taxi rank to get home.
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