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Holiday Party Planning Tips

Now that the holiday season is upon us, it’s time to plan that festive gathering. Throwing the perfect soiree doesn’t have to be stressful or expensive.  I’d like to share a few of my favorite event planning tips and tricks that can help you host a fabulous holiday party.

During my career, I’ve been honored to produce some of Nashville’s most prestigious events and I’m sharing a few things I learned along the way.  When hosting an event, I feel that it’s important to engage the senses:  sight, sound, smell and taste.

The Invite:  Leave No Room for Questions

When inviting your guests to your party, make sure you are very clear on your intentions for the event. If you are planning to have a formal, sit-down dinner, make sure your guests know that and all the details- like cocktails start at 6:00pm with dinner being served at 7:00pm sharp.

When your guests know what you expect of them, they will participate accordingly.  Do not be vague about the event details.  The more information you can give, the better.  You don’t have to include everything in the invite, but you may want to send a follow up email a day or two before the event with any remaining details.  Let them know what to expect, timing or agenda, what to wear, your theme, what to bring, include parking instructions.  Driveways can fill up quickly, so be sure to let your guests know where additional parking is available.

Planning for Success

Planning the ultimate gathering for friends or family can certainly be stressful. If you host an annual party, then you know the key is to plan the details well in advance.  The more you get done ahead of time, the less stress you’ll have during the weeks and days leading up to the event, which is already packed with stress as it is.  It’s not too early to start marking things off your list well in advance.  I recommend when you envision your event, playing the role of the guest and thinking through your details, starting with the invite and all the information that you’d want to know, to everything else in between, ending with the parting gift.  What is the total experience.  Walk through the entire event from start to finish in your mind from your guest’s perspective.  Assume nothing.  This will help you answer questions along the way before your cell phone is ringing repeatedly the day of the event.

The Menu

Of course, the menu is important when hosting a party.  For a larger gathering, where guests will come and go, I’d suggest having a heavy hors ‘d oeuvres buffet for them to enjoy at their leisure.  If your budget allows, hire a catering and bar service well in advance as vendors get booked quickly.  If you are on a budget, like most of us, there are incredible resources available to help you get the job done.  I have used Costco and Sam’s Club bulk food items (meatballs, BBQ, dips, desserts) as well as having their deli prepare party trays.  This will save in expense and, if you place the food on nice silver trays, your guests will assume you put it together.

If you have a smaller group that you’d like to really “Wow,” then an intimate dinner party is a great way to do that.

What to serve?  You will want to check with your group to make sure there are no dietary restrictions, but otherwise, I’m a fan of the All American prime rib dinner if it’s done correctly.

Yes, you can prepare an incredible prime rib dinner without any experience.  In fact, we’ve cooked this amazing recipe for prime rib on many holidays and it just never fails us.  You must pay close attention to the instructions and details, but if you do, your guests will be so impressed. 

Lastly, if you can, find someone to assist you as a bartender and to clear dirty dishes and glasses.  This is one of my best recommendations that will allow you and your guests to feel like you went all out for them.  They’ll be impressed that everything stays clean and clear while their glass stays full.  This gives you the opportunity to truly mingle with your guests instead of work your own party.  How many times have you hosted something and you actually didn’t get to visit with anyone because you were too busy doing the heavy lifting to make sure it all went well?  Too many times, I’m guessing.

If you can hire someone to assist you, you’ll be pleased with how that frees you up to enjoy the party you’ve worked so hard for.  You may be tempted to ask a friend to do this, but if they are someone who would normally be attending your party, keep in mind that they’ll be mingling as well.  The best person to assist is someone who does not know the group.  Either hire a professional bar server or have a volunteer who doesn’t have a personal connection to your guests.  You’ll have more success with someone who takes their job seriously and has no real reason to visit with your guests.

Themed Décor

As your guests enter the room, one of the first things they’ll notice is how it’s decorated. We all want the “Pinterest Perfect” décor, which may feel more difficult to accomplish than it should.  We use Pinterest a lot to surf for ideas, color schemes and decor for various events and it’s a wonderful tool.  It’s free and easy to use.  If you don’t have an account, sign up and explore.

Some easy tips to follow are:

Pick a theme and stick to it - This is important, not only for the holidays but for any event. If you are doing a White Christmas theme on the tree, try to incorporate that theme into your decorations for your event.  You may want to choose coordinating wrapping paper for the gifts under the tree.  Wrapped presents make the perfect decorations throughout the house to help keep the theme and décor consistent.  You can always use empty boxes and wrap those.  You’re not restricted to just having wrapped gifts under the tree, they are great additions to shelves, table tops and buffet areas.  Keep in mind you can pull your theme into a signature cocktail that you serve that night. 

If you went with a theme of White Christmas, then the White Chocolate Martini would be a fun choice for an end of event night cap signature cocktail.  Check out Godiva Liquors recipes here:

Have décor throughout - Simple decorations can add texture to your décor landscape. For example, you can use various sized glass containers and fill them with your color scheme ornaments and finish the container with battery operated twinkle lights. These will make beautiful accents for your tables and shelves as well.  You can also take your Christmas cards and make them part of your décor.  This is an easy way to show your guests the Christmas card they worked so hard on is special to you. You can get a festive 15 ft. lighted string clothespin style card holder at Best Buy or other area retailers for about $10.

Set the table - If you chose to do a sit-down dinner, go the extra mile and decorate your entire table in advance. Don’t go too tall or wide. You’ll want to leave room for your guests to see each other and plenty of room for plates, desserts and glasses.  I recommend setting your table with all dishes, silverware and glassware first and then decorate around it.  You can always pick up the plates and glasses after the table is decorated to wash/dust.  Remember that glitter is everywhere, so be sure to have glitter-free dishes when you serve.  I also like to sit in every seat once the table is decorated.  Can I see the entire group of guests from every single seat?  This also applies to big events.  Make sure each guest feels special and that their seat is a good seat with a view.

Have a focal point - Every room should have a focal point. This is where you should build your displays. A Christmas tree is the perfect focal point and a fireplace is where guests like to gather on a chilly night. Place décor or wrapped presents on each side and decorate the mantle.  If you have a focal point with a taller item in the middle of the mantle, that will also create a nice visual.  You can create easy focal points on various buffet tables by displaying a holiday lantern or different height candles. Don’t have a fireplace?  Comcast Xfinity or other TV platforms have great channels with a crackling fire and holiday music that are a great addition to any TVs throughout the house.  Guests may want a tour, so having that on TVs in other parts of the house will let them know they’re welcome.

The Fragrance of the Season – The rule of picking a theme and sticking to it also applies to scents. Keep the candles the same fragrance throughout your home.  When you mix scents, you may have guests sniffling by the end of the night.  Many people are sensitive to fragrance, so I recommend having a lovely holiday scent at the entry for guests to be welcomed by and then odorless candles throughout.  Keep in mind that flame-less candles are a big hit right now and you can find various shapes and sizes in nearly any retail outlet.

Jingle the Bells

Music is one of my key event elements.  It may sound simple, but people get so wrapped up with the details of décor, food and drinks, that they forget to put on the holiday music.  When your guests enter the room, music provides a warm and inviting atmosphere that sets the tone of the party.  Be sure to have music playing well in advance before your guests start to arrive.  If you’ve ever arrived a few minutes early and walked into a silent room, you know it feels a bit awkward.  If you have music playing, it feels more welcoming.  Remember, as more guests arrive, the room will get louder.  Monitor the level of your music throughout the event as you’ll likely need to adjust the volume a few times to meet the noise in the room.  You only want background music, not something that is overwhelming.  This is something that your bar server can also monitor for you.  I suggest creating a holiday playlist to play throughout your event. This simple gesture will have your guests in the holiday spirit in no time.

No matter what the holiday is, make it festive and enjoy the time with your guests!


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