Melissa Velden and her chef-husband Chris Velden, stand in their dining room at the Flying Apron Inn and Cookery in Summerville, N.S. on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. The couple is hosting holiday parties with appropriate distancing and other COVID-19 health protocols in place at their restaurant. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Melissa Velden and her chef-husband Chris Velden, stand in their dining room at the Flying Apron Inn and Cookery in Summerville, N.S. on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. The couple is hosting holiday parties with appropriate distancing and other COVID-19 health protocols in place at their restaurant. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Celebrities, Santa and Zoom part of office holiday parties being held amid COVID-19

Many will send tokens of appreciation to workers or offer time off or cash

When the December holiday season rolls around, Rogers Communication Inc. staff usually work as efficiently as elves to transform the Rogers Centre into a carnival.

They arrange for midway rides to sit in the Toronto ballpark and hire face painters and entertainers to thank more than 8,000 employees and their families for a year of hard work.

While the ballpark will sit empty this year, the elves haven’t hung up their hats. Instead, they’re offering personalized Santa phone calls and staging an online variety show with appearances from the jolly man at the North Pole, Inuit throat singers Piqsiq and a slew of celebrities they’re keeping under wraps until the big day.

The reimagined holiday party comes as COVID-19 has forced companies to rethink their usual December festivities.

In pandemic hot spots that means bringing the razzle dazzle to virtual gatherings, while others in locations with fewer cases of the virus are opting to host parties but strictly enforce social distancing and masks.

Many will send tokens of appreciation to workers or offer time off or cash, but some will forgo any kind of celebration to tighten spending and acknowledge a tough year.

Rogers hatched its new plan almost as soon as the pandemic started to cause shutdowns in March, said director of corporate events Emma Shaw.

“With this year being so tumultuous…having something that provides a bit of normalcy and consistency…we thought was a win-win for everyone,” she said.

Royal Bank of Canada is using a similar playbook. It is hosting 150 virtual galas for each stream of the business and a company-wide, family-friendly video experience — a departure from leaving holiday events to divisions and branches to plan themselves.

The hour-long, pre-recorded presentation will include celebrities — the bank didn’t want to spoil the surprise and name any of the musicians, chefs or dancers it has planned — and be capped with a message from chief executive Dave McKay.

“Not recognizing our people was not on the table,” said Curtis Hitsman, RBC’s senior director of recognition programs.

“If there was a year to recognize the efforts of employees, this is it.”

But some companies still feel the holiday spirit can safety be celebrated without a screen.

Flying Apron Inn and Cookery in Summerville, N.S. received three bookings for corporate holiday parties by mid-November.

“There is a dental office doing a private cooking class in our space. They are with each other all day anyway, so they are not going to do something virtually,” said co-owner Melissa Velden.

“With this other group, this will be the third year that they have come to us for their Christmas party and this is actually the most people they are ever going to have.”

Indoor dining is still allowed in several regions of Atlantic Canada, but Velden will limit the number of guests, scrap buffets and require masks when not eating.

She’s heard of other businesses shipping local food baskets to staff, footing the bill for each worker to treat their family to dinner out or cancelling holiday festivities altogether.

“People are so tired of Zoom meetings that they don’t want to have a virtual Christmas party and they would rather have something in-person later,” Velden said.

Some, like OpenText Corp. and TC Energy Corp. are cancelling altogether. The Waterloo, Ont.-based tech company and Calgary oil and gas firm said they would each donate at least $1 million to local charities in lieu of holding parties.

Manulife Financial Corp. announced it will give all 35,000 staff money to commit acts of kindness like helping neighbours in need or donating to good causes.

Others are relying on at-home offerings — meal kits, wine tastings and wine club memberships — from Stephen Beckta’s Ottawa fine dining restaurants.

For $100 a person, Beckta will deliver charcuterie and at least four wines to the homes of employees, clients or donors. Over video later, a sommelier will walk them through what they are sipping and noshing on.

Beckta can tailor the packages to meet specific tastes or higher budgets, like he did recently for a client wanting to focus on B.C.

“We are doing a lot of these,” he said, noting companies like the arrangement because they can give something tactile and don’t just have to settle for another video call.

Cineplex Inc., Canada’s largest movie theatre operator, knows that sentiment well.

The company recently began offering auditorium rentals for as low as $125 for 20 guests that can easily distance in a big theatre.

Cineplex received more than 2,500 inquiries in the two days after it launched and many came from law, real estate, grocery and automotive businesses thinking about holiday gatherings, said spokesperson Sarah Van Lange in an email.

But not every business is seeing a boom.

Carla Smith of Vancouver’s Rolla Skate Club can usually count on a flurry of bookings, but COVID-19 restrictions put a chill on holiday reservations this year.

“Our capacity in our huge space is limited to 15 people including staff, making the viability of even trying to offer a private event very limited,” she said.

“The juice isn’t worth the squeeze for us this year.”

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A map released by the BCCDC on Jan. 15 shows the number of new COVID-19 cases reported for each local health area between Jan. 3 and 9. (BCCDC Image)
Salmon Arm and Vernon see increase in new COVID cases, curve flattening elsewhere

The rate of new cases is levelling off in Kelowna, Penticton and Revelstoke.

Interior Health update. File photo.
86 new COVID-19 cases, two more deaths in Interior Health

The new deaths are from Heritage Square, a long-term care facility in Vernon

Phase 4 of the Kicking Horse Canyon Project is on track, despite COVID-19 and the recent provincial election. (Government of BC photo)
Kicking Horse Canyon Phase 4 closures announced

The first major closures are expected to occur starting on April 12 until May 14

A woman wearing a protective face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 walks past a mural in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
115 new COVID-19 cases, no new deaths in Interior Health

There are now a total of 4,970 cases in the region

One of the renovated VWs that has served as the inspiration for Wood's idea for a VW village to redefine camping. (Jeremiah Woods photo)
Golden entrpreneau walks away with a deal from Dragon’s Den

Camping in the Woods combines a love of the outdoors and for classic VW vehicles

Keith the curious kitten is seen on Nov. 4, 2020 at the Chilliwack SPCA. Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 is Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Jan. 17 to 23

Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day, Pie Day and International Sweatpants Day are all coming up this week

(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
‘Targeted’ shooting in Coquitlam leaves woman in hospital

The woman suffered non-life threatening injuries in what police believe to be a targeted shooting Saturday morning

The organizer of a Kelowna protest against COVID-19 restrictions was fined by the RCMP for the third time Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. (File photo)
COVID-19: Organizer of Kelowna anti-restriction protest ticketed for third time

The individual’s latest ticket for $2,300 was handed out by RCMP at an anti-lockdown rally Saturday

Mount Boucherie Secondary School is one of three Kelowna schools with confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to an update from the school district Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. (File photo)
COVID-19 confirmed at 3 Kelowna schools

Interior Health has confirmed exposures at Mount Boucherie, Springvalley and South Rutland schools

Half of the most expensive homes are on 2080 Mackenzie Crt, which is across the street from Revelstoke Mountain Resort. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)
The 10 most valuable homes in Revelstoke for 2020

Combined, the properties are worth more than $35M

Lake Country native Evan-Riley Brown is in the cast for the new film Journey To Royal: A WW II Rescue Mission to be released on video on demand and streaming services on Feb. 2. (Contributed)
Okanagan actor lands role in WW II movie

Evan-Riley Brown, from Lake Country, cast in production labelled as hybrid of a feature film and documentary called Journey To Royal: a WW II Rescue Mission.

JaHyung Lee, “Canada’s oldest senior” at 110 years old, received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. He lives at Amenida Seniors Community in Newton. (Submitted photo: Amenida Seniors Community)
More than 20 days have passed since the last case of COVID-19 was confirmed at Lakeside Manor. (File photo)
Salmon Arm retirement facility reopens social areas after COVID-19

More than 20 days have passed since last confirmed case at Lakeside Manor

A unique-looking deer has been visiting a Nanoose Bay property with its mother. (Frieda Van der Ree photo)
A deer with 3 ears? Unique animal routinely visits B.C. property

Experts say interesting look may be result of an injury rather than an odd birth defect

Most Read