SBJ/Dec. 9-15, 2013/People and Pop Culture

The art of the party, from happy hour to happening

At the Arizona Diamondbacks’ holiday party last December, the wife of the team’s chief financial officer was seen chasing after cocktail napkins she was convinced were $100 bills.

OK, we should explain. She was under hypnosis.

The Arizona Diamondbacks, who brought in a hypnotist to entertain last year, will offer karaoke with a live band at this year’s party.
Photo: COURTESY OF ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Always looking to shake things up at their annual holiday fetes, the Diamondbacks bring in entertainers. For the 2013 party this Friday, the staff will have the chance to sing with a local cover band called The Instant Classics. In 2011, it was comedian Mark Eddie. Last year, the star of the show was hypnotist Ricky Kalmon.

“One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen,” said Diamondbacks President and CEO Derrick Hall, still laughing as he recounted the tale a year later.

Kalmon asked for volunteers and got the willing participants to come up on stage. Several turned out to be prime subjects, falling into a deep hypnosis. A public relations staffer, known for being a bit shy around the office, was hypnotized into thinking he was the lead singer of Van Halen. But the real show-stopper was when the hypnotist focused on the wife of team CFO Tom Harris and informed her that every cocktail napkin at the party was a $100 bill.

Mrs. Harris collected every napkin that she could find in the ballroom of the party site, the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa in Scottsdale. No one there will ever forget it.

“She was an incredible sport about it,” Hall said. “That’s the spirit of our holiday parties: Everyone works so hard during the baseball season, it’s nice to take a day to close the office early, unwind, have a few laughs, and celebrate the holidays with our loved ones.”

The Diamondbacks, of course, aren’t alone. Teams, leagues and companies across sports mark the holidays with events for their employees, but the Diamondbacks go as all-out as any group. Staffers — about 200, with each one also bringing a spouse or guest — have a chance to win prizes through raffles and casino games. Last year, two ticket sales staffers won a trip to the MLB All-Star Game in New York. This year, the grand prize is a trip to see the Diamondbacks when they open the 2014 season in late March with two games against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Sydney, Australia. Other past prizes have been TVs and iPods.

Although December is in the offseason for baseball, Diamondbacks players are invited to join the staff for the party as well. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt attended last year with his wife. At that party, a takeoff of the TV show “The Office” (with Hall playing the Steve Carell role as he spoke with members of the staff) was shown on large video screens to big laughs. At the conclusion of each party, which starts in the early evening and can last past 2 a.m., complimentary taxi service is provided. And every employee goes home with a gift, usually a high-end piece of apparel like a team jersey.

“The holiday party is an important part of a culture of inclusion and involvement that we instill in the office,” Hall said. “It’s a spectacular night.”

                                                 

A peek at sports properties’ approaches to holiday parties reveals many variations. A common refrain from team and league offices is that their get-togethers are merely a merry round of drinks after-hours in the office or at local pub, with maybe a meal or a Secret Santa included. “Definitely nothing worth writing about,” was the refrain of executives at a few NBA teams (though to be clear, no one was complaining).

Some team and league officials politely declined to divulge details of their gatherings, saying their preference is to keep the spirit of their events private. One NHL executive said it’s a policy of his team not to post photos or videos of the event on the team website.

There’s an additional consideration for NFL clubs. For them, the end-of-the-year holidays fall in the final stretch of their teams’ seasons, a time too busy and intense for many clubs to schedule a day of franchise-wide celebrating. “It’s just a quick toast and then back to work,” emailed one NFL team public relations official. “The offseason is long enough to have social events.”

NASCAR headquarters in Charlotte does not hold a major staff event for a different reason: The holiday season is the only quiet time in the calendar year for employees to take an extended vacation.

On the other hand, the staffs of Dan Gilbert’s sports properties celebrate as one big family. More than 1,000 employees of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the AHL Lake Erie Monsters, the NBA D-League’s Canton Charge and Quicken Loans Arena gather at the arena or at a local establishment like the House of Blues for a party that starts with happy hour and continues into the night.

“Dan makes a point of being inclusive,” said Tad Carper, Cavaliers senior vice president of communications. “Many of the Aramark [concessionaire] staff and team and arena part-timers are there, too, and everyone goes home with gifts — everything from apparel to gift cards and honey-baked hams. Dan participates, as do [vice chairmen] Jeff Cohen and Nate Forbes, and we all love being together as one big group.”

For GMR Marketing, multiple locations means multiple parties, like this one in Charlotte.
Photo: COURTESY OF GMR
At GMR Marketing, the agency that works with the NFL, NASCAR and other sports properties, separate holiday parties are hosted at restaurants and clubs for each of the company’s branches, a span that includes Milwaukee, Chicago, Charlotte, San Francisco, New York, Toronto, London, Brazil, Singapore and Madrid. The largest crew, the more than 600 full-time employees at central headquarters in Milwaukee, are having their event on Thursday at the Grain Exchange. Each party features dinner, a live band or DJ, and fun activities like interactive games and a photo booth for staffers and their guests to get pictures. Top clients, including MillerCoors (a partner of GMR’s since 1979), are also invited.

“It’s quite an undertaking to have all those events, but we ask a lot of our folks — a lot of time and a lot of travel away from family,” said Tyson Webber, GMR’s executive vice president of client management. “It’s an opportunity to not only thank our associates for their dedication, but also their loved ones for their sacrifices and understanding. Everyone deserves a memorable night.”

                                                  

As you might expect, sports marketing executives can be particularly creative with their holiday events. Staffers from JHE Production Group, for example, sang, played guitars and banged drums on stage with Dee Snider of Twister Sister at the Fillmore in Charlotte for their company’s holiday bash last year.

JHE Production Group’s party has awards for employees and a surprise musical guest. Last year Dee Snider belted out tunes while President Jay Howard played the drums.
Photos: COURTESY OF JHE
“I guess you can call it karaoke, with a pretty cool twist,” said Jay Howard, president of the Charlotte-based experiential activation and production company. JHE works with NASCAR and the Professional Bull Riders, among other sports properties.

Howard, a drummer in his spare time, produces an awards show as part of the agency’s party — which welcomes his 100-person staff and their families along with some top vendors. Awards are given to executives in categories such as the Goose-bump Moment of the Year and the Best Save. According to Howard, the latter goes to “the person who saved our bacon when it looked like something was going horribly wrong.”

Each year, the evening culminates with the
appearance of a surprise musical guest, who comes on stage and jams with anyone at JHE who plays an instrument — or anyone who thinks they can. In 2011, the star was Foreigner lead singer Kelly Hansen, who led the band in “Cold as Ice,” “Hot Blooded” and other tunes. Last year, Snider took over, getting the audience out of its seats to sing “I Wanna Rock” and, of course, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

“Then we scored on the cute-meter,” Howard said. “Our receptionist has a 12-year-old daughter who can really sing, and Dee had a recent holiday album out — so we put them together for a duet on ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas.’ It was beautiful.”

This year’s party, called The 6th Annual Dog & Pony Show, is Dec. 19, back at the Fillmore. As usual, the guest artist will be a surprise to everybody at JHE, except for Howard.

                                                  

For NHL clubs, creating an idyllic “Winter Wonderland” setting for a holiday party can be as easy as looking at the teams’ frozen playing surfaces. The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders are among the clubs that set up a Christmas tree at center ice, pump festive songs through the arena speakers, and host an organization-wide skating session for staff, players, coaches and their families.

The Chicago Blackhawks’ party has a family flavor — Marián Hossa and family pose with Santa — and brief speeches from team execs like John McDonough (below).
Photos: COURTESY OF CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
“It’s such a great time, when you see the players and their children skating with all of our employees and their kids,” said David Peart, senior vice president of sales and service at the Penguins, who hold their event at Consol Energy Center. “It reinforces the notion that the Penguins are one big family.”

The event does not end with the skating. There’s a buffet dinner afterward, with an appearance by Santa. Everyone goes home with a gift card acquired by the team from top sponsors like Dick’s Sporting Goods and American Eagle.

The Penguins host a separate holiday party for team sponsors and their families, as well — a dinner at the arena for more than 200 people. All children go home with presents.

“Our corporate partners are an invaluable part of our success as a franchise,” Peart said. “They deserve a great night on us around the holidays.”

In addition to a skate at TD Garden, the Boston Bruins hold a lunch for the 220 full-time employees of the team, the arena and concessionaire Sportservice — all companies under the Delaware North umbrella. There is a cook-off between Garden chefs, with employees voting on their favorite items. The lunch is over by midafternoon, and everyone is free from work for the rest of the day — a built-in opportunity for staff to finish their holiday shopping.

Similarly, in Chicago, after the team’s players, staff and their families enjoy a skate on the United Center ice, Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz hosts a luncheon in one of the arena’s banquet rooms. There is a station for family photos, and Wirtz and team President and CEO John McDonough give brief speeches to the group.

Los Angeles Kings front-office members will be treated this year to an afternoon staff party at a restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

“Every season is such a grind, so it’s important that we take time to get away and just enjoy our colleagues and celebrate the holiday season as a work family,” said Luc Robitaille, Kings president of business operations.

This year, besides a skate with their families at Toyota Sports Center, the team’s training facility, Kings players are getting an added treat for the holidays: The players and their wives are attending a private screening of “Anchorman 2,” which will be preceded by a recorded message to the Kings from Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy.

                                                  

Despite the differences in their party plans and approaches, there is one thread that runs through most sports organizations at holiday time: a charitable consideration.

GMR offers Casual for a Cause, where employees can pay $5 per day to wear casual clothing to work. At the end of the month, all of the money raised is donated to a local charity. “The donations are really stepped up around the holidays,” Webber said. “We’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars.”

Like JHE, the Oklahoma City Thunder incorporates an awards show into its staff party. One week before the event, employees complete a survey and nominate their peers in categories such as MVP, most improved and most digitally capable. The winners receive prizes at the party. But there also is a charitable element to the proceedings. Starting in late November, employees decorate their work spaces in Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and New Year’s themes. A panel of Thunder players, basketball operations staffers and executives judge the artwork, and the top three winners get a $1,000 donation made to the charity of their choice.

The New York Mets changed last year’s party to a cleanup effort after Superstorm Sandy.
Photos by: MARC S. LEVINE / NEW YORK METS
The Orlando Magic offers its employees a holiday luncheon with raffle prizes at a local country club, but employees also donate time around the holidays by serving meals at the Coalition for the Homeless. They sponsor Orlando families in need of holiday gifts through an “angel tree,” as well.

After Superstorm Sandy damaged the East Coast last year, front-office executives of the New York Mets decided to change their holiday plans. They dedicated the day usually reserved for their staff holiday party to assisting with the clean-up around a section of the Rockaways, a region in New York particularly devastated by the storm. The entire staff traveled in buses arranged by the team and spent an entire December day helping out.

From that effort, the Mets have decided to make volunteerism a December staple. Prior to a late-afternoon gathering in the Delta Club at Citi Field to celebrate the holidays this year, team staffers will spend a day making “surgi-dolls” for children in medical facilities through a charitable program called Project Sunshine. The dolls are used by doctors to explain surgical procedures to young patients, who can play with the dolls.

“After the unimaginable happened with Sandy, senior management thought the best way to be together for the holidays was to volunteer in the community,” said David Newman, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the Mets.

The effort, he added, speaks to something beyond the office, particularly at this time of year: “It’s the true spirit of the holidays.”

What is your company planning as a holiday event this year? If you would like to share your story, please email Christopher Botta at cbotta@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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