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A Gal’s Guide to Easy Event Planning for Any Size Fête

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Planning and hosting your own event can be daunting! The holidays are slowly creeping up on us, so now is the time to get started. This is a great time to entertain existing clients to thank them for their business, while also meeting prospective new clients and friends.

Fall is also fundraising season. September through November are key months to host benefits. If you run a non-profit, this is your time to shine or start planning early for next spring. Hiring a professional event coordinator is the optimal way to go. But whether you work with a professional or go it on your own, put together a to do list. Here is your step-by-step guide of the top 10 things you need to consider.

“Mad Hatter” Women’s Tea Party. An example of entertaining at home creatively.

1. Concept/Creation

No matter what is your business, you need to be clever. On any given night there are many choices for events and parties, especially in New York and Washington. Come up with a clever theme or attractive title that is both simple and descriptive. For example: “Cocktails and Canapés” or “Family & Friends Fall Fete.” Perhaps a “one-color” party – “White Christmas: An All White Holiday Party.” Timing is also important. Wait until January when nobody is throwing parties and host a “Twelfth Night” party.

Early in my career in financial services, I worked at Smith Barney Citigroup. I was a financial advisor to established and high-net worth investors. My focus was on small business owners and female clients. Investing is a big decision. People do not like parting with their money. Hosting events was something I did and how I met most of my clients.

I hosted many events at high-end spas and salons because most have a room or place for entertaining. Investing and spas did not equate in general, but the idea clicked. Stressed out guests took the opportunity after work to hear what I had to say while enjoying a mini-massage and a glass of wine. I often hired an author or speaker to keep the event interesting. After a talk, guests would mingle, enjoy light snacks, and go home with gift bags. The venues loved these events, too, since they were able to reach out to future customers, giving them a taste of their services.  After the first one, I just reinvented the theme, rotated venues, and became known for these very successful events.

2. Checklists

Events are detail-oriented so checklists are essential. You can create your own checklist or use an online resource. One of the most comprehensive is UCLA’s Special Events & Protocol site where you will find timelines, budget templates and checklists. This site also gets into the nitty gritty providing catering and speaker worksheets. Marriott also has some great checklists, “check and box style” that are useful if you plan to use a hotel or public venue. Whichever method you choose to use, make a list and check it twice!

Special Event Held in an Art Gallery Space.

3. Venue

The best and most cost-effective place to entertain is the home if you have a fabulous abode or can gain access to one. However, a home may not be appropriate for professional or themed events. If you already have a venue willing to host for gratis, great!

Many retail locations and some art galleries will host you free of charge if you work out a “partnership” with them. For example, Calypso St. Barth has hosted “shop & sip” parties for private groups. As long as there is a charitable component or promotional tie-in with their brand, it works. Less cluttered retail spaces like Calypso or galleries are ideal. They provide the space and you provide the rest, hors d’oeuvres, drinks, and gift bags. If you’re lucky, the venue, happy to entertain new customers, will throw in some Champagne!

If a retail space or gallery is not an option, then narrow the choices down to five or six places then do some research. Hotels are the most expensive with taxes and service charges, often with unions and restrictions to in-house vendors. Lofts and “raw spaces” are a better option. In New York, The Culinary Loft, Studio 450 and the tech-savvy Offsite, a new place in Midtown Manhattan are good choices. Great Places is a terrific website to search for venues, including many in Washington.

4. Negotiation

Get in there! Don’t take anything for full-price. Many venues and hotels will negotiate. Ever since the economy took a turn, many venues have shut down, changed hands or lost clients. There is always wiggle room on pricing. If you have to modify a proposal from a caterer to fit your budgeting needs, there are many areas you can modify or cut out. Try more simple foods and dress them up.

Taxes and gratuity are generally non-negotiable and it is bad manners not to tip. However, many will waive the “flat venue fee.” The more flexible you are on time, dates and space, the more favorable your rate will be. Host on a weekday – Tuesday through Wednesday. As things start to pick up in consumer confidence, the rules will change and there is less room for negotiation. Your bargaining position will also depend on what you have to offer the venue. Tit-for-Tat!

5. Budget

Let’s face it: most of us running a small business don’t have much to spend on entertainment. However, you have to spend money to make money. Regardless of the economy or your budget, getting together a group of people in a room can be powerful. There are not enough face-to-face interactions in this world anymore and this will help you stand out.

Consider entertaining as part of your marketing budget. The first one is your guinea pig – if it is a success, repeat. The good news is you won’t have to change much and the format will run itself. Maybe just change up the theme or venue. The most expensive items will be, your venue and the catering. The budget templates mentioned in the “Checklists” section above will be helpful. Divide columns by “estimate” and “actual.” Build a contingency in your budget.

“DIY” Catering

6. Catering

Professional catering is expensive, but it is the easiest and most professional way to deliver at a party. The presentation generally turns out better than DIY. Many caterers will also guide you through seasonal offerings, personalized menus in touch with the theme of the event, in addition to getting quantities and servings just right. In New York City, I prefer the more boutique size caterers, such as Mary Giuliani, Peter Callahan and Shiraz, for something really unique.

However, you can do it on your own. Platters are the easiest to serve. Food Emporium has lovely, well-priced shrimp, vegetable crudités, as well as cheese and cracker platters. Cold or snack type food is easy as well. Whole Foods or Zabar’s does nice prepared appetizers and bite-sized food, along with prepared salads. Anything hot or ornately prepared will require a kitchen or at a minimum, a galley kitchen on premises. I often whip up wheels of Brie with Marcona almonds and fig jam drizzled on them. Heat the wheels and it all melts together. Serve with Stacy’s pita chips or fancier crackers. Decorate around the wheel with garnish as you wish.

7. Staffing

Take your event up a notch by hiring staff. Whether you enlist your personal assistant for the day, or hire a professional bartending and clean-up staff, having extra help will be money well spent. If you can’t afford professionals, look elsewhere. Many of the local universities or culinary institutes have hospitality programs. Students are always willing and able to come work evenings for extra cash. Perhaps your favorite local restaurant or bar staff will lend a hand outside of usual hours.

8. Invitations

For digital invitations, Paperless Post is my favorite. There is a new online invitation company, with an event planning “helper” called Punchbowl that is whimsical but quite good. Gaspari, Papyrus and Paper Source have beautiful paper invitations and favors. Vendors I have used for large-scale high-end events are Alpine Creative Group and Floyd Rappy both in Chelsea. Mrs. John L. Strong is tops amongst the upper echelon, but may be too formal for some tastes.

Presenting your portfolio and marketing your services is important. Photo of Nichole Wright by Tribeza Magazine, 2010.

9. Marketing

Utilizing social media is a no-brainer. If you are not technical, have an intern do it. For example, if you have a webpage, e-mail blast, or blog article about the event, be sure to add buttons to the material that can allow users to “Like on Facebook,” “Share on Facebook,” “Tweet,” “Share on Linked In,” or “+1” on Google+. Other popular social media platforms that enable users to share your event information include Tumblr and StumbleUpon. Users who share your event details through these various channels will expose all of their “friends” or “followers” to the event, widening the pool of possible attendees.

If you are using ticketing services or a professional RSVP method for a larger-scale event, Ticketmob and Eventbrite are both cost-effective online tools, which charge a small fee. Their circulation and marketing reach via social media is wide and far. Don’t forget pictures - appealing images are important. Utilize Pinterest.

10. Follow-Up

Following up after an event will separate you from the crowd. Most people move on after an event, ignoring this important step. Saying “thank you” to anyone who helped out will win you points, particularly if these are people you may need to tap in the future. Whether people have merely attended, given a donation, or given a referral after your event, tell them how much you appreciate their support. To collect names for your thank you list, have guests fill out an information card at the event or host a drawing. Gift bags are a great way to say thank you and be sure to slip in a personalized note saying so.

Whether this is the first time you’ve planned an event or the 100th, one thing never changes: You want your event planning and everything related to it to work out beautifully. An event that feeds the imagination and provokes a call to action is priceless.

UCLA Special Events & Protocol
Marriott Step-By-Step Event Planning Guide
Calypso St. Barth
The Culinary Loft
Studio 450 or Loft 11
Mary Giuliani
Peter Callahan
Paperless Post
Great Places
Alpine Creative Group
Floyd Rappy
Mrs. John L. Strong

2 Responses to A Gal’s Guide to Easy Event Planning for Any Size Fête

  1. ColDaw2 says:

    After reading this article, I must say that you have included a lot of rewarding information. I believe that creating an event plan is integral to the progression and success of that event. I have organized and managed hundreds of events over the years and at first I didn’t have a clue on how to create or implement an event plan. So I did a little research for an online event planning tool that will guide me every step of the way. And thankfully, I came across a great online planning tool called PlanAnything. It is an online planning tool that guides you through every stage of an event plan, whilst providing you with guidance information, examples and other online resources that can help you. It made my business planning process ten times easier to complete and massively reduced the time it took to complete, and I have never stopped using it since! It is completely free to use and I couldn’t recommend it anymore, visit and check it out for yourself, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

  2. Merry Sheils says:

    Great piece, Nichole – spot on from a real pro!!

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