Some parties are hits. The lucky guests talk about them for weeks afterwards and you sit in envy, wondering why you weren’t on that guest list. Other parties never quite get off the ground. You know the ones I am referring to— you spend the whole evening looking at your watch, trying to make any excuse to go while silently cursing the money you spent on a new dress. When you host a party, no matter whether it is at home or another venue, it should express your style and personality, it should be fun (obviously) and it should be memorable. What makes a good party? While there is no magic recipe, most really good parties have a few fundamental items in common: imagination, personality, and plenty of advance planning. Here are ten essential elements to think about as you plan your next party. 


It is really important to put your own spin on your party. Add something to make it uniquely yours. Are you a greenie? Make your party eco-friendly by using sustainable products. Are you a music nut? Showcase your favorite artists or tunes by making different mixes and give copies as favors or even invite your favorite emerging artist to play. Like cooking? Send guests home with a small potted herb along with a recipe using it. You get the picture. Make it yours. 


Go out on a limb and try something new instead of the same tired old cocktail party. Throw a new spin on your annual party and your friends will talk about it until next year. Need some ideas? How about a ‘wine around the world’ party where guests bring a wine and a dish from a country they have visited or a place they’d like to go. Another fun idea is a “Top Chef” competition where everyone makes their favorite dish or an annual chili cook-off or other food throwdown.  


One sure party killer is a frantic hostess. Give yourself plenty of time to prepare and once the party starts, try to relax and enjoy the party. If you don’t hire help, ask several reliable friends to help with essentials like ice, pouring drinks, and clearing dishes. Assign jobs for no more than one hour so your friends can actually have some fun, too. For me, it is money well spent to have paid help on party day- even if it is a college student to help bus dishes, keep ice buckets filled and empty garbage cans. As a hostess in a pretty party dress, garbage duty should not be on your to-to list.


In addition to letting your guests know when and where, your invitation should also give guests an idea of what will happen at the party and how they should dress, especially if the party is outside or if special clothing or costumes are required. Email invitations and e-vites are fine, but a personal note, printed invitation, or phone call is still the best way to invite guests. Include a phone number for regrets or request an RSVP if you need an exact head count for food, beverages, favors, etc. 


Invite more people than you want to attend. Typically three guests in twenty are no-shows. Have a diverse mix of people and always invite new people to keep things interesting. If you’re inviting a group of people who have never met one another, it is essential to greet your guests at the door to make introductions. Have drinks or a bar close by to let people have a chance to settle in and feel comfortable as the festivities get underway. 


Set an exact start and end time for your party to insure your guests don’t straggle in or stay too late. Guests typically show up 30 minutes or more after your stated start time because nobody wants to be the first to arrive. Ask a few good friends to arrive early to help kick things off. Ask someone to corral those last remaining die-hard party guests and get them out the door when you’re ready to call it a night.    


If your budget doesn’t allow for a lot of decorations, simply dim the lights and light candles. Replace some of the light bulbs in your lamps with soft pink bulbs which give the same effect as candlelight. You can get them at any home improvement chain store. Fresh flowers can be expensive but are totally worth it. Use whatever your florist has that is plentiful, fresh, and cheap. Use a variety of vases (short, tall, round, square- whatever you have) and use only one type or one color of flower. Cluster them in groups or use them individually. A bowl or vase of limes (or other fruit) makes a striking centerpiece and by using what you have on hand, it makes decorating easy, too. A large grouping of the same item looks modern and stylish. If you develop a good relationship with your local florist, you may be able to get a deal on gently used flowers that you can repurpose for your party. 


Music plays a big role in the overall mood and ambience. Start with a mix of low-key tunes, increasing the volume and the beat as the night goes on and noise levels intensify. Give guests time to mix, mingle, and talk, then increase the tempo as the party progresses. Make playlists of your favorites that will play continuously for hours. If you have the budget and space for great live music or a quality DJ, hire them. They will take your party to the next level and take the worry of entertaining your guests off your list.


Most people don’t come to a party specifically for the food, but if the food is bad, or there isn’t enough of it, there will be complaints. Make sure to plan for more ice, drinks, food, and utensils than you think you need. Some caterers recommend padding your order by ten percent. Many will automatically add ten percent because they look bad if you underestimate your guest list and run out of food. I am very cautious about having enough food so I always prepare or order up to twenty percent more than I think I will need and replenish dishes frequently to keep them fresh. If I have food left over, I send helpful friends home with a care package. For large events, take leftover food that has been properly stored to a local shelter. 


It is always a good idea to have activities planned to keep people engaged Do something simple that doesn’t require a lot of explanation. For example, give each guest a printed card when they arrive with ten easy questions about other guests. They must go around the room and interact with one another to get the answers. Give prizes for the first three to complete their cards. There are lots of ways to entertain your guests depending on the theme or type of party you are having. Everything from contests and card games to karaoke and Wii can get people involved and interacting.  

How did you personalize your party? I’d love to hear about it!