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Go with the (lateral) flow: how Covid has changed the work Christmas party

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For anyone who dreads the thought of the work Christmas party, it will come as welcome news: this year’s office party vibe is intimate, more lavish, with no dancing – and it might not even be in December at all.

But early indications are that despite – or maybe because of – almost two years working from home in elasticated waistbands and slippers, suppressed partygoers are preparing to ramp up the glamour: has had a 937% increase in online searches for party dresses since last year, a 637% increase in scouting for sequinned dresses and a 212% increase in the perennial hunt for the perfect LBD (little black dress).

The glamour will be offset, however, by an emphasis upon Covid-compliant celebrations, with some bosses asking partygoers to provide evidence of a lateral flow test before entry or to undergo a temperature check at the door.

“Lots of companies are having smaller, seated parties either earlier or much later this year,” said Alex Hewitt, the chief executive of AOK Events. “They’re combining the Christmas knees-up with a late November ‘return to the office’ celebration or they’re having their winter parties in January so that employees don’t have to worry about catching Covid over the Christmas period, thereby running the risk of infecting elderly parents on Christmas Day or jeopardising any foreign holidays they’ve booked.”

Rick Perry, the managing director of By Word Of Mouth caterers, agreed. “Some companies are talking about doing their Christmas parties in January because the event this year is all about reconnecting old employees who haven’t seen each other for 19 months and forging new bonds for new employees, hired during lockdown who have never met anyone,” he said.

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“Many of these companies still have a large proportion of their employees working from home and want to wait until they’re all back in the office next year to have their big reconnection shindig.”

Perry said some companies were planning parties in January because they thought employees still working from home would not want to pay their train fare into town. “I’ve heard that because some employees are holding off buying their season tickets until next year, bosses reckon they won’t pay extra to come into town just for a party,” he said.

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Where parties are happening, they are smaller but more ritzy. Simon Cotton, the group managing director of the HRH hotel group, said that while bookings for big parties were down, the spend per head was up.

“This year could actually be better than 2019 because the average spend is up: because companies are booking a number of smaller parties rather than one big party, they want to increase the quality of each party,” he said. “Companies are going from prosecco to champagne, or from a bottle of house white to something that is £30 to £35 on the wine list.”

Dean Drury, business development manager at Party Ingredients event caterers, said the style of party this year was different too. For one thing, dancing is out. “Canapes, dinner, a small open bar and that’s an end to the evening,” he said. “The old-style, boogie and unlimited drinks-package are nowhere to be seen this year – no one wants a crowded bar area or a crushed dance floor. This year, it’s all about a quiet, spacious reconnection with people you haven’t seen for 19 months.”

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Henry Bonas, of the eponymous party planning company, said smaller and more luxurious was his own theme this year too. “We’re spending more on our Christmas party this year than we’ve ever done before,” he said. “There’s no dancing or crowds though: it’s a sit-down event in our own biggest marquee.”

But for those whose companies have not set out plans for their festive office party yet, do not despair: this season, spontaneity is on-trend. Su Williams of Caiger & Co caterers said: “It is so last-minute this year. We’ve had people who have been wavering for months and in the past week, have just decided to go for it.”

Laura Rodriguez, head of reservations at the tapas chain Ibérica also reported a sharp rise in last-minute demand for group bookings this month. “It feels there is a sense of urgency to gather for a pre-Christmas celebration – in case there’s another lockdown,” she said.