A year ago, professional party planner Janet Holliday was busier than she’d ever been.

In her 30 years of leading the event organizing agency, The CE Group, Holliday had seen ups and downs in the business of celebrating, but never the rush she experienced during the last weeks of 2019.

“For whatever reason, it was a great year for holiday events,” said Holliday, president and CEO. “A year ago, I was dealing with headline entertainment and performers and mixologists, and it was so amazing.”

This year, she has a new party theme: “Stay positive and test negative, so spread cheer but don’t do it in person.”

With many office workers still working from home and mass gatherings prohibited due to the coronavirus pandemic, most traditional workplace parties, from the potluck lunch to glitzy ballroom affairs, have been suspended. 

In their place, San Antonio’s largest employers are turning to socially distant drive-through events for employees and their family members, Zoom and virtual experiences, and, in many cases, giving even more to charity. 

“What we are finding is that [they] really care a lot about their employees, [and] it’s been a very hard year so I don’t think that the spirit is less,” Holliday said.
“But I do think everybody is trying to continue to connect. People are very focused on things that are a little more significant, a little bit more relevant.”

Cheer for charities

For many years, USAA hosted its annual holiday party – a massive event for its 19,000 San Antonio employees and guests, featuring food buffets and a live band performance – at the Henry B. González Convention Center. But there won’t be any need for sparkly cocktail dresses, reliable babysitters, or overnight hotel stays this year. 

With most USAA employees working remotely since March, the decision to cancel the party was made earlier in the year, a spokesman said, and shared with employees during an all-employee meeting in June. 

Instead, managers companywide are being encouraged to look for other ways to observe the holiday season with their teams, he said. Meanwhile, the company is retooling its charitable giving with less in-person volunteerism and more direct funding. 

For Thanksgiving, rather than employees serving meals directly at local homeless shelters, the company sponsored 1,500 meals in partnership with the San Antonio Food Bank. For Christmas, USAA is planning to sponsor a USO program that supports more than 12,000 military trainees who won’t be going home for the holidays.

Valero is also supporting charitable organizations such as Blue Santa, Any Baby Can, and the Family Service Association, and distributing gifts purchased by employees to 30 families in need. The company is planning an employee blood drive in December.

But Valero employees, who unlike many office workers began returning to their cubicles in May, are also being treated to a drive-thru “Valero in Lights” event. A spokeswoman said employees and their families will be invited to tour the decorated campus by car, pick up snacks and gifts at various stations along the route, and wave to Santa. 

Broadway Bank hosted a drive-thru event before Thanksgiving, giving every bank employee a turkey, pie, and fresh produce as they made their way through a light-draped venue, Enchanted Springs Ranch.  

Employee recognition

It’s no jelly-of-the-month club membership, but bosses showing their workers appreciation during the holidays might be more important in 2020 than ever.

“Whether they successfully navigated the transition to working remotely, relying on personal resources, and conducting business in sometimes-difficult environments, or they stayed on the front lines as the virus continued to spread within communities, employees should be recognized for the role they played during this stressful time,” said Jill Chapman, senior performance consultant at the human resources services organization Insperity.

“Business leaders should find ways to celebrate the holiday season and reward their employees for a job well done, while also complying with CDC guidelines and safety protocols,” she said.

Among the ideas Chapman suggested were hiring a band to perform for colleagues and their families over a video call, inviting a chef to lead a virtual cooking class, organizing a socially distanced cookie-decorating party, inviting employees to a drive-in movie, and catering takeout dinners available for pickup. 

Virtual CEO greetings

While Frost Bank traditionally does not celebrate the holidays with a company party, bank employees at every office and branch in the state could expect a visit in previous years from the CEO between Thanksgiving and Christmas, said a spokesman. This year, those meetings will be virtual, hosted for all new bank employees. 

Frost Bank is also modifying its other traditional offerings open to the public, switching from in-person to drive-up for its annual Santa visits and food drives. 

The tech industry in San Antonio is also making alternate holiday plans.

For the past four years, Tech Bloc has hosted about 1,000 people at a holiday party for its members, mostly employees of tech startups, said the organization’s CEO David Heard.

“But this year, we launched a toy drive,” he said. “We’re not pretending it’s the same thing. We decided let’s just find a way to do something together and that does some community good for kids that are in crisis.”

At Rackspace, employee appreciation events go on year-round, said a spokeswoman. However, there won’t be any in-person events during the holidays this year, she said. Rather, individual teams within the company can use “engagement funds” to host virtual experiences. 

Joy of gift-giving

Some companies are using their party budget to send a tangible token of their appreciation, according to a Society for Human Resource Management report, which in some cases spreads the cheer even further. 

Holliday and the CE Group are promoting a “Holiday Gifting 4 Good” program that features gift boxes in a variety of sizes and prices filled with items provided by locally owned businesses. A portion of the proceeds benefits United Way of San Antonio. 

“My industry has been clobbered,” Holliday said. “The restaurants, the attractions, hotels, caterers, audio-visual services have been clobbered … so the gifting program is an example of the win-win.”

USAA, Frost Bank, and Valero are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.