The Pros Say

Top Party Planners Share Their Secrets to Great Events

From greeting hosts to dealing with dietary preferences, four party planning pros share their top tips.

By Giulia Heyward January 25, 2019 Published in the February 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

AJ Latteri-Caster created this colorful outdoor anniversary party at King Family Farm.

Aj Latteri-Caster of The Loft5

How should hosts greet guests?

“For an intimate gathering, greet each guest personally. If it’s a big event outside the home, assign a friend or family member to do so. Make a sign that says, ‘Welcome, come have a beverage,’ and design a welcome drink. You can never go wrong with a classic champagne cocktail; maybe prosecco, grapefruit and a little rosemary,  mint or thyme. It’s just as important to say goodbye to each guest and thank them for coming.” 

New trends in hors d’oeuvres?

“Interactive food is fun. Make a bruschetta station with pesto, artichoke, sundried tomato and olive tapenade. Serve canapés, those little one-bite wonders, maybe a fresh fig with room-temperature goat cheese and local honey drizzled over lavender and a sprinkle of coffee-infused sea salt. The crudité platter of raw vegetables is making a comeback. So are platters of cured meats, pecorino cheeses, roasted vegetables, something with a Mediterreanean vibe, aesthetically beautiful and healthy.”


“Keep it simple. Use backyard greenery. Mix fresh flowers with dry flowers and succulents. Or mix mint, rosemary and cilantro with flowers. You can also mix and match vases, using recycled bottles. I always say, ‘Use what you have.’”

How are people handling vegetarians and vegans?

“You have to accommodate everyone, but I wouldn’t ask people about their food preferences. That makes it too complicated. For appetizers, have one platter for vegetarians, another for meat eaters. Provide staples, lots of grains and mixed fresh vegetables. Portobello mushrooms and roasted vegetables are really big.”

Best outdoor party ideas?

“Always have a Plan B in case of bad weather. You don’t want to throw an outdoor party in the heat or during hurricane season. Overhead lighting and spotlights are important; visit the venue at night beforehand and figure out what you need. We usually put little baskets of earth-friendly spray or [bug repellent] bracelets for no-see-ums and mosquitos. If you can, spray your yard before the event and away from areas where there will be food. To me, citronella candles are too strong.”

What are your essential ingredients for a great party?

1. Good music. Hire a single guitar player, a harpist or play recorded music. Do something ethnic. It brings the party to a different light.

2. Lighting. Make sure to dim the lights. You don’t need bright lights at a party.

3. Always serve good food and drink.

4. Company. Invite a couple of entertaining people, people with different backgrounds, or people who don’t know one another. That will make the party interesting.

5. Enjoy your company.

Lucy Halasz, executive director of events, Innovative Dining

Buffet versus table service?

“Buffet for a casual event and a plated dinner for something more formal. The plated dinner requires more catering staff, but the buffet requires more food preparation. At the end of the day, they offset each other, and the cost is close to the same.”

Ideas for family reunions?

“Try not to take on the planning all by yourself. This is all about family, so get the family involved. Charge individuals with planning meals and family games. Think about creating a family guest book; use a Polaroid camera and paste the photos in with lovely notes. For the loftier reunion, an experiential adventure might be in order, such as a destination family reunion to a beautiful island or a ski resort. No matter what you create, it will be all about making memories.”

Hot party themes?

“Party themes are leaning more toward TV shows and movies. We’re planning a vampire-themed party along the lines of The Vampire Diaries—very dark but certainly unique, fun and inspiring in the way of decor. For a more whimsical themed party, Alice in Wonderland seems to be popular these days.”

How do you make a milestone anniversary or birthday party stand out?

“Make it personal. Your guest of honor will feel special if you go that extra mile to make sure it’s all about them, whether it’s through a video or photo montage or music that means something to that individual. Create a sweet and simple video with your guests saying or writing something special. It needs to be from the heart.”

Trends in flower and table décor?

“It used to be that ‘blush’ was all the rage. Thankfully people want more color in their lives these days. I see a lot of bright colors and jewel tones in flower trends. I also see different types of flowers but in just one color, which adds a bit of depth. Same goes for linens and table decor. I’m seeing more and more vibrant colored linens or multicolored and patterned linens.”

Phil Mancini of Michael’s On East

What is the perfect number of courses for a dinner party?

“There are two types of people nowadays. Foodies like a five-course wine dinner. For people who want to focus on fun: three courses. A lot of people don’t want to sit for more than an hour. They want a salad, an entrée and a dessert, and then they want to dance.”

Great ideas for big gatherings?

“Barbecues and clambakes. Clambakes are my favorite. I’ll fly down Maine lobsters the same day as the party. I’ll do clam chowder, corn bread, Boston cream pie, and maybe I’ll do boiled clams and mussels.”

Should guests help clean up?

“Never ever ever. Not if you have a caterer.”

How do you get guests to go home?

“In my house, I go to bed.”

Any tips on mixing adults and kids at a party?

“Separating kids from adults never works. The kids want the good stuff, too. I don’t even suggest having a kids’ menu. They want the beautiful seafood and sushi, and you’re going to give them chicken fingers and fries?”

Your top tips for throwing great parties?

“Great food, great music and great friends.”

Wedding Planner  Nicole Kaney

Top tips for throwing great parties?

“Organization, planning, allowing enough time to plan and prepare, and thinking through the details.”

Great ideas for family reunions?

“It’s really nice to do a welcoming party, especially for people you haven’t seen for a long time. It’s a great way to connect.”

What amount of clean-up should guests be in charge of?


Mixing adults and kids at a party?

“If there are going to be kids at a wedding, we usually set up a movie and food stations for them.”

Filed under
Show Comments