So, you've decided to host a fabulous holiday party... but where do you start? Here is a basic step-by-step guide to throwing the perfect at-home holiday cocktail party.
1. Decide on your budget
This is an important first step because if you don’t set some budget parameters, it is really easy to let all the little expenses add up. If you make a spreadsheet from the get-go, you are likely to be smarter about how you spend your money while planning.
2. Guest list
How do you decide whom to invite? Holidays are about celebration, reflection and bringing people together. Don’t feel like you have to invite everyone in your smartphone. Invite those that mean the most to you, and don’t be afraid to mix your friends, family and colleagues. To me, the essence of the holidays is bringing people together. As for the question of inviting your boss? If you are going to invite your co-workers, you should invite the boss.
Add a tab in your budget sheet to keep track of who you invite so you know how many people to expect. Keep track of your numbers, and don’t over-invite assuming not everyone will come; people are unpredictable and nothing is worse than an overcrowded party.
The trend right now is doing cocktail parties with heavy appetizers. In all my years of attending tastings, I find the best foods at events are the appetizers. Really tasty, easy-to-eat foods lend themselves to a much more lively and social atmosphere, especially if you are going to mix the office crowd with your friends and family.
A cocktail menu is also a better bang for your buck. For your menu choose foods that are visually appealing and easy to eat. How much to order or make? The rule of thumb amongst my favorite caterers is 12 pieces per person, multiplied by number of people, and then divided by the number of different appetizers. If you have less than 45 people, plan on six types of appetizers; for more than 45 people, you will want eight different dishes. For smaller gatherings of eight to 10 guests, three dishes are plenty. You will want an equal number of cold and hot appetizers, so while one appetizer is heating in the oven, a cold one can be circulating — this will keep everyone happily interested in the food.
Keep it simple and festive: beer, wine and one specialty cocktail. I love peppermint martinis with Baileys Irish Cream garnished with a candy cane. It’s a cocktail and dessert all rolled into one. The formula for how much alcohol to buy is two drinks per person, per hour divided by the number of drink options. So if you do beer, wine and a signature drink, it's two drinks per person per hour divided by three to get the quantity of each drink. I always recommend Spec’s or Costco because you can return unopened items to them.
Evite or Paper? For holiday entertaining I say electronic invitations without question. We are all busy and usually glued to our smartphones, so your RSVP is just a click away. Specifically, I am a fan of Paperless Post.
If you’re on a budget, set up a play list on your iPod or smartphone and plug that into your home stereo. A cocktail party’s focus is on the people more than the entertainment. This is also a space saver.
I suggest a 50/50 mix of cocktail music and holiday tunes. You can play an average of 17 songs per hour, so if you have a three hour party, load 60 songs to give yourself a nice cushion.
7. The décor
Start by looking through your extra holiday décor. If you want to do all gold and silver this year, put ornaments and party beads in glass jars and glasses and bowls of various sizes. Mixing shapes and sizes will give you visual interest. Most craft stores will even put their holiday décor on sale before Christmas, so hit those sales if you need extra ornaments.
Add candlelight everywhere, and you will have a dazzling effect. Candles make everything look better. You can even use martini glasses, other drinking glasses or even bowls as candle holders. I also suggest renting tall cocktail tables for this type of event; they take up less room and will definitely encourage a flow of mingling at your event.
Other must haves and tips:
Even on a budget, I suggest hiring someone to come in and help you on the day of your event. Even if you don’t hire a caterer, there are event staffing companies you can call to hire an event helper. How can you be a host or hostess if you are prepping and serving food and keeping the place clean? I promise it will be the best money you spend on the entire event.
Have a rain or bad weather plan
If you are going to use your backyard as your venue, make sure you have a plan in case of rain. Most rental companies rent tents and you can even get what’s called “tent insurance” that allows you to reserve the tent, but don’t have to decide or pay for it until 72 hours before the event.
Set your RSVP dates for at least 10 days before your event, so you have time to order food from a caterer (if you go that route), and so you have time to follow up via email or phone with those that don’t RSVP. That way you know how much food and drink to order/buy.
If you are having your party at home, you should definitely inform — if not invite — the neighbors. Nothing says buzz kill like the cops showing up to your elegant cocktail party. I find your neighbors don’t mind all the cars on the street and the festive music playing, if you do them the courtesy of letting them know, or inviting them for that matter.
Keri Wootton, CWEP, is the principal wedding planner and owner of Leave The Details To Me wedding and events; she regularly contributes industry advice garnered from her over 20 years of experience in the event planning industry .