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10 Secrets to Creative Party Giving

party.jpgSo, you want to throw a smashing soirée in Southwest Florida? You’re aware that many of your guests come into town for Season with a full agenda of charity galas, cocktail parties, after-work social gatherings and private receptions. To help you make your party stand out, we asked local experts for tips to put on a top-notch celebration. Remember, give yourself enough time to pull it off—three months for a medium-sized in-home party, six months for a grand fête in a hotel ballroom.

And if you’re a guest at a party, be aware of your responsibilities, too. If someone is inviting you to their party, confirm or deny your attendance promptly, know when to arrive and when to leave, be ready to mingle and generally behave as a gracious guest.

A Theme with a Purpose

When it comes to deciding on a theme, ask yourself if there’s an overlying element that you want to center the party on: The cuisine, the music, the purpose, the entertainment or the location are good places to start, says Margaret Short of Margaret Events in Naples, whose party planning experience runs the gamut from weddings and charity events to intimate dinners and store openings.

"If you want to do Creole-style food, you can have a jazz band with a New Orleans theme," she says. "If you’d like tapas, you can have a Spanish guitar player and flamenco dancers. You can do a blues theme with Southern cuisine. There’s so much you can do [depending on that dominant element]. Go with what you feel and what represents you."

Enticing Invitations

Before your guests even set foot inside the venue, the invitation is the first thing that will lure them to your event. "The invitation should give everyone an idea of what the theme is and what the party is about," Short says.

For an Italian Carnevale-themed party she planned during the Naples Winter Wine Festival one year, Short chose a face mask with a vellum overlay as the invitation, reminiscent of the elaborate carnival masks worn by revelers at the traditional Mardi-Gras festival in Venice. "It doesn’t have to be too theme-y," she says, "just something that gives guests a hint as to what they’ll be attending."

Décor that Speaks Volumes

They say first impressions are the most important, and the same goes for a party. The moment the guests step inside, the décor should set the mood and reinforce the theme of the event. "The décor is one of the most important elements of a party," says Short. "That, along with the food and the music, are key, and I would definitely put more money into those three things than anything else." Lighting tops the list as one of Short’s most influential mood-setting elements—the differences between subtle candlelight, flashing strobe lights and delicate floating pool lights can have a major effect on how guests feel about and remember the event.

But the décor goes beyond just the decorations—the entire vibe of the party should make guests feel comfortable and ensure a good time. "I think the lounge feel has been in style for a while now," Short says.

"That’s what I’m seeing a lot of, even with weddings. People say, ‘I want to keep it casual, but I still want quality.’"

A Memorable Menu

When planning your menu, innovation could score more points than pricey ingredients, says Pamela Beckman of Bon Soiree in Fort Myers, an event planner who counts Lee Memorial Health System, Bonita Bay Group and the Naples Winter Wine Festival trustees among her clients. "You can have a dynamite menu, you just have to be more creative," she says. "You can use chicken, beef and vegetables in a very unique way."

For a grand opening celebration for an architecture firm, she used design styles to inspire the menu. To illustrate the Romantic period, she served "prissier" appetizers on doilies. To express Neo-modern design, she took a cue from Salvador Dali and served crudités with a slice of cucumber with black sesame seeds to represent numbers, which were spread on melted Camembert cheese to look like the artist’s soft clocks. (Turns out, that cheese was what inspired Dali originally, as well.)

At today’s parties, you’re also more likely to see passed appetizers and small bites versus messy buffets. Beckman says this is not only a tidier way to serve food, but it also helps to maintain the flow of the party. "If you have passed appetizers, it doesn’t pull people away from their conversations and over to the buffet table," she says. "It’s just a more sophisticated way to do it."

Get the Party Started … in Moderation

Throwing a spirited party can create a festive mood—but overdone, it can easily escalate into a sloppy affair. To keep drinking under control, a good rule of thumb is to serve a variety of beers and wines along with one or two signature cocktails. Those cocktails can even help carry out your theme. Throwing a Sex and the City party? Cosmopolitans are a must! Or name a brightly colored martini after an honored guest.

"The days of the full bar are ebbing a little bit," Beckman says. "It can be remarkably expensive to try to anticipate every cocktail and every ingredient and garnish. It can also be very wasteful." Not to mention that a full bar often encourages overindulging.

Creating a Good Mix of Guests

Selecting whom you will invite is as big a task as any other. "How many people and how much space you have always makes the difference," Short says. There are generally four groups of invitees: friends, families, clients or potential clients. If the event is for a charity, you may also want to reach out to groups that have not yet been informed about its work.

The number of guests at the party affects how much they can interact with each other, so you should also keep in mind whether you want invitees to be able to engage in intimate conversation or to mingle with a larger crowd.

Entertainment to Set the Mood

Beckman’s theory is that a party should stimulate all of your guests’ senses, and in fact, kick them up a notch—and entertainment is a good way to accomplish that. When it comes to music, ensure the location is properly wired for sound. "You should spend as much time planning the music as anything else," Beckman says.

To truly kick up the entertainment, go for the unexpected. Beckman attended a 60th birthday party for a man with Scottish heritage, so his wife arranged for bagpipers. The couple were well-traveled and especially loved Mexico, so she also brought in a Mariachi band. "It made everyone laugh and smile," Beckman says. "Plus, after the entertainment leaves, there’s a new buzz created."

As with the buffet table, Beckman advises against planning entertainment that pulls people away from the party. Ordering a massage therapist for a girls’ spa night is a great idea, but not for a cocktail party where you want people to mingle.

The Right Setting

You’ve heard it before: location, location, location. "Depending on the number of people that you’re estimating will come, it’s always nice to have it in a private home," says Short. "It makes it more intimate and provides a nicer setting." For a medium-sized crowd, a private room at a restaurant may be best. For large-scale events, hotels with big, open ballrooms often make the best—and most flexible—choice for décor and table placement.

If your theme affords an outdoorsy setting, a garden or beach area, like at the Port Royal Club or the lawn at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, provides a popular option, especially during Southwest Florida’s busy season.

Hire Extra Help

Even though you are the host or hostess of your party, that certainly doesn’t mean you need to do all the work yourself. Hiring a few extra hands can mean the difference between enjoying your guests and completely running yourself ragged. "Never minimize having help," Beckman says. "Spend the money on enough help to provide the services you need. You can’t be the host and do all those things, too."

The key to hiring effective help, she says, is giving them extremely specific directions. Ask them to serve food at a specified time, keep tables cleaned, check restrooms every half hour, fill drinks, empty trash cans or whatever other tasks you need done. Even the most competent help needs to be told what your wishes are.

Plan a Great Kids’ Party

Throwing a party for pint-sized guests is no small feat. It’s a tricky balance of activities, food, fun and keeping tantrums to a minimum. The main thing to remember is this: Keep kids moving. "Kids are going to do a lot better when they’re engaged in activities than simply sitting and being entertained," Beckman says. Hiring an actress to portray a Disney princess will keep guests busy long enough to take a photo, but then what? Why not give them the craft supplies to make a princess crown and carry out the theme a little longer? It’s also good to alternate active games with more quiet time, such as reading a story or making a craft. "If I thought they’d do 10 activities, I’d plan 20," says Beckman, who started her party-planning career with children’s parties. Want them to spend some time on the food? Give them ingredients to make pizzas or ice cream sundaes.

If planning parties for today’s kids seems almost like a competitive sport for who can go the most over-the-top, Beckman suggests keeping in mind the reason for the party. "This was a celebration for your birthday, not all the pomp and circumstance," she says. "The same is true of weddings. Brides can lose sight of the fact that it is supposed to be about being in love. This is supposed to be about family."

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