6 Cocktail Party Secrets of the Pros

How to throw a cocktail partyIt’s not difficult to find a reason to throw a party. It’s summer. You just got promoted. Next week will be your dog’s 84th week of ownership. It’s Thursday. See? Not difficult.

This time around, however, why not do a little planning and entertain your friends in style?

Hosting a cocktail party might sound like something they only do on “Mad Men,” but it’s actually a lot simpler than you’d think.

With a little effort, you can host a classy party, impress the ladies, and earn yourself invites to a plethora of future soirees.

Follow our step-by-step cocktail party secrets to ensure a memorable event.

Step 1: Location

Not sure whether to throw your party at home, a friend’s house or even a rented space? Good question. Mira Copeland, Coordinator for Milliman, Inc., gives three basic essentials her company considers before booking a party location: transportation, weather, and size. First, your guests must be able to get there, and home, with ease. Is parking at your place an issue? Do you need to hire a valet?

Second, if you’re planning on having any of the party outside, make sure you have room for guests, food and drinks inside in case it rains or it’s unseasonably cold. If you’re doing it all outdoors, make sure you spend a bit of time at the site during the same hours the party is going to happen. An outdoor space can be hot during noontime but chilly at 8 p.m., so you might want to consider space heaters. Think one heater for every 10 people and arrange them about eight feet apart in one area.

That brings us to the final key: having the right-sized space. You want to fill the area with your guests. Too big can be as bad, or worse, than too small. If you have a large space, open up the invitation list, or rope off extra space to keep people mingling close. Even better, according to Diana Harlin President of The Catering Elf, make sure to place all the key elements for the party (bar, lounge chairs, food) in one main area so people will be drawn to one section of the space. “It always feels more intimate when people are given the choice to be anywhere in the space but are “seduced” into being in one area,” she says. For tight quarters, limit the number of invitees and do not encourage friends to bring friends. Let people know it is an “intimate gathering” and maybe they will feel a little special.

Step 2: Invitations

The invite sets the tone for the event. Remember: This is a classy shindig you’re putting on, so Facebook and Evites are a little cheese ball. We prefer snail mail or Paperless Post: It unfolds on your screen like an envelope. It is simple, elegant, and saves a tree. Or make a funny video wearing something that indicates how you think the party is going to go and email it to all the invitees. Doing something a little special will pump everyone up.

Also, pay attention to your guest list. Copeland says you want a fun and/or interesting group of people who don’t all know each other. Invite good friends, co-workers, business acquaintances, neighbors, clients and maybe even that hot girl you just say hi to at the gym.

The invitation is also where you lay down the law of the party. Don’t forget to include the theme (if there is one), date, time, place and multiple methods to get there. Also, let them know if they’re allowed a plus-one or plus-five.

Step 3: Food and Drink

Food and Drink. It is a cocktail party, after all, so you best supply some drinks and food to go with them. What to serve? For alcohol, Harlin suggests signature drinks. “They’ll save you a bundle on your overall bar tab, and help enforce the theme of the evening.” For example: do a “Brat Pack” themed party and serve vodka martinis This saves you cash by not having to get full bottles of 10 different liquors. Plus, you can make a few pitchers of martinis and have them arranged temptingly on a table with pre-olive filled Martini glasses just waiting to be poured. If you have the cash, hiring a bartender is definitely worth it. They’ll keep the drink line moving smoothly. Plus this limits your guests from pouring themselves triples.

For food, think finger food (mini quiches, chips, spiced nuts) and skewers. If you start the party after dinner (any time after 8:30 p.m.) then people will not expect to have a meal but will appreciate the bites to balance out the liquor. And go buffet style. This frees you up to mingle or lay them out on platters throughout the space.

How much should you make/buy/serve? If you are concerned about the cost of alcohol and food, limit the size of the party, but never skimp on drinks and munchies. Epicurious.com has put together a quantity estimator to help you figure out the math.

Step 4: Host with the Most

Be a real host. If you want to be a cocktail party master, always escort your guests first thing to the bar. Not only will it loosen them up, but it gives them an initial “lay of the land” and helps them feel comfortable. It also ensures that you will make some contact with each of your guests, helping to relieve that “guilty host” syndrome in which you feel like you didn’t get a chance to talk to everyone. Get them to mingle by introducing them to someone new, especially if that someone new is attractive.

Step 5: Entertainment

Keep it simple. Copeland says many people will feel uncomfortable participating in arranged activities — like karaoke or limbo. Passive entertainment is not difficult, though. Something as simple as funny or slick decorations will suffice.

Good music is key. If you don’t have a good selection of tunes, ask your audiophile buddies to bring their iPods. Depending on the preference of your guests and type of cocktail party, we like Girl Talk for an excellent background soundtrack. Any music heavy on rhythm, beats, and guitars will work well; too much vocals will drown out the crowd, distract conversations and make people leave.

Step 6: Closing time

Now that you got them to come to your party, how do you get them to leave? Turn off the music, turn up the lights and be courteous to those who linger. This is how bars and other places do it, so you can, too. Hosting gurus suggest subtle hints like starting to clean up a bit. Keep that taxi hotline nearby. Wish your guests well and save the dishes for the morning — or even better, a maid.