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Creating a Celeb-Style Holiday Party on a Walmart Budget

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When I was building my PR firm, I also worked as an event planner on the Las Vegas strip. While working as a catering service manager, I planned and catered events for Hugh Grant, Wynonna Judd, Johnny Depp, Celine Dion, Oprah, and others. Although their budgets really were "sky’s the limit," I often found myself working with bridal parties who wanted the same style of party with a tenth of the budget. I ended up getting an award, at one of the properties I was contracted with, for customer service. I was always able to provide my regular clients like Johnny Depp with events within, if not below, their budgets.

Thus, I thought with the current economy and the holidays coming up, it would be beneficial to talk about some tips for making any at-home event look, feel, and taste like a celebrity event! Note: these tips are for home events for ten to fifteen people.

Tip 1: If you don’t have a large dining table, rent one on a Sunday night. Sunday nights are the most cost-effective nights to rent party décor. Only rent two rounds of ten or an elongated table with no linen. (Make sure you rent chairs, too.) Ask the company what their delivery charge is. Ask them if they will waive the set-up charge if they drop off, as you have a decorator coming in to set. (Note: don’t tell them you’re the decorator!) This tip can save you up to $250 with the Sunday rental and waiving the set-up fee.

Tip 2: Do not spend money on expensive décor! Really, it is an industry of mostly audacious markups. Walmart has some great tablecloths. One I recommend is $16. Get a natural holiday color like green. Green goes with Thanksgiving and can be reused at Christmas. Burgundy also works well. Stay away from white — it says cheap, uncreative, and shows every stain.

Normally at a banquet hall, you would need floor-to-tabletop linen with matching chair covers and ties. For an at-home event, most people understand they are not going to a banquet hall and will spend more time looking at the table and conversing then they will staring at chair covers. However, one good idea is to have the kids make chair slipcovers. I found a great reference for making inexpensive chair slipcovers  (for $1.75 each) here; just make sure to get the chair measurements from the rental company in advance.

Tip 3: The "wow" effect. All my celebrity clients have always had two things in common: great centerpieces and great appetizers. Most of their budgets were spent on flowers and expensive appetizers. The food was normally all the same. Now, most floral companies are going to try to sell you a “holiday” arrangement. This means it comes with a hurricane candle set. You can do this yourself. Buy one hurricane candle holder and candle per table. Make sure you include one for the buffet table/area if you are going to host the event buffet style. (Note: if renting tables, your normal dining table can work as a great buffet table.) Michaels stores always have inexpensive glass hurricane candle holders and candles.

Flowers are something you do want to spend money on. Don’t look to the local grocery store… they are just as expensive as a professional florist when all is said and done, and they don’t always look as good. You want one centerpiece per table. Plan on spending about $100 for two centerpieces, although you can save money by not having the centerpieces delivered. One deal I did find online for centerpieces is Martha Stewart’s fall centerpieces, via 1800flowers.com, for $29.99 per centerpiece.

One last recommendation on the “wow” factor is music. Do not choose hokey holiday music. You are not running a department store; you are throwing an event! You want something classic and polished. An assortment of classical music is always acceptable, or a nice selection of easy-listening pop music. Your music should be noticeable, not in the background.

Tip 4: The food. Celebrities or not, meals rarely deviated from the normal concessions: a meat, a chicken, and a fish. Please consider your vegetarian friends and leave a note for those who RSVP to send you a note if they have special diet or allergy considerations. Also, plan out a second set meal for children under twelve years old. From hotel to hotel, event to event, the common ground with children under twelve seems to be as follows: apple slices as a starter, chicken fingers with a potato, and vanilla ice cream with fudge sauce for dessert. For the adults, plan your meal according to what you know you and your friends and family would eat. Keeping in tone with the “wow” factor, all of the high-end parties I ran always had unique appetizer choices. Thus, if you’re cooking a ham — an inexpensive choice — instead of having four side dishes, go contemporary. Do a salad starter, one side dish, the ham, a vegetarian selection, and a dessert. Make your appetizers the talk of the event, and also introduce an intermezzo between the starter and main meal, as well as between the main meal and dessert.

The normal rule for appetizers is cold appetizers if a hot meal is served. Forget it. You are impressing your guests, not boring them. Epicurious has great suggestions for creative appetizers. Two that I have used in the professional capacity, yet that are cost-effective for home events, are Shrimp with Dill Butter and Fennel Soup served in espresso cups. (Hint: put the kids to work and have them butler pass this, or all of the appetizers, as guests arrive.)

Tip 5: Have a signature drink. Alcohol costs money. Don’t spend money buying expensive wines and high-end liquor. Save cash by offering only a few alcoholic choices. Of course, keep a fair amount of coffee and regular and diet soft drinks on hand as well. A signature drink is something you can offer directly to the guests and they won’t be so ready to ask for hard liquor. One great example of a signature drink is a Ruby Port Cobbler. It is easy to make, cost-effective, and the perfect holiday color. Of course, you change the name to “Tanya’s Cocktail” or “The Jones Family Punch," etc. It personalizes the drink and, again, makes it harder for the guest to turn it down and ask for a double shot of your best liquor. Just in case, keep beer on hand, too — but keep it domestic to save money.

Need help planning your event? Leave me your questions in the comments section and I will answer them in my next blog.

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About Tanya Vece