Throwing the perfect theme party can be magical and no one oozes party talent like Ailis Roach. In fact, I am so impressed with her imaginative and unique work, I wanted to drill down into what makes her themed parties so colossal.
Artists and psychologist alike know that environment can profoundly affect our mood and can even inspire and awe us, so with the party season upon us, I asked Ailis to give us some of her best tips on throwing a great party we can enjoy now at the holidays and all year long.
Like many of you, Ailis is a busy mom on the go who cherishes her friends and family and loves a good party. Her superpower is using her creative core to make others feel special through the parties she designs and hosts.
I love her genius and energy and, although she is no expert, she is well on her way with more than a dozen theme parties under her belt. In fact, when I caught up with her to discuss how she does it, she told me there are plans underway to launch a business with her mother-in-law, Alice, her partner in party crime and party girl du jour.
Here are five party guidelines Ailis says can help you throw the perfect theme party with none of the stress of overspending.
1. Choosing the Theme
I especially love planning theme parties because they are just pure fun, but these tips are just as useful for throwing a successful holiday party. Like Disneyland, I want my props and decorations to transport my guests to a different time or place. When my aunt asked me to talk about the parties I plan, the first thing she asked, of course, is where do I get my ideas.
Honestly, I think up much of it on my own, but I do scour Pinterest and other sites for party themes or inspiration until my own ideas begin to gel. For example, when I thought about what I wanted to do for my son’s first birthday party, I was playing around with the idea of a Peter Rabbit theme. I purchased the children’s books and scanned them for ideas. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just do a little research on the subject. Whether it’s a superhero party or a hoedown, there will be certain elements you can latch onto and recreate for your own party.
Once you have an idea of the theme you want to use, it’s crucial to think about the person you are party planning for. What are they passionate about? What are their likes and dislikes? I might really be in love with an idea I have swirling around in my head, but if it doesn’t match up to the honoree’s taste and personality, I have to be willing to nix it. At the end of the day, it is their life event to celebrate, and I want it to be a party they will remember.
Now that you have an idea of what you think the honoree may like, there are a few other things to consider before you buy or make the first decoration. First, consider the venue and the number of people who will attend the party, as this can affect whether your theme will work.
For example, if your plan is for an outdoor party where it may be sweltering hot, you may have to provide shade, which could mean renting tents or purchasing coolers for food or beverages, etc., all of which may eat into your bottom line or prove to be too impractical.
2. Setting the Time and Sending the Invitations
A common question I often get is whether invitations are necessary. It depends on the event. A more expensive soiree where a head count is crucial to your food budget necessitates invitations and R.S.V.P.s. But whenever it’s practical or there is the time, absolutely! Invitations lend an element of anticipation. People universally want to be a part of an event, and a well thought out invitation is a sneak peek at what you are planning for everyone’s enjoyment. It builds excitement. They also make great mementos for life events.
Invitations can be easily made on the computer and printed out for just a few dollars. There are plenty of templates available online or make your own and incorporate art that matches your theme. Just be sure to add a rain date if you are planning for an outdoor party.
When choosing the time for your party, both Alice and I agree that 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. is the optimal time. By holding the party between the lunch and dinner hours, you can concentrate on serving fun finger foods and keep your costs minimal.
2. Setting the Budget
I absolutely don’t buy anything for an event until a budget is established and then I work within the parameters of my theme, including the food that will be served and purchasing the decorations. If I am doing a party for a friend or family member, they set the budget. Only they know what they can afford to spend. I save all of the receipts to give to them after the party.
Hosting a party that someone else plans can have added benefits. Party planners already own much of the basics, which means you won’t have to spend on these items, and fortunately for me, the host will often give me some of the more unique items they purchased after the party because they see no real use for them in the future. It’s a win for both parties. I get to add to my stock and they get to save cash.
If you are not going to go the party planner route, a good tip when choosing elements you want to incorporate into your party theme is to use what you already own or what can be used for other events. For example, I am a huge fan of clear. I typically only use clear cutlery, cups, serving platters, etc. The platters can always be reused for another party, and after throwing and hosting so many parties, I have a lot of basic items already covered, which allows me to spend on the fun stuff.
If you do splurge on items, consider whether you will be able to use them for other family events or parties. A great example of this is the clay pots I purchased for my son’s Peter Rabbit garden-themed party. They are a great addition to my party stock for a future barn party, backyard barbeque, or Mexican party.
There are always exceptions to the clear rule, however. For this Sesame Street themed party, I wanted everything in primary colors, so I went to the extra expense of purchasing themed paper cups that can’t be reused. The point is to pick your poison because it is impossible to splurge on everything and stay within budget.
There is room for splurging if you can stick to the basics for most items, however. Purchase and use plain white plastic or cloth table covers. They not only provide a neutral background in which to set your theme, you can reuse them. Also, think about what you can borrow.
When my aunt threw her daughter’s baby shower, the theme was a feminine “tea party,” and “nesting.” She chose to incorporate her mother’s white tablecloth and good china to fit the tea party theme. She was also able to incorporate other items she already owned, such as a bird cage, bird nests, cupcake stand, and some clear candle holders she already owned. Think about what you have in the back of your cupboard or pantry before heading out to the store with your list.
I am always on the lookout for party items I can get for next to nothing to be used later. I scour second hand shops regularly where I can pick up unusual items for props or serving dishes that I can incorporate into future themes. Goodwill and thrift shops often have complete dish sets for under $10, so you can find what you need now and expand your stock for future events.
As you can see from some of the photos I have shared, I like to incorporate inexpensive frames throughout the decor, these too can be picked up at second hand stores in a variety of finishes. They may showcase a menu, a character, or even a photo of the party honoree. It is an inexpensive element you can have fun with.
Also, if you must spend on some basic items, invest in pieces you can use again, such as this glass drink dispenser that can be used for other parties and for family get-togethers. I have a large family, so when we all get together it is less expensive and easier for me to serve lemonade or sweet tea in a large drink dispenser.
3. Choosing the the Elements of the Decor
It is good practice to incorporate something personal for the honoree in the party theme. For example, for my niece’s “fairy” party, I framed a photo of her playing dress up as a fairy and used it as a prop on one of the tables. You may also want to incorporate the persons name on a banner or a chalkboard sign. Making your own banners is one of my favorite inexpensive tips. Don’t purchase pre-printed banners. You can usually find exactly what you need at Hobby Lobby very inexpensively.
When considering your decorations, think bigger. One thing I do that makes my parties so fun is I don’t just decorate the room where most of the party goers will gather. I decorate the outside and the inside. You can incorporate outdoor flags, balloons, or other props either along a garden walkway for an outdoor party or leading to the entrance where guests will arrive. It’s a good way to subliminally build on the message that this is an event! But I can’t take credit for it all. Alice, my partner in a lot of my projects, has an eye for decorating. She is genius. So when in doubt, find a like minded soul you can bounce your ideas off.
4. Choosing the Food
You don’t have time to be in the kitchen the day of the party, so when developing your menu, never choose foods that can’t be prepared ahead of time. You will want to be with your guests, not cooking. At a minimum, you can have warmers and crock pots available for food that has been prepared at least a day in advance.
You can also prepare food trays or side dishes a day in advance, provided you steer clear of fruits that brown, such as apples. You can wash, clean, cut, and arrange vegetable and fruit trays, cover with foil, and store in the back of the refrigerator.
For most of my parties, a cake or cupcakes will take center stage at the celebration. Your cake should mesh with your theme and be appropriate to the occasion. I don’t bake, so ordering the theme dessert is part of the planning for me. In my case, my husband’s Aunt Nancy is a talented and expert cake decorator. If you can dream it up, she can make it!
But most of you won’t be so fortunate as to have your right hand gal in party planning also be a baker. I recommend you find a favorite baker/decorater that will work with you and your ideas. Take the time to visit some local bakeries and talk to the staff.
Finally, have fun with the food. Although the clear rule still applies, brainstorming on unusual ways you can creatively display food is part of the fun.
5. The Setup
On party day, the last thing you want to be doing is cleaning your home or another space or figuring out the logistics of how and where you want to fit everything into your space. It’s also a good way to determine whether you have forgotten something. Don’t wait until party day to realize you don’t have enough seating.
Plan to do your major cleaning two days before the big event and get it out of the way. You can tidy up and run the vacuum again just before the big event.
The day before the event, provided I have access to the party venue, such as in my own home, I start prepping the space for setup. This can be trickier if you are throwing the party at someone else’s home. In this case, if you will be bringing extra chairs or other large and bulky items, arrange to have access to the party space the day before.
On party day, you will want to arrive at least several hours before the first guest arrives to prepare the space. Experience has taught me to bring along my own bag of “tools” that contain anything I might need for the setup, such as transparent tape, tacks, staplers, ribbon, or other items. You will waste valuable time if the host has to hunt down or purchase what is needed.
When I am preparing the space, I try to think of my guests comfort first. For example, for my sister’s baby gender reveal party, the main event was outside, but many of the guests were elderly and it was forecast to be very hot. I completely decorated the inside living room and dining area for those who simply needed to find some respite in the air conditioning or a moment to sit on a comfortable seat. I wanted them to feel that they were still part of the festivities if they needed a break.
Think about the ages of your guests or any special needs they may have and do what you can to accommodate their comfort. If children will be attending with their parents, try to accommodate them with their own special place to play and congregate not underfoot of the adults. Make it a fun space and provide toys, goody bags, or other items that will still make them feel a part of the festivities.
That being said, I am relentless when setting up the space. In my own home, I completely clear the counters the day before. No one needs to see my can opener, toaster, and paper towel dispenser. You want the food and the decor to be visually appealing and to be the star of the show.
For my nieces birthday party, the venue was my sister’s home where I was not given carte blanche to do whatever I desired, and you can see in the photo below, my props got lost in the kitchen clutter you find in everyone’s home, including my own.
If it is a large party where most guests will congregate in the living/dining area, I will rearrange furniture and remove items from the room and clear kitchen counters so that the counter top becomes the stage for the food and decorations.
In the photo below, pizza was the main course, so the table was decorated simply and left open for the food. Because the pizza table was not the focus of the decorations, I was able to add extra seating against the wall.
For parties where guests will be bringing gifts, set up a card table in a corner or near the entrance so when guests arrive they can easily deposit their gifts. Just ensure you set up the gift table where it will be convenient to reach later when the honoree will open them as part of the celebration, such as a birthday party or a bridal or baby shower.
If your honoree will be opening gifts at some point with their guests, make sure to set up an area central enough for guests to take pictures.
Throwing a party can be rewarding and fun. With just a little planning on your part, you can throw a fun and beautiful event and join in the celebration without stressing over the small stuff. Party on, ladies.