Plan the perfect party
Make your party the bash everyone's talking about. Host in grand style at a great price with these tips from the pros.
NEW YORK (Money Magazine) -- This is the time, this is the season. After years of attending everyone else's holiday soirees, New Year's brunches, 50th-birthday bashes and other celebrations, you've decided to throw a party of your own.
Not a casual get-together for close friends, mind you, but a big blowout. Whether you're marking a milestone birthday or anniversary or simply feeling the holiday spirit, you're looking to make this party truly memorable, the kind of event where everyone has fun and guests are still talking about the details for weeks to come.
But be honest: You're not looking forward to peeling hundreds of shrimp or wrapping dozens of dollops of goat cheese in phyllo squares. You're nervous about whether you know the right little touches that will take the event from ordinary to extraordinary.
And as much as you want this party to be a success, you're not prepared to spend a small fortune to pull it off. The Sultan of Brunei may not have blinked an eye at shelling out $27 million a few years back to celebrate his 50th (reportedly the world's most expensive birthday party, complete with a performance by Michael Jackson), but you're not quite in the same league.
What to do? Plenty. You can minimize the labor and ingenuity required by recruiting party professionals like a caterer or events planner to help out. You can spend strategically: investing where it counts, economizing where it doesn't and combining that hired help with do-it-yourself touches to get the results you want. Here are some options that will help you save both money and agita, and ensure that your party is a big hit.
Choose the right place
Decision No. 1: whether to hold your event at home or in an outside venue. Space is a key consideration. Count on needing four to five square feet for each guest to avoid feeling squeezed; if the rooms you'd use to entertain are often euphemistically described as "cute," maybe you should play host elsewhere.
Cost and convenience are also factors. A restaurant or hotel will supply the food, drinks, tableware and waitstaff, and you won't have to deep-clean your house before and after either. But easy doesn't come cheap. Expect to pay two to three times more for liquor and one to three times more for food and decorations than you would if you entertained at home.
One way to keep the price down: Ask the manager if you can bring in your own wine and spirits. If the answer is yes, you may be charged a nominal corking fee to open the bottles, but you should still save at least $25 per guest.
If you're planning a lavish affair, you may want to work with a full-service party planner who can help you dream up a theme, find decorations to fit it, book a venue, create a menu and hire a caterer, waiters and entertainers. (The hot theme nowadays, according to Los Angeles event planner Cara Kleinhaut: "green" parties, with organic food and decorations made of recycled materials.)
A planner can be an ideal solution if you're too busy to deal with all the party details. "You have final approval, but you're not the one making 50 phone calls," says Phyllis Cambria, an event producer in Boca Raton, Fla.
To find a great planner, ask friends, relatives and business associates for recommendations or contact the International Special Events Society's online directory at ises.com. Meet with candidates to discuss your event, look through photos of their past work and ask for references who've hired them in the past year to work on parties similar to yours.
Expect to pay a fee typically calculated as a percentage (often 20 percent) of the party goods and services you buy. If that's too extravagant for your budget or you just want help on a specific aspect of the party, look for a planner who'll work with you on a consulting basis. Rates range widely, from $25 to $150 an hour.
For less elaborate parties, though, you'll probably do just fine working directly with a caterer, who may also be able to provide servers and party products like table linens at an additional cost. As with party planners, ask for references from the caterers you're considering as well as samples of their cooking; they should also present you with choices of menus at different price points.
You can make your event look more elegant by hiring waiters to pass appetizers. Typical charge: $25 to $30 an hour. If you're willing to provide more supervision, you can cut those costs in half by hiring high school students to serve and clean up.
Know where to splurge...
If there's one aspect of the party you shouldn't skimp on, it's the food. "People remember what they ate a lot more than fireworks or a hot-air balloon," notes Sam Sears of South-Van Events in Lexington, Ky. Want fine cuisine for less? See if culinary schools in your area can recommend student chefs who do catering on the side (to find local schools, go to culinaryed.com).
Rather than ask guests to sit down to a formal meal or serve food at a single buffet table, party experts increasingly recommend setting up food stations - say, a sushi table here, a pasta station there and a barbecue stand over there. "The different tables are more visually interesting than an ordinary buffet," says Kleinhaut. "And they break up long lines so there's no wait for food and get your guests circulating."
Don't try to save a few bucks by getting by with fewer waiters, bartenders and other support staff than party pros recommend. Guests tend to get cranky if they have to wait too long for a drink. And the more people around to help on the Big Day (or Night), the better able you'll be to enjoy your own party.
...and know where to save
The surest way to cut the expense of throwing a big bash is to cut the guest list. "You're better off inviting fewer people whom you then treat royally than to ask many people and not be able to serve them as well," says Laurel Szeto, an event planner in Santa Monica, Calif.
Nor is there any need to go high-end on printed party material and other froufrou. Send out simple invitations, ditch place cards and menus, and forgo the favors, experts say.
And in terms of flowers and other decorations, simple almost always wins out over elaborate. Big floral arrangements can be overpowering as well as expensive. Detail accents like small bunches of flowers, tealight candles in votive glasses and strategically placed lanterns create a better ambience and are more likely to be noticed and appreciated, she says.
Once party day arrives, do your best to relax, go with the flow and enjoy. Says Phyllis Cambria: "Having a good time at your own party is one of the best ways to guarantee that your guests will have a good time as well."
Party like it's $19.99
If you've got champagne tastes on a Budweiser budget, you can still throw an enviable soiree with these cost-cutting tricks: