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Plot an impressive home soiree

Domicile size, budget, food, music andinvites are all considerations.

Published September 7, 2007


A waiter in a white dinner jacket hands you a glass of fizzy-cold Veuve Clicquot. The smoked salmon brioche with Iranian Oestra caviar arrives faster than a double air kiss, and the orchid floral arrangements might have come straight from celebrity party host Colin Cowie himself.

Only this party isn't in a four-star hotel ballroom or on a rented yacht cruising Tampa Bay.

It's a top-drawer event thrown by experienced hosts in their very own digs.

Fundraiser, deb party or holiday gala, organizing a memorable party at home is a feat that requires time and planning.

"I believe in real flowers and hand-addressed invitations," advises veteran gala organizer Beverly Austin.

Past parties in her 8,000-square-foot South Tampa home have benefited causes including the Florida Orchestra Guild, the University of Tampa, Easter Seals and Tampa Prep.

Her house - though "not large by Avila standards," Austin jokes - is big enough to accommodate a crowd.

"We also have a lot of yard, and a lot of property, which helps," she says.

Party planners agree that throwing a soiree at home takes work but can be done successfully. Having at least a moderately sized home is key. Too small a space and you probably should rent out the community clubhouse.

"You need at minimum a 1,600-square-foot home and an open, spacious floor plan. Anything less and you need to whittle down your guest list to 30 or 40 guests max," says veteran posh-party planner Jennifer McCrackin, who owns QuickCare Event Planners in Carrollwood.

What's your budget?

First-time party planners aiming for an upscale event should first consider budget because that will determine what food and drink you can serve, McCrackin advises.

Expect to spend between $10,000 to $12,000 on a gala for 150 people, including food, decor and an open bar.

"You also have to decide whether you want the food passed around ...or whether you want a sit-down meal," she says. She likes the idea of heavy hors d'oeuvres and finger foods that can be passed around on trays as much as a sit-down affair.

And: "Are there going to be children there? Then you need to have something they can eat, too."

Music is another consideration, she says. Depending on the type of party, she has arranged for a singer from the Florida Orchestra, a jazz band, even a Frank Sinatra-style crooner "for the over-40 crowd."

What's the theme?

Also consider a theme for your party for added interest and fun.

Consider a Mardi Gras, chocolate, Chinese new year or circus theme, even a "casino night."

"You can now rent 4-by-5-foot roulette tables, even small blackjack tables that will fit into a home," she explains. "You can even have fake dollar bills printed up with your guests' pictures on them; you can even tie in the winnings with the door prizes."

Nicole Pauley, a New Tampa chef and caterer and owner of the Perfect Plate, also likes themed parties and suggests selecting a complementary menu, "like traditional British food for a Derby party."

If you're hosting a more middle-of -the-road event, like a political fundraiser, think of foods likely to appeal to a broad spectrum of guests, she advises.

"A coconut curry chicken has an island sort of feel because of all its flavors, but it's not too exotic for most people," Pauley says.

For larger events, you need to consider whether you want to hire a bartender and other help, she says. "You can't be a host, facilitate a party and be multitasking at the same time."

Alsoconsider the cleanup, which will be your responsibility, and possible hazards that could damage your home.

"You want to think about where you're having the party," she says. "If it's out by your pool, you may not want a lot of glass and instead opt to go with high-end plastic."

The invitations

Finally, a well-heeled party requires well-heeled invitations.

"Depending on how may people are coming, you may decide to have them printed rather than sitting down and handwriting them," says Barbara Kleinhoff, who owns No Regrets, a stationery store in South Tampa and Panama City, where she now lives.

Her customers, she has noticed, are opting for invitations with more embellishments: for instance, tiny terry cloth beach towels attached to an invite for a poolside event, or an invitation shaped like a teacup, napkin and ribbon for a high tea. An oyster that opens to reveal a real pearl may work well for a party featuring fresh oysters as the main attraction.

Just what does Kleinhoff think about those pervasive e-vites of late?

"I'm always a little scared of those," she says. "There really is no substitute for a handwritten or hand-printed invitation these days."

Send them out at least four weeks in advance, says McCrackin, who also sells invitations on her Web site.

Austin and her husband, Al, will host the Red Cross Angels Silver Coffee on Oct. 10 at her home in Henderson Beach Estates.

She's preparing to send out 1,000 invitations that a committee of volunteers will help her address by hand.

The event will feature a harpist, handmade sweets and tea sandwiches, and, of course, lots of coffee. Punch will be served poolside, and guests may linger and listen to the angelic music beneath live oaks that canopy the Austins' large back yard.

McCrackin says the key is to make the event unique from the moment the invitations are mailed until the last guest leaves your home.

"No one wants a template cookie-cutter party where everyone eats, drinks and leaves," the event planner explains.

"It's all about a great time for you and your guests to enjoy."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at

[Last modified September 7, 2007, 08:02:31]

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