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A memorable affair
Local party gurus offer tips and tricks
to hosting a stellar holiday soirée.

By Terri Finch Hamilton
Photography by Michael Buck

Hang the wreath and start the oven: This is the year to host a holiday party.

Some of the city’s most creative event planners share their best tips for hosting a great holiday party, from food (serve it in glass votive candle holders) to those tiny touches that make a party special (homemade hand scrub, anyone?).

Meet our experts and start sending out the invitations.

These tips are too good to waste.

Personal chef Steven Couch
This is the guy who created the food everybody was talking about at the ArtPrize fundraising dinner a few months ago, “One Wild Night.”

Through his business, Mr. Eat Right: Personal Chef Services, he specializes in “dining experiences.” A great event goes beyond food, Couch said.

The 200 guests who gathered at a private home for the ArtPrize dinner knew they were attending a “farm-to-table” dinner, but they didn’t realize they would “harvest” their food from an impromptu farm Couch created.

His raised “garden” of food concealed a Styrofoam bed, covered with coffee grounds for “dirt.” Guests plucked their ears of corn from skewers tucked in the garden and peeled back the husks to reveal perfectly roasted and seasoned corn, ready to munch.

At an event in Austin, Texas, Couch created a “suspended” dinner — guests reached up to grab skewers of nibbles suspended on strings from the ceiling.

 

Steven Couch hits the thrift stores in search of interesting items

“I like to offer something beyond guests sitting down for a chicken dinner,” he said. “Something people will remember. A party isn’t just about the food but creating a lasting memory. It’s the whole experience you remember.”

Don’t worry — you don’t have to hang your Swedish meatballs from the ceiling. Couch has plenty of ground-level tips for a great holiday party:

• Don’t put all your food out at once: “Divide your dips or appetizers into smaller portions and keep some filled bowls or plates aside,” Couch said. “Then, you can refresh the tables later with something new.”

• Think individual portions: Couch loves silicone molds that create individual portions of anything from stuffing to cheesecakes. “I use them for so many things,” he said. “Guests can just take their own portion, instead of digging around in a serving dish.”

• Think outside the box: Hit thrift stores for fun serving dishes. Couch found bird feeders for $3 at Meijer Thrifty Outlet and repurposed them as serving trays.

• Set up a place for trash: Guests like knowing where to put their used skewers and napkins. “And I love knowing where the trash goes, so I don’t have to constantly circulate through the house looking for it,” he said.

• Elevate your serving dishes: “It’s one of the most important things you can do to create interest,” Couch said. “It’s easy, but people just don’t think to do it.” He buys utensil crocks at thrift stores and sets serving plates atop them. Use anything for a riser — a stack of Christmas books would be fun!

• Chafing dishes? Yawn: Swap them out for something more modern. Keep appetizers warm in a cast iron skillet with Sterno underneath.

• Be prepared: Don’t make this party the time you try a new recipe.

“You shouldn’t be tasting it for the first time along with your guests,” Couch said. “This is a time for your tried-and-true recipes.”

• Fill the fireplace with candles, not fire, so the room doesn’t get too hot.

• There’s no such thing as too many crackers: “Always have more crackers on hand — more than you think you need,” Couch said. “They always go quickly.”

• Pull the buffet table away from the wall, so people can approach from both sides. Have two sets of tongs or serving utensils — one for each side.

• Create little centers where people can gather, so guests are spread throughout rooms.

• Label the food: “A lot of people don’t do that,” Couch said. “But you really should, or people will constantly be asking you what things are. Note if it’s gluten free or if it contains nuts.” He buys nice cardholders at craft stores to tuck in front of serving dishes.

• A nice personal touch: homemade hand scrub in the bathroom. Couch finds simple recipes online that use olive oil, sugar and orange extract. Then wait for people to ask, incredulously, “You made this?”

Event planners Nancy Dobry and Lori Bloodworth
The creative duo at RSVP Events in Grand Rapids plans shindigs large and small from their design studio at 4485 Plainfield Ave. NE in the Design 1 Plaza.

Their sparkly studio is filled with rentable glamour: glimmering silver decorative trees, large-scale candle lanterns and pretty glass beverage dispensers perfect for serving holiday punch.

Nancy Dobry and Lori Bloodworth, RSVP Events. Dobry encourages hitting the dollar store for Christmas balls
to fill your clear glass vases.

Dobry, founder and owner of the business, has been in the event-planning business for more than 25 years, designing bashes for corporations, nonprofits and families throughout West Michigan.

Bloodworth, director of event management and design, has a background in catering and wedding planning and has a weakness for red velvet cake.

Sure, they can recreate the lavish centerpiece you saw on Pinterest, but they’re just as likely to suggest you collect pinecones and branches from your yard for a holiday table display.

Dobry loves lobster and expensive Australian wine but happily suggests hitting the dollar store for Christmas balls to fill your clear glass vases. These two talk a lot about remembering the real reason you host a party.

“The holidays are about celebrating with the people you love the most,” Dobry said. “You’re not having a party to impress people. You’re having it to enjoy being together. Don’t feel you have to make things too fancy.”

Dobry and Bloodworth settle in at their round black pedestal table and chat about their favorite holiday party tips:

• Candlelight — it’s a holiday party must: “You can do beautiful things with a tablescape with all sizes of candles,” Dobry said. “Arrange pillars, tapers and votives at different heights. It’s inexpensive, and it really creates a wow factor.”

• Pro tip: Avoid scented candles around food.

• Don’t invite more people than your house can comfortably hold: If you need to, do a dry run with friends, Bloodworth suggested. “That way, you can figure out ahead of time that five people fit in the study, 15 in the dining area — you know how many guests can comfortably move around your house.”

• Start the music before guests arrive: “Music says you’re ready, and you want to have a good time” Bloodworth said. “If I show up to a party and it’s quiet, it’s kind of awkward.”

• “Use décor you already have,” Bloodworth said. “People think they have to go out and buy specific Christmas décor and that it has to be red and green.

Nope.

“Fill glass vases you already own with Christmas balls — you can get them at the dollar store,” Dobry says. “Or fill them with water and cranberries with a floating candle on top.”

Dobry has an impressive stash of pinecones she uses every year. She’s been known to slam on the golf cart brakes to scoop a few up on the course.

• Think fruit for décor: “Fruit is great for decorating,” Bloodworth said. Plop lime slices and cranberries in your punch. Fill glass vases with cranberries. Pile a big bowl with oranges and pinecones.

• Be ready, so you’re relaxed: “Don’t have the oven on full blast and be rushing around as your guests arrive,” Dobry said. “Get everything done ahead of time. There are lots of hors d’oeuvres you can make ahead.”

• Hire a bartender for a large party: “If you’re trying to take care of the food and the bar, you’ll be stressed to the max,” Dobry said. Expect to pay between $50 and $100 an hour.

• Keep the bar separate from the food, Bloodworth suggested. “That encourages people to flow from room to room,” she said. “Everybody won’t be stuck in one room.”

• Have enough seating: Borrow chairs from friends if needed, or rent some from an event planner.

• Don’t run out of food: Look up portion estimators online.

• White carpet? “Think about serving only cocktails and white wine,” Dobry said.

• Serve easy-to-eat finger-food. “Nobody wants to stand and try to balance a drink, a plate and a fork,” Bloodworth said.

• Leave space on side tables and coffee tables for people to set plates and drinks: Don’t cover every surface with holiday décor.

• When the party’s over, you’re pooped, but guests won’t leave, don’t start clearing away dishes, Dobry said. That’s rude.
“Say things like, ‘It was wonderful to see you tonight,’ or ‘I’m so glad you could come tonight,’” she suggested.

• Don’t stress: Remember your guests are there to have a good time and don’t worry about impressing them.

Jamie Kirby
One of the city’s cool kids, Kirby owns Heyday Lab, an event-planning business. She’s also a team member of Middle West, an experience design team that produces regional and national events, including the popular Michigan House, a roving pop-up space that travels from city to city to bring the best parts of Michigan to the rest of the world.

Kirby, who has a background in interior design, has planned giant corporate events, from TEDxGrandRapids to Wolverine Worldwide’s global brand conference, which encompassed seven days and 1,100 guests.

 

Jamie Kirby suggests incorporating items that have personal meaning to you or your guests.

She also has planned intimate weddings and stylish, cozy gatherings of pals at her cabin, where she might ask everybody to bring a favorite dish from their childhood.

“Whatever the event, I think about the whole experience, from the invitation to when guests leave for the night,” she said.

So, here are her tips, from beginning to end:

• “The first thing I think about is the end,” Kirby said. “When your guests are walking out to their car, getting into their Uber or climbing into bed, what do you want them to say about your party? That it was the best food they ever had? That it was a raging party?

“Have one or two things that you want them to feel at the end of the party, then focus in on that. Then, as you look at Pinterest and see all the shiny things, you can say, ‘I love those place settings, but they have nothing to do with what I want people to feel.’”

• “Make sure guests know what to expect,” Kirby said. “Tell them where to park. Let them know if they’ll need to take their shoes off. Show them where the bathroom is as soon as they arrive. Take away the unexpected, so they’ll be comfortable enough to enjoy the details.”

Make an impact. “Three of something doesn’t make an impact, but 70 of something does,” she said. “Think about repetition. If you want to do a theme of dots, dots should be everywhere, or no one will notice.

“If pine is your theme, have a pine wreath on the front door, a pine bough arrangement on the table, a tiny piece of pine bough on each plate. Go for a repeated theme.”

• “The bar situation should be simple for guests,” Kirby said. “If you serve a signature cocktail, pre-mix it and serve it in a pitcher, a punch bowl or a drink dispenser. Guests shouldn’t have to guess how to mix your signature cocktail.”

• Add a special touch to the ice cubes: “If there’s orange in your signature drink, freeze a bit of orange zest in the ice cubes,” she suggested.

• Incorporate something that’s special to you: “Serve a bottle of wine that you bought on vacation in Traverse City or bottled by someone you know.”

• Offer a story: “Maybe you got the cheese from Dancing Goat Creamery, so there’s a story behind it,” Kirby said. “That cheese on your cheese plate is suddenly elevated when you tell the story of how you bought it just down the road.”

• Speaking of that cheese plate, be creative: “Get a beautiful marble tile from a tile store and serve your cheese on that. Drizzle some honey right on the tile. Be unexpected.”

• Change the lighting from your everyday: “Put lamps on your buffet table, and it changes the ambience from what your house feels like normally,” Kirby noted.

• “Keep it simple,” she said. “Remember, when everybody leaves, you’re doing the dishes. Think about renting the dishes — then all you have to do is put them in the garage to be picked up the next day.”

• If you decide to give small favors to guests as they leave, make them useful, Kirby said. A small jar of homemade jam or a homemade fire starter for the fireplace. “A lot of people are being more minimal, trying to reduce their belongings,” she said. “Nobody wants a mug that says, ‘Jamie’s Holiday Party 2016.’”

• Send thank-you notes to your guests: “A personal note goes a long way,” Kirby explained. “‘Thank you for coming. I loved our conversation about puppies.’ It follows through. It closes the loop.”

• “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Kirby said. “If something you planned didn’t happen, chances are your guests didn’t know it was supposed to happen, anyway. It’s your party. Enjoy it!” GR

 
   
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