Party pre-planning is the key to success!

Imagine this: Your party guests will be arriving in 20 minutes, and you’re not worried. All is ready. . . and you’re feeling pretty smug about it, too. The house is clean and the atmosphere you’ve created is warm and friendly. The chocolate mousse is in the freezer. The salad is crisping in the refrigerator. The hors d’oeuvre are in the oven and all the other foods are in serving trays and bowls. You’re all dressed, not stressed.

You have time to relax, perhaps have your first glass of wine and look forward to spending time with the people you’ve invited over.

What’s the secret?  …Party planning!

Awhile back, I was invited to speak about cocktail party planning and etiquette at the luxury five-diamond resort Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay ( for their “Summer School” workshop series. A number of subscribers wrote me saying they were unable to attend this event, but were interested in knowing what was presented. In response—and because the holidays are approaching—I offer the following tips as adapted and originally presented by my mentor and friend, Dorothea Johnson, Founder and Director of The Protocol School of Washington, in her booklet titled, “Entertaining with Ease & Elegance.” The result of following these tips: a terrific party and a host who can enjoy it!

  1. Plan ahead.
    Organize everything ahead of time as much as you can, so you will be free to enjoy your guests and have fun at your own party. A “To Do” list is indispensable. Start your list as soon as you decide to entertain. Think through everything from the party style to your guest list to your menu. Then, order the tasks as they need to happen and establish a time-line for each. Always allow more time than your whole plan could possibly require. That way, if any step takes longer than expected, you’ll have leeway.
  2. Make a manageable menu.
    Plan a menu that will need the least possible attention after your guests arrive. Check the limits of your refrigerator, freezer, oven, and range capacity. If you plan a party that requires multiple uses of the oven and you have only one, it’s not going to work. If you have only one refrigerator, beware of trying to cram in your salad, vegetables, and dessert all at once. It’s a matter of juggling and balancing your space.
  3. Cook in advance.
    Select items that can hold well in the oven, in the refrigerator, or on the table. Don’t concentrate on impressing guests with individual dishes and overlook the enjoyment of the party as a whole. Do as much as you can before the party day so you’ll be relaxed and with your guests, not in the kitchen.
  4. Practice.
    If you’ve planned to make a new recipe for your party, try it out first to avoid any surprises. At least a day ahead, do a dress rehearsal of the table and seating arrangements you plan to use. Label each serving piece and place it on the serving table for fit. If you’ll use items at different points during the party, organize them in the refrigerator or preparation area in the order you’ll need them.
  5. Don’t blow the budget.
    Fancy food is not the key to a successful party, it’s the hospitality, presentation, and attention to a few details. Planning ahead often results in saving money, because you will have time to look for sales on items you want to serve. You’ll enjoy your party more when it is designed within your means, even if it’s just a good bowl of nuts, cheese, and fruit.
  6. Use what you have.
    Personal expression is the primary guideline for today’s table settings. Tableware needn’t match and centerpieces don’t have to be flowers. Let your imagination soar and use what’s on hand. Traditional rules for using matched china, crystal, and silver no longer apply.
  7. Work out traffic patterns.
    Consider all seating and walking patterns. Try out every chair on which you expect a guest to sit and walk every path you expect a guest to take. If guests must sit on the floor, try out the floor space yourself. For larger parties, spread refreshments around to keep people moving around. Place food in different rooms of the house and drinks in possibly two locations, at opposite ends of the house.
  8. Decide in advance what to wear.
    It’s best to let your guests know the event style, so they may dress accordingly. Prevent surprises by telling your guests on the invitation if it’s casual, informal, black-tie, or to bring their swimsuits. Know what you’re going to wear and discuss and coordinate your outfit with that of your partner or spouse (and children) so you won’t look like the odd couple.
  9. Brief your helpers.
    Whether your partner helps or you are hiring some helpers, be sure to go over your plan together. Make a written to-do list for all duties and tasks, including a timetable so everyone will know what is expected. Have extra help arrive an hour ahead of guests to direct them and have them walk the entire space to familiarize themselves with all they will need to do their work well. They can’t guess where extra plates are stored. Again, your to-do list is key to success.
  10. Avoid being rushed.
    Don’t let haste be your enemy. Haste can tire, irritate, and generally lead to an unpleasant party. If you find yourself rushing when you start to serve, slow down and count to ten. Despite all your advanced work, sometimes a party simply takes on a life of its own. Only you know everything you planned for the party. If something doesn’t happen exactly as planned, you may just want to smile and enjoy the event as it unfolds.

BONUS: After everyone’s gone.
Take the load off your feet and relax. Perhaps finally enjoy another glass of wine. Do a mental review of all that transpired throughout the party. Open the gifts you received from guests and marked upon their arrival. Make a list of those to whom you plan to write thank-you notes. Use this time to be proud of all your accomplishments and all the things you did well. Be mindful of the items you can do better next time.

Although it is said, “practice makes perfect,” it is as another saying states, “The road to success is never finished.” Never stress out over what could have been … just enjoy each experience to the fullest and know there will always be another time to practice again.

Happy Practicing!

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