by Alex Palmer | October 13, 2011
Each year, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a trade and lobbying group for the country’s pharmaceutical research and biotechnology companies, seeks to do something special for their employees around the company’s annual holiday event. In 2010, with Italy as its inspiration, the company’s staff used the language, food, and—in particular—games of the country to create a party the employees are still talking about.

“We always try to do something fun for the staff that’s also interactive, so that people aren’t just sitting around in a hotel room,” says Lucia Lynch, deputy vice president for PhRMA, who oversaw the event. “Being that our new president is Italian, and I'm half-Italian, it made us think of Italy and bocce ball.’” 

Once Lynch had decided on the details of the event, she worked to ramp up anticipation among employees. Several weeks before the party, each of the 150 or so employees received a copy of Italian Without Words, a humorous book that offers “translations” of Italian gestures (particularly ones like “You’re a disgrace!” and “I dare you!” which are ideal for trash-talking during the bocce tournament that would be part of the event). 

Lynch then reached out to John Lehmann, president and founder of BocceNation.com, which offers complete "Bocce-in-a-Bag” ball sets and runs events for corporate groups, to help her plan the party. She set up one of BocceNation.com’s compact bocce courts in a nearby hallway, where employees could practice during breaks and learn how the game is played before the big day. Employees chose their teammates and team names, with some going so far as to design their own t-shirts. 

Lighthearted email blasts were also sent out to the staff, featuring updates about the event and plenty of Italian phrases sprinkled throughout, as well as explanations of bocce terms such as skyball, which is a ball thrown high, and destroyer ball, which is a ball meant to knock the opponent’s ball out of the way.

“We really hyped it up with our staff, wanting to get them excited,” says Lynch, "though after a while, people were like, ‘Okay, enough with the Italian stuff!’”

Lehmann, who is also the president of Network Sports Marketing, has run PhRMA’s past sports events, bringing tennis and golf professionals to the organization’s annual meetings. He saw potential in bocce as an incentive and meeting activity because of its inclusiveness and how easy it was to learn. The basic rule: get your team’s ball the closest to the small ball. Last May, he founded BocceNation.com to tap into this potential market. 

“You don’t need special clothing or equipment or previous experience—there’s a certain skill level, but people pick it up in three minutes,” says Lehmann. “We can accommodate time, space, set them up on carpets, ballrooms, convention centers . . . it’s relatively malleable.”

The PhRMA event would prove to be one of the most ambitious BocceNation.com has coordinated. With six people per team, the group had to set up 40 courts at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, to keep the tournament moving along on time. 

The tournament lasted about two hours, with the teams playing to elimination while making liberal use of their new Italian vocabulary and body language. Before and during the tournament, a full spread of Italian cuisine was set out, including crisp baby calamari, Tuscan bean stew with roasted chicken, and a risotto station, as well as beer and wine. The food and beverage spread helped ensure that fun and conversation continued even for those who had been eliminated from the tournament.

Once the winners were determined, prizes were awarded. Members of the first-place team each received a Flip video camera, while those on the second-place team were awarded bottles of Brunello wine. Even the team with the lowest score had reason to celebrate—each member received tickets to a World Wrestling Entertainment show at the nearby Verizon Center.

Each team also selected a charity to which a donation was made, and the top teams received souvenir medals, presented to them in an Olympic-style ceremony, complete with victory speech and photo op. By the time the awards had been given out, it was late in the afternoon and the staff was given the rest of the day off to get in some last-minute holiday shopping or just some extra time to themselves.

Judging by attendees' responses, it was the best time the staff had at a group activity in recent memory. Lynch attributes this level of camaraderie-building to the interactivity of the game. While golf or even bowling puts a group together and keeps participants together, in the bocce tournament a team moves from one set of competitors to the next, allowing players face time with almost every other participant and making it ideal for a larger group.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the event’s success is that by popular demand, PhRMA is planning to soon roll out the bocce courts again this year.

“A lot of the comments I got were that they really interacted with more staff, that they were able to play with more people and interact with more people because of the format,” says Lynch. “We sent out an announcement for this year’s holiday party, and people are already asking, ‘When do we get to pick our bocce teams?’”