5 key steps of planning a party that your guests love

*phone rings*

(it’s 2pm on Tuesday, why is my Dad calling me…?)

“hey dad, what’s up?”

“Did you make it home safe from the party this weekend?”

“yeah, we got in this morning. flight was delayed because of the snow, but we’re here now. what’s up?”

Dad: “I just wanted to thank you so much for my birthday this weekend. I know that I didn’t want a big party, but I had so much fun and so many of my friends have texted and called me about the party and how incredible it was. They said it was one of the best parties they’ve been to in a while.”

Me: “AH! I had so much fun! Your friends were so great! I’d say let’s do it again, buttttt…you only turn 70 once!”

***brb while I hide this from my dad because I wasn’t supposed to share that he turned 70 and here I am doing a whole blog post about it. oops! 🤷‍♀️

(the conversation went something like this, since I was out on a winter walk in the snow with our dog when he called!)

Celebrate the damn thing

As a wedding content creator, one of my biggest takeaways from life in the past few years is that celebrations are vital. Making a big deal out of any and every thing is so important because time with others really lifts everyone up. Yes, even you introverts! I work in weddings, which is a once in a lifetime celebration. You spend years planning and prepping for that big day. You always hear people talk about it being ‘the best day of your life!’ which – duh, obviously – you get to marry someone your person. But it’s as much a great day because you took time to intentionally celebrate a big milestone.

⬆️ that part, right there: ‘intentionally celebrating a big milestone in your life’ is important. Essential. Whether it’s a wedding, a new addition to your family – hello new baby or furry friend! – a promotion you’ve been working hard to receive, a birthday, or just living your life and surviving! All of the above, and more, are worth celebrating. As individuals, we crave quality time with our people. Being present with your loved ones is a great exchange for playing phone tag, text messages, or randomly-exchanged memes in your DMs on Instagram. Being intentional about it will always, always be worth the party planning. Because of that, I try to plan parties a lot.

Listen, does part of me find party planning so fun? Yes!

And do I live for a good photo and video moment? Also yes!

But it’s more about creating a place and a space to help create memories for my loved ones to look back on fondly, years later. I’ve acquired a certain reputation among family and friends for pulling out all the stops!

So, friends and family ask me to plan parties for them. Also if you’re new around here, I’m very Type A. This means I love to think through and plan for all the little details and moments.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.

When it comes to party planning, there are 5 key steps that I use for every single party, no matter if it is a large celebration for a milestone birthday. (fyi we’re traveling to Mexico this year for John Michael’s milestone birthday, so stay tuned for more details!), a 70th birthday in my parents neighborhood, or even an apartment dinner party at my place. These same 5 steps will be present, regardless of the money spent or if you completely DIY the entire party. I just gave my Dad his topic of coffee conversation with his friends for the next 6 months, so let’s get into how we did it!

Understanding Who the Celebration is Really For

What is really important here is to think about and understand who is celebrating vs who is being celebrated.

When you plan anything, there are always emotions tied into it. You might spend a lot of time planning, a decent amount of money, and a lot of energy on this party. So remembering this + the hosting dynamic isn’t something you want to forget.

For my Dad’s birthday, the guests celebrating him were his closest friends and family. I really wanted it to be a fun and positive experience for them. And naturally, my Dad was the guest of honor. I wanted him to just show up without a worry in the world. 

If you’re throwing yourself a party or inviting people into your space, it’s easy to think, “This is my day!” or “This is all about me!” But you have to recognize that, while you may be the one being celebrated, it’s just as much about the people that are taking the time and making the effort to celebrate with you. They might even be spending a lot to travel to see you. They could be somewhere else, celebrating someone else, so make it memorable for your guests!

For example, one of my biggest pet peeves in weddings is when guests have questions that haven’t been answered. Where to be, when, and what to wear? Think about these dynamics at play before you deal with day-of texts flying around.

Some things to consider: Who is hosting? Is it in someone’s space? At your house? Do you need to rent a venue? Are people bringing gifts to this party? If that answer is yes, do you want gifts to be opened in front of guests, or no? If you’re doing dinner, do you need a reservation or a private room? Do you want people to pay for their meal themselves, or are you picking up the check? Is there a dress code? Do people need somewhere to stay or transportation to get back to their place?

There are lots of questions to consider and this is the tip of the iceberg. Guests are more likely to attend if they know exactly what is expected of them – it’s as simple as that! Be respectful of what you are asking people to do, bring with them, or take part in.

For my Dad’s birthday, since we were hosting my phone was blowing up with:

“What time is the food being delivered?”

“Where is the big table going?”

“Do you have a cord to plug this in?” (no picture included, of course 🫠)

“Where are the cake plates?”

I wanted it this way so my Dad could just show up and not worry about anything other than enjoying himself. For this party, we embraced our DIY era with a bunch of projects like flowers and signs to tie it all together. More on this in a sec.

Guest Entertainment

Again, really make sure to consider what the party theme is before you come up with activities for your guests. They don’t need to be extravagant or fancy, but games are an amazing ice breaker.

Unless you have a really solid friend group that gets together regularly, you likely have guests that don’t know each other. And there is only one common denominator and shared friend – the person being celebrated. That person obviously can’t be with every attendee at once, all night. If you come up with an activity – or better yet, multiple activities – that guests can focus on, it just helps to tamp down the awkwardness of it all.

More passive activities are good for those introverted guests. A personal favorite of mine will always, always, always (Always.) be a photo booth. It can be the center of attention AND it gives guests something to take home as a favor – always a win win!

For my Dad’s birthday, we created ‘Tony’s Birthday Stumper,” a crossword puzzle with clues about him and his life. The fun thing about an activity like this, is that the crossword clues can be completely unrelated. Some of the answers only his friends knew; some answers, only his kids; and some answers, only his siblings. This forces people to chat and loosen up a bit and work together to solve the crossword puzzle. I recommend a crossword puzzle to a lot of my wedding clients, too! It’s an amazing addition to a welcome party or cocktail hour. At one point, I remember walking round the party and hearing his neighbor, one of my Aunts, and my brother trying to solve the crossword together.

We also had some active activities here too – but I’ll touch on that more in a sec!

Personal Touches

I might do things a little differently here from the next party planner. But this tip goes back to really ensuring you know the person being celebrated. How you can add small details to make it even more fun? We’re talking about tie-ins to their favorite foods, hobbies, activities they love, and figuring out how to incorporate as many as possible into the party.

My Dad hates alligators, as most people do (except this guy, I guess). But he’s an avid golfer. So there’s a running joke that he’s always texting me or his friends about seeing an alligator on the golf course. A normal golfer fear in the coastal southeast, right? But of course that means I got him an alligator cake, because why wouldn’t I?

We added Chippo, a golf game, outside with cornhole boards next to it so people could play either of those. We gambled a bit on the weather in January (always have a rain plan!), but these outdoor games were perfect.

Another detail: My Dad’s favorite drink is a medicine ball, so we turned this little personal touch into a take home favor (ALWAYS a great idea!) We included the ingredients, a recipe card, and little extras that he always adds to his own medicine ball.

Here’s my advice: Spend time thinking about what your person loves. Is it a sport or a place? Maybe it’s a certain food or a celebrity? My Dad loves Bruce Lee, so we had a lifesize Bruce Lee cutout – complete with nunchuks – that people could take pictures with. It doesn’t have to be anything super crazy!

Choosing a Theme

When it comes to a theme, this is truly a “nice to have” optional element to a party. It’s common to start with a theme, and go from there. But I find that pretty restrictive when it comes down to adding all of the personalizations to your party. If you’re dead set on a theme, go for it!

Maybe it’s just a simple 70th birthday theme. Themes are a super fun to tie your party up with a little bow. But you can do that without a theme too! For my Dad’s party, we really leaned into blacks and whites with gold accents. We ended up with a fun drink menu that we kept on ‘theme’ using those colors, plus the other personalizations around the rest of the day.

Invites are a fun way to communicate this theme with guests. Plus, putting together invites is one of my favorite parts of party planning! An invite is akin to meeting someone for the first time. You want that first impression to be EPIC; one that people drill into their brain. We’ve done all types of invites – printed and mailed, text invites, or Partiful where you can create your own event page and manage invites digitally.

An invite is where you can communicate the dress code of your party too. If you want guests to be comfy, share a dress code that so you don’t have someone show up in black tie attire to a Sunday brunch at your house. (Not saying it happens, but I also can’t say it’s never happened either.)

Capturing the Special Moments

Outside of planning my Dad’s birthday, I’m a wedding content creator by trade. So I always think capturing and documenting the event is important–essential, even. BUT that doesn’t mean that it has to be captured by a professional photographer. It can be as simple as making sure you snap some iPhone shots beforehand and select moments throughout the party.

By this point, you probably know I love a good guest book. It is my forever mission to share fun ways to preserve your party memories this way! For example, maybe you set a polaroid camera out and have everyone add their pictures to a jar. This makes for a cute memento for your coffee table as a conversation piece.

For this party, we had everyone add a photo from the photo booth to a book with a bunch of fun stickers they could add to jazz up their page. The sticker sheets included some of my Dad’s favorite activities like martial arts, soccer, the beach. Dad was really making it his whole personality to remind everyone throughout the party to make sure they added a page. He was super into it!

Earlier this year we planned a friend’s birthday dinner and had everyone write a card to them. At dinner, we presented them with the handwritten cards from everyone. A guest book is another area where you don’t have to go overboard! It doesn’t have to be expensive or extravagant, it’s just a fun way to look back on such an awesome memory and have a way to document the day.

Think back to a time when you have heard someone rave about an event. Often, it’s not really about the food (unless you’re a major foodie like my husband, John Michael!), the decor, or the smells. It’s usually about how the whole day made them feel. Did you hit on some big emotions? Was there lots of laughing and joyful moments? One of the biggest keys to success in party planning is to think about celebrating all in attendance. Your guest list will always be full if people had a great time and want to join another party you are throwing!!

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