Tasked with planning the office holiday party, but don’t want to ruin it, Dwight Schrute style? It needs to be fun — but not so fun you get fired — and as environmentally sustainable as your budget will allow. After chatting with Trevor E. Furrer, Managing Partner of Riverhouse Hospitality, I have a better idea of what to look for when planning a greener office celebration.
When do I have to start planning?
Let’s be honest. Sometimes we are asked to make miracles happen at the last minute. When that’s not the case, you have more options about venues, caterers, and everything else. Trevor says “three months in advance is usually enough lead time for a holiday party,” and he recommends “reserving the date as soon as you can.”
“We can always work together to finalize details once things like budget and guest count are determined,” he says, “but it will be a relief to have an item off of your to-do list.”
Even if this year’s theme — Old Town Road vs. Spice Girls Reunion — is still being disputed, you can at least begin to make your plans.
One month, he says, is a short lead time, but doable.
How do I choose a venue?
It should go without saying that picking a centrally-located venue is going to be one of the easiest ways to make your event less of a drain on the environment. A facility that cannot be reached by bus or train adds to the carbon footprint, but even if that isn’t a top concern, it presents another problem. Don’t be the Grinch who stole fun from your car-free co-workers! You might not immediately think about bicycle facilities in winter, but many commuters do bike year-round. Does the venue’s website mention bike storage and provide transit information? Few places are doing all of these things well, but are they making strides in the right direction?
Then, there’s the venue itself. What can you find out about its construction? This is where the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED-certified ratings can prove helpful. Currently, they assign four ratings: Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. These are determined by points accumulated through specific actions taken. For instance, having bicycle facilities earns one point. Another point can be earned by site design that deters bird collisions. To qualify for certification, there are a number of required actions, including pollution prevention during the construction phase. While I find it enjoyable to get every last detail about a building’s green practices, realistically, not everyone is going to have the time for that research. Simply knowing whether or not a building has earned a LEED ranking might be enough. To find this info out, you can ask the venue you have in mind if they fit the bill, or you can browse the U.S. Green Building Council directory. The Connecticut Science Center, which hosts special events, earned Gold certification in 2010. Fun fact: 95% of the building’s steel was derived from recycled cars.
Another option is to look for a site that was created through adaptive reuse, that is, an historic building that has been modified to serve modern demands. The Society Room of Hartford is an example of this. It was originally used as Society for Savings, a bank, built in 1893. In its renovations, the bank vault has remained, adding character to the ornate venue.
In an area where nobody is LEED certified and there is not much adaptive reuse? Just as there are farmers who practice organic growing methods but opt out of paying to be certified organic, there are businesses with green buildings that have decided to skip the official seal of approval. Take a look at the LEED program requirements to guide your venue selection. Some features, like a reduced parking footprint and electric vehicle charging stations are easy to observe without much experience.
What to eat?
Without food, you aren’t at a party. You’re in a meeting. A bad one.
The menu offers another opportunity to reduce carbon emissions. Find a caterer that will use food that is as seasonally and locally grown as possible. Doing that in New England in December might feel limiting — cranberries, pears, squash, apples, and mushrooms, mostly — but you can use that as the base and supplement strategically.
Speaking of produce, you’ll want a catering service that offers delicious vegan and vegetarian options. Make sure that those menu items are heartier than a leafy salad. Don’t starve out your co-workers!
What about leftovers?
If the food is delicious, nobody minds having some leftovers that a few willing employees can take home after the event, but you want to make sure this does not cross into excess territory.
Trevor says, “we always ask party planners or our clients direct to get accurate head counts.” As the planner, you may need to badger non-committal co-workers to turn those “maybes” into firm decisions. Sweeten the deal by letting them know what else to expect from the event. Will there be live music or an appearance by Belsnickel? Let them know.
It also helps, Trevor says, to give attendees “menu choices before the event so people can decide which options they would like to eat.” See where we’re going with this? Give your co-workers incentive to attend, especially if this is after work hours.
When you are selecting a caterer, ask what they do with the leftovers. According to Trevor, Riverhouse donates excess food to local food pantries, whenever possible.
Another option to look for is a facility that has on-site composting or hires a food scrap collection service.
Are we supposed to eat with our hands?
Depending on the size of your office (or your budget), proper silverware might be a reasonable choice. If not, there is a middle ground between 100% reusable and 100% plastic disposable. Trevor says “Riverhouse Hospitality uses Eco-Products” and has “implemented a paper straw policy at all events.” Eco-Products’ utensils range from recycled plastic to plant-based plastic, with some items being compostable. Find out in advance what kind of recycling happens on site.
What is an impact I am not thinking about?
Besides reducing the carbon footprint, it’s always great to keep our local economy afloat. Find out where the caterer hires most of its staff from. Are they renting tables and linens from far flung locations and having to truck these in, or are they using vendors within a few miles of the venue?
Trevor says: “It’s important to have a mix of options – hot and cold, meat and vegetarian/vegan, passed and stationary – to appeal to your guests and to keep your party going! Even if the client is not ‘thinking green’ we are, and we make recommendations accordingly and those are always well received.”
This may all seem like a lot of work for an office party, but keep in mind that if the right venue is selected, you can continue that relationship and not need to do a deep investigation for future events. Your event does not have to check all the boxes the first year either. Every party after is an opportunity to incorporate more sustainable actions.
Thinking about holding this year’s party at the Connecticut Science Center? There’s an easy inquiry form for that.
Kerri Provost is a Communications Research Associate at the Connecticut Science Center who is outdoors whenever possible. She has an interest in fluvial geomorphology and is currently attempting to walk every block of Hartford. She is the co-producer of the Going/Steady podcast.