How to stay calm, cool, collected, and convivial in the face of party management

By Lulu Tupper

So you’ve decided to host a party this holiday season. You’ve been dreaming up menus and signature cocktails since September. Or you’ve been meaning to have your friends over for a while, and it might as well happen during the most wonderful time of the year. Or maybe you just got roped into it. Regardless, you’re in it now, and you might as well be in it to win it. So let’s talk about how to throw a great party while simultaneously enjoying said party.

Step 1: Plan ahead.
Autumn Kozimer, proprietor of Events by Autumn, plans parties for a living and likes throwing parties in her spare time. This is her list of what it takes to organize a soirée:
• Set the guest list
• Stuff, address, and mail the invitations
• Track RSVPs
• Plan a menu
• Organize a holiday party game/ ice breaker/gift exchange
• Buy or make decorations you found on Pinterest
• Pick the custom entertainment soundtrack for the evening on iTunes
• Buy ingredients and cook the food
• Clean the house, inside and out (if the party is at your home)
• Decorate the house or venue
• Display the food and beverages
• If you’re lucky, shower and dress up for the party
• Take pictures of your hard work so you can post them all over Facebook
• Oh, and the party favors! Don’t forget to hand those out . . .

Some hosts thrive on doing everything themselves; some mitigate the work by having potlucks, enlisting friends to help, or hiring a chef for the evening, and some prefer to budget for professional party planners and caterers. “Hiring a professional planner doesn’t mean you can’t host the event,” asserts Kozimer. “The role of a planner is to stay in the background and do all the managing of the party from behind the scenes so no one knows they’re there. You’re still viewed as the organizer of the event, and consequently, the rock star, when it turns out great!”

There is no one correct way to throw a party. Do what works best for your temperament and your budget.

 

Step 2: Set the scene.

You need a setting for your shindig. Do you plan to open your home to guests, or would you rather utilize an outside venue?

Kathy Korpela, Callahan House manager and event coordinator, suggests considering how much time, energy, and money you have to devote to your party.

“It depends on the size of the party, but in general, if you want to be part of the party, it’s easier to have it somewhere else [not at home],” Korpela contends. “Then you can rely on somebody else’s expertise and service.” The holiday season is a busy time for party venues – event centers, banquet halls, restaurants – but it’s not too late to make your reservation.
“There is ample availability right now,” says Korpela. “You just might have to take a less-than-perfect date, like a weeknight instead of a weekend.”

If you want to host a homebased gathering instead, take a walk around your house and try to see it through the eyes of a party guest. Now is not the time to tackle your laundry list of home improvement projects. Consider what time of day your house will be full of celebrants and think about low investment, high impact tweaks. A creatively lit outdoor entrance sets a festive tone right away at an evening party. More landscape maintenance may be required for daytime get-togethers, though it’s amazing what a difference a freshly cleaned or painted front door will make.

Inside, focus your efforts where your guests will likely congregate: the kitchen, living room, dining room, hallways, and bathrooms. Clear the clutter from your spaces, but not the personality. That odd collection of coffee cans you’ve been collecting since you were 12? It’s not an eyesore; it’s a conversation starter. During the party, consider lighting (candlelight is flattering, fluorescents not so much), sound (playlists are a host’s best friend), the bare necessities (toilet paper, lots of it), and a few nice touches (fresh flowers, unique centerpieces, swanky hand soap).

 

Step 3: Get ready to eat.
“If you enjoy cooking and consider yourself to be fairly good at it, you may choose to make the food yourself,” advises Katie James, experienced event planner, owner of Little Bird Celebrations, and catering manager at the Dickens Opera House. “Prepare as much as you can ahead of time so that when your guests arrive, you can be a proper hostess. Consider time savers such as purchasing store-made appetizers that all you will have to do is plate and garnish.”

It’s important to know your limitations, though, cautions James. “I discourage trying to cook yourself for parties over 20 guests. It is just too time-intensive and stressful. If you are not having a potluck, you will need to decide on whether to contract drop-off catering or full-service catering. For shorter, more informal events, you may wish to partner with a favorite, local barbecue restaurant or the like.”

Another option is serving heavy hors d’oeuvres in lieu of a meal. Set up a buffet or hire wait staff to pass the selections. The menu can be creative without being complicated.

“Some of my current favorites include shot glasses filled with a creamy soup and paired with a slice of toasted baguette or a mini grilled cheese sandwich triangle, Caprese bites or BLT bites (really anything on a toothpick or skewer), and mini sandwiches like Kobe Beef sliders,” says James.

 

Step 4: Get set to drink.

Safety first: If alcohol will be contributing to your holiday party’s spirit, underage guests may not partake and inebriated guests may not drive anywhere, even around the corner.

Most event venues have rules about what beverages may or may not be served, and by whom. A professional party planner can help you navigate the selections. For house parties, the options are more open. A full bar presents your guests with a lot of choices but requires constant supervision and an expansive budget. A more manageable arrangement is offering self-serve beer, wine, and a signature cocktail.

RT Magley, Twin Peaks Liquor manager, laughs when asked for a party beer recommendation. “It really depends on the crowd. People who like Bud Light won’t be interested in an Avery IPA, and vice versa.”

When pressed, he suggests five-gallon kegs of beers you think your guests will like. “It’s a much more economical way to go, and there are a lot of choices in the five-gallon size. You’regetting about 53 12-ounce beers out of the little kegs.”

For wine, Magley proposes pairing a Pinot Noir and/or a Riesling with heavy holiday meals – think turkey, ham, and potatoes aplenty. For lighter fare, Merlots and Chardonnays have the most wide-ranging appeal with his customers.“During the holidays, a popular thing to do is present a sparkling wine or champagne aperitif as people are coming in,” he adds. “It gets the festive spirit going.”

If you offer a signature cocktail, have fun with it. Eggnog and cider are both seasonally appropriate and can be served spiked or straight. Be sure to serve other non-alcoholic options as well: sparkling water is an elegant choice, lemonade plays well with adults and children, and coffee is an excellent party reviver.

Finally, don’t forget to have plenty of ice on hand. You can never have too much ice.

Step 5: Be merry.
After the prep work is done, it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Take a deep breath. Greet your guests at the door with a smile and a beverage. Mingle. Make introductions. Dive into conversations. Savor your food. Perform the occasional inspection – guests are accounted for and having a good time, music is enhancing the atmosphere, refreshments are plentiful – then go back to celebrating. Thank your friends for coming to your party. Escort them to the door and say goodbye. Congratulate yourself on your hosting triumph.

Now extinguish any open flames (candles, fireplaces, fondue pots), put the perishables in the refrigerator, and gift yourself a good night’s sleep. The cleanup can wait until tomorrow. Better yet, let it wait for the cleanup crew that you have scheduled to arrive tomorrow, coincidentally just as you are leaving to meet friends for a delicious brunch prepared by someone else. Relax and let the good party glow linger. You’ve earned it.