Picture this: a beautiful condo overlooking downtown Vancouver, 20 good friends, half a dozen bottles of Veuve chilling on ice.
That was the recent scene of my wife’s 40th birthday celebration. She loved it! And I was blown away by how many people left the party saying it was the best party they’d been to in a decade.
How did that happen, I thought? I’m not entirely sure, but I have some ideas. Good parties are a product of planning, chemistry and, like most things in life, luck.
The following suggestions are written from the perspective of a man throwing a 40th birthday party for his wife. The same principles could be applied to parties thrown by wives for their husbands, or for other milestone birthdays. But, the 40th birthday party is a special one: old enough to have a kick-ass party, yet still young enough to enjoy it.
There are many factors that go into planning a good milestone birthday party. There are some things you have control over and others you don’t. However, if you follow these guidelines, you will improve your odds of success.
1. Invite good party people. Parties are about people and their interactions, so who you invite is probably the most important thing to consider. There are always politics around invitations and who invited you to their party…bla, bla, bla. If you want a great party, pick the invitees that you think will mesh well together. The others, well, go out for dinner with them separately. And don’t invite too many. Twenty or so is a perfect number for a milestone birthday – intimate enough to meet everyone, yet large enough to generate some buzz.
2. Pick a good location. Milestone birthday parties don’t have to be in your home or even in your city. You could pick a larger city nearby and find the right venue to host it. Typically, if your group is small, there will be people coming in from out of town anyway, so the location can be more flexible. We picked Vancouver, a spectacular city just over an hour’s flight from Edmonton.
3. Pick a special venue. To make it a special occasion, you need a special venue. This can mean a hotel or restaurant. It can also mean the home of friends or family. The point is that you can have a party virtually anywhere – so pick a place that will be beautiful, perhaps with scenic views, and out of the ordinary. What about a gallery? We were fortunate to have good friends that were willing to host in their cool condo overlooking the Vancouver skyline.
4. Plan way ahead and send online invitations. Get way out in front on the planning and make sure key guests are available for your date. Then, use a good online invitation service – I love pingg.com – to invite guests, manage the RSVPs and update along the way.
5. Find a good caterer. There are lots of caterers, but far fewer good caterers. Start by asking people who they’ve used – referrals are very important in this business. But you must be careful about whose advice you take – garbage in, garbage out, as they say. If you are planning the party in another city and/or don’t have any referrals, try chow.com for recommendations. The foodies are always willing to share. We found a great Vancouver chef who was willing to do the format I wanted – chef on-site preparing passed canapés and appetizers, followed by a series of small plated courses. Everything was fresh and you could eat it standing up with a drink in your hand.
6. Good drinks make for a good buzz. There are all kinds of parties, but I think cocktail parties work great for milestone birthdays. And good cocktails make for better parties. Hire a bartender. Get some cool cocktails going at the beginning – not too many choices, just 2 or 3. You know what your spouse likes to drink so make sure her favourite drink is available. My sweetheart loves champagne, hence the case of Veuve. (Which we plowed through in 2 hours or so, I might add.)
7. Dress up and take lots of pictures. This is going to be a party you remember for the rest of your life, so make it good. Dress up, look your best and take lots of pictures. Hire a photographer if you don’t want to be clicking pics all night. You’ll be glad you did it.
8. Make a slide show. Gather pictures from way back, scan them and make a slide show in iMovie. Even if you know nothing about video editing, iMovie can spit out a great slide show that you can burn to DVD. At the party, right after the speeches just pop in the DVD and watch the memories. Sentimentality goes a long way at these kinds of celebrations.
9. Cool cocktail tunes make the party. Lounge is perfect for getting the cool cocktail party vibe going – with a few jazz standards thrown in. Here’s a sample of my party playlist. Once you are into the evening a bit, you can mix in some 70s or 80s retro tunes just for fun. Your tunes should sit on the floor (figuratively) and be played at just the right volume to for the party to sit on top to create the optimal buzz. iTunes playlists work great and whole home audio using iTunes will allow you to get those vibes grooving through out the space.
10. Give your guests gifts. By the time you reach milestones like 40 or 50 or 60, you don’t need much that you don’t already have. Gag gifts can be fun, but they mostly go in the garbage. Instead, insist on no gifts and make your guests a little gift of chocolates or a mixed CD – something special, yet personal.
Finally, get some chocolate milk. Some people swear by it – others scoff. I tried it and it seemed to work reasonably well. Make sure your guests have access to lots of chocolate milk at the end of the evening – it will help them re-hydrate and start them on the road to recovery.
Remember, you ain’t 39 anymore.