Event planner JoAnn Provenzano remembers an outdoor party that went a bit awry. “It was a big engagement party. The bride-to-be was one of ten siblings, and her sisters took it on themselves to spread the word,” she recalls. “It was a catered event, but she wanted the dessert to be potluck. Well, picture 400 people showing up carrying pies on a 104 degree day, with nowhere to put any of it to keep cool. It was insane.”
You may well want people to remember your outdoor party as “insane,” but most likely you’d prefer the context to be “insanely good time” rather than “logistical nightmare.” And once you get past the impromptu level of half a dozen pals around the fire-pit, there will be logistics involved; far better to handle them ahead of time and be free to wallow in friends and pleasures on the day of your bash.
“Your first concern should be the comfort and safety of your guests,” says Joan Howe of First Impressions Event Planners near Rhinebeck. “Enough parking, enough seating, an adult to mind the fire-pit if children will be there, a lifeguard if there’s swimming involved. If you’re serving alcohol and not hiring a professional, get a ‘weekend event’ liability rider for your homeowner’s insurance.” If you’re planning a fire, be sure to check with local authorities for a permit if needed.
Know your budget, bearing in mind that the most expensive choice may not be the absolute best one for your party – and also that some things which seem like money savers up front may not work out that way. “Once you get up past fifty or so people, it’s a good idea to start considering a venue,” says Cindy Phillips of “Everything of Excellence,” based in Highland Falls. “The practicalities of everything from bathrooms to seating to flatware can add up and you actually spend more on trying to provide them all yourself.”
Consider a theme. “People often end up wondering what to wear,” says Howe, “and making that clear when you invite them resolves that. Making it a masquerade party or having a theme, whether it’s a luau or a historic period or whatever, can spark a lot of creativity and fun. A theme can be as simple as a color combination -- have everyone wear red and yellow, say, or a certain print.”
Bruce Littlefield, lifestyle and entertaining contributor for “The Better Show” on Better Homes and Gardens TV and the veteran of many a bash at his Marbletown country home, agrees.. “I love having a theme party,” he says. “I’ve done a hoedown, a clambake, a Mardi Gras, a potluck, an outdoor game party with volleyball, badminton, and croquet…If somebody knows they’re going to a themed party, it builds the anticipation of fun. And even if you don’t want to have an all out theme, some simple thematic touches – get a big bunch of Mardi Gras beads and give everybody a string- it’ll open people up and get them talking.
“Actually, first and most importantly, I believe you should have a signature cocktail, ideally using something from your garden – mint, strawberries, blueberries. Figure out your signature cocktail and everything evolves from there.”
Littlefield has a few standby ideas he swears by for comfort and décor. “Spray something to decrease the insect population a few days beforehand,” he says. “Go big with your lighting—candles everywhere are a must. Luminaria- brown paper bags with some sand and a votive candle inside – are the easiest way to mark pathways and driveways. Break out the Christmas lights and string them everywhere – white, colored, blinking, all of them. It screams fun. So does having an outdoor bar set up.
“Most people don’t have enough seating. Hay bales work wonderfully – we actually had a formal sit-down dinner with everyone sitting on hay bales. And don’t be afraid to bring your indoor furniture outside; it works great and it adds an element of surprise. A great way to do your tables is also very simple: plain brown craft paper and sundries from the garden as centerpieces—branches and sprigs mingled with just a few cut flowers.”
“Music is a big part of any party and there are so many variables,” says Phillips. “I was part of planning a black tie event at which an opera singer performed three pieces, which was perfect for that particular occasion. But not only is the cost difference between live music and a DJ considerable, a good DJ can be much more varied and flexible, with access to a vast library of music performed by the professionals who did it the way people are familiar with and enjoy.”
Littlefield’s solution to the music dilemma is DIY: he’s a fan of the Block Rocker portable Bluetooth speaker set up from ION. “It’s about $125, a one-time investment, and they really do rock the block,” he says.
Re-useable plates, cups, and silverware aren’t just more environmentally friendly, they’re easier for people to handle without ending up with a lap full of Swedish meatballs and potato salad. Hit your local flea markets, thrift stores or church-basement sales and stock up on plastic or melamine dinnerware and used flatware, usually for next to nothing. Don’t forget to stock up on trays --for both serving and cleanup, trays are an outdoor host’s best friend. Acquire or borrow at least a couple of large coolers or ice tubs.
Set up a “comfort station” stocked with those little necessities people sometimes forget that can make or break their enjoyment -- sunscreen, bug repellent, perhaps a few extra hoodies and sweaters for anyone who “just stopped in for a minute” and ends up staying for the midnight drum jam at the firepit. And make sure you’re supplied with BandAids, disinfectant, and a couple of ice packs just in case.
A tent’s a big help, shielding food and guests from the elements; besides the main tent, a smaller camping tent can become the basis of a kids’ area—easily supervised, while giving the younger set a sense of adventure and their own space. Nearby, a tote stocked with some outdoor toys – various balls, Frisbees, maybe Super Soakers if you’re brave – will lend inspiration. A net for volleyball or badminton and their own dedicated cooler of non-alcoholic beverages, and the kids will probably never want to leave. So that their parents don’t have to leave early, it’s a nice touch to have a dedicated napping space –either another small tent or a spot indoors within earshot of the goings on.
With or without hired help or equipment, your outdoor party is a time to get whimsical. “I did a wonderful one where they had thematic food stations: really macho around the grill, an old farm wagon and vegetable crates for the veggies, nautical for seafood,” says Howe. “It was nice visually, and people had fun going to get their food.”
With a firm grip on your logistics, you’ll be freer to enjoy your own bash once the day comes. “Breaking down any event in advance is key to its success. The easier it can be made, the better,” says Phillips. “The day of the event is not a time to be stressed. Just take a deep breath and have fun, connect with all of your guests, and remember to taste the food and desserts. The event isn’t just for the guests, it’s for the hosts as well. Boogie down on the dance floor. It’s your celebration. Wallow in the fun!”