How to Throw an Unforgettable Destination Party
A milestone birthday or anniversary in a special locale makes it even more festive
Imagine a five-day beach party with a different theme every night, and the week culminating with a fireworks display and five-tier birthday cake. Or an intimate gathering of three couples, touring California wine country then landing in a private tasting room with a multicourse pairing meal that finishes with a Dom Pérignon toast to your silver wedding anniversary.
An “ends in 0” birthday or special wedding anniversary is the perfect excuse to combine a big party with a medium-size get-away. “Compared to a local, one-night celebration, a destination party allows for more social and celebratory time with your chosen guests,” says Brett Galley, director of special events at Hollywood Pop Gallery.
While destination weddings have been the hot trend for a decade, boomers are jumping on the bandwagon and celebrating milestone birthdays or anniversaries in exotic locales. Whether you’re turning 60 with a view of the Eiffel Tower or reuniting with a dozen college friends at a villa in Tuscany, a party like this is a way to honor the occasion, make it truly memorable and maybe even cross an item off your travel bucket list.
If you love the idea but all the planning terrifies you, fear not. Armed with a little information — and a lot of tips — you can pull off the party of your dreams.
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How to Plan a Destination Celebration
The first decision is whether you’re up for the challenge of putting all the details together or if it makes more sense to turn the task over to a professional. “We should have hired an organizer so our guests could enjoy themselves without feeling like they needed to help out,” said Maria Peck, who hosted a wedding at a cattle ranch in northeast Georgia. “We wanted an outdoor party without the restrictions most venues impose, and the Sautee Hereford Ranch Lodge fit the bill.”
With years of experience in the restaurant industry, Peck felt she could do it all herself, but in hindsight, she regrets not bringing in a pro. “The party was great because we weren’t restricted by time or cost per person, but a coordinator would’ve helped us better gauge the number of waiters and bar staff needed,” she said. “And he or she could’ve handled some of the details, which were overwhelming for me as the bride.”
A professional’s fee will depend on the size and type of event. Some charge by the hour, others get a percentage of the overall cost. But Brett Galley points out the actual value goes well beyond simple organization skills. “They take the stress off your shoulders,” Galley says. “Should someone be unexpectedly late, the planner can make sure they get settled and caught up to the itinerary while you attend to your other guests.” And given the money you’re already spending on accommodations and transportation, the value of these problem solvers is priceless.
To find the right pro, start by asking friends for recommendations. If you’ve chosen your venue, ask those in charge about reputable planners in the area. You can always research this online, first through Google then by looking at a person or company's Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.
“An active social media page means they are active,” Galley says. “This is also a great way to check out what they are working on, what their party-planning style is and anything else you may want to know before meeting with them.”
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10 Tips for Throwing a Terrific Milestone Party
1. Create your own planning team Even (especially!) if you nix the professional planner, delegation is the key to success. And it’s essential when you’re organizing something in a foreign locale, where time zones and language barriers might hamper planning. Designate one dependable local individual to be your point person, and be clear about what help you need. Galley recommends weekly then daily calls with that person as the event draws near.
“Having help from locals in the area made all the difference in the world,” says Sarah Berger, who planned a girlfriend’s surprise 50th birthday party in Oaxaca, Mexico, with the help of friends who were living in the area. “They hired a band, found caterers, invited some of their fun friends and even tracked down the best flourless chocolate cake in town,” she says.
2. Give guests plenty of notice Send “save the date” announcements as soon as you have a date and place — ideally months in advance — even if you’re unsure of exact details. This gives people a chance to book accommodations, monitor airfares and take advantage of flash sales.
3. Pick the location wisely You may love the idea of a family reunion on a remote island, but if the only accommodations are in an uber-expensive resort, be prepared to compromise. Because of different travel budgets, a location with a variety of lodging options will improve your chance of having a greater number of guests. And the more activity options available, the more appealing the destination will be. It may be your party, but it’s also their vacation.
Another thing to consider is weather. For example, it’s not a smart idea to plan an event in the hurricane belt during peak storm season. “Factors to keep in mind are the time of year that will allow full participation, ease of travel to the location, weather and affordable airfares,” says Earl Lizana, director of catering for the Roosevelt New Orleans.
4. Honor the guest(s) of honor There’s a difference between throwing a party for your 80-year-old parents and your 50-year-old friends. You might want a live band, but your parents would be just as happy with a DJ spinning golden oldies. Make sure your choices represent their preferences. If the party is a surprise, ask their friends.
5. Come up with a theme Some of the best parties recreate an era, like the ’50s or ’60s. Decorations, music and even dress code can all revolve around a creative motif. Lizana recalls one rehearsal dinner for a multigenerational family, held in the Roosevelt Hotel's Blue Room, that recreated the early days of the Rat Pack, with invitations, matchbooks and drink coasters printed with a late 1940's theme. “The photographer wore period clothing and used a vintage camera to shoot all the guests, who were each given a black-and-white commemorative photo,” he says.
6. Make goody bags for guests Pick up some unique, appropriate little gifts at a craft or discount store (or look online). Guests leaving a party in D.C. might enjoy faux soap dishes or toothbrushes with “White House” insignia; beach partygoers could put flip-flops or a tote bag to good use. If your party is overseas, check customs regulations and packing restrictions — and never give out favors that will be difficult to transport home.
7. Have one fun, unexpected element Whether it’s an unannounced guest (maybe a childhood best friend or a relative from far away), a unique gift or a celebrity performer, having an element of surprise makes a party all the more memorable.
8. Know your budget and prioritize costs Decide what's critical to making your celebration a success and spend accordingly. Flowers can often send a budget through the roof. On the other side of the coin, do spend the money for a quality photographer; the results will help you relive this once-in-a-lifetime event.
9. Have a present plan Some honorees resist gift registries, but when presents are desired and travel is involved, having an online present center makes logistical sense. Gifts can be shipped directly to the guest of honor’s home. Even if you specify “no presents,” some people will want to give something, so consider pre-selecting a charity for donations.
10. Make it memorable. Renting a photo booth is a fun and (relatively) affordable way to let your guests create their own photo memories. Or hire a friend with a video camera to record personalized messages during the party. Have a scrapbook on hand for guests to inscribe their favorite memory of the honoree. Include a note with the party invitations asking for photos, and urge anyone unable to attend to send a scrapbook contribution nonetheless.
After the fact, use social media to give guests a place to put comments and photos. (You could create a special Facebook or Pinterest page just for the party.) This way the celebration and memories can last long after the last guest boards a flight home.
Stephanie Oswald is an Emmy-winning journalist, television personality and the co-founder/editor-in-chief of Travelgirl magazine.
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