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 cougar was spotted at Royal Roads University on Sunday, Jan. 24. The sighting was reported on the western edge of the campus. (File photo)
Cougar spotted at Royal Roads University Sunday afternoon

Animal reported on western side of campus near Langford Fire Department

Frank Bourree was awarded the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce’s first Governors’ Award of Distinction for his leadership in the business community. (Courtesy of Frank Bourree)
Frank Bourree receives award of distinction from Victoria chamber

Award recognizes positive role model in business community

The Habitat for Humanity Meaning of Home contest is open to students in Grades 5 to 6. (Screenshot/Habitat for Humanity video)
Habitat for Humanity launches national writing contest

Entries accepted from students in Grades 4 to 6 until Feb. 19

Colwood Fire Rescue is reminding the public to only burn dry, seasoned wood in fireplaces after heavy smoke filled the intersection of Sooke Road and Acacia Drive when a homeowner tried burning a plastic item on Sunday, Jan. 24. (Emily Jessop photo)
Colwood homeowner burns plastic in fireplace, causes emergency response

Colwood Fire Rescue says burn dry, seasoned wood in fireplaces only

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

Wet’suwet’en supporters and Coastal GasLink opponents continue to protest outside the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, February 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
‘We’re still in it’: Wet’suwet’en push forward on rights recognition

The 670-km Coastal GasLink pipeline was approved by B.C. and 20 elected First Nations councils on its path

The sky above Mt. Benson in Nanaimo is illuminated by flares as search and rescuers help an injured hiker down the mountain to a waiting ambulance. (Photo courtesy Nanaimo Search and Rescue)
Search plane lights up Nanaimo mountain with flares during icy rope rescue

Rescuers got injured hiker down Mt. Benson to a waiting ambulance Saturday night

Jennifer Cochrane, a Public Health Nurse with Prairie Mountain Health in Virden, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Robert Farquhar with Westman Regional Laboratory, during the first day of immunizations at the Brandon COVID-19 vaccination supersite in Brandon, Man., on Monday, January 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Smith - POOL
Top doctor urges Canadians to keep up with COVID measures, even as vaccines roll out

More than 776,606 vaccines have been administered so far

From the left: Midway RCMP Csts. Jonathan Stermscheg and Chris Hansen, Public Servant Leanne Mclaren and Cpl. Phil Peters. Pictured in the front are Mclaren’s dog, Lincoln and Peters’ dog, Angel. Photo courtesy of BC RCMP
B.C. Mounties commended for bringing firewood to elderly woman

Cpl. Phil Peters said he and detachment members acted after the woman’s husband went to hospital

Dr. Jerome Leis and Dr. Lynfa Stroud are pictured at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Thursday, January 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
‘It wasn’t called COVID at the time:’ One year since Canada’s first COVID-19 case

The 56-year-old man was admitted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

An Uber driver’s vehicle is seen after the company launched service, in Vancouver, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Several taxi companies have lost a court bid to run Uber and Lyft off the road in British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Taxi companies lose court bid to quash Uber, Lyft approvals in British Columbia

Uber said in a statement that the ruling of the justice is clear and speaks for itself

Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. (News Bulletin file photo)
COVID-19 outbreak declared at Nanaimo hospital

Two staff members and one patient have tested positive, all on the same floor

A long-term care worker receives the Pfizer vaccine at a clinic in Nanaimo earlier this month. (Island Health photo)
All Island seniors in long-term care will be vaccinated by the end of this weekend

Immunization of high-risk population will continue over the next two months

Most Read