While the economy trickles along toward a recovery, budget pressures at many companies remain tight and can throttle holiday merrymaking.

Your team still can have fun without big frills. Here are five ways to get the festivities going:

Don’t lose sight of the focus. This is a time for bringing people together from different departments and offices, and saying thanks for their contributions to the company and customers. Resist the temptation to expand the agenda because you’ll have a diverse crowd conveniently assembled in one location.  I recall one holiday gathering where the department vice president used the forum to introduce productivity initiatives for the coming year. By the time he covered the third big project, eyes were rolling and the mood of the crowd had sunk to somber.

Dedicate a budget. It doesn’t have to be a big number but it does have to be some number. If you’ve got 50 or 100 people to invite, what cost per person can you absorb? Is it $20? $50? $100? Those parameters are important for deciding on location, menu, decorations and so on. For example, taking over Ruby’s Diner for a breakfast celebration at $20 per person is indeed doable. Conversely, that $20 limit won’t go far for dinner fare at Ruby’s Steakhouse.

Hand over planning. Ask for volunteers from various departments to canvas party ideas from co-workers that fit budget and other parameters (for example, driving distance from your office location). Let creativity reign! I’ve seen tailgate parties at a college football game and bowling outings successfully replace traditional, formal dinners. Bring volunteers together to sort through coworkers’ feedback and select three options to review with you. Task them to present the pros and cons for each option, without losing sight of the focus on appreciation. Finally, give them a vote in the final selection plus the gift of paid time on the job for their help. By engaging employees in the planning process, the event becomes “ours” rather than something the boss wanted.

Enlist an intern. Office celebrations are a terrific project for a college student majoring in event planning—an extremely popular major these days. Call the career office at a local community college or university with a posting for a temporary position. If you can offer payment, terrific. If not, provide real responsibilities and a powerful developmental assignment that adds experience and references to an undergraduate’s resume. Assign a member of your volunteer employee planning team to be a key liaison for the student for building a plan and schedule. Make time in your schedule to meet periodically with the intern to discuss expectations and outcomes for the event, and to discuss progress.  

Resist giveaways. Party favors and gifts add cost, but rarely create lasting memories. The most prized gift that a leader can offer is sincere appreciation demonstrated in word and action. Make contact with every employee who attends your office celebration. Shake hands. Look them in the eye. Say how grateful you are. Underscore your appreciation by showcasing a specific success metric—such as customer service or safe workplace—where performance has risen. With advance preparation, you can briefly tell a story about each department’s contribution and make your recognition truly inclusive. And there’s no need to stop once the event is over. Take another step to show your appreciation with a handwritten thank-you note mailed to employees’ homes, where it can be shared with family members.

Enjoy the holiday season. With the help of your team, make it merry and memorable.  

Linda Dulye is internationally recognized for helping many companies go spectator free. A former communications leader for GE and Allied Signal, Linda established Dulye & Co.  in 1998 with a practical, process-driven approach for improving communications and collaboration through an engaged workforce— a formidable competitive advantage, that she calls a Spectator-Free Workplace™.