A friend once told me about a farewell party he'd attended at a corporation. The party, a pretty informal affair, was held in a lunch room. A few streamers were strung. Someone had brought in a sheet cake. There were some joke gifts. The mood was light but it changed a tad when the guest of honor arrived, took a look around, said, "I think you all are a bunch of bastards" and then walked out.
Well, let's not mark that down as a success.
I've never seen anything that dramatic at a farewell party but I've attended retirement parties where the overall atmosphere could inflict instant depression. Retirement parties, of course, have a higher bar. In the back of many a mind is "A person is leaving the organization after years of service and the best that is done is this?" If you're not going to do something stylish, it would be better to bypass a single event and try some alternatives.
Designate a Retirement Week for the individual and stretch out some scheduled and private farewell sessions so the folks from The Lollipop Guild and other units can come by and tell the person, in sincere and low-key tones, just what the person has meant.
Set aside some time so the person can be interviewed about the job itself and the nuggets of wisdom that he or she would pass on to a successor. [Give them time to collect their thoughts before the interview.]
Have some public display of their tenure, something primitive and tribal. I'm serving as president of a community organization. After being passed the gavel, I noticed that the initials of previous presidents were carved in it. That's a small but nice gesture.
My point is it would help to get beyond the bland unless bland is what the person wants and make no mistake, bland is sometimes desirable. I knew a very successful executive who mentioned that he purposely furnished his office so it could be stripped of anything personal within two minutes. He did, however, generously convey the lessons he had learned before he walked out the door.
That is another thought to bear in mind. When a good person leaves, you are losing the irreplaceable. You refill positions but you never replace people. Each is unique. Good service and companionship deserve proper attention.