Party planning minus the panic
NOVEMBER in Australia is usually filled with blue skies and warm days, birds chirping to welcome the new dawn and spring flowers bursting with colour. There are the shrieks of delight from backyard pools, a race to eat leaning ice creams before they dissolve into a melted mess and the unmistakable sound of ball on willow as rugby makes way for cricket whites. November brings the excitement of the Melbourne Cup, a tear to the eye on Remembrance Day and a sense of awe if you are lucky enough to catch the last of the humpback stragglers as they head north for some nooky.
November also often signals the start of the real planning for the Christmas festivities and the party season that precedes it. Sure, the turkeys may still be wandering freely and the hams are yet to be smoked, but with just 47 sleeps until the big fella pops down the chimney, there needs to be a little more going on than just making a list and hoping the elves will take care of the rest.
Whether you are planning an event in the run-up to Christmas or hosting the family on the day, this is one holiday season that is fraught with worry. It should of course, be about spending time with loved ones but, as always, becomes a complicated stress fest as we get caught in that trap of pondering everything from the freshness of the prawns and the wine you should offer, to how to fold the napkins into impressive swans and whose turn it is to sit next to great Aunt Hilda who drinks far too much and falls asleep on her plate.
A further disappointment of this festive party season is, for the most part, the unbearable sameness of it all. The same decorations, the same themes, the same food and the same people doing exactly the same things.
Long before I walk into my gracious mother-in-law's home on Christmas Day, I know that, delicious as it is, there will be far too much food. The house will be stinking hot because despite our temperatures, Australians still insist on a cooking a hot lunch. Bing Crosby will be belting out those Christmas ditties, the children will turn their noses up at the brandy pudding and come 3pm, my poor mother-in-law will be settled in an armchair too tired from the day's preparations and the month of anxiety to worry about the fly that has drowned in her custard.
It is a scene, says David Grant, that will be played out in homes across the country and although it may work for some families, there are other ways to inject some fun into the festivities and to ensure that any party you throw at your home leaves a memorable impression.
David, a party planner to the stars, Hollywood royalty and multi-billion-dollar companies around the world, knows a thing or two about throwing a bash that will dazzle. He is the man behind the Cointreau Ball and Super Bowl crowd pleasers. He has had a hand in 10 Olympic Games, wowed the City of London and is the darling of the big fashion houses and industry-leading magazines. He is also the man that had to ensure Arnold Schwarzenegger had his Pina Colada and six pipped strawberries and that certain celebrity guests who were trying to conceive had a room at their disposal during a party at the Sydney Town Hall - but that is a story for another time. If you are an international corporation or a high-flying celebrity with an event in mind and cash to splash, it is on David's door that you go knocking.
Be prepared for some plain talking though, because one thing David does not dabble in, is sameness.
"We are quite famous for saying to clients who want the same old thing that they are wasting their money," he says.
"We will do it but will strongly advise against just having an event for the sake of having one. Sometimes they dumb an event down and you wonder to what end. It is better to send someone a $1000 phone or a holiday voucher so it is much more memorable for all the right reasons.
"Obviously when we are planning an event for a major client we are likely to have much more money at our disposal than you would at home but the fundamentals are the same. You still need a well-thought-out guest list, great lighting, a good music selection, a relaxed atmosphere and show people that you have made a real effort."
A successful party is about getting the basics right, says David: it's about planning well, thinking outside the box and stressing as little as possible.
"Hire staff, good expensive ones or cheaper university students and get them to come half an hour before the guests arrive," he says.
"They can serve drinks and food, clear up and put all the garbage in the bins so when you wake up the next day the place is 90% perfect. You can be a guest at your own party instead of being stuck in the kitchen all night.
"If you don't want to have the party at home consider venues with a little more character, a place where people wouldn't expect to go. An attic in an old art gallery, a disused car park on top level, a funky warehouse. Some are dirty and grungy and you need some imagination to think how you are going to make it work but here we have more cheap and free fantastic venues than most countries around the world - look at council buildings. You want people to go away having been amazed."
It is a sad reality that we often equate the success of an event with the amount of money spent on it and seem to have very little confidence in our own quirky ideas. We try to replicate the unrealistic spreads which feature in designer-styled glossy magazines thinking that the best ideas should carry a hefty price tag.
"People get caught up in the whole 'I have 30 people coming I have to go get 200 prawns and its going to cost me $300 and then I have to team that with expensive wine' but that certainly shouldn't be the case," says David.
"I was at my cousin's place when it was their turn to host three months ago. They have a small house, no money, one is on a health benefit, the other retired but they are really good fun and make their parties fun. They took Polaroid photos of every person with one of them when you came in and made that like a lanyard around your neck. They got a whole lot of slushy cups from a petrol station somewhere, a couple of blenders and a whole lot of left over alcohol from the last 15 years. Everyone had to invent their own cocktail, write it on the menu, stick it on the wall and go for it. Sure, we were all paralytic in an hour-and-a-half but it was such great fun."
Much has changed since David first stumbled into event organising more than 25 years ago by way of a career in the theatre and television followed by a few years in advertising and as a journalist. These days, of course, event planners are plentiful and while though there is a greater choice, by and large, the emphasis has moved from creativity towards a one-stop entertainment shop with project managers rather than innovative thinkers at your disposal. It is one reason, says David, that his bespoke agency with their emphasis on creative tailored events is so sought after.
"The media and internet has also had a great impact on the industry," he says.
"For the first 10 years that I did this job you would wait for a Vogue to come out from England or America on the boat - it would take months. There was no internet to see what people were doing. In June in Paris, Chanel might do some amazing fashion parades. By the time you heard about it or saw it in a magazine and thought it was a good idea and did it yourself you were almost a year behind.
"Also, guests weren't as sophisticated as they are now. Even though I still work for a lot of those luxury brands, and their guests may be more sophisticated than average mostly through exposure, they knew what was good and didn't really have anything to compare parties or events to. If I go to a client with an idea today, they may come back and say something similar happened last night in New York and you have to change your idea. People are more sophisticated in their tastes."
Satisfying people whether at a grand-scale event or at a party in your own home is a considerable challenge. You want people to feel assured and welcome but how do you reconcile the needs of your five-year-old nephew with your 80-year-old grandmother?
"I am going to try and please everyone but I am the driver of the bus," says David.
"I am going to decide what we do and half of the things will be right, on a good day three quarters, and some things are not going to work, at but at least I am trying and if you don't like it well just …."
Key to a memorable party
DAVID Grant has organized almost 4000 professional events and scores more at home. He, more than most, is well placed to offer the sort of advice that can keep your party from fizzling out. Here are his top tips:
- Guest list - It is really important that you get the balance and energy right, always have slightly more people than you think you can fit or afford especially if it's stand-up. Just because you like two people doesn't mean they will get on.
- Lighting - If you walk into any great event anywhere in the world and the lighting is done beautifully, people say the atmosphere is so magical. So, simple things like using lamps to illuminate your party at home, or lots of tea light candles they are not expensive. Imagine having a dinner at your place and putting 200 tea light candles around instead of having a brightly lit room - it makes an incredible difference.
- Music - You don't have to have a top band or top singers - its picking music you and your guests would like and that would reflect you. So if I am having a party at home I think about the guests that are coming and it's so easy now with iTunes to just make a little compilation, a mix that pleases everyone.
- Effort - You don't have to spend thousands of dollars and five days slaving in the kitchen to prepare an invariably unpleasant meal but you need to make an effort. As long as the food is edible, plentiful and generous and there are good drinks and enough of them, people will have a good time. It doesn't have to be fancy. We did an event once for Channel Ten and got the sexiest handmade meat pies we could find and Kristal champagne. It cost exactly the same as the terrible function package we would have got but changing it up made it memorable.
- Let people do their own thing at their own time - rather than sitting down at the dinner table all night and they are stuck next to the same people, stand up for the first bit, sit down to eat a bit, let them wander around, just make it fun. Think outside the box. I had this party at home recently where I got Messina Gelato which is this sexy ice cream brand in Sydney and I invited all my family and cousins that live mainly in the Western suburbs. They've heard about Messina but it's like giving them diamonds - but I had a fantastic Messina ice cream bar and sausages and everyone loved it.