According to science, humans are hardwired to party. We’re known to thrive from interpersonal interaction, we find emotional fulfillment in celebration, and we derive identity from tradition. And history serves to support that theory: the ancient Egyptians held elaborate banquets, the Greeks hosted twelve centuries’ worth of Olympic games and festivities, and traditional Chinese culture boasts of fifteen holiday festivals each year. Not to mention, they also were the first to create fireworks, using them in celebrations as far back as 600 AD!
This means that party planning is also inherently embedded in our anthropology, since social gatherings — both small and large — have always played a strong role in every culture. And today’s society is no different. So from the generic, albeit well-loved, birthday and holiday parties to the fast-growing niche events (can you say Oscar-viewing party?), this guide will help you navigate your role as host and show you how to plan a party that’s worthy of the history books.
Creating the perfect party planning checklist is both an art and a science, and finding a delicate balance between the two can be difficult. It’s important to come to terms with one thing before you even begin to work out the details: You’ll need to allow flexibility in your plans. Accidents happen and circumstances don’t always come together perfectly. In other words, if you’re prepared for things to deviate a bit from your vision, you’ll be able to adjust things in a more cohesive manner.
Now that we’ve addressed the “art” of party planning, it’s time to get to the science. This involves some chemistry: building a stable structure for your party, adding in some flair, and then being dazzled by the results. With these components in mind, you’re ready to build your own customized party planning checklist!
1. Start the Party Planning
Prior to investing money and irreversible labor, you’ll want to lay the groundwork for your event. This is the planning stage, and it includes everything from marking your calendar and estimating costs to determining a theme and making a shopping list.
Choosing your party date
The first step on your party planning checklist should be picking a date and time. While this may seem like common knowledge, finding an ideal day (and time of day) is often more time-consuming than expected. It’s important to consider a variety of factors:
- people go out of town for holiday weekends
- many adults tend to work weekdays
- popular community gatherings can render potential guests unavailable
You’ll also want to pick an appropriate time for your event. Some festivities make more sense in the mornings or afternoons, like children’s birthday parties or Memorial Day cookouts, but the majority of gatherings fall more naturally to the evening hours. For these events in particular, it might be helpful to set both a start and end time for your party, as this allows people to make plans in advance, such as booking a hotel, hiring a babysitter and scheduling a ride home. Setting an end time will also help you avoid those friends and stragglers who have a pesky tendency to linger!
Choosing your party theme
The next step on the party planning checklist is selecting a theme. This can be as simple as acknowledging the type of party (e.g. birthday, holiday, housewarming, or cocktail) or as specific as a 1920’s-in-New-York costume party. Choosing a more complex theme will require some fairly intensive planning and decorating, so proceed with caution. You’ll want theme-appropriate attire, music to fit the mood and enough décor to solidify the desired atmosphere. You can also get creative with other aspects of the party, such as the food. For example, throw a cheese-themed party and provide grilled cheese, wine and cheese pairings, cheesecake, etc.
Planning your budget
It’s important to note that all of these things will require some level of financial investment, so setting a budget is another crucial component to successful party planning. Take all costs into account: food, drinks, decoration, amenities, and venues. If you don’t want to shoulder the brunt of the financial burden, consider alternative solutions to soften the expense, such as charging a small cover fee or asking guests to contribute by bringing their own beverages. This would also be an ideal opportunity to begin creating a shopping list or inventory document. Not only will this help you to determine costs, but it will come in handy when you get to the next stage in the party planning schedule.
Choosing your party venue
Once you’ve established a budget, you’re ready for the last point in this section: securing a venue. If you’re throwing a party at your home, there’s obviously no need to make a reservation elsewhere. Although, hosting an event in your own home will require some cleaning, so set aside some time before the big day and/or hire a cleaner.
However, for large-scale or activity-based parties, an outside venue might be more suitable. A nice restaurant or designated event space can be perfect for formal events, but don’t forget to weigh your options when it comes to planning a more casual, fun-focused party. Most amusement parks and sports complexes offer event rooms and discounts! In any instance where you’ll be using an official venue, you’ll want to reserve the space well in advance, prior to sending out invites.
2. Start Party Preparations
Once you’ve sorted out the basics, it’s time to get active. This is, by far, the most hectic stage for the majority of those who dare to tackle the challenge of party planning. Unlike the planning period which mostly consists of brainstorming, this step will require a lot of physical tasks. So get up and start going!
First on the docket is sending out invitations. So draw up a guest list and choose your method of notification. For small, intimate gatherings, personally reaching out to each person via phone or text is entirely appropriate. However, for larger events, a mass approach is often easier. Digital invites sent through email or social media are always a safe bet, but formal invitations (particularly for fancy events or elaborate theme parties) are also encouraged. Notify your potential guests with ample time–even up to two months–before the event and consider requesting people to RSVP, since you’ll need to start determining food quantities.
Planning for eats
On this front, you have several options. Catering is a popular choice for larger settings, but if you’re providing the food on your own, now’s the time to decide what drinks and dishes you’re going to be serving if you haven’t already. So gather your recipes, create your shopping list, and purchase all of your ingredients. It’s also important to take allergies and dietary restrictions into account, so don’t hesitate to provide some vegetarian or gluten-free options. If providing food for all of your guests is a strain on your budget, a potluck can be a fun alternative. Simply ask your guests to bring some of their favorite snacks and desserts. And last but not least, don’t forget to allocate some time in your party planning agenda to actually prepare the food, preferably the day of or the day before the party.
Planning the entertainment
Next on the party planning checklist: create a playlist filled with theme-related or atmosphere-generating music, and plan some games or entertaining activities that you’d like to offer. You can cater the music to your theme (e.g. 50s music for a 50s decade-themed party), make a playlist based on the party’s activities, or simply play a collection of your favorite songs. Meanwhile, popular party games like Apples to Apples for kids or Cards Against Humanity for adults are great options, but group video games are always a huge hit (we’re looking at you, Guitar Hero). And don’t forget activities like bocce ball, croquet, horseshoes, and corn hole for your outdoor summer bashes!
And speaking of outdoor parties, it’s never a bad idea to warn your neighbors before throwing a large, loud event. Not only will this prepare them for an otherwise unexpected wave of strangers and noise, but you can also use this as an opportunity to secure more parking spaces or even to invite them to your event.
3. Let’s Party!
As the day of your party arrives, it’s time for the last-minute checklists and final preparations. You’ll want to ensure things are clean, stocked, and ready to go. Additionally, you’ll want to prepare yourself for the mid-party tasks that will inevitably require your attention, such as restocking food or drink items, monitoring guests, and mediating potential situations. By using this handy party planning checklist, you’ll be able to have a fun and stress-free time at your perfectly-planned party.
Checking your party inventory
The biggest priority should involve inventory (in other words, make sure you have everything): ice, napkins, food and drink, adequate dinnerware—and even the more obscure things like toilet paper and cleaning supplies. One of the quickest ways to end a party is to run out of something important, particularly food and drinks. So don’t be afraid to over-prepare. You can always send leftovers home with your guests and use extra party supplies at your next bash!
Establishing party rules
Next, you’ll establish some ground rules for the party. You’ll want to address these points while the night is young, especially if you’re renting a venue. These announcements can range from the location of the bathrooms or any off-limits areas to pointing out little quirks that guests should be aware of (e.g. “The lock on the bathroom door gets stuck from time to time!”). For large parties in your home, you may also want to secure private items, fragile objects, and valuables.
Performing a final location check
And when it comes to putting things away, one of the last steps is making sure things are clean and ready to go. Do a once-over of your home or of the venue before guests arrive, just to make sure everything is tidy. You’ll also want to use this time to designate a place for guests to put their coats and other belongings. This is also where other odd tasks will fall. For example, if you have pets, consider putting them in a special, enclosed room (for their own safety). Large, rowdy settings can be stressful for animals, and even well-intentioned party goers can cross boundaries when it comes to giving unwanted attention to pets.
Creating a disaster plan
Lastly (and perhaps the most somber task of the bunch), create a backup or emergency plan. Parties, particularly those with alcohol, can quickly get out of control, so it’s important to be prepared. Start by asking yourself these questions:
- Will you be the one responsible for drunk party goers, or can you rely on a select few to help you monitor activities throughout the night?
- If someone has a medical emergency, is there a protocol set in place?
- How will intoxicated guests get home from your event?
Party planning isn’t exclusively limited to providing the atmosphere and means to party; it also includes calculated exit strategies for when things go wrong. So consider downloading the Uber or Lyft apps, have the number of a cab company readily available, and don’t hesitate to dial 9-1-1 if you feel the situation warrants it. You’re responsible for your guests, so make sure you can provide them with safe transportation options without compromising their ability to let loose and have fun.
4. A Party Planning Checklist
Last but not least, we’ve provided a quick party planning checklist to help your event go off without a hitch!
- Choose a date, time and location and theme for your event.
- Book any venues or equipment you need.
- Plan your guests and start preparing invitations. Send them out once all of your plans are in place.
- Plan your food and beverage menu. Create a shopping list for the items you need, including your party theme.
- Start shopping for your food and theme. Begin planning your food preparation schedule. Most food should be prepared the day of or the day before your event.
- About two days before, begin cleaning if you’re having the party at home. Make sure you’re stocked up on everything you need and do any additional shopping.
- The day before your event, prepare any food you haven’t cooked yet.
- The day of, finish up any food preparations and do all your setting up. Decorating, food tables, etc. Have music, games and activities ready.
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While party planning may seem strenuous, it can be just as much fun as the party itself. Just take it from the ancient Chinese party planners, and add some chemistry to your festivities. Even if fireworks are out of your budget (or simply out of the question), you can still use the concept to create a dazzling and detailed celebration. By simply following these guidelines and creating your own party planning checklist, you’ll be thoroughly prepared by the time guests begin to arrive, which means you’ll be able to participate in the most important aspects of the party: spending time with friends and family, engaging in entertaining activities, and having lots of fun. After all, that’s what social gatherings are for.
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