Zoom scavenger hunts, Champagne deliveries: With office parties canceled, companies get creative

CHICAGO — Kelly Cain normally goes all out for her staff of about 20 at the holidays, renting a suite at United Center for Chicago Blackhawks games or organizing a group trip to the theater.

The tab for these year-end festivities at Supply & Equipment Foodservice Alliance typically runs $400 to $600 per employee, said Cain, CEO of the Schaumburg, Ill.-based company.

This year, the celebration will be on Zoom, since the coronavirus pandemic has nixed an in-person gathering. The company also plans to mail employees gift baskets filled with an assortment of food products, Cain said.

“Some of them are going through some rough times. Some have spouses or partners who have been very negatively impacted. It’d be a missed opportunity to not show you care, especially with virtual opportunities,” Cain said.

For businesses large and small, it’s been a tough year of layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts, as some companies struggle to keep the doors open. Health concerns and tight finances may have scrapped traditional holiday parties, as well as year-end bonuses at some companies, but employers are looking for creative ways to offer some sort of cheer at the end of a difficult year.

But a Zoom party that looks a lot like mundane Monday morning meetings can be a letdown compared with the real thing, so some companies are taking a different approach. Bosses are arranging virtual scavenger hunts, pub trivia, cooking or mixology classes, or hiring a magician.

Matt Lindner, a 38-year-old content marketing manager based in Chicago for Rakuten Advertising, participated in a virtual cocktail class the company offered employees as a year-end celebration.

Though the company didn’t pay for the alcohol, employees were mailed cocktail kits with products to make an Old-Fashioned or a paloma.

“It was awkward in not being able to make the rounds in the room,” said Lindner, of Wrigleyville. “But with this event, I felt more of a connection to my colleagues. It almost felt like a high school reunion, and we were making up for lost time.”

Some weeks, the only human interaction he has is with his wife, Lindner said.

“In normal times, you take camaraderie time for granted like the water cooler talk. That’s been robbed from us because we work from home,” he said. “How do you make time for small talk online?”

There were a couple of times the company planned trivia nights for employees this past year, but some people weren’t showing up because it meant sitting through another video conference call, Linder said.

Zoom fatigue is real, and employees don’t want to have to sit through an awkward meeting, said Murrel Karsh, president of corporate event planning firm Windy City Fieldhouse.

The company has pivoted from the typical corporate team-building events it hosts at its Logan Square facility to virtual events like scavenger hunts, where participants break into groups of five to find and take photos of items around their households. The company also offers virtual trivia nights, cooking classes or wine sampling events.

“People are laughing and having a great time,” Karsh said. “They’ve become great team-building events.”

Windy City Fieldhouse did more than 90 virtual holiday parties in December, he said. Companies can choose from a single experience or multiple ones to give employees different options that involve splitting participants into separate virtual “rooms.”

Each event can cost about $2,000, depending on the size of the group and the experience selected, Karsh said.

The rise of virtual parties has generated such a flurry of business that Ross Hunt, owner of Chicago-based unMuddled Bartending Co., has had to turn business away.

“With the amount of requests we were receiving, we just didn’t have the bandwidth,” Hunt said.

The bar catering service acquired CraftYours, a provider of mixology classes, at the end of October. The acquisition helped Hunt gain clients and added a few instructors just in time for the holiday rush. The company has about 30 classes scheduled this month.

Some companies are pairing virtual celebrations with gift baskets mailed to employees’ homes that could include chocolate, crackers and jam or beauty products.

Chicago-based gifting company Packed with Purpose typically makes gift boxes for companies’ clients, conference attendees and year-end holiday presents. But as many people work from home, there has been interest in sending employees care packages even before the holiday season, said CEO Leeatt Rothschild.

The company fills each box with products from organizations with a social mission, including a granola maker that donates its products to anti-hunger programs and companies that provide job training to people who were previously incarcerated.

Despite the challenges the pandemic brought this year, some businesses plan to reward workers with holiday bonuses.

Unlike salary increases, bonuses allow companies more discretion and flexibility to offer an amount in line with company performance, said Andy Challenger, senior vice president of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

“When times are uncertain, if companies can put more on bonuses, they have the option to dial it up or down depending how the company does as opposed to a salary increase that’s nonadjustable. They aren’t on the hook 100% if the company has a difficult fourth quarter or year,” he said.

More than 33% of companies the firm surveyed in October said they would offer a year-end bonus to employees in the form of cash, checks or a gift card, an increase from about 30% last year, according to the nationwide survey of 189 companies. The figures don’t include about a quarter of companies surveyed that will provide performance-based bonuses.

Employers including grocers, real estate firms, pharmaceutical and medical supply companies that have done well during the pandemic will be in the best position to reward employees this year, Challenger said.

Home Depot, which saw sales increase as people stayed home and made home improvements, is offering its 400,000 hourly employees nationwide raises as part of a $1 billion initiative.

Railroad company Union Pacific said it plans to give about 31,000 employees a $1,000 bonus. Other firms like Deerfield-based Walgreens said they will pull back bonus programs this year because of the pandemic.

Downers Grove-based Fresh Thyme Market is offering all store and distribution center employees, including about 600 full- and part-time workers in the Chicago area, a $250 bonus this month and a 25% discount on purchases, an increase from their regular 15% discount, on groceries during the week of Christmas, said Liz Zolcak, vice president of operations. The company gave its employees the same bonuses last month.

Chicago-based real estate brokerage firm @properties will continue year-end bonuses for employees. Natasha Patla, chief marketing officer, declined to say how much employees will receive.

The firm, which has hosted holiday parties at the Field Museum in previous years, will host a virtual celebration for about 200 of its employees and real estate agents.

A significant portion of what it would typically spend on the in-person events will go toward purchasing clothing, food and gifts for kids and families in need, Patla said.

The firm also rewards its top-selling agent each year with a Rolex watch and dinner. But with restrictions on indoor service at restaurants, @properties executives, wearing face masks and equipped with confetti poppers and a bottle of Champagne, will personally deliver the watch to the agent’s home.

“We really tried to make it a celebration at that person’s doorstep,” Patla said.