How to host the best holiday party EVER.

Studies back this conclusion: retention is most influenced by how appreciated employees feel for the contributions they make to the company. Our firm was on the small side, with 20 employees and tight margins. To show our appreciation, the highpoint of everyone’s year with us was an extravagant holiday party. Since money was always tight, particularly during recessionary times, we had to be inventive. Here are three of our favorite end-of-year parties:

Book a surprise venue & event. We arranged, with Chicago’s Blue Man Troupe, to get 50 performance tickets to a December matinee by offering a trade for our advertising services. Then we traded for a charter bus to take our employees, plus one guest each, from Madison, Wisconsin to Chicago. The surprise? We didn’t tell anyone what was happening. We announced that on that particular Friday, the workday would end at noon, by which time their guest should arrive at the workplace. We promised to feed them lunch and to return them by 5 p.m. back to the office. My assistant and I had packed 50 box lunches, which were handed out during the bus ride to Chicago (still a secret destination). We shared a great experience, followed up with champagne flutes (or sparkling soda) offered during the return ride home. And yes, we featured boom box Christmas music both ways. It was magical.

Throw an “anything can happen” party. Employees were invited to my home for a holiday party at noon. My husband and I had prepared a Christmas taco bar with all the trimmings. We further sectioned off the house to offer a mystery door experience. You signed up on a list on the door to gain admittance, and as one person left a mystery room, they called the next person’s name to enter. Behind separate closed doors was a massage therapist offering chair massages, a psychic offering a psychic reading, and more surprises. When employees thought the party was winding down around 2 p.m., we gathered them in the living room to greet new arrivals – the Kat Trio from Russia, who were visiting the U.S. on a performance tour. They are among the best musicians in the world, and had agreed to give a private performance in our home, using our piano (which had to be pre-tuned to their precise requirements). The trio held them spellbound with the violin/piano/cello performance. Then Santa handed out the Christmas gifts – Visa gift cards and Kat Trio CDs, so the employees could share the music with their families. Hint: if talent is performing nearby, sometimes it is possible to book a separate gig within 24 hours at a surprisingly lower fee. We paid only $300 for that hour!

Give the gift of family time. During the recession in 2009, we hit an all-time low company checkbook balance. There was no extra cash to lay out for a fancy meal or even a local comedy club outing. No bonus checks. But we could afford a trade with Kalahari Resorts. That year, at a company potluck at noon at the office, we gifted each employee a one-night suite that would sleep up to six people, with a waterpark pass for four – and a guaranteed paid day off with proof of booking so they could take advantage of it in January (when the snow is deep in Madison and an indoor waterpark is most appreciated). This was our mini-vacation package for them, on the day of their choosing, and it was a huge hit because they knew the lengths we were going to in order to say “thank you” for their efforts.

Most of the employees at In Business magazine today were guests at all three of those events because the company has an enviable retention rate. I was often asked how we managed to hang on to the talent we had acquired, and the answer has always been the same: we appreciate it and show that appreciation every day, in every way possible. It’s a great way to end any year, and a great way to begin every year, too – in gratitude.

About Jody Glynn Patrick

Jody is President of Glynn Patrick & Associates, which provides management consulting, executive coaching and strategic planning services. She is Publisher Emeritus of In Business magazine, which she published for 17 years. Selected as the “U.S. Business Journalist of the Year” in 2007 in Washington, DC, by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Jody has been a business reporter, editor, radio talk show host , and has won other state and national journalism awards. At the same time, she has helped corporate clients grow their businesses -- the basis for her practical coaching advice here. She also was the 2005 Athena Award recipient for her leadership role in mentoring other professional women. Jody will be talking with you weekly on TDS’ blog to share her insights and tips from the C-Suite perspective. Follow on G+.

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