Yes, it really is possible to pull off a (mostly) stress-free party while having fun yourself. Get the inside track from the professional party planners and experienced hosts who share their secrets to success from set-up to cleanup. Just follow these six essential rules to guide you through a perfect party.
Start with a good plan.
Behind every great party is a solid, well-thought-out plan. Veteran party host Seema Boesky of Bedford keeps a diary of every event, listing the guests, the menu, and the shopping list for the menu. She also tracks the flower arrangements, the candles, music lists, lighting—even the room fragrance plug-ins—so every detail is covered.
Jennifer Matthews Frost, senior event planner at Damselfly Designs (42 Oak Ave, Tuckahoe 914-533-6500; damselflydesigns.net), wouldn’t dream of planning a party without what she calls a “run of show,” or master plan. ”This one document makes sure you haven’t forgotten anything. It can begin a few days before the event and lists what has to be done, at what time, and when the next task begins. It serves as a dress rehearsal and includes all rental orders, delivery dates, and times, even when you will get dressed if you are the host. Even if the event is a dinner party for twelve, the ‘run of show’ can be used to help schedule shopping for supplies, cooking and preparing the meal, planning menu cards, seating, décor, getting your hair done—every detail.” She keeps it, along with supporting documents, fabric samples, invoices, guest lists, schematics, menus, and invitation samples, in an “old-school, three-ring binder” that guides her from beginning to end.
Assemble an A-list team.
Nisa Lee’s party favors add an elegant touch.
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Frequent party host Holly MigNogna of Pound Ridge has been assembling her A-list team over many years. Depending on the event, she knows just whom she can call and count on. That often includes Alperson Party Rentals (107 Fairview Park Dr, Elmsford 914-592-8300; alpersonpartyrentals.com) for rentals and the Arcadia Jazz Trio (15 Purchase St, Rye 914-967-0966; arcadebooks.com) for live music. Having a reliable team to turn to can save valuable time and lessen anxiety. “Work with people you trust,” she advises.
Distinctive Décor When faced with hosting a corporate celebration event, Meredith Ward of Ridgefield, Connecticut, wanted to create a seamless connection between the indoor and outdoor spaces of her home. “We wanted the patio and the backyard to be an area where guests could sit and talk but feel like they were inside,” she says. That’s when Damselfly Designs came to the rescue. They brought in sofas, cocktail table cubes, and a bar (all lit from inside for an evening glow), lanterns, and a dance floor to create a complete outdoor lounge. “They incorporated throw pillows and Lucite clear chairs that were light, summery, and comfortable,” says Ward. “I didn’t have to do much of anything. I didn’t worry about anything except the weather—the one thing I really couldn’t control.”
Damselfly Designs can bring in just the right party furnishings.
Fast Food Besides delicious and fun, food can even be part of the décor, according to Leslie Lampert, owner of the popular farm-to-table restaurant Café of Love, gourmet take-out shop Ladle of Love (with a traveling electric truck), and her off-site catering service, Love on the Run (11B S Moger Ave, Mount Kisco 914-242-9449; ladleoflove.com/catering). “No disrespect to Julia Child, but gone are the days where you open a Julia Child cookbook and make a complicated French meal for a dinner party,” Lampert says. “Now, our lives are so ridiculously busy.” Her timesaving tips for hosts: “I favor salsa bars or chip-and-dip bars,” she says. The food is “made in bulk and you can put it in beautiful bowls. It’s elegant, delicious, and you can feed a lot of people.”
Keep it interesting, memorable, and fun…with an element of surprise.
Ice Matters sculptures make any celebration special.
Having a successful party doesn’t just happen—it has to be planned. Start with great invitations. “Invitations set the tone for your event and let guests know what to expect and how to dress,” says Laura Marks, co-owner with her husband, Barry, of Fine Lines of Katonah (141 Katonah Ave, Katonah 914-232-4856; finelineskatonah.com).
For true success, Mignogna believes in the element of surprise. Like the ice sculpture demonstration, by ice sculptor Bill Covitz, owner of Ice Matters (Cheshire, CT, 203-271-3736; icematters. com), who carved a seven-foot Bullwinkle in ice as guests arrived in keeping with her winter theme. “Ice sculpture can make any occasion special,” says Jen Covitz, who, in partnership with her husband, runs the administrative end of Ice Matters. Covitz can either arrive with the completed ice sculpture for decoration or hold an entertaining ice sculpture demonstration. “Almost anything can be carved from ice,” says Covitz.
For her latest bash, Mignogna relied on party caricature artist Marty Macaluso (Hauppauge, NY, 631-361-9425; quicksketch.com), whose work she compares to famed artist Al Hirschfeld. Guests have fun and leave with a personal memory—an 11-inch by 14-inch sketch presented in clear plastic bags for protection and sharing without touching. “It works for all ages,” says Macaluso, who works in color (10 to 12 sketches an hour) or black and white (15 to 16 an hour). “I can be seated in a certain spot or walk around.” From weddings to corporate events, no event is off limits, including his newest request—divorce parties.
Small party favors can go a long way in enhancing the excitement. Nisa Lee (914-552-5258; nisalee.com), owner of her own Pelham-based catering and event planning business, thinks it’s always best to link the party favors to the event theme. “Party favors can help your party be different and add to the fun,” Lee says.
Keep it simple.
Boesky likes to contrast the formality of her home with a casual approach. “I often put out large jars of candy Kisses that send the message, ‘Don’t take this too seriously,’” she says. “Or serve crudités in a wheelbarrow that can be stationary or wheeled around.” In recent years, Boesky also has been making it easier on herself by combining her own cooking with a caterer. “That saves work and I can enjoy dishes that I don’t make,” she says. She has also incorporated buffet dishes, including chicken and sausage paella. “For drinks, I set up a self-help bar—two carts in two different locations with one bartender, so guests can help themselves,” says Boesky. “It’s almost nicer that way and it takes the edge off of the formality.” She also keeps it simple with flower arrangements—relying on her own garden. “I line simple glass containers with hosta leaves hiding the flower stems—a quick and easy way to make a homemade arrangement look professional,” she explains. “I always have flowers and greens from the garden available to garnish platters quickly.”
Rentals can also be essential for an easy entertaining experience. While there’s no rule of thumb for determining what rentals you’ll need, Tom Gagan, owner of Alperson Party Rentals, suggests, “Work off of the menu. If you’re planning to serve coffee, decide if you need a large coffeemaker. If you’re serving barbecue, will you need a barbecue grill? Keep going down your list.”
Even dishes and glasses can be rented—just scrape the plates and empty glassware and return to the cases they came in. The caterers will pick them up and deal with the washing.
Don’t forget your neighbors.
“Having a party can affect your neighbors, too,” says Ward. “The day before, we brought gift baskets to our neighbors and explained that we would probably be noisy. We also called the police ahead of time to make them aware and provided our cellphone numbers. It goes a long way to be considerate ahead of time rather than apologize after the fact.” If parking is an issue, consider valet parking. World Class Parking (Hartsdale 914-683-1992; wcparking.com) can line up cars on your block or move them to an off-premises lot.
Never let them see you sweat.
Sweat? What sweat! Following these rules will keep things under control and your guests will appreciate all your careful planning. In fact, they’re likely to give you the best compliment of all—wanting you to do it again with the ease and panache they’ll come to expect. Holly Mignogna keeps it in perspective: “No matter how much you plan, stuff happens. But, those unplanned, unexpected moments will make the party even more memorable.”