Planning and hosting an event can be a stressful process, but there are steps you can take to make sure all goes as smoothly as possible. We’ve compiled a step-by-step guide that walks you through the entire party-planning timeline. With these helpful tips, hopefully both you and your guests can mix, mingle and ultimately raise a toast to a successful soiree.
FORM YOUR PLAN WITH PLENTY OF TIME
1. Determine your guest list
Narrowing down a guest list is crucial, especially when it comes to your bandwidth as a host, says L.A.–based entertaining pro Paul Zahn. “Is this a smaller and more intimate affair? Are you allowing plus-ones?” The decision affects your budget and overall plan for your event, so this is step one.
2. Set an overall budget
Phoenix-based Dawna Pitts, author of Entertaining Is My Love Language, suggests determining your budget by assessing the scale of the party (number of guests, whether you want it to be casual or more elevated, and the general menu); the location (at your home or an alternative venue, and if the latter, be sure to check rates for your specific date); what rentals may be needed (tables, lighting, decor, seating, tents, etc.); and entertainment costs. Zahn says to decide on your “saves” and “splurges” in advance and to create a spreadsheet to track costs.
3. Calculate food and beverage costs
When budgeting for alcohol, “Generally, we estimate one drink per person per hour, give or take,” says mixology specialist Jonathan Pogash, founder and president of the Cocktail Guru and cohost of The Cocktail Guru Podcast. “We usually take into account the total number of guests, and then purchase a variety of alcoholic and nonalcoholic products based on that number.” For example, if you expect 20 guests, and they have a very wide variety of drinking habits, he suggests purchasing one bottle of each of your “base” spirits (vodka, gin, whiskey, tequila), a case of domestic or imported beer, and a few bottles of red, white and sparkling wines. This ends up being about $15 to $20 per guest for drinks. When it comes to food, celebrity caterer and TV personality Chris Valdes says the general budgeting guideline is $20 to $40 per person, explaining that this range allows for a decent variety of dishes and quality ingredients.
4. Lock in the date and time
Double check to ensure that your party date doesn’t coincide with other main events happening in your area or with big holidays — not only will attendance suffer but, Pitts says, it also affects the availability of high-demand event planners, chefs, catering companies, DJ services, private valet parking companies, and more. For lower-key parties, let your guest list dictate the time of day. “Are they late-nighters or more of a happy hour group?” asks Zahn. “Do they have big families that occupy most of their weekends?” If your group is older, starting at 8 or 9 p.m., for instance, won’t work.
5. Consider a theme
Although a theme certainly isn’t required, it can add some fun and cohesion to the event. “The theme will lay the groundwork for you to build every other aspect of your event around — from your food and beverage menu to your decor and even the soundtrack to your party,” says Zahn.
6. Plan your entertainment
Whether you are interested in hiring a photo booth company or featuring a mechanical bull for your country-western themed party, Zahn says to book these services far in advance so you have your pick of vendors. This piece of your party can be a “splurge” or “save” depending on your budget. “Instead of hiring an expensive professional photographer or photo booth company, ask your tech-savvy granddaughter who is always glued to her iPhone to set up a DIY photo booth,” he says. “Grab some country-western items from the dollar store and voila — instant DIY photo booth. Pay her $50 instead of splurging on that expensive photographer.”
7. Order decor and supplies
Plan ahead if you want to include customized or monogrammed party supplies, gift bag items or decorations. “Planning and ordering in advance allows you to get that extra special touch, and a lot of times it saves money from not having to expedite the shipping,” says Pitts. “I invest more in decoration pieces that I know I will be able to use many more times than just the one-time theme-related ones. White, black, metallic and clear pieces typically give me longer mileage.” This is also the time to either order or rent larger items such as portable bars, buffet tables, chairs and other essentials.
8. Do your research when considering a chef or catering team
If you’re outsourcing food and beverages to the pros, start by asking for recommendations from friends and family, or scouring online reviews. “Personally, I love reading reviews, seeing some of their latest work on social media, and seeing if their menu excites my hunger,” says Valdes, who then suggests scheduling tastings to sample their food, discuss your needs and align on menu preferences and dietary restrictions. “Ultimately, choose a chef or caterer who not only offers delicious food but also understands your party’s atmosphere, has a good track record, and is willing to work closely with you to bring your vision to life,” he says.
DRILL DOWN ON SPECIFICS
9. Send invitations
There’s no need to get verbose; invitations should include only the date, time, location, reason for the celebration and party details. “When you receive RSVPs, ask about dietary restrictions and food allergies, and also let them know what to expect regarding the parking situation,” says Pitts. Keep costs low by using digital invitations like Evite, Paperless Post or Punchbowl.
10. Plan the menu
The key to planning a menu is keeping every guest in mind. “Planning a dinner party and have two vegans on your guest list? Perhaps include two plant-based items and notate that on the dinner menu you craft,” says Zahn. From there, focus on cohesion and variety. “Create a balanced menu that includes appetizers, main courses, side dishes and desserts, taking into account variety in flavors, textures and presentation, and how much of it you can make ahead of time,” says Valdes. Pitts suggests keeping seasonal ingredients in mind and planning a weather-appropriate menu as well (for instance, Vietnamese summer rolls when it’s hot out or fondue when it’s colder). Finally, now is the time to decide if it will be a seated and plated dinner, buffet style or passed on trays.
11. Keep food allergies and dietary restrictions in mind
If you are serving a meal, keep your guest’s dietary restrictions and food allergies in mind. “You don’t have to make the entire meal allergen-free,” says Liz Fetchin, owner and content creator of Octofree, a food blog featuring recipes, tips and product recommendations for people with food allergies, intolerances and other dietary restrictions, and author of e-cookbook, An Octofree Thanksgiving. “Just make sure each guest has enough safe options to eat, clearly label everything, and if anyone has a severe allergy, omit that ingredient from the menu entirely.”
12. Decide on drinks
“If you're unsure of what to expect from your guests, then the trick is to have a wide but limited variety of beer, wine, spirits, specialty cocktails, and non-alcoholic ingredients — don't forget those,” Pogash says. “I believe that theme is an important factor to keep in mind, and may well dictate the types and styles of beverages on offer.”
13. Hire a bartender, if possible
If you’re hosting a larger event, Pogash suggests hiring a bartender. Not only does it take the pressure off you so you can enjoy the event with your guests but, Pogash says, a professional bartender will produce and serve alcoholic beverage products with your guests’ care and well-being in mind. “We never want to overserve,” he notes.
14. Consider hiring a photographer
So often an event happens without good photos to memorialize it. Consider hiring a photographer or asking a friend to commit to taking some candids or posed shots that can be shared with the group later. Make sure attendees are comfortable with photos or video being taken and always ask before posting on social media.
15. Plan engaging activities
“Planning a 70th-birthday party for your husband? Ask guests to think of one word to describe the special guy, and during the dessert course, have everyone go around and say the word,” says Zahn. New Year’s Eve parties are usually in need of more planned activities that’ll carry the party through until midnight, says Pitts. “I asked my guests to bring the gifts they received for Christmas — but did not love — to the NYE party to play a gift-swap game … it was a blast.”
16. Order baked goods
If you’re in need of large quantities of baked goods or have your heart set on special colors or decorations, now is the time to preorder them to ensure they’ll be ready on the correct date. Leave yourself a reminder to follow up the day before pickup/delivery.
17. Enlist helpers
It is always a good idea to enlist some help when hosting a party, whether that is a paid staff or simply calling on family or friends. Zahn says booking staff at least a month out is key — and important positions include a bartender and server to craft drinks and pass food, and someone to work the room making sure used plates and glasses get back to the kitchen. “Asking your kids to pitch in isn’t a bad idea if this is an informal gathering,” he says. “Asking a close friend to help you assemble gift bags the morning of an event is also a reasonable ask for a smaller affair.”
18. Prepare a detailed timeline
“I actually type out my entire day of the party in detail, hour by hour, when I host parties that are 30-plus guests,” says Pitts. Her list includes exactly what time everything is happening, including rental delivery, and chefs and crew arrival. She also includes each vendor’s phone number on this list, so she has them handy if needed.