Ten Steps to a Sublime Summer Celebration
Party planner Claudia Hanlin has been organizing five-star events for 20 years. Here’s some of what she’s learned.
This story is found in the Summer 2019 edition of Park City Home.
Whether a shower, graduation party, or rehearsal dinner, hosting an important gathering at home is the ultimate gesture of hospitality. A major party calls for major prep, so we called on one of the country’s most in-demand event specialists, Claudia Hanlin. Owner of New York-based party planning company The Wedding Library, Hanlin has been helping people organize landmark celebrations for nearly two decades, from storybook weddings to fundraising galas. Her expert advice will help get your own plan in shape.
1. Get inventive with your space
Hanlin says that almost any home can host a big party, whether cocktails for several dozen guests, or a large, seated meal. Cocktail parties, when people need space to mingle, usually means you’ll want to temporarily move furniture. For a seated meal, you’ll need a two-foot space for each person at the table (that’s four people per side of an 8-foot table). But beyond that you can get creative. “One of my favorite entertaining moves is hosting in unexpected places—a dinner in your library or around your living room fireplace. I’ve had cocktail parties in my greenhouse, which involved moving a lot of furniture, but was so much fun. If your bedroom is big enough, use it for a ladies’ lunch.”
And always err on the side of packing in the people, rather than having an empty space. “I love a crowded party. I will shrink a space down with planters or dividers, rather than have it too sprawling.”
2. Develop a Plan B
If any of your party plans call for using an outdoor area, make sure it’s sheltered from rain, wind, and sun. And in case nature stages an all-out war, have a backup. “I have a barn on my property, and we’ve moved a lot of parties there at the last minute.” Prepare your grounds, as well: Mow the lawn so people can walk through it. Have shade umbrellas over tables. Rent enough portable bathrooms. Don’t forget waste bins. These mundane details can literally save the day.
3. Provide enough parking
Any time you’re expecting a lot of guests, you need a parking plan. “Don’t think your guests can just park their cars wherever. Plot out how many available spaces you’ll have; if it’s not adequate, you need a valet,” says Hanlin. “Even if you do have enough space, assign a mature teenager to organize it, otherwise people will inevitably do something dumb like blocking the driveway, and your spouse will have to wander through the party asking, ‘Who owns the blue Mazda?’”
Leave your entrance free of cars for guests who need to be dropped off at the door. That means having the party helpers park well down the street and arranging to shuttle them back. That goes for your own vehicles as well, as long as you leave one car easily accessible so you can run out for emergency ice, if needed.
Since guests often arrive at a party in the daylight and leave after dark, Hanlin also says to consider whether there’s enough lighting for them to find their way back to their cars. “Phone flashlights work, but I also have a basket of inexpensive flashlights for them to take with them.” And last but far from least, always have a car service like Uber, Lyft, or a local taxi handy in case someone has been over-served.
4. Check the bathrooms
Hanlin says that a plumber is one of a host’s most important resources. Before the party, “He’ll be able to tell you if your bathrooms can handle the number of guests you’re having. Most residential plumbing systems aren’t capable of handling 100 people.” The day of the party, have your plumber’s name and cell phone number on hand. “And if it’s over 50 guests, let them know beforehand so they’ll be ‘on call’ that day.
Even if you end up renting luxury portable restrooms, Hanlin says to be prepared: One way or another, people will end up inside the house. Be sure all the indoor bathrooms are in good shape. “Your guests will not confine themselves to a single powder room. Make sure all of your bathrooms are clean and stocked. And put away anything you’d rather not have guests see, as some people can’t help but snoop.”
Beyond the basics, Hanlin likes to stock powder rooms with fresh flowers, a lit scented candle, and both paper and cloth hand towels. “Depending on the party I might also have a small amenities kit in a little basket with packaged mints, toothpicks, tampons, blotting papers, and other niceties.” And be sure all bathrooms are checked, cleaned, and restocked throughout the party.
5. Gather your gear
The first thing to have enough of: glassware. Hanlin swears by CB2’s Double Old Fashioned glasses, which are less than $2 apiece. “I use them for wine, water, margaritas — and unlike your good crystal, they’re inexpensive enough that you won’t cry if there’s some breakage.” Other cocktail party musts: plates and forks, napkins galore (“people always use more than one”), plus more toilet paper, paper towels, and ice than you’ll think you need. And even at stand-up cocktail gatherings, Hanlin says you’ll want at least one seat for every eight guests.
Now prep your kitchen. “Preparation is everything.” Clean out your fridge, scrub the counters, empty the dishwasher, and take out the trash. The week of the party, clean your silver and iron the linens. Prepare all serving dishes and serving tools, set the table ahead of time, and have wastebaskets handy. Create a playlist that’s an easy go-to for any last-minute gathering. Buy flowers and arrange them the day before the party — it always makes a big mess. If you don’t have enough counter space, pop open a folding table or co-opt the dining room table.
6. Assemble your staff
Hanlin’s formula is one to two helpers for every 50 guests. Book them for an hour before the party, to help with last-minute prep, and an hour after, for cleanup. Meet with them beforehand to discuss tasks, expectations, dress code, breaks, the vibe of the party, pet peeves or concerns, and crucially, payment. Make sure your expectations meet the helpers’ — the coat checker can also patrol powder rooms for cleanliness, if you communicate upfront. Make sure there’s an inconspicuous place for personal belongings, and, if it’s a long party, a private place where they can take a break. And take care that they get some food and drink (no alcohol) while you’re at it.
One of Hanlin’s more unorthodox philosophies is tipping before the party starts. “You’ll get the most bang for your tipping buck if it’s a nice amount, in cash, handed directly to each helper or service provider before the party starts. They’ll know that they’ve been taken care of and will feel great.” And have a few extra envelopes of cash on hand, just in case.
Something people often forget is making sure staff have the equipment necessary for doing the job. Servers need to know where a dustpan and brush are in case a glass breaks. Bartenders need to know where you keep extra paper towels. You don’t want to be dashing down to the basement in the middle of the party to grab extra ice.
7. Adjust the lights
When you first start planning, “Change every light switch to a dimmer system immediately. I’m a big fan of dim, dim, dim lights! The dimmest setting at which guests can see each other,” says Hanlin. “However, I also like many sources of light. Check all light bulbs, make sure lampshades are straight, check sconces and chandeliers to see if everything’s working. And you can never have enough candles. Make sure the candle holders are pristine and sparkly — that’s what makes them so pretty.” Have replacement votives and tapers at hand. If your party is outside, hurricane lanterns will ensure your candles won’t blow out.
And try not to change the lighting once guests arrive. “I always think it’s off-putting and makes guests feel like it’s a signal to go home!” Put the lights on a nice, dim setting beforehand and leave it alone.
1. Over-prepare and create a timeline.
2. Get help before the event starts and after it ends, when you need it most.
3. Pick a color scheme to make decorating easier.
4. Be ready 15 minutes early. There will always be an early guest.
5. Keep the party room 10 degrees cooler than is comfortable before the party starts.
6. Have extra alcohol. It doesn’t go bad and running out is the worst.
7. Include inexpensive details that everyone will notice: coordinating cocktail napkins, bamboo food picks, rosemary sprigs in your cocktails.
8. Your main job is to mingle and introduce guests, not to be in the kitchen.
9. Guests don’t know what they don’t know. If you’ve forgotten the dessert, serve fruit and the chocolates brought by a guest. Don’t apologize!
8. Create surprises
One of Hanlin’s favorite party tricks is setting up small areas that will surprise your guests: It could be a pretty rope swing, a secret seating arrangement under a tree, a cordials trolley in a library, or a tequila bar tucked into a backyard cottage. “Multiple spaces with surprising moments add such a layer of delight,” says Hanlin. “It doesn’t have to be a lot of work. Set up a port or bourbon bar in a sitting room, or a pretty cart of chocolates or pastries. People can help themselves.”
She also likes to surprise her guests with entertainment: an opera singer who serenades people on their way into dinner, a pianist playing between courses. And homespun entertainment can be just as effective. “Have one of your kids come down from bed and recite a poem. I had our teenage son give a special rock performance at my birthday party.”
Hanlin says her inner geek enjoys learning something. “I once taught every guest at a small cocktail party how to shuck oysters. You could also do a quick lesson on the wine of the evening.”
And then there are surprises that take a party from nice to unforgettable: beer pong at a cocktail party. A karaoke machine or sing-along at the end of the night. S’mores and a bonfire. A final round of grilled cheese at midnight. “People go crazy.”
9. Theme your menu
“I love a theme! Stick to one theme and the menu will unfold naturally.” Whether it’s a pig roast, a Greek fest, or a Spanish tapas party, the theme steers everything from drinks to décor.
Hanlin’s rules for an easy dinner party menu:
- Start with a well-thought-out cheese or charcuterie board, focusing on quality over quantity.
- Include a few fun hors d’oeuvres such as pigs in a blanket and deviled eggs.
- Scatter little bowls of olives, cheese straws, and potato chips throughout the room.
- Serve a signature cocktail, especially anything with herbs or bitters. Non-alcoholic drinks are also trending.
- Choose a main meal that can be served in one dish: beef bourguignon, paella, or bouillabaisse. Add a big loaf of bread and you’re set.
- Or do one impressive protein, like poached salmon or beef Wellington, which can be served cold.
- Another option: something totally unexpected such as a food truck serving steak frites, fried chicken and potato salad, even take-out sushi.
- It’s okay to lose steam at dessert. “No one’s going to be sad if you end the meal with ice cream sundaes. I like to keep it super easy at the end.”
10. Set the table
Long and layered is Hanlin’s choice du jour. “I’m loving a long tabletop. Bring out your mother’s Pierre Deux tablecloths from the South of France, add mismatched cloth napkins, patterned china, and colored glassware. Maximalist décor!” Also on her current hit list: lots and lots of small vases scattered along the table — one or two per person — filled with grasses, wildflowers from your property, even evergreen sprigs. She ups the ante with individual salt and peppers (“find tiny ramekins at vintage stores”), quirky place card holders (“take them out of storage”) and chargers (“they take up lots of room but they bring life to old china”). The final touch: Top each place setting with an herb bundle. “They’re fragrant, and you can eat them!”
For more stories from this edition, visit the Park City Home special section.
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