Party Planning in Six Steps

 Party Planning Tips & Methods the Professionals Use

This is the time of year when it seems there are an endless array of parties and opportunities (or obligations) to entertain your family and friends.

Party planning is in my blood. From an early age, mom taught us how to set and prepare the food, and the importance of having the house ready for guests (and a glass of wine ready for them to grab upon arrival). After planning professional and business events over the years for numerous PR and marketing clients, I have picked up a few methods for planning a party that are perfect for nearly anyone’s needs. So here are my party planning tips … I would love to hear yours in the comments below!

Party Planning Tips 101

1. The Ws: Why, Who, When, Where,
First, ask yourself why am I having a party?

  • Is it because I want to celebrate a holiday with friends and enjoy their company?
  • Is it (be honest) to impress co-workers and neighbors?
  • Is it out of tradition?

Knowing why you are are having a party will help you set all the details that follow.

Where – is your house suitable as an event venue? Is it convenient for the majority of the guests? Are there enough parking options? If not, do you know of a clubhouse or park pavilion that may operate as a venue space (parks are actually great in the winter in Florida)? Do you need another friend or family member to co-host at their larger and more accessible home so that your guests will have enough space? Think through these elements before you plan a party for 50 in 500 square feet …

When is easy – pick a time that you expect will work for the majority of your guests. Don’t worry about all of your guests; just the majority.  Is it for families with young children? Keep known sleep and school times in mind (e.g., no 7 pm dinner times for the little ones). Is it for co-workers? Try hosting after work. Or consider an open house with a window of time that allows your guests to come and go as their schedules allow.

Planning tip: around the holidays between Thanksgiving and New Years Day, you should give guests 3-4 weeks minimum notice of your event.  For more casual events like a dinner party or happy hour, you can get by with shorter lead time.  If you are planning a big-scale event like a bridal shower or a milestone birthday, it is advisable to give up to 4-6 weeks notice, particularly if you are inviting out-of-town guests.

Who – Once you’ve determined the whywhere, and when behind your event, your guest list will naturally follow.  How many people can fit into your venue?  Are there any outliers who may appreciate being invited with a”plus one” to encourage them to join your party?

Don’t forget to include yourself, as well as your spouse and children (if applicable), into your final headcount.

2. Set Your Budget … And Stick to It!
I’ve planned professional parties with budgets of $50,000, personal parties with budgets of $500, and dinner parties with budgets of $50.  But regardless of the dollar amount, the budget was always set before I determined theme, decor, food, etc.  Know what you have to spend before you dive in and plan to ensure your ability to stick to what you can afford.

So, how do you create an event budget? I begin with a spreadsheet (yep, I am a party planning geek).  Outline each cost category and how much you anticipate each category will cost. You can use Excel, doodle in a notebook, or tap it out on your smartphone.

Budget categories include:

  • Venue (If you are hosting a party at a location other than a private residence, there may be a venue fee associated with the space. Don’t just assume you can set up shop at a park pavilion without first checking with the local city department of parks and recreation, but those costs are usually fairly cheap.)
  • Food
  • Nonalcoholic beverages and mixers
  • Alcohol (Separate this out from beverages since the cost is usually a big percentage of the budget)
  • Invitations (Digital or printed? If you are mailing invitations, be sure to factor postage into your estimates.)
  • Decorations (Flowers, balloons, special decor, table linens, signage, etc.)
  • Favors (Always optional.)
  • Entertainment (Are you hiring a DJ? Do you need craft supplies for an activity?)
  • Supplies (cups, plates, cutlery, napkins, ice, etc.)
  • Misc. (Parking valet, rentals, serving staff, etc.)

Add it up.  This is your target budget.  Try your best not to exceed this number, but be prepared to re-work your budget as you begin to make purchases and find that perhaps you underestimated your anticipated costs.  You may need to scale back on your initial plans or make certain concessions (such as slashing your guest list, eliminating some decorations, and/or serving wine and beer only instead of top shelf liquors).  One easy way to stay in check is to keep a running tab of all of your receipts to track your budget as you go (this will prevent that unexpected credit card bill just before Christmas gifts are due to be purchased!).  You can also stretch your budget by enlisting friends and family who may have party supplies on hand to loan for your event.

3. Set the Tone or Theme
Sometimes your guests set your tone, sometimes your budget sets your tone, and sometimes a vision sets your tone. Both Abbey and I have this dream of having a birthday party just like Kirsten Dunst has in the movie Marie Antoinette — imagine the white tent, chandelier, tables with lavish flowers and white linens everywhere. This will be a party of driven by a vision, nothing else :-).

Regardless of the tone, set one and stick with it from the beginning.  Your food and decor will come naturally. For example, if you are having a casual party,  think finger foods, simple decor, and your playlist set to some light background music .  Having a lavish dinner party? Well, the food, music, and decor must match.   Your guests will be very surprised to be invited to a cocktail party and show up to a honky-tonk barbecue.

4. Walk in Your Guest’s Shoes
Often when planning a party we tend to focus on what we need to do, what we need to buy/make/plan, and often forget what our guests need.  So before you go any further, think through your guest’s experience from the moment they receive the invitation to the moment they leave your party.  Walk in their shoes for a moment:

  • What do they need to know from the invitation to plan properly? When do do they need to receive the invite to make sure they can plan to be there (do they need time to travel, or to hire a babysitter?)  What type of attire is recommended? Will guests be spending the majority of the party inside or outdoors (women appreciate knowing whether to wear heels or wedges if they will be traipsing across a lawn in sundresses!)
  • How are they going to get there? Are your guests tech-savvy enough to be given an address and plug it into a GPS?  Or will they need explicit directions?  If you are unsure, it is always better to anticipate the worst-case scenario and provide explicit directions, particularly when considering the needs of out-of-towners.
  • How long should the party be? Is it an open house with a wide-open schedule, or are is it a dinner with an exact time? (I recommend that parties should be scheduled to go no longer for 3 hours for adults, and no longer than 2 hours for children.  Some people will linger, but these timelines give everyone long enough to arrive, enjoy themselves, and get on with their day or night.)
  • Where will they park once they arrive?   Do you need to alert your neighbors ahead of time that your guests will be parking in front of their houses?  Do you need a sign directing guests to available parking areas?
  • What do they see, hear, and smell when they walk into the party? (Does what they see set the tone you want to convey? If not, what needs to change?)
  • What is the party timeline?  You don’t need to follow a strict timeline, but have a general idea and be prepared to direct the flow of events in order to keep your party on schedule.  For example, give people 30-45 minutes to arrive and mingle before moving on to a seated dinner or party games.
  • When should food be served? Right away, or is there time for lingering?
  • Are you serving buffet style or tapas? Make labels for the food to give those guests with food restrictions a helping hand.
  • Do you have activities or a game planned? (e.g., a cookie swap, gift exchange, kid’s games, etc.).  Should these activities be conducted before or after food is served?
  • Where do you set up favors to make sure they are taken and not forgotten?  Will you need to pass them out or make an announcement to remind guests to take favors with them?
  • Do you need help with food so you can be a proper host/hostess?  Who will help? Friends and family? Or hired help? Figure this out early on to hire staff and budget accordingly.
  • When do you need to start wrapping up the party and gently steering your guests to the door?

5. Write Your Menu & Pick Your Atmospheric Elements

Although great decorations create a mood of sorts for your party, the food is what is truly memorable.   Forget that banner you spent hours creating.   Good food is key, and your guests will remember if the food was good, bad, whether you ran out and whether there was enough to go around.  By all means, make your party a pretty one, but avoid having a food emergency.

Write out your menu in detail.  Are you having a plated meal, a buffet, hors d’ouevres, or a combination of the three?  Write out a detailed list from the appetizers through the meal to the dessert, as applicable.  Keep these menu elements in mind:

  • Is the menu right for the season? Fall and Winter allow for heavier foods, whereas Spring and Summer should offer lighter fare.
  • Is the menu balanced? Make sure there is a balance of sweet to savory for parties around meal time. And, please, always make sure your brunch menu has some light items and fruit (this is a personal pet peeve), in addition to heavier breads and casseroles.
  • Is the menu feasible?  Can you prepare much of it ahead (this is always best for any party)? Can you prepare the food alone, or does your budget allow for some outside (e.g., caterer) help? Will the menu keep you in the kitchen the whole time and away from your guests? (If so, change it.  It’s your party and you should be there to enjoy it!)
  • Is the menu affordable?  Are you trying to pull off a champagne menu on a beer budget? Check the costs of your ingredients and menu items before you finalize your menu.

Next, figure out the decorations you need and can afford.  Do you just need a beautifully set table? Do you need any decor at all? If you are hosting a Christmas-time bash, will your standard holiday decorations be enough?

The best tip I have for picking out decorations is to “visit the internet,” as my mom says, and find great ideas.  Pinterest is by far the best way to do this.  Start your own board, pluck ideas from others, and pin to your heart’s content.  If you’re not a pinner, go through your memory bank for ideas you loved at previous parties.  You can also read a magazine for inspiration or stroll through your local craft or party supply store.

6. Make a Timeline Task List & Execute It

This is perhaps the most important step of party planning.  Make a task list of everything you need to do to bring your party to life and put those tasks on a timeline.  If you are planning with other people, assign them tasks and give deadlines.  Nothing happens without a deadline.  A timeline task list will prevent pre-party (or during-party) host/hostess meltdowns.  I promise.

Well, I hope this little brain dump of mine helps you plan your next party.  Feel free to leave me any questions or additional planning tips in the comments section below, or Tweet me @welivepretty.


Julia Montgomery Stewart

Nicknamed “Julia Child” at a young age, our own Julia is most at home in the kitchen. Lately, she has combined her culinary talents with a new hobby—fitness and healthy living. As a result, her recipes reflect an intriguing balance between eating well without sacrificing flavor. Outside the home, Julia is a consummate event planner, and spent the first ten years of her career as a publicist before expanding her portfolio of talents with the launch of Live Pretty in 2010. Balancing the busy demands of career and family, Julia lives with her husband and daughter in Orlando, Florida. In addition to her work in marketing, she serves a number of community organizations and initiatives in Central Florida.

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2 Responses to “Party Planning in Six Steps”

  1. Rachel — November 24, 2014 @ 5:35 pm (#

    Hi there, I’m a freshman in high school, and about 7 friends and I decided we wanted to have a Christmas party. I think we finally found a good date, and now it is time to plan the rest of the party. We decided to do finger foods, and have everyone bring something… Do you have and cool Christmas activities that you would suggest for something like this? We decided we want to do a gift exchange, and we are working on the details of that, but we aren’t sure what other activities to do… I also would like to blog about this later. Would it be ok to add a link to this website in my blog? Thanks!
    Bartlesville, OK


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