New Orleanians love a good party, and the city is noted for throwing entertaining fetes. Whether a small gathering for friends and family or a large soiree for a couple of hundred guests, a successful party will be remembered for years. The basics of party planning are the same regardless of the size of the guest list, and we asked local event planners for advice about how to create a memorable event with unforgettable flair. (See the detailed "Party planning checklist" on p. 15).
When and why
According to EmilyPost.com ("Six Ways To Be A Good Host"), being a good host means planning well and considering the variables involved in having a party: the reason for the celebration, the size of the event, the venue, the budget, the time of year and more.
The date of the party is usually the first decision made. Next, local event designer and planner Kellie Mathas of Tchoupitoulas + Vine says she begins with the person or people for whom the party is being given and the demographics of the guests.
"How I'm going to spend the budget and plan all depends on the demographics," says Mathas, who in 2001 became the first person in Louisiana to obtain Certified Special Events Professional (CSEP) accreditation. "Knowing who is coming to the party affects everything from the dinner plate and the band to the seating."
It's important to get the location of the party set because the setup, timeline, flow, decor and more can be dependent on the space.
"I tell people right away if you're going to have a party and it's not going to be in your home, then you have to find a venue," says Patti Constantin of Patti Constantin Designs in Catering. "Go with the venue you want, whether they have outside catering or not. If it's a rose garden you want, book a rose garden. If the level of food is not what you want, then pick the best of what they do, and don't make the food the focus. Don't try to make them do something they don't do."
Having a party at home eliminates the cost of renting a space, but there are advantages to having your party away from home. Many employ or can recommend professionals to help with the planning. Plus, as Perry Culbertson, director of special events for the Audubon Nature Institute, points out, there is no lengthy at-home preparation, house cleaning, yard work or post-party cleanup. "When it's over, you can walk away," he says.
Event planners recommend developing your decor after selecting the venue; some decorative items may be included with the rental, while at other places you may need to bring in flowers and decorations specific to your plan. If it's a theme party (see "Party super" on p. 11), keep the motif in mind when selecting a venue and assessing decor.
Parties based on AMC's Mad Men series have been popular, Mathas says, but successfully recreating the 1960s look requires bringing in "heavy decor."
When the demographics of the guest list are mainstream, Mathas suggests looking for decorative ideas on websites like Pinterest. If guests are younger and more innovative, she turns to trends in fashion, film, television and marketing. She recommends Bizbash.com, a website for event professionals, as a good place to scout out creative ideas and themes. Or tune in to your guests' interests.
"Inspiration can be found anywhere," Culbertson says. "Anything on TV, in the news, in fashion magazines and in home magazines. ... But you should focus on what makes sense for the occasion. Ask yourself about the person the party is for. What is he interested in?"
At the Audubon Institute's party venues, Culbertson says simple elegance with natural, rustic elements is the current prevailing taste in decor. Mathas says she sees a shift toward sleeker, more modern motifs.
At Urban Earth Design Studios, which began as a fashion-forward florist and now covers the full spectrum of party planning, designers say casual "lounge" atmospheres are trending. The studio has devised a questionnaire to help designers determine clients' individual styles.
If food is a priority and your budget allows, party planners suggest hiring a good caterer to cut down on a host's prep time and allow them to enjoy the event. Many venues can suggest caterers with whom they work regularly, or ask for recommendations from the hosts of events where you enjoyed the food and service. When designing a menu, Constantin, like Mathas, first considers the honoree of the party.
"If it's a 30th birthday for a woman, I want to know what she is like, what colors does she like," says Constantin, who has worked in the catering business for 20 years. She also asks what clients don't like in order to customize her culinary and decorative presentations.
"I want it to be personalized and fun and to incorporate elements of surprise," Constantin says. "I always want to take it to a new level."
Food choices will vary according to the age and tastes of the guests, Mathas says. Older guests may prefer more traditional fare and modes of serving, while younger guests respond to interactive food stations that involve more decision-making, such as building their own s'mores or choosing their own toppings.
Hiring food and drinks servers frees a host to mingle with guests and enjoy the festivities. If you can't afford a service staff, Mathas suggests recruiting family members or college students to tend bar or serve.
Another option is a self-serve buffet, which just needs to be refreshed periodically, and limit the drinks offered to options that don't have to be made on the spot, such as beer, wine and premixed cocktails.
Any entertainment you choose should be appropriate to the occasion and the environment, Culbertson says. If it's a hunting-themed 50th birthday party for a man, for example, a Cajun-zydeco band might fit the bill; a Southern-style spring cocktail party would be well-paired with a jazz trio; a lounge singer would be a good match for an artsy nighttime event; and a party with young people on the guest list could benefit from a dance band that plays popular covers.
"Once you've determined the reason and the theme of the party, you want entertainment that will enhance and not compete with it," Culbertson says.
If the venue presents safety issues, hire a professional — a lifeguard for a pool party or an off-duty police officer for security — to ensure the safety and security of guests. Reducing risk is a worthwhile investment.
Additional considerations, including valet parking, sound setups, special lighting and more, may factor into the budget and planning, depending on the scope of the event.
"It just depends on how much you want to do," Mathas says. How much you can do may depend on the amount of lead time you have before the event. One of the latest trends in extras is an interactive photo booth that allows guests to instantly post images on Twitter and Instagram. Other special touches might include a caricature artist, sno-ball stand and more (see "Extra special," p. 19).
For outdoor parties, you may want to rent portable misters or fans or a tent in case of rain or intense heat. Rental companies also offer tables, chairs, linens, tableware, glassware, serving items and more.
In the end, industry specialists agree it's the basics that matter most. "In my opinion, the key elements are good food, good drink, good entertainment and a creative venue," Culbertson says. "Those are the things people remember."
TIPS FOR DIY PARTY PLANNING
• Be realistic. "Not every idea is easy or inexpensive," says Kellie Mathas, an event planner at Tchoupitoulas + Vine. She advises picking three things you love the most and doing them well instead of doing a lot of things with mediocre results.
• Make a plan and stick to it. Have as much done prior to the day of the event as possible.
• Don't be afraid to ask for help. "Most people work full time and the money you spend trying to pull it all together on your own — things like last-minute shipping and retail prices — can add up," Mathas says. Event planners work on reduced costs and can get better prices with vendors, so hiring an event planner or caterer may save you money.
• Always keep your original idea in mind. "If you're looking for blue stars (to match your theme) and you find red, white and blue moons on sale, it's not the same," says Darren Isabelle of Urban Earth Design Studios. "Try not to settle." — Lee Cutrone
TIPS FOR HIRING A PARTY PLANNER
• Allow adequate time for planning. Many event planners agree three months (for events other than weddings) is optimal, but many hosts work with less. "The more lead time a client brings to the table, the better job the [planner] can do of capturing the essence of what they want," says Darren Isabelle of Urban Earth. That business likes to finalize all the details of an event three weeks in advance.
• Do your homework. When hiring a party planner, Kellie Mathas, an event planner at Tchoupitoulas + Vine, advises you ask how long they've been in the business, whether they have a specialty (social, wedding or corporate, for example) and how they handle pricing.
• Ask for references. Mathas suggests asking for three references from the last year. In addition, most venues have a list of event planners they've worked with and can recommend.
"The event planning industry has grown tremendously and with that, there are a lot of fly-by-night planners," says Perry Culbertson, director of special events for the Audubon Nature Institute. "I only recommend people that I've used."