The people’s party

Designing staff and customer events to be truly memorable, as well as cost-effective, requires creativity and careful consideration of what guests really want, says Morag Cuddeford Jones.

New groove: companies are focusing on party basics such as catering and entertainment

Austerity measures bit hard last year, causing companies large and small to cancel their staff Christmas events. Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) axed an event for its investment banking division and, in a memo to staff, chief financial officer Chris Kyle put a moratorium on all staff entertainment between October and December 2011 – a move estimated to have saved the bank around £200,000.

This year has yet to see any headlines reflecting similar cost-cutting but companies creating Christmas events are keeping a keen eye on expenditure. Most importantly, they are working to ensure the Christmas party season delivers more than a thick head the morning after with events that are innovative as well as fun.

Bells and whistles

Companies are focusing strongly on the basics – entertainment, atmosphere and catering – at the expense of finishing touches. While they are integrating digital into consumer Christmas events, such as the traditional Santa’s Grotto, they are cutting back on technological gimmickry.

“The Christmas party is used primarily as a thank you to staff to recognise their collective contribution and allow them to let off steam,” explains Katie Harris, event organiser for the UK office of international accountancy firm, BDO LLP.

“But I have to keep within budget and be realistic. One of the most important elements of the party is to provide staff with free food and drinks all night. If I had to choose between providing that or a technology gimmick, I wouldn’t bother with the latter.”

Investment is being diverted instead to the experience, ensuring staff enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime event, rather than the novelty value a gadget might deliver. Equally, uncertain times are driving a trend towards the traditional Dickensian Christmas, focusing on enduring festive themes and featuring winter wonderlands or sumptuous locations.

Lego gained media attention with its Christmas tree at St Pancras station in 2011


The ‘Downton Abbey effect’ – generated by the success of the ITV period drama and similar TV programmes – is driving festive corporate entertainment towards stately homes, such as Chatsworth and Highclere Castle, or mock-ups of grand interiors. Nostalgia is all the rage.

Using Eventa to source the venue and organise logistics, Harris’s brief was clear: “Last year, we had a 1980s theme and the year before was Narnia, complete with a fur coat entry into the magical winter wonderland. But aside from the décor, the most engaging ideas needn’t cost money. The biggest hit from last year was having the partners dress up as angels to hand out party favours,” she reveals.

Getting staff involved in the entertainment is also proving popular, as are awards-style ceremonies for employees. Visual effects company The Mill combines a sophisticated party with the opportunity to showcase the capabilities of the firm and its staff. Hosted at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, last year’s party featured an interdepartmental video competition, meaning the venue also had to be more than a match for the technical capabilities of its Oscar-winning client.

But according to Sam O’Brien, head of communications for The Mill, innovation is not a matter of how current the technology is, but how the event can break the mould. “The Mill may be cutting-edge in its use of technology – and if we were entertaining a client, technology would certainly feature heavily – but we want to think of inventive and original ways to entertain what is not just a technological but a highly creative audience.”

To O’Brien, inventiveness means unusual locations and injecting theatricality to reward and wow staff. To this end, she reveals that the Old Vic Tunnels, the latest theatre project by actor and director Kevin Spacey, is on her hit list this year.

“Themed events in huge marquees with a burlesque dancer on a trapeze aren’t innovative to me – they’re in danger of being a bit naff. At a Christmas party, you want a really good time, quality food and to be ‘transported’. It’s a really hard thing to get right,” she adds.

Show and tell

Mindful that consumers are monitoring Christmas spend closely, a number of big-name brands are attempting to provide the wow factor through free events and installations that drive press coverage and word-of-mouth, rather than opting to entertain or reward select customer groups.

Lego’s 2011 Christmas tree at London’s St Pancras station not only created a stir among the public but, according to the company, significantly impacted on sales of Lego and of retailers surrounding the installation.

Status updates about the tree-building process were placed on Lego’s Facebook page each day until the official switching on of the lights on 24 November. Place PR supported the campaign with St Pancras International social media. Posters were displayed around the station promoting the switch-on and a treasure hunt competition. Lego Christmas baubles were hidden in retail outlets with competition entry forms in each store. Visitors simply had to identify where each bauble was hidden and post their entries in a box by the tree to win Lego.

In addition, Hamleys agreed to sell Lego during this promotional period, even though the St Pancras concession store usually only sells Hamleys branded products. To drive traffic in-store, Hamleys ran a ‘guess the number of bricks’ competition to win trips to Legoland. In the three weeks up to Christmas, St Pancras International saw a 20 per cent increase in retail sales compared with the same period in 2010. Footfall through the station increased by 18 per cent in the three weeks to Christmas and average spend per head increased within the station during December.

Emma Owen, PR and promotions manager at Lego UK, says: “The challenge was to develop a campaign that was creative, engaging and newsworthy. It had the talkability factor as well as generating enormous editorial coverage. Throughout the six-week period, it created a buzz in a high-footfall location with around a million people a week. People continually stopped by to look and take photos.”

The company hopes to recreate its success this year with another, as-yet unannounced installation to be revealed on 1 December. Car manufacturer Vauxhall aims to emulate Lego’s success with an installation at the Kings Cross Filling Station bar in London. It is using set designer Gary Card to create a giant, mechanical electric Christmas tree that will light up the Regent’s Canal and become a nightly spectacle throughout the festive period. Powered by Vauxhall technology, it will open up in an hourly display to reveal a gleaming, engine-like structure within. The campaign is part of a six-month programme to celebrate the launch of Vauxhall’s electric Ampera model.

Let you entertain me

Customer entertainment through installations or events is the central pillar for brands throughout the 2012 festive season. The bar is set particularly high by mall owners, who are treating their retail space less as a convenient shopping location and more as a leisure destination. With the ongoing battle between real and virtual baskets, bricks-and-mortar retailers are having to pull out all the stops to coax people away from their computers and get them into the store.


It’s no longer enough to offer a simple Santa’s Grotto and lucky dip. Turning on the Christmas lights isn’t limited to Regent Street and Blackpool Tower as malls UK-wide seek celebrity names and arrange concerts to get their decorations off the ground. Here, the latest technology is getting its chance to shine, as social media is instrumental in bringing the crowds and creating a buzz, while advances in smartphone capability are giving some grottos the edge.

Selfridges’ 2011 Christmas grotto featured 3D animation that allowed children to kick virtual snowballs, splat Christmas puddings and smash baubles on an interactive floor while an augmented reality ‘Wish Fairy’ gave children visiting the event the impression via plasma screens that fairies were landing on them. Westfield London and Stratford have similar plans for 2012 (see Q&A, below).

An early version of the interactive 3D grotto, released first in Meadowhall in 2009, generated a 64 per cent visitor increase, so the prospect

of fantasy interaction for children is clearly a big draw.

Melbry Events, which provided the technology for these centres, says smaller retailers needn’t invest on such a grand scale but can take advantage of less costly films and 3D photography.

Cost is a concern that continues to underline all companies’ Christmas activities, whether internal or external, but there is recognition of the opportunities to innovate and impress – and also an imperative to do so. Concentrating on responsible spending may have trimmed away excess but it has also compelled many organisers to focus more deeply on what their events must deliver and what the recipients want.


myf ryan

Myf Ryan
General manager, marketing, Westfield

Marketing Week (MW): What is the core draw for your customers at Christmas?

Myf Ryan (MR): Our Christmas lights switch-on has become a ritual. By using high profile celebrities, we have established the Stratford and London shopping centres as entertainment destinations. Visitors are looking for the ultimate Christmas experience and we have to give them a reason to visit – as well as a reason to come back.

MW: What does investing in Christmas bring in terms of brand benefit to Westfield?

MR: All events we hold attract new and existing customers. We are competing with a strong online retail world and consumers have an appetite for something different.

MW: Westfield is the sum of its parts and hugely diverse in its customers. How do you create an event to suit all?

MR: Our Christmas events support not just the Westfield brand but the 375 retailers within it, from Boots to Louis Vuitton. We can’t combine everyone’s different ideas but we follow shopper trends. Fashion trends have a huge influence on the direction we take.

MW: What part does the digital experience play?

MR: There is a role for digital, but not everywhere. We have to decide where it adds value. The Santa’s grotto is where it delivers an enhanced and unique experience for each child. By involving them in the 5D experience, created by 3D film and interactive elements throughout the grotto, it is building something personal for each child that remains a memorable event.

MR: We are seeing a real trend towards a more traditional Christmas. Digital innovations can deliver the experience but there is a real drive to TV and print making a comeback. Consumers are identifying closely with the iconic elements of Christmas – the tangible experiences, such as Santa, the tree and the ice rink.

Case Study

Fortnum & Mason and The Big Give


Luxury London food and retail brand Fortnum & Mason launched its joint Christmas/Corporate Social Responsibility party in 2010. Designed to reward its VIP customers and partners, as well as entertaining up to 1,000 paying guests, it is a vital tool for brand-building, CSR and underlining the company’s food heritage in its key buying season, according to trading director Simon Burdess.

“We call The Big Give Christmas party our friend-raising activity,” he explains. “It is about bringing new people into the shop to understand what Fortnum & Mason is about, as well as fostering a positive attitude to it as a retailer and food brand.” He admits that the company’s approach to measuring the success of the event as a brand-building exercise remains “holistic”.

Fortnum & Mason is part of charitable trust the Garfield Weston Foundation, so aligning its main Christmas event for partners and customers to charity is a strong brand fit and an accurate response to the zeitgeist.

While the shop is closed to the public and given over to four floors of entertainment, celebrity compering (Stephen Fry hosted the 2011 event) and an auction, the £60 ticket is exchanged for a £60 voucher for each attendee to donate to a charity of their choice through The Big Give. In its first year, the event raised £60,000 for a number of charities and in 2011 this rose to £130,000. Tickets for the 2012 event went on sale on 5 September and sold out within days.

Fortnum’s innovation lies in the purpose of its flagship Christmas event, not in subverting the form. The retailer is one of very few brands that can lay claim to a genuine Dickensian Christmas heritage as the author would reward himself with a hamper from the shop on completing each novel.

Burdess says: “We are synonymous with Christmas. There are not many places in London where you feel as Christmassy as here. All the things we love to do come to a head at Christmas.”



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