Holiday parties in a pandemic: Tableau orders 3,500 meals to go; Smartsheet serenaded virtually; more

Food is prepped in to-go containers for Tableau employees at one of Ethan Stowell’s restaurants in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of Ethan Stowell Restaurants)Looking for a way to celebrate the holiday season with employees while also injecting some much-needed support into the Seattle restaurant scene, Tableau Software placed the to-go order of the year last weekend with help from longtime restaurateur Ethan Stowell.
The move by the Seattle-based tech company is one of many examples of how businesses are shifting their holiday plans during the pandemic, moving gatherings over to video chat, raising money for charity, assembling crafts, listening to music, building gingerbread houses, donning ugly sweaters and more in the name of getting in the spirit when spirits are dampened.
Tableau employee Charlie Maier picks up his meal from Red Cow restaurant in Madrona. (Photo courtesy of Ethan Stowell Restaurants)Like most places, Tableau set aside its normal in-person gathering this year — a dinner-and-drinks celebration that would normally occur for Seattle employees and guests at a venue such as Seattle Center or The Museum of Flight. The company instead reached out to Stowell at the end of the summer with a desire to work with the celebrated chef and restaurant group owner on feeding thousands of employees at home.
Appreciating the impact that COVID-19 has had on restaurants and workers across the industry, Stowell suggested that they spread the love beyond his group of 14 establishments. He called a bunch of his restaurant friends and offered to handle the logistics around organization, chefs, menus, pricing and more.
On Saturday, Tableau ran up a bill for hundreds of thousands of dollars as its virtual celebration amounted to 3,500 takeaway dinners from 40 local restaurants. The participating restaurants, including eight of Stowell’s, each received money to put toward two-person meals, with drinks, plus 20% tip.
“I know there’s been a lot of great companies out there that are like, ‘Hey, here’s some bonus, go spend it in the community,’ which is fantastic and super generous and nice of them,” Stowell told GeekWire. “But having it concentrated like Tableau did is meaningful. Everybody had a big night of sales, a good profitable day of business, which will carry them for a while.”
Restaurateur Ethan Stowell during a virtual holiday “carol-oke” gathering with the Tableau team. (Tableau Photo)Stowell, who employs 92 people himself, wants to keep the momentum going into the new year. Knowing that a lot of tech companies have budgets for food service or in-house food service that they’re not using right now, he’s organizing an effort to encourage businesses to do what Tableau did, every week or every other week.
“It would carry a ton of businesses,” Stowell said of his plan, noting that the first quarter of the year is going to be rough for many restaurants. “I’ve been in the restaurant industry a long time, and I want to see as many restaurants come through it as possible.”
Keep reading to see how other Seattle-area tech companies are dealing with remote holiday season gatherings:
Smartsheet

Singer-musician Michael Franti performs during a virtual meeting for Smartsheet. (Photo courtesy of Smartsheet)Musical performances are often a big part of holiday gatherings for companies, whether it’s just dancing to a DJ or taking over an entire stadium for a pop-star performance staged by Amazon.
This year, Smartsheet, the Bellevue, Wash.-based company which sells collaboration work management software, brought the music to employees virtually, with a special performance by singer-songwriter Michael Franti.
Franti’s “Work Hard and Be Nice” mantra is an inspiration to the Smartsheet team, and he was invited by CEO Mark Mader to sing a song during an all-company gathering this week. An in-house DJ from the Smartsheet sales team also spun tunes throughout the call, while executives shared their expressions of gratitude and their hopes for 2021.
And Franti signed off by saying, “May the ashes of 2020 burn themselves into the ground so the fiery phoenix of courage, love, tenacity and Smartsheet goodness rise up in 2021.”

Convoy
(Convoy Image)The Seattle-based digital freight network Convoy has put a remote twist on some of its existing traditions around the … “haulidays.” Yep, that was a trucking pun.
The company has an annual ugly holiday sweater tradition with a design facilitated by Convoy. This year they included children’s and baby onesie versions for the first time.
The gift this year to employees was a branded Miir mug and a s’mores kit, and a “s’mores and stories” virtual holiday event is planned for January. It aligns with Convoys traditional timing for a company gathering.
Employees were given the option to opt out of the gift and donate the money to support truck driver-related charities.
Zillow
Zillow’s Josh Swift, senior vice president of Acquisition and Operations, is joined by his two daughters during a virtual cooking lesson with celebrity Chef Melissa King. (Photo courtesy of Zillow)Zillow employees were home for the “Zallidays,” a two-part event staged last week over Zoom. “Zall” is Zillow speak for “all employees” at the Seattle real estate tech company.
Prior to the gathering, employees were offered a selection of gift boxes to be delivered to their home; many opted out and ask that the money be donated instead. Employees raised over $100,000 during the holiday season from Nov. 9 to Dec. 15 for nine non-profit organizations during the Zillow for Good (Z4G) Holiday Charity Auction.
The two days of Zallidays focused on strategy and big picture as well as people and culture. There was a virtual cooking lesson featuring celebrity chef Melissa King, winner of “Top Chef All Stars: LA Season 17,” and author Neil Pasricha delivered a keynote to inspire employees on how to make their lives a little happier going into 2021.
Zipwhip
Zipwhip employees during a virtual wreath-making session. (Photo courtesy of Zipwhip)Zipwhip, the Seattle-based text-messaging business, avoided a company-wide virtual party for fear that gathering 250 employees on one Zoom call would be a bit difficult.
Instead, individual teams were given budgets to do smaller virtual gatherings of their choice. Some teams did wreath-making, others did cooking classes, wine/whiskey tastings or game nights. The corporate communications team was planning to get oyster-shucking lessons from a former chef at Walrus & Carpenter.
Zipwhip also gifted Patagonia jackets to employees and more time off during the holidays.
Vulcan Inc.
One of Vulcan’s holiday traditions is an annual “Gift of Give” event where employees raise funds for a local non-profit. Usually that entails in-person activities — each department picks an activity to run, and colleagues make donations to participate.
The company founded by the late Paul Allen had to switch gears and get creative on how to raise funds for this year’s charity, Choose 180, a Seattle-area non-profit that partners with institutional leaders and connects youth with community, empowering them with choice and teaching them the skills necessary to avoid engagement with the criminal legal system.
Vulcan kicked things off with a virtual event for employees to learn more about Choose 180 and then a virtual auction with items and services donated by employees, ranging from handmade ornaments to artisan furniture. There was also a raffle with prizes donated by the executive team that included everything from gift cards supporting local businesses to high-end wine selections and more.
A Vulcan rep said “everyone really stepped up” and the company raised more than $30,000 for Choose 180.
Redfin

Redfin software developer Rama Gokhale designed a gingerbread house with “buy me” scrawled on the roof in icing.Seattle real estate company Redfin also went the individual teams route when it came to virtual gatherings this year.
Each team was responsible with coming up with their own activity. The communications team hired a magician to perform over Zoom, and other teams held gingerbread house decorating competitions.

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