I can help you throw a CLASSY party...
Throwing a party is an experience, an exercise in creativity and an opportunity to have faith that things will work out. Consider it a gift or a loving gesture that you give to your family and friends. It can be hard work, overwhelming and expensive. Also, if you don’t properly prepare or anticipate your guests’ needs, it can be a total bomb. This blog post will ensure that your party will be a total hit; both elegant and affordable! I went onto Fox9's The Jason Show in Minneapolis on December 20th, 2017 to give Holiday Party Hosting Tips. Watch the video linked below and then read this post -- you'll have all the tips and info on how to throw a classy party. Click here to Watch video and then continue reading below!
Throwing a Classy Party 101:
A year ago I was planning a holiday party that was headed for disaster. On December 1st I said to my husband, Stuart, let’s have a holiday party. I thought it would be a fun thing to do. He said OK. I started texting friends, giving a few date options and taking a poll of what dates worked. A vast majority responded with December 10th. Essentially, we had 10 days to plan a party. And I hadn’t really done much party planning in the past.
I did it all backwards. I texted anyone I could think of and as they responded saying the 10th worked, I told them to hold that date. By December 3rd I hadn’t even sent out a formal invite with details. By December 4th Stuart asked me to see the guest list. I didn’t have one. I just had a string of text messages of people saying they can come. He asked me how many people were coming – I didn’t even know. I estimated 20. I wrote a list out based on the text messages and it was actually 40 guests. Stuart asked, “Do you have any idea what you’re getting yourself into?” I didn’t see what the big deal was. Then he asked what we were serving. I said we can get a party platter from the grocery store: Cheese, crackers, Tostitos chips and a couple dips. He asked what everyone would be drinking. I said beer, wine and soda. He asked what people would be drinking out of and I said, “Party City has cute plastic wine glasses.” He stopped me there.
Stuart comes from a family that has quite a penchant for entertaining and they adhere to strong social graces when it comes to hosting parties. This is where my schooling began in how to throw a socially acceptable party that is both elegant and fun. As the party planning process unfolded, I joked that this would be my “classy party”. I was told that chips and dip are not an option, plastic cups were out of the question and that we have to serve a mixture of hot and cold appetizers and sweets. As he laid this all out, all I saw was dollar signs and I got defensive. I protested and told him he was making too big of a deal over this and he was like, “If we’re not doing this right, we’re not doing it.” I surrendered and allowed the process to unfold, and what happened was miraculous. In the end, I learned so much and we threw a really elegant party and it was such a success that people were still referencing it in July. A holiday party is now our yearly tradition.
To bypass plastic cups and Baked Lays, Stuart started researching party rental places and caterers in the Twin Cities. When we looked into caterers, it was well over $1,000 and that didn’t seem realistic. That’s the other place we fell short in planning our “First Ever Annual Party” – We didn’t know how much it cost until we added up all our expenses after the party. Based on this, I highly recommend setting a budget ahead of time and following it. Our first party hosted about 40 people and cost around $1,500. This year we had about 60 people and it cost around $2,000. That does seem a bit steep, but we justify it as a Christmas gift to each other – and we have a lot of fun planning it together. Regardless of your budget (even if it's $500), you can mix in some of the elements below which will upgrade your party.
I’ve learned that each party is learning for the next party and each party has its own unique challenges. I’m going to share those challenges and successes with you, so that you can throw a classy party too.
Last year’s party successes (and fails) became the loose framework for planning this year’s party. After this year’s party, we have more concrete evidence that the things we thought worked last year, really did work well. Those will be our “go to” staples going forward, plus new learnings from this year. Based on this, below is a list of ideas/suggestions based on my personal experiences in throwing holiday parties for the last 2 years.
Successes and Tips from both parties:
1. SERVEWARE: We rented silver trays, a punch bowl and a bunch of glasses from Ultimate Events in Plymouth, MN (click link). I’d say it was about $125 last year. It was so worth the money because people kept complimenting the punch bowl and trays, asking if they were passed on from family or wedding gifts. I was completely transparent in saying that we rented them. People asked how much and I told them the seemingly minimal cost and they were sold on the idea. It’s a small expense to really give the party an upgrade and you are going to need trays to put food on anyway – if you don’t own them, they will have to come from somewhere. Rather than getting plastic platters at the party store (which cost $10 to $15), go for sterling silver rentals. It’s a perception thing that your guests will note. A tiny rental investment in real glass and silver serving trays gives party goers the impression that you gave this a lot of thought. Also, to be honest, plastic cups in Party City are actually really expensive and look cheap. I can say that now, having had 2 classy parties. We rented from Ultimate Events again this year and probably spent $175 – but it was a bigger party, so we rented more stuff. Still very worth it.
2. FOOD: Last year Stuart found a place called Appetizers USA (click link) that makes bite size appetizers for parties and allegedly big hotels and event venues use them. You buy in bulk and they ship them to you on ice. Some are “thaw to serve” and some you heat in a chafing dish. TIP: a fancy chafing dish heated by candles to keep the food warm gives people the impression that you know what you’re doing. Stuart’s initial claim that you need to have hot and cold food to delight party goers is only sort of true. I would recommend Appetizers USA, because they looked really good and most tasted really good and they were not expensive at all. Probably around $350 considering 6 to 8 bites per person for 40 people. I would probably not use them again because of the reality: no one really ate food. A few people had some, but most people just drank. I personally think things like the mini steak fillets on top of a horseradish compote on resting on a baby piece of parmesan toast was too fancy. TIP: if the food looks so complicated, with all the food allergies and dietary restrictions people have, people will avoid it. While the appetizers looked high end and legit, only 25% of those were consumed. Ironically, people ate the “Minnesota Sushi” dish that my friend hand made. It’s cream cheese and pickles rapped in deli ham. That was the one plate that got emptied. Basic and familiar food equals better. This year we did go the catering route and used France 44 Cheese shop (where we also got the liquor). We stuck to basics: Their signature goat cheese with raisins and figs on top served with mini toasts was a favorite. Then a few dips with salted flatbreads went a long way (artichoke being the best). For hot apps there were pigs in a blanket (doesn’t sound classy but that’s all people really want) and chicken skewers with dipping sauce. Later in the evening mini roast beef sandwiches were brought out and those went in 10 minutes. Most of the food was consumed and people raved about it, literally. It was double the cost from last year, but the fact that people were eating yielded a pleasant result: people weren’t as drunk because they were eating. It was worth the $650 catering charge. See Catering Menu at France 44 Cheese Shop. Another thing people love is Trader Joe's frozen appetizer selection as well as Costco; both super affordable.
3. DESSERTS: I have a sweet tooth, so I really wanted the sweets or desserts to feel like a Marie Antoinette spread. I was in charge of that. I bought little candy and cookie jars and cookie platters to fill with sweets (Target is really good for that – so many cute things that are also super affordable). I got a ton of fun candy from Trader Joe's -- it's high quality and NOT expensive. Chocolate covered everything: Ginger, Cherries, Almonds. Sea Salt Caramels and Peppermint Bark. Also, for some cookies and sweets, Costco is good. Only stick to brands you know at Costco though; I bought some French chocolates from a brand I didn't know, and they were gross and I ended up throwing them out. Tip: Know what you are serving your guests--sample everything first.
I also got some gummies at Trader Joe's and both years that’s what people blew through. People love gummies, take note. The beauty of Trader Joe's (and why I will always go to them for party sweets) is that they take back all your unopened stuff. Since I didn’t know how much people would eat, I bought a lot of stuff. People didn’t eat all the sweets either, so I never dipped into my overflow stash and I was able to return and get $80 back. Tip: If you buy multiples of things, only open one and see if your guests go through it. Then you can refresh. If they don't go through, you can return unopened. For cookies Trader Joe's is also good and affordable (the Almond Horns are out of this world) but for iced sugar cookies, Whole Foods is where it’s at. But that’s the splurge. Whole Foods sells sugar cookies for about $12 a pound and the cookies are thick and heavy. 8 or 10 cookies is pound, so it ends up being a dollar or more a cookie. However, that’s what people ate and liked. Most of the cookies went. There’s something about holiday cookies! I went the exact same route this year and also have stuff left over to return to Trader Joe's.
4. BOOZE AND SOFT DRINKS: I have two cost saving ideas: Make a punch to serve and get mini Prosecco bottles and just uncork and serve with straws. I know that sounds weird about the straws, but it was actually the hit of the party last year and totally instagrammable. Since we were renting glasses, I was trying to come up with a way to cut down on the need to rent too many glasses. Giving people a mini bottle that looks like champagne with a rainbow straw in it, actually was a huge call to action to drinking it and easy clean up.
Also, for so many reasons, do a punch. Here’s why: It’s a lot cheaper than having a full bar with option to mix drinks. Not many people do punch anymore. It’s such an old-world art and when you rent a gorgeous ornate punch bowl, it really draws people in. The punch was such a festive hit last year, that we did a different one this year. Now, our parties are known for our punch and our Prosecco with straws. When I lived in New York, they would do baby bottles of champagne with straws at polo matches in the Hamptons. I borrowed that idea knowing that people probably don’t do that here. And it was a total treat for party goers. Also, most liquor stores will take back unopened alcohol if you buy a lot--ask about their policy when you purchase. For that reason, buy more libations than you need just in case. Running out of alcohol is the death of a party.
Keep in mind not everyone is drinking alcohol, so have a fun array of soft drinks or a signature mocktail for them. I got a bunch of flavors of La Croix, which look really festive. Coke, Diet Coke, Ginger Beer, Pelegrino and Perrier. Have fresh lemons and limes too. As for where to put your soft drinks, Target sells these great metal buckets around the holidays for $20 each. I got a gold one and a red one. One was for soft drinks and one was for the Prosecco. Keep in mind guests will bring tons of wine as a gift – which I’ve found they later open for themselves. Be ready for that and keep an eye out. It’s kind of a bummer when you are intentionally not serving red wine to avoid spillers on rugs and furniture. Last year right around midnight people started uncorking the bottles they brought and it made me nervous – but no one spilled. Tip: Be willing to have things get ruined. It’s a hosting liability – if you’re having guests in your home, accept that things may get broken, spilled on or scuffed. Especially for people wearing heels. However, don’t ever make a woman take her heels off at your party – that’s part of an outfit and a confidence booster. I’d rather get my floors refinished before I’d make someone take their shoes off at a party. Also, this year we used those small punch glasses and so much punch got spilled on the hardwood. Imagine guests having to walk barefoot on a dirty sticky wooden floor? Awful.
5. MUSIC is your most celebrated guest. Stuart and I curated a play list together that had a mix of holiday music and top 40 from that year and pop hits/classics from the past. Have a play list that is at least 3 hours long so that people who stay the entire party don’t hear any song more than twice. However, if they are having good conversations and enjoying the punch, they don’t notice. Having music guide the background energy is so important. Also, avoid heavy rap or music that has crazy amounts of bass. Because people will hear the beats and booming, not the vocals and it’s super distracting. So find songs that are mild tempered.
6. BE A HOST: I learned this on the fly last year. If you’re expecting to have “the best time” at your party, manage your expectations. Having a party is a lot of work in planning and I had this sense of “I can’t wait for the party to start so I can just relax”. The minute your first guest walks through the door, your job begins. I didn’t know that last year, but I learned quickly that I’m a natural host. In college, I was the guy at parties who wanted to talk to everyone so that I could pat myself on the back the next day about how popular I am because I talked to everyone in the room. Turns out that IS a skill (let’s call it craving attention and validation) and has come in handy as an adult hosting parties. I couldn’t just sit and catch up with anyone. This year our party had about 20 more people at it, which made hosting even more challenging and honestly, less fun.
You’re a conductor of an orchestra and you have to make sure each section is doing their thing and flowing so that the whole piece being played is flawless. You have to be present in talking to who you are talking to, but you also have to keep one eye scanning the room for a single person or a couple that doesn’t know a lot of people there who are sitting on a couch texting. If you see a lot of phones out, you have to spot it and move on it quickly. Find someone else in the room that they might have something in common with, make the intro, stay for a few minutes to warm them up and when the conversation is flowing, make your exit and move onto the next. At our party this year, I felt like I did that for 5 hours straight. It was exhausting, yet gratifying. If you’re talking to a good friend and spot someone you have to attend to, you can easily say, “Sorry, I need to excuse myself to get those people integrated.” All of your good friends will get that you can’t hang with them. Actually, that’s who I saw the least of, my really good friends. I spent more time chatting with newer friends or the plus ones I hadn’t met yet. Scan the room and make sure people are talking to people they don’t usually hang out with. I felt lucky that that was happening 70% of the time both years. I’d be watching and thinking, “Oh, they didn’t know each other before tonight and they are talking.” That feels really good. The rest of the time I felt like I was pulling people out of cliques to get them talking to people they don’t know. If you see people exchanging numbers at the end of the night, you’re a great host and you curated a hell of a guest list. If you had the time of your life at your party, you were a bad host. That is the one thing I truly understand now. My husband and I aren’t having the party for ourselves, we are having a gathering to bring people together. It’s not about us for the most part. You get the satisfaction of having a good party and you get social credit with your friends which most likely means you will get invited to their parties. OR they will talk about how great your party was to people you don’t know well, but if you ever meet them, they will already know you throw great parties, so they will want to get to know you. I promise that’s true. People remember when their friends talk about a really good party, so if they eventually meet the host, you are already in their good graces!
7. HIRE HELP OR have a good friend join the party as the designated party helper, which means they will be helping you more than enjoying the party. Most people have friends willing to do this. Last year, Stuart and I lived in an elevator apartment building that didn’t have a buzzer system. When guests arrived, they would text or call me and I had to go down to let them in. Also, because of the hot appetizers last year, Stuart was constantly putting them into the chafing dish to heat or taking out to serve. He spent the whole party in the kitchen and I spent most of the party in the elevator. We vowed to always hire someone to help with food, liquor or attending to guests going forward. This year, a friend recommended Susan Liesch, owner of Jet Set Bar in Minneapolis. She is a Liquor Caterer, but she’s so much more. She could be 7 places at once. Answering the door, taking coats, offering drinks. When there was downtime, she was scanning the room for empty glasses/bottles and plates that need clearing. She cleaned up as she went along and by the end of the night everyone knew her name and were profusely thanking her. It was probably a couple hundred dollars, but if you’re having 60 people through your house for a night, it’s buying you valuable social time and you don’t have to think about annoying things like, are enough crackers out, who needs a drink, etc. Also Jason Matheson on the Jason Show recommended calling the Minnesota School of Bartending to hire a bartender in training -- click link to get details -- it's super affordable, starting at $15/hr. I'd definitely look into that.
On the subject of coats, we wanted to rent coat racks this year (this is Minnesota, the coats are big and plentiful). I found a friend with coat racks to borrow. They were game changing. Nothing makes a party feel more pre-meditated than having a coat rack in the entry way. It says, “I’m expecting guests and I care about them enough to not throw their coats on my bed.” Also, we live in a house now, I didn’t want to run up and down stairs getting coats from the bed and also, do you really want people’s coats on your bed and vice versa. Coat racks!
8. DÉCOR: This is my favorite part. I kept joking last year that we were having a classy party – but at the same time I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on trimmings. So I made my own wreaths and floral arrangements. I made wreaths from the branches that were cut off the bottom of our trees. It was like repurposing. I bought some floral foam from Michaels and also some glitter pinecones, berries and other shiny balls. Jo-Anne has good stuff too. I used fresh pines, red roses, some holly and then threw in some glitter pine cones and they looked like we got them made up at a florist. The wreath cost me a few dollars to make, using a wreath wire from Michaels and throwing some berries and pine cones on that. My wreaths looked far better than something we spent $80 on at Bachmans the year before.
It takes more time to make your own, but it actually feels really good and gives you Martha Stewart bragging rights. I also opted for flameless candles throughout – I really don’t love them or the awkward orange glow they give off. But I kept in mind that real candles are a fire hazard. People get tipsy and are always on the move in your house, so they become a bit reckless and it’s worth it to skip real flames during the party. I also didn’t light a fire this year for the same reason. The tree is near the fire place and also it would get really hot in the room. Don’t let your party get too warm either. You don’t want people drinking, sweating and talking to new people and feeling self conscious. If you feel yourself getting warm, they are getting warm too. Open windows. As for plates and napkins, get a lot of them. What you don’t use, carry over for next year. I got a mixture of cute simple plates from Target in white, red and gold. I got a bunch of napkins from different places – Etsy, ebay, Amazon and the Party Store. I like variety and it makes the atmosphere feel more thoughtfully curated. In my opinion, if something looks too matched up it becomes bland or repetitive. So mix it up.
9. BATHROOM: Make the bathroom feel like a destination. I actually spent over $30 on the fancy paper hand towels with a holly design on them this year. It was a splurge but provides a nicer feeling than a wet hand towel that everyone is using. Individual hand towels feels more professional. Also, I left some essential oils on the counter and lit a candle. People actually were putting on the lavender oil. Also, last year and this year I left out a stack of Gabby Bernstein’s Miracles Now oracle cards (click link). People were drawing their cards to get a positive affirmation reading. It’s things like that, that people remember. Also, this year since we were having more people coming, I put a funny note on the bathroom counter that said, “Let Management know if bathroom needs attention.” It was my way of saying, if the bathroom is trashed, tell me and I’ll help. Don’t be afraid to be fun and playful about things like that. It’s like asking for help in a humorous way. I’m not going to remember to check on the bathroom, so I crowd sourced with that playful note in the event that the bathroom was a disaster zone. It wasn’t. And 15 of the 45 towels I bought were still left over. Good info for next year.
10. TEAM UP: Make party planning and hosting a team effort and be willing to compromise with your fellow hosts. When Stuart suggested renting glasses last year I thought that was a crazy waste of money. The more I pushed back, the more I saw that this was going to turn into a deal breaker fight. I tried to be open to the possibility of this being a good idea rather than making it about my financial fear. If you’re going to have a party, be willing to spend money on it – more than you’re comfortable with. I personally believe it’s a worthwhile investment, because it makes your friends feel special to be part of it. In the end, it’s becoming a tradition and people get excited about it. It’s a beautiful thing to create an event that people look forward to and show up for you. It’s totally satisfying and I think Stuart and I grow closer as we do this. It’s a total team effort. I’m in charge of decorations, the invite list, sending out the invites and confirming details. I get all the sweets, do the flowers, get the plates and napkins and curate the atmosphere. Stuart takes care of bar, punch, renting the stuff and finding bartender. Together, we make it work and it didn’t feel like a lot of work. It feels really fun.
Since the party was bigger this year, it was more work to get ready, more money and more work while the party was happening. Once it was over, I felt sad. I felt like I didn’t have a lot of fun because I was hosting and I wasn’t sure if other people had fun. It was this odd empty feeling on Sunday and Monday -- Almost the way I feel after Christmas and New Year’s. It feels over. Then the “thank you” emails and text messages started coming in. And they all generally said the same thing: The people were great, your home was so warm and lovely, you and Stuart are such a great hosts, the decorations were beautiful, we met so many people, the Prosecco and straws was so fun and “I’m so hung over.” I started to feel better. That is the after effect of the party: the reviews, or as I call them, the “congratulations”. When I saw text message after text message with a very similar sentiment, I knew we had a great party. I might not have felt like I was having fun, but our guests did have fun. And that was due to our planning and hosting and making everyone feel included and welcome in our home. The party is a loving gesture and all the hard work is not for nothing and rarely goes unnoticed!
I'd love to hear some of your favorite party hosting tips and tricks. Also, if you have any follow up questions or suggestions, leave in the comments below or e mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org!