There’s an old New Orleans saying that we have four seasons: Saints Season (football), Carnival Season (Mardi Gras), Festival Season (Jazz Fest), and Summer (LOTS of summer). It’s no mystery why three of the four are based around gathering and community – New Orleanians live for a good party. And in fact, even in the summer, we throw hurricane parties (in the midst of real hurricanes) and spend the end of every humid day sitting on someone’s front porch with a drink in hand, talking to the neighbors, listening to music, watching the evening crawl by.
I’ve lived outside of New Orleans for a total of about fifteen years and I’ve never experienced the sense of community New Orleans embodies in any other place. Why? Because “getting together,” is at the core of everyday life in New Orleans. People are social by nature, of course, yet we forget about the importance of being part of community as we rush through the world pressed by jobs, routines and the pressures of everyday life.
I’ve been an event planner for about seven years and *spoiler alert* it wasn’t something I dreamed about since I was a kid. I certainly never fantasized about hosting corporate dinner parties or throwing big, fancy weddings. Simply put, I’ve just always loved parties – both throwing them and attending them.
Getting friends and strangers together and introducing them to each other in a beautiful environment to enjoy good food, good wine, good music and good conversation is one of life’s greatest joys. I attribute my own need for gathering mostly to a childhood spent in the four party seasons of New Orleans, but I’ve also found these kinds of social connections to be directly linked to my own well-being, at work and out of work.
Kinfolk Magazine has this really beautiful ethos in their Entrepreneur Issue, “success is defined not only by the work we do but also by the people we help, the communities we build and the healthy balance we strike between work and leisure.” I’ve always loved this magazine, but that line really drives home the work/life balance so many people crave. In order to do better work, we must take time to gather inspiration, to enjoy our community and to allow that joy to reflect in our work and in our personal lives.
So, what makes a gathering inspirational or effective? Being able to let go, have fun and enjoy your surroundings. Connecting with other like-minded people. Getting other people’s opinions and ideas. Hearing other people’s stories. Sharing your own experiences. These are all parts of establishing connection and creating community, and they also help provide us with a sense of identity.
Successful events allow us to make all these things happen but also allow us to be part of something bigger than ourselves. The elements that go into planning an event are the same across the board: setting, food and beverage, entertainment, people.
Sounds so formulaic, right? Well, in a way it is, but that’s the great excitement of it. From that formula you can create anything. It’s like flour, milk, eggs and butter – if you have those, you are only limited by your imagination!
So, let’s say you’re getting a group of eight friends together for a dinner party. Since it’s a small group, you’ll want to emphasize the intimacy by making the setting the most important element. A long, beautiful table set outside during sunset, with lush greenery and tons of candlelight, encourages comfort and good conversation. The food and wine are second in importance since those are things that allow people to bond and enjoy themselves, while you put a playlist on for background since entertainment is really the smaller priority in this setting.
If you’re planning a huge 500 person event and want a full-blown dance party to ensue, your primary focus is going to be on the entertainment and everything else trickles down from there.
By setting a goal for the environment you’re trying to create at an event, you’re more likely to have good structure and flow and the gathering is going to be more of a success. The best and most memorable experiences aren’t always the most extravagant, but rather have the best balance so guests are comfortable and feel welcomed with open arms.
In almost all event-planning circumstances, the venue is going to rank as number one priority because it sets a tone for the whole event, defines the number of guests you can invite, and gives you an instant canvas to work with. The basics are the same around the board: location, capacity, whether there’s an indoor/outdoor plan, how late you can party, what vendors you can work with, etc.
But pay attention to details too. Is the existing décor an aesthetic you like or will you need to cover everything up? Is there sufficient lighting? Is the carpet fugly? Do you need to rent additional restrooms? Most of these issues can be addressed, but it’ll cost money and you want to know that going into it. Be realistic about the logistics of the space too. Make sure you know the parameters of the rental hours so you have ample time for vendors to load in/out. Also be familiar with the restrictions and rules of the venue and its limitations from a guest experience perspective.
All that said, you can still go with your gut! If you find a space that totally resonates with the look you’re going for and provides the backdrop you’re craving, but it’s a little too big or the end time is a little too early, try not to obsess over those things. You can always find ways to fill in space or start the party a little earlier than you’d planned. Be flexible and stick with your personal priorities.
The other big factor in planning your ideal gathering is selecting the best team of vendors you’ve ever met in your life. Event planning is a very creative field full of all kinds of personality types and working styles. Particularly when you’re vetting caterers, designers and florists, it’s so important to communicate your vision for the event and your desire to work with a team you feel like you can collaborate with rather than signing up for a package they give everyone (unless that's what you're looking for). Major street cred and bonus points if you’re able to articulate your working style and communicate that with your vendor team. By setting those expectations, you can avoid a good deal of conflict and you might even make some friends along the way.
Along the planning road, you’ll stumble into many roadblocks and surprises, but if you’re able to keep in mind that the ultimate reason you're doing all of this is to create community or enhance a community you've already built, you’ll be able to endure those storms much more easily. Keeping that kind of perspective makes it so much easier to roll with the punches when things go wrong. Those are always the funny stories people tell later anyway! Don’t strive for perfection or try to be overly precious or too stylized. Aim to create an environment that encourages people to come together and relax and enjoy themselves -- and have a blast in the process!
- Written by Alyssa Brown