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 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!
In May, 2004, I was invited to speak about cocktail
party planning and etiquette at the luxury five-diamond resort
Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay (www.ritz-carlton.com/resorts/halfmoonbay/)
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 summer is a high season for informal
barbeques and other types of parties---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
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. Always allow more time than your whole
plan could possibly require. That way, if any step takes
longer than expected, you'll have
- Make a manageable menu.
menu that will need the least possible attention after your
guests arrive. Check the limits of your refrigerator,
freezer, and stove capacity. If you plan a party that
requires multiple uses of the stove and you have only one
oven, 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.
- Cook in advance.
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
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.
- Don't blow the budget.
is not the key to a successful party, it's 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
- Use what you have.
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.
- Work out traffic patterns.
seating and walking patterns. Try out every chair you expect
a guest to sit on 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.
- 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
(See May Tip for an image).
- Brief your helpers.
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
- Avoid being rushed.
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
BONUS: After everyone's gone.
the load off your feet and relax. Perhaps finally enjoy that
second 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 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.
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