Growing up my family loved to host gatherings. Regardless of how little space or money we had at the time, our doors were opened to church-goers and artists alike – celebrating differences, discovering new connections. The magic of these evenings stand out crisply in my memory. The smell of coffee at night, the hum of combined voices reaching my room, and the light moving subtly under my door as people moved from space to space. I would often sneak out of my room to take it all in; absorb the smells in the kitchen, the candlelight cascading over faces animated in conversation. It was foreign and familiar all at once – it felt intoxicating and it all seemed glamorous (…here we introduce the first stirrings of FOMO). These events offered a sort-of haven to a collective of misfits, and for me, created a strong sense of community.
That said, my first opportunities to host occurred during my early twenties and consisted of after-hours parties. For those unfamiliar, after-hours refers to pop-up parties following closing time at the bar. It was always some combination of grit and raucous camaraderie where lasting friendships were forged, affections budded, and at least one precious object was broken (Sorry Mom!). This late-night pastime became the arena perfect for cutting-teeth in pursuit of playing hostess like a badass BABE.
Following years of ragers, house shows, and halloween parties the time came to host brunches, game nights and dinner parties. Fifteen years later, I’ve mastered the art of juggling convincingly enough to host parties and still manage take part in them!
All this is to say that if you’re planning a special intimate event, here are a few ideas, tips and tricks to managing the inevitable chaos.
Elements of event planning:
- Curate A Theme
- Send Invitations
- Plan A Menu
- Coordinate Help
- Secure Vendors
- Create Your Shopping List
- Set A Playlist
- Pre-Party Prep
- Decor & Layout
- Look Fabulous As You Greet Arriving Guests
Depending on the number of guests (5-20), you’ll want to begin planning at least 4-weeks in advance.
1. Selecting and Curating a Theme
A theme can be a very broad concept such as Summer, Horror films, or the 1920’s. Themes can also be centered around specific things like the Game of Thrones, The Great Gatsby, Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Cycling. You can also combine concepts to create something incredibly unique and original. If you are hosting this party for a cause or a particular person then you should inquire for specific details or interests to begin building concepts for a theme.
Sometimes the most challenging part of this process is to hone in on a theme that inspires a vision for the elements you’ll utilize or create, and the overall experience you want for your guests. The theme should dictate the decor, audio/visuals, food and drinks for the event.
For inspiration I highly recommend creating a Pinterest board for the occasion and refining pins as you discover your theme. Or go analog and visit your local library for design and lifestyle magazines and books as well as cookbooks. When pursuing creative ideation there is no one-size-fits-all approach – go for a walk, get coffee with your bestie, do some research online… do what feels right to you and don’t force the process.
Something to consider as you evaluate theme options: Take stock of what dishware, chairs, tables, etc. you have or can borrow from friends and family – you don’t want to blow your budget by having to buy more than a few decor pieces and the food and beverage accoutrements.
Now that you’ve selected your theme you can begin creating and sending invitations. I am a big fan of digital invites – while there are certainly occasions that will call for printed invitations, I highly encourage you to opt for digital (spare the trees and save the expense). Facebook Events and Evite have made online event and invitations super easy to create and manage.
Another option depending on your skillset and access is to design custom invitations through Canva. This platform allows you to select from preset templates and create graphics perfect for social platforms, or document attachments. Canva also provides printing services, and if you wish to offer printed invitations or flyers for a larger event you can print your designs directly through their website.
3. Plan Your Menu
Additionally, to ensure you can engage with your guests I suggest devising a menu full of easy self serve food and drinks. This can be very tricky especially with drinks and deserts.
When you are planning a dinner party for only a few guests it’s reasonable to set courses if you want it to be more formal – however, when serving 10 guests or more it’s simpler to offer more of a buffet than preset courses.
My recommendation is to have a few appetizers or tapas style snacks ready for people as they arrive, and aim to have the entrees served within 30-45 minutes after the start time. This gives your guests the opportunity to mingle and eat while you finalize the meal set up.
Tip: Set up a bar for drinks or desserts that require people to make it themselves and write out instructions (i.e. build your own bloody mary bar). You can also kick-off the evening by announcing the food is served, review any allergen info, or briefly detail how-to on any elaborate dishes.
Just as I recommended with discovering your theme I would refer to Pinterest and select cookbooks or mixology books for inspiration.
4. Coordinate Help
Even the truest Type-A’s need help to accomplish a seamless and all-round entertaining event. Tap-in your significant other or roomie. For the larger gatherings round up your squad of reliable besties or family. If needed, and within budget, hire help – hire a server to prepare cocktails, or a cleaning crew to pack-up and tidy up as the party winds down.
If you are the primary “organizer” of the event help others to help you by jotting down a quick outline of the day-of setup or needs. This can be a great reference sheet for anyone looking to jump in and roll with what you need and you won’t be pulled away from something else to explain exactly what you’re looking for.
5. Secure Vendors
As I mentioned above, for those with budget, you may need to hire outside help to perform some of the items on this list such as a DJ, caterer, or photographer. As you plan your event you’ll start seeing gaps in either your capabilities, resources, or budget. If you don’t want to rely on friends and family to support the event then hiring help is a fantastic alternative.
Where to find vendors? I recommend starting with requesting recommendations from friends through your social networks. If you come up short there, Google is your next best friend to begin finding service providers and getting a gauge of the best rates. I suggest getting quotes from 3 different providers to ensure you’re getting the best rate.
Before signing a contract for services make sure that terms are clear either within the contract or via written acknowledgement (ie. email correspondence). This is key to ensuring you both know what you’re getting into, and there will be no surprise charges, fees, etc. from the vendor due to miscommunications. The more detail you can provide up-front with vendors around your expectations the better.
Side note: I personally do not work with vendors that I don’t vibe with or trust, even if I end up paying a little more to work with other vendors. Why? Firstly, as with most things, you get what you pay for – don’t choose a vendor solely for the price (tip: negotiate with the ones you do want to work with). You will very likely end up paying the difference somewhere. Secondly, experience and professionalism is important; On the day-of you won’t have time (or possibly even patience) to help a vendor who doesn’t have enough experience to help themselves. Lastly, these vendors are coming into your home, meeting your family, friends, or boss… Just as a poorly behaved guest can disrupt a party, so too can an unprofessional vendor.
6. Create Your Shopping List
With a theme and a menu in hand you should have a fairly good idea of what you need to pull the event together. After reviewing what materials, decor and ingredients you have on hand you can begin building your shopping list. I highly encourage you to create a spreadsheet to manage the menu – you should have a column for the recipe instructions, and the ingredients with their portions. Remember to pay close attention to the number of servings for each recipe and multiply the ingredient volume based on the RSVPs. I am a big fan of Google Sheets – it’s free and you can share access to anyone that may be helping prepare food.
As you review the list of ingredients begin a new column for the item/product and a column for the quantity or volume (adding up the total qty across all recipes). Now that your list is created, remove any ingredients or adjust quantities based on what you have on hand. E Voila – you have a shopping list!
Tip: Timing is key. Depending on your schedule and the menu you’ll want to plan which dishes can be pre-made and stored, and which you’ll make the day-of. I would advise making dishes or ingredients no more than 2 days before the event so produce and dishes stay fresh. The days before an event are usually the craziest.
7. Set A Playlist
Let’s face it, it’s not a party without music. There are plenty of free or inexpensive ways to have great music playing throughout the party. Two great options to consider are Pandora and Spotify – each offers both free and paid music streaming services. The primary difference is a free account versus a paid account is that a paid membership will not play ads while streaming. For events, I highly recommend investing in a paid membership even if it’s just for a one-time event – the cost per month is minimal ($4.99/month for Pandora, $9.99/month for Spotify) and cancelling is no problem.
Pandora is a great option for discovering new music that is similar to your favorite songs. This is an ideal service for those who don’t want to mess with creating or hunting down a specific playlist. Pandora will essentially build a playlist from a song you select.
Spotify varies greatly from Pandora in that you can play any song in their library (which is endless) whenever you want. You can build your own playlist, or play other users playlists. You can also build a playlist based on a select artist, album or song. This service is perfect for those with particular music tastes and who love curating their own sound.
8. Pre-Party Prep
This is where you rally the troops! Even if you didn’t coordinate helpers yet, there’s almost always a friend or family member who has offered to help (because you’re fabulous) – well now’s the time to accept those offers and get-er-done. This can easily be the most stressful part of building an event, but if you plan this out and have your squad helping, it can be quite fun.
Preparing for the party usually involves food and drink prep, decor or gift assembly, and laying out all of the necessary dishware/serve-ware. Examples of drink prep would be creating simple syrups, trimming and cleaning any garnishes, or combining fruit and various wines for a sangria. Food prep can range from baking and cooking to just plain chopping up veggies. Anything that contains uncooked fresh ingredients should be saved for the day-of.
Decor could need assembly or just aired out, or if you are providing gift bags all the elements will need to be pieced together and packaged up (enter the assembly line of gal-pals who will do just about anything you ask in exchange for wine and food – I love you all so HARD!). Arranging flowers, building a balloon garland, draping layered fabric – to some this may seem tedious, but it all adds to the layered experience your guests will appreciate and be impressed by.
Laying out dishware helps ensure you have everything you need – sounds super basic right, why is it on this list? I cannot tell you how many times I forgot I had lent a dish and needed to buy a new one. Learn from my mistakes or you’ll end up spending boat loads on all the pretty things at Home Goods, including the stuff you don’t really need. (Yes, the struggle is real!) If you do need a specific dish, I highly recommend checking with friends and family first, then making a trip to a Goodwill or Thrift Store – spare yourself that $300 trip to Target for the one platter you needed.
Major Tip: The other benefit to laying the dishware out is so you can go one-step further in preparing for those helpful friends on the day of the event; Using post-its (or the like) jot down what food will go with which dish. When you are too busy to delegate, people can just jump right in and know what needs to go where. This goes for any simple day-of details – jot them down, leave stickies with arrows, draw pictures…every detail helps. The concept “help others help you” may sound a bit gimmicky, but is in fact one of the most valuable things you can do to avoid stress and manager more in life.
All credit and thanks for this tip goes to Kellie Cannon of Baltimore, MA – she is quite a clever and brilliant hostess, obviously.
9. Decor & Layout
This is perhaps my favorite part – aside from enjoying the party, of course. Considering the number of guests and the layout of the space you’ll want to arrange either furniture or food so that people can easily flow the way you intend. If it’s difficult to manage the flow due to architecture or larger furniture, no sweat. Make a sign and tape/hang/prop it up where everyone can see. Otherwise, I recommend mentioning to everyone either as you greet them or once gathered, how to best navigate.
Decor can be so many different things and range from subtle accents to giant neon glittery glow-in-the-dark obvious. That said, let your intuition guide you and make sure to allow yourself some time to play a bit. No matter how many times I plan to hang something there, or center that over here I always end up changing things about – give yourself the freedom for fluidity.
10. Look Fabulous As You Greet Arriving Guests
Perhaps the most difficult of all is to magically (thru very careful planning, and support from your squad) have “all the things” done with enough time to swap your sweaty t-shirt and jeans for a fabulous get-up and touch-up your hair and makeup just before guests arrive.
It has taken me years to achieve this (achieve, not master) and all I can say is if this is incredibly important to you – go treat yourself to a blowout the day-of (or night before) and get your base makeup on at the start of the day. Most definitely have an outfit picked out, pressed/steamed and ready to roll.
Another tip: Nominate a pal or your significant other to greet and direct guests while you get yourself primped in peace and gracefully enter once all the guest are there to witness all your glory.
Most important of all: We all have to remember not to take everything so seriously, and to relish the silly and crazy when trying to pull off stunts like hosting events. Remember, it’s a PARTY!
Below is a list with links to many of the items I use for my events from tools and unique ingredients to decor:
- For simple syrup, or custom drinks I have used –
- Dried Edible Organic Lavender Flowers (These are especially potent and flavorful and make delicious drinks and desserts)
- Flip Top Glass Bottles (Perfect for storing, transporting and serving simple syrups)
- Wax Pencil (For labeling the glass bottles)
- Stainless Steel Strainer with Detachable Filter (Extremely helpful for moving simple syrup into containers and eliminating excess herbs and such)
- Pour Spouts (Just drop these into the glass bottles and they’re ready to serve!
- Cocktail Shaker, Mixing Glass and Strainer (I prefer these over the capped cocktail shakers, personally)
- Set Up & Clean Up –
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