Stop Chasing Holiday Party Reservations and Do This Instead

It never fails. Every time the holiday season rolls around, I’m contacted by restaurant owners asking how they can get those big-dollar private or corporate holiday parties through the door. They have created graphics and “book your holiday party with us!” forms on their websites. They have a pricey social media budget in mind. They sometimes go so far as to hire an expensive events coordinator to reach out to these groups in efforts to book more holiday parties.

Rarely, if ever, have I seen these efforts pay off. Why? Human nature doesn’t work like that. For a moment, stop thinking of this process from a restaurant owner’s perspective. Think of this from the mind of the person on the other side of the equation tasked with finding a spot for this year’s “8th Annual Company Ugly Xmas Sweater Party.” The annual event that some employees look forward to because this is their shot at hitting on the slightly inebriated new person from accounting. Others dread this event and would never go unless it was mandatory. No matter.

This person planning the event doesn’t just hop on social media and start mindlessly scrolling until they land on the “Book your holiday party with us!” flyer. They don’t necessarily respond to restaurants promoting this exact thing even if they did see this theoretical flyer. Their mindset works something like this: They ask the bosses where they would like to hold the event. They discuss a short-list of places that fit the demographic, the price-point, and are in close proximity to the office. The list is narrowed down to a half-dozen or so places that the bosses like, have likely been to before, and won’t break the bank. Then the phone calls start. The events person (or whoever is planning this shindig) reaches out to the restaurants on the list until a winner is found. The end. 

That’s how human nature works. I’ve experienced places that I was employed with in the past throw thousands of dollars toward this exact process and come out the other end with zero more bookings than they would have if they just let the phone calls roll in naturally. 

Ready for the exception?

Places who instead invest this money into an over-the-top holiday decoration experience that Clark Griswold would be proud of. The world we live in is extremely visual and our attention spans are at an all-time low and sinking. Create the “Oh my God, have you seen the Christmas decorations over at _____?!?!”

The best-of-the-best restaurants who pull this off cash in in several ways. Think of the social media post you were about to make featuring a picture of your banquet area with a bunch of lonely tables and chairs and a sad looking Charlie Brown-inspired Christmas tree in the background. Now instead, think about every square inch of the walls and ceiling taken up by wrapping paper, bows, lights, ornaments, and other holiday decorations. The entire dining room magically glows when an insane amount of lighting strands are used. Add cinnamon and other holiday scents to attack all of the senses. Have the staff get involved and dress appropriately. (This is the one theme they will most likely be on-board with if done correctly.)

Yes, it's expensive. Yes, it’s time consuming. This is the biggest of the “go-big or go-home” seasons we have, so take advantage while you can. In bigger cities, there are companies who will rent you all of the equipment and decorations and even install it for you. If you don’t have that luxury, employ the staff to help on their days off for extra pay.

DON’T CHEAP OUT! Nothing looks worse than a half-assed holiday decorating attempt. Put a lot of time into it and make it ridiculous. Make it intense and overwhelming. Make it undeniable.

Here are the results, if done correctly: 

Media Exposure

Every year you see restaurants that make the local news for these over-the-top themes, and every year these same places are the hardest to get into. Their reservations book up quickly. They are the talk of the town and deservedly so. No marketing effort comes close to an extremely visual presentation on the 6 o’clock news.

Social Media Buzz

Think back to the social media post you were planning on making with the staff in Santa hats with the same ol’ tired “Book your holiday party with us!” verbiage. Zero likes. Now think of the picture of your dining room transformed into a Winter Wonderland and an explosion of sight, smell, and sound with not a single square inch left outside in the cold. This is the moment people stop scrolling on Instagram and take note. This is the “wow factor.” This is the type of content you don’t have to pay for because it will grow organically. This is the type of eye-candy that the public will want to share, comment and tag friends in, so you don’t even have to do that. This is the epitome of my mantra: “Be the show, not the commercial.”

Word of Mouth

Now let’s again rewind back to the events coordinator discussing potential spots to hold this year’s holiday party with the bosses. Unless they’ve all been living under a rock somewhere, they will be well aware of the hype surrounding your restaurant. You will be their first call. Now it’s not a matter of waiting for the phone to ring, it’s a matter of trying to fit all of the inquiries into your calendar. Now you run the show. Think of every single one of your patrons snapping photos and sharing on their own social media pages—and of course tagging your place in all of them. This is a simple guide to how to “go viral.”

Double Down Next Year

Now that you have everyone’s attention, make it something for your town to look forward to each year. Be the grown-up equivalent of the kid waking up on Christmas morning and seeing that mountain of presents. You’ll have that hype and anticipation built-in for next year so now you can run with it—only with a bigger, better, and probably cheaper version of this year’s display.

I’ve seen this caliber of decoration pulled off correctly maybe a handful of times. When it is, it works 100% of the time.  There is a place in Old Town in Scottsdale, Arizona called The Coach House. They do just this and pull it off extremely well, year after year. It takes them about a month or so to decorate, and it’s not cheap. The result, however, is unmistakable. It evolved from a December 1st-New Year’s Eve thing, to a three-month-plus display with sold-out crowds every single weekend. The Coach House is a simple dive bar every other month of the year, but when the holiday season comes, it’s the hottest ticket in town. You have to plan in advance to even get in the door. This is all thanks to employing a very simple, yet effective technique that any bar or restaurant can do. All you have to do is commit.

If you’re going to do this, do it now. Don’t wait until December 1st to get started. By that time, the decorations will be sold out, the guys who install this stuff for you will be booked, and you’ll be playing catch-up. Think ahead and make this holiday season the first of a long line of recurring Christmas presents you give to yourself!  

Erik Shellenberger has been in the restaurant and bar industry since he was 13 years old working for his mother in the food & beverage dept. at a local ski resort in Park City, UT, where he grew up. He has held every position from dishwasher to bartender to marketing director and everything in between. With a decade of corporate marketing experience, he has gone from student to teacher and runs Bar Marketing Basics and has been quickly grown his client base from his home town of Scottsdale, AZ, to across the nation with clients as far away as the east coast.


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