Event Planning with Panache

By Samantha Georgson and Annie Rosemurgy | Photos Courtesy Marla Bergh, Sunny Frantz and Hillary Schave

Pulling off a great party is no small task, and the stakes feel even higher when celebrating life’s milestones—your parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, a daughter’s college graduation or a best friend’s 40th birthday. How do we plan and execute these fetes with minimal stress and maximum memories? BRAVA talked to a couple of Madison’s event coordinators to find out their best party planning tips and tricks to help make the most of life’s special moments.

WHO’S IN THE SPOTLIGHT?

First off, keep the guest of honor in mind—whether it’s one person, a couple or several key family members. “It’s always fun to think about the guest of honor and find ways to incorporate them into the little details,” says Ru Nataraj, event coordinator at Spirit and Style Events and owner of Groove Madison, a trendy new rental space located on the Capitol Square. Maybe it’s having party favors that highlight their favorite pastime, like sailing or playing hockey. Maybe it’s a flashback, via photos or during remarks, into how the anniversary couple met. Maybe it’s a song that everyone knows is their favorite tune. Another way of honoring them, say Andrea VandeBerg and Sarah Sarbacker, event planners at Cherry Blossom Events, is with the menu. “People worry more about creating a menu that no one will find offensive, instead of focusing on the particular tastes and favorites of the special person.” Instead, they suggest, be bold with the menu and include foods that spark meaningful memories for the honored guests, such as choosing a French theme for a couple who honeymooned in Paris.

PLAN AHEAD

While there are a few things you can save for the day of the party, planning ahead will make everything go much smoother. Invitations are job one. If you’re putting together a big event, you’ll want to get the invitations out early so that your guests can plan accordingly. “I would suggest you send out a ‘savethe-date’ as soon as you know you’re throwing the event, especially if you have out-of-towners.” Nataraj says. “It’s smart to include an RSVP if you can, to get a feel for how many people you’ll actually have.” Old school still rules over digital invites, say VandeBerg and Sarbacker. “We are huge fans of beautiful paper products and feel they are still the gold standard for party invitations.” Once you’ve sent out your invitations and you have a good idea of how many people are coming, it’s time to start thinking about what you’re going to feed them, especially if the event includes alcoholic beverages. “Food and drink are usually the number one concern when party planning, and for good reason; they are top items in terms of time and money spent,” say VandeBerg and Sarbacker. Food could also determine your event space. “When you’re thinking about a venue, you should also consider their policies on food. If they’re going to be doing the catering as well, that’s going to play a big role in your decision-making,” says Nataraj.

SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF

Event planners have seen it all, and our local experts have come up with a few of the nuances that people tend to forget when planning their parties. VandeBerg and Sarbacker report that one common mistake is that guests are unsure exactly where the party is located. They suggest having “more signage than you think you’ll need” for any non-home venue and highlighting that signage with beautiful notecards, flower arrangements or twinkly lights. “Parking is also important,” says Nataraj. “Is there parking close by? Will it cost money? If we’re talking invitations, I’d encourage people to include details about the parking situation, and any related facts toward the space at all. Then, you have to think about accessibility—avoid places without accessible entrances, especially if you have older guests or people in wheelchairs.”

THERE’S NO HARM IN HIRING HELP

Whether you’re big on planning parties or you’re a novice, hiring help can make things go much smoother. “There are different types of event planners,” Nataraj says. “Some of us are really creative and can help you come up with unique ways to celebrate your special occasion and some of us are just detail-oriented, hired to ensure that you don’t miss a beat.” If you’re running around like your hair’s on fire during the party, you won’t enjoy it and you may even cause your guests to stress a bit. “So much of the stress of having a party can be neutralized by planning ahead and staying organized, and that may include using professional assistance,” say VandeBerg and Sarbacker.  Make lists early and often, putting pen to paper with as many concrete, specific details as possible. If a professional is brought on board these lists can be invaluable toward communicating a client’s vision for the event.

STUFF HAPPENS, SO ROLL WITH IT

While it’s important to plan ahead and continue to check things off of your list as the date approaches, come the day of—all bets are off. “As an event planner, I know that nothing goes according to plan,” admits Nataraj, “So, just remember to give yourself a break; it’s really more about the thought, the emotions and the intentions behind it all.”  VandeBerg and Sarbacker add, “We like to say plan ahead, but then leave the dirty dishes in the sink. Enjoy your own party. Eat the food and drink the wine!”

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