Let’s get the party started

Posted On November 20, 2006

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Parties are supposed to be fun, right? And they can be. But if you’ve ever attended (or thrown) an absolute shocker, you might like to consider some party basics as you approach the festive season. Get some tips from the experts.

Venue: Never hold a party on a boat > This is one of the first things you need to get sorted. Because where the party is held will determine how many people you can invite, what food you can serve, what music and other entertainment you can provide.

There’s one thing on which experienced party-goers agree, never, ever hold a party on a boat. Everyone has horror stories of being trapped with a hundred people they’ve decided they don’t like after all, and no means of escape. Loved ones overboard is always a risk. Nasty accidents on rough seas is another (one gentleman remembers seeing a well-dressed woman travel the length of the craft on her bum).

“I was working as a journalist in Rockhampton,” remembers Jan Jacklin, who, over the course of careers in journalism and then marketing, has both staged and attended many parties, “and had to attend the launch of a new pontoon off Heron Island.” Various dignitaries first travelled to the pontoon on a cabin cruiser, bouncing up and down over the waves. The pontoon was rocking gently from side to side on the swell. From there they all were shepherded onto a glass-bottomed boat for a spot of reef-viewing. Unsurprisingly, Jacklin became violently ill.

But in an effort to get her head over the side of the craft, she only managed to spray the person next to her: Flo Bjelke-Petersen. “And where do you go from there? You still can’t get off the boat.” Luckily Lady Flo was a woman who’d seen it all. “Not only was she not at all fazed, she mopped my brow all the way back to shore.”

Good places for parties are bars and clubs, parks and gardens, and your own backyard or lounge room. Crazy out-of-the-way venues are fine if you’re holding a cutting-edge dance party, but generally go for somewhere that’s accessible by public transport and easy for taxi drivers to find. Al fresco can be lovely but remember, this is Melbourne. “A bad one was our work Christmas party a couple of years ago at Luna Park,” says the marketing manager for a large multinational. “It was 38 degrees, no cooling, the chocolate centrepieces on the tables melted. The MD almost killed me.” And if it’s not 38 degrees, it could well be 8 degrees. Just plan accordingly.

Food: Provide plenty > Even guests determined to consume their body weight in booze will appreciate something solid to accompany it. But don’t poison the guests. Every festive season, someone’s loved ones end up in emergency thanks to the seafood/dip/chicken salad. Don’t let this be you. We check whether the beer’s cold, but do we realise the prawn cocktail has been sitting in the sun for the past two hours? Make sure any food you took out of the fridge is binned or returned to the cold after half an hour.

Beyond that, more is always better than less. Not enough food (a) makes you look like a cheapskate and (b) annoys the guests. Chef and caterer Andrew Blake recommends 10 pieces per person if you’re just snacking; 15-18 pieces as a meal replacement. “And if you want to enjoy your own party, don’t do everything yourself,” Blake says. “In fact, don’t do anything yourself once the party has started.” And speaking of finger food, Age food critic John Lethlean has one more piece of advice: “Make sure it really is finger food. Anything that needs two hands, or cutlery, or that drips or dribbles, is wrong.”

Barbecues are eternally popular for good reason. They provide an excellent feed, are foolproof, and don’t the blokes love them.

Costumes and themes: ’80s parties rock > They’re not essential, but costumes can transform a mob of boozing people into a genuine event. “Any costume or theme party does work better,” says Narelle Desmond, of costumiers Rose Chong. “Once people put on a costume they get into the character, it lets them play, have fun.”

Desmond says international themes are always good, where you can have fun with the costumes and also tie in food and music: Bollywood, Moroccan, Arabian. Themes that allow a bit of flexibility – from a sheet with eye-holes cut in it to a top-to-toe hired job – are good. And the ’80s – decade of big hair, big shoulders, big everything – is understandably big as a theme. A party should be larger than life.

“Eighties parties are great,” Desmond says. And she recommends putting a twist on a general theme. “For the ’80s maybe Dallas, Dynasty, Versace. Or instead of just ’80s music, make it ‘come as your favourite ’80s pop song’.” Instead of Hollywood, she says, try British television. “That could be anything from On the Buses to Doctor Who. Something that’s a bit different . . . that gets people laughing.”

There are some themes – and some costumes – that you should be wary of. “Wonder Woman,” Desmond sighs. “A lot of people want to dress as Wonder Woman but if it’s not a good fit, you’re in trouble. Anything too skimpy on the wrong person is a bad idea.”

Animal costumes can also be difficult. “We have a two-person camel costume, for instance. Great for making an entrance in, but you can’t spend the night in it, obviously.” Then there are themes that are just a bit lame. “A lot of guys like to dress as pimps, but it’s just not very interesting.”

Music: Bad tunes can ruin a party > Damian Prasad, of event organiser ICE Global, has thrown a number of major do’s from warehouse parties to a knees-up for Wimbledon players and says matching the tunes to the crowd is essential. “With the Wimbledon players party, there were a lot of young people, 18-35. And then there was the next generation, the coaches, managers, corporates,” Prasad says. “So we went with a ‘rock’ theme. We had a band, various tennis players got up and jammed with them during the night and they played classics – U2, Rolling Stones, Jack Johnson. Crowd-pleasing stuff.”

For another function – a Christmas party for Qantas where most of the guests were sub-30 – it was house music from the get-go. One of Prasad’s least pleasant experiences as a party-goer was a cocktail function that blasted guests with techno beats from the moment they walked in the door. Essentially, good music is the right music – for the crowd, and the hour.

Sally Roberts works in PR and throws a mean party herself, including a couple of humungous house parties at her place in St Kilda. “We hired decks and gave all our friends a turn as DJ,” she said. “They all brought their own music, everyone had a turn. Everyone loved it.”

Games: Break out the Twister > Games and other forms of entertainment can make a party really rock. They can also bring it horribly undone. Another of Roberts’ more successful events was a hen’s night for a girlfriend who loved dancing. And drumming. So the women began the day with a private dance lesson in which they developed hip-hop moves they could take to the dance floor later. Then they all had an African drumming class in Catani Gardens, followed by a barbie. Everyone gets involved, everyone makes a goose of themselves, everyone has fun.

Damian Prasad says organising one or two “events” over the course of an evening really changes a get-together from a piss-up to a proper party. And they don’t have to be extravagant.

“A drink on arrival is crucial, whether that’s 20 people at your place or 2000 at a major corporate,” he says. That might be handing someone a beer, a glass of bubbly, or a funky cocktail. “It makes people feel welcome, it means they’re not rushing to the bar, or standing around.”

He also likes to send round a little something in the middle of the evening: maybe a cocktail shot, or a palate cleanser. It’s a fun gesture that kicks things up a gear.

If you have a budget, performers can be great, but you do need to be careful. “Another party I was at recently had a drag show,” Prasad says, “and it was really full-on. People didn’t know where to look.”

Unfunny or off-colour comedians are another no-no; celebrity speakers are hit-and-miss; and we all remember the burlesque dancers hired for a science conference in Canberra this year.

But games can really lift a night and get people interacting, whether you break out the Twister (but definitely not naked Twister, please), or bring out a pinata (and remember, they don’t have to be filled with sweets – use your imagination). “A door prize can be great, too,” Prasad says. “Something you can easily do at a private party is give out tickets as people come in, and make them up in sets of two. Then guests have to find the person with the matching ticket number. The first person to do it wins a prize. It’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s a great way to get people mingling.”

People: Meet and greet > This means you. And your guests. And anyone else involved in making your party the social event of the year. Prasad says staff are key. “They need to be efficient and friendly. Genuinely hospitable. There’s nothing more off-putting than being greeted by someone with attitude.” Not many of us employ a door bitch for our own party but we may have someone behind the bar or handing around food. Ensure it’s not someone who behaves as if pouring you a drink is a rude disruption to their plans.

Then there’s the guest list. “You have to be aware of the politics of friendship,” says Jacklin. “Not all the people you love are going to love each other. And relationships that work when everyone’s sober don’t always work once everyone’s had a few drinks.”

And you, too, have a role to play. Organising an event is one thing, but good hosts really prove themselves on the day. “For me the worst parties, whether they’re private or corporate, is when you’re not welcomed properly and, if you’re on your own, you’re left to your own devices,” says Jacklin. “Being a good host is so important, making sure you introduce people, making sure no one’s left standing on their own against the wall. That’s what being a host is all about.”

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