Office holiday parties are back in the Twin Cities

Grab that Santa hat. Holiday office parties are back.

After two years of pandemic shut downs and distancing, Twin Cities companies are shoving aside worry and rolling out celebratory red carpets instead.

The holiday teas at the exquisitely decorated St. Paul Hotel are sold out and “we are getting a lot of ticket sales” for showings of its annual live December radio show, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” said Leslie Ingiald, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.

Ingiald said the past two years of show and party cancellations, mask mandates and vaccination checks have been hard on employees.

“It will be a big relief and much more fun [to party this year]. It’s already definitely much more of a joyful holiday season,” he said.

That sentiment is echoing statewide as employers inject some fun — and financial heft — into the holidays after fretful years characterized by empty restaurants, unemployed chefs and restaurant workers, as well as worries over the war in Ukraine, inflation and lurking COVID-19 variants.

To be sure, COVID-19 is still around, but its punch is lessening. So, holiday elves are busy stringing lights and polishing cocktail glasses while caterers, bartenders and restaurants eagerly await the buzz of cash registers. No one group tracks exact numbers, but event planners and chamber officials generally agree that holiday parties funnel millions into Minnesota’s economy.

That’s why it hurt when D’Amico Catering had to lay off all employees in 2020. But now 250 workers are back catering 100 revived holiday parties in clients’ offices and venues such as the Mill City Museum, Walker Art Center, Metropolitan Ballroom, McNamara Alumni Center and Loring Park’s Café and Bar Lurcat.

“The corporate holiday party is, in fact, back,” said Christie Altendorf, D’Amico Catering’s senior event planner. “We have been waiting a really long time to say that.”

Corporations generally spend $50 to $250 per holiday guest depending on whether it’s an intimate function, an office luncheon or an extravagant affair, Altendorf said.

Holiday revenue is a lifeline, especially during the slow, pre-wedding months of January, February and March, said D’Amico operations director Cathy Bovard. “To have those types of holiday events back is not only important financially [for the company] but for the retention of workers.”

Things tilted toward normal earlier this year. In September, D’Amico held a winter tasting event during which Fortune 500 clients could try new dishes that might tempt their holiday party planning instincts.

“We definitely were getting a sense that our corporate partners were looking at possibly getting events budgets together again,” Altendorf said. “We saw that was an opportunity.”

And why not?

“Who doesn’t love office parties?” said Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance. “My inbox has a fair number of holiday parities, so from my perspective, it feels like we are 80% back to ‘normal.’”

The 1,600-member St. Paul Area Chamber, which counts Ecolab, 3M, Medtronic, Securian Financial, Travelers, Xcel Energy and others among its members, is bringing back its Holiday Chamber Connect extravaganza, a $5,000 event that traditionally has 900 guests sampling donated fare from St. Paul’s finest chefs.

“Two years ago, we canceled. Last year, we had it small and masked” with about 200 guests, said the Chamber’s marketing vice president Megan Ryan. “This year, we are indeed returning to our tradition at the Landmark Center … [and] are expecting 400 to 500 guests.”

Cheer is similarly bubbling in Minneapolis.

“No ‘bah, humbug’ to be found here,” said Steve Cramer, CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. “The restaurants we talk to are seeing a big increase in restaurant bookings for holiday gatherings and private events.”

Separately, downtown human resource leaders told the Council they are reviving Christmas and New Year celebrations as a way to reconnect remote workers and restore office culture.

“This [holiday party] is seen as [one] of the way to encourage people to come in and be together,” Cramer said.

Gordon Braun, a managing director at internal audit and IT consulting firm Protiviti, said his 110 Minneapolis staffers will have a pot of luck in December and a fancy holiday party in January at the Walker Art Center.

It’s the first big get-together since the pandemic started, and the first with spouses.

“Our people are excited and looking forward to it after a couple of years of hiatus,” Braun said, noting that they were expecting to spend more than $10,000. “We see this as a good investment. Our culture is real important.”

Restauranteur Erik Forsberg is seeing that same sentiment prevail at his Dan Kelly’s Broadway Pizza and Devil’s Advocate in downtown Minneapolis and Joseph’s Family Restaurant in Stillwater. Each had two company holiday parties or happy hours booked for customers such as Ameriprise, SPS, Henson Efron and other law firms through December and January. More reservation inquiries land daily.

“The everyday business is not back yet. That is why these parties are so important for us,” Forsberg said.

Three blocks from the Devil’s Advocate on Nicollet Mall, the IDS Tower has put up lights and Christmas trees in its Crystal Court and announced holiday concert dates for the month of December. Nearby, the Capella Tower recently sent invitations to tenants for its live holiday party on Dec. 6. Blocks away, the managers at the new Four Seasons Hotel in the RBC Gateway tower are also making party plans.

Zach Sussman, co-founder of the social club and workspace Brick x Mortar on First Avenue, held its first holiday movie night for business members Nov. 27 and has more company parties booked in December and January.

“We are really happy about it, obviously,” Sussman said. “Last year was pretty slow to come back. … Now, people are comfortable being in public spaces again.”

Or, as the St. Paul Hotel’s Ingiald summed it up: “Now we can just go back to celebrating.”