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New Plans for the New Year

By Molly Abel

As budgets bounce back and clients get ready to ring in the new year right, they’ll turn to you for help. And help you can. 

Now’s the time to set aside notions of stuffedshirt events and put a plan in motion that will let guests live it up. A New Year’s soiree, done right, can set the tone for the months to come, create so much goodwill that your client’s business can’t help but grow and put your planning services in the best possible light.

So let’s start by zeroing in on what not to do.

For guests, walking into an event and seeing dozens of short, round tables with standard linen and hearing the same nondescript music often heard in elevators is not inspiring. Guess what else they won’t find impressive: A bucket of ice filled with drinks instead of a smiling bartender standing at the ready, itching to stir up the event’s signature drink.

Also tiring: clients tasking planners with creating memorable and fresh events—on a ridiculously tight budget, of course. Your clients may be satisfied with a modest approach to board retreats, company meetings and special events most of the year, but when New Year’s rolls around, even traditionally conservative corporate events are expected to shine. 

If the day-to-day grind has left your creative well a little depleted, let us lend a hand. We’ve tapped into a few of the most innovative and trendy ideas for ringing in the new year from Texas planners and suppliers who are up to the challenge. Better still? Their show-stopping parties didn’t break the budget, and yours don’t have to, either.

Theme & Decor
By far, the most-mentioned trend by planners and suppliers was retro—specifically, the 1920s and 1940s. “I am finding that everything old is new again when it comes to trends for New Year’s parties,” says Chris Bertrand, catering manager for the Magnolia Hotel Dallas. “I am hearing clients asking for that 1920s nightclub feel.”

The best part about relying on a specific era for your party plan’s inspiration? You have a theme built right in, one you can build on element by element.

“The 1920s have made a comeback, like The Great Gatsby,” agrees Kathlee Akers, owner of Beau Tied Events in Austin. “Any of the eras that give a more glamorous edge are fun to recreate, like 1940s, 1930s; the Prohibition era that has that high-chic look is really popular.” 

Cindy Lo, owner and event strategist at Red Velvet Events, says, “The 1920s theme is an extension of the retro trend, like Mad Men.” Akers also credits Mad Men with influencing this trend. “Retro has come back in such an awesome way,” Akers says. “People like to dress up in their best, and that retro style allows for that. The New Year’s holiday goes hand-in-hand with that.”

Feeling ambitious? Emily Kratt, managing director for Innovatx Events in Austin, suggests a full-on trip through time. 

“Starting with entertainment from the 1950s and having a different decade perform an act every half hour until the ball drops,” Kratt says. “For the final act, I would love to bring in headlining talent that is on today’s top charts.”

Catering and beverages could match the decades. “For the ‘50s, a Betty Crocker station and French onion soup dip; for the ‘60s, a burger and milk shake station; fondue in crock pots, deviled eggs and cocktail hot dogs for the ‘70s,” Kratt says. “[This theme] plays to every generation and would be great for a group with varying age ranges.”

If an all-out blast from the past isn’t doable at your event, referent touches can pick up the slack. “Guests are asking for black-and-whitethemed events with plenty of Champagne in the old nostalgic glassware,” Bertrand says. Lo suggests “bringing in an old black-and-white movie to play in the background, like a Charlie Chaplin movie.”

Lo acknowledges that tight budgets can really cut into any event’s presentation. Fortunately, another modern trend steers away from traditional linen and décor and toward a modern, unpretentious, fun look. For example, “Clients can get a big display piece, like ‘2015’ in sequins, and spend more of the budget on food,” Lo says.

A trend toward stripped-down is also working to keep budgets in line. “I am finding Chiavari chairs are trending … no more chair covers,” Bertrand says. “Here at the Magnolia, my clients are asking for sleek, simple lines for their events.”

In general, Akers advises, “Classic and glamorous will never go completely out of style; it’s always sparkly and everyone is dressed to the nines.”

One trend that isn’t proving to have as much staying power? “The rustic chic trend is kind of fading,” Akers says. “People are getting away from Mason jars and that sort of thing.”

Festive Food
One trend that isn’t going away any time soon is the small bites phenomenon. It’s been appearing on restaurant and catering menus for months, and has been a mainstay at special events. Part of the appeal is that it allows guests to sample their way through a variety of festive offerings, and is an ideal alternative to a seated, more formal dinner.

“We’ve seen a shift in the food and beverage trends for the past few years, which I believe will continue into the next year,” says Doyin Fashakin, owner of Events by Doyin in Houston. “Many people are still opting for small bites, tray-passed appetizers and familystyle dining.”

But don’t expect to meet with your catering partner and be confronted with food choices featuring scores of adventurous fusions. Instead, expect the old-is-new theme to be front and center.

“Comfort foods are back with a vengeance,” says Kat Creech, owner of Kat Creech Events in Houston. “But presentation is really important. Guests want to see their old-time favorites, but elegantly prepared and presented.”

Extra points to events that incorporate entertainment with food, such as do-it-yourself stations. “Guests can pick what they want and have it made by an attendant, or make it themselves in cases where little or no cooking is required,” Fashakin says.

“Food stations and lounge furniture are key for a comfortable environment,” adds Creech, who says guests want to be “entertained in a venue while balancing the idea of the comforts at home.”

One reason small bites and tapas-type options remain popular is because “people are not really into the sit-down thing,” says Lo, who recommends a mix of tall tables and low chairs to create levels and allow for guests to move around. “Don’t have enough tables for everyone to sit,” she says. “Let guests roam and have a mix of seated and standing areas.”

Creech explains, “Food stations are going vertical. The drab 6-foot table is not seeing much action these days. Food is becoming part of the entertainment.” 

If there’s one trend that is perpetually in style, it’s doing more with less. In addition to small bites, Lo says, “We’re being challenged to make sure the food is farm-to-table, pretty, easy to eat, and healthy.”

Lo meets these demands by getting smart with budgets. “Things like shot glasses and bamboo skewers can cost extra,” she says, “but are a great way to present the food.”

Delectable Drinks
No surprise here—beverage choices also are a throwback to bygone days. Thrill guests with heritage refreshments. There’s nothing like swilling a sidecar or a gin rickey with a room full of friends. “Prohibition-era cocktails have made a huge comeback in our community, and I’m seeing a lot more of those at events,” Akers says.

“Guests are continuing to request bourbonbased drinks,” agrees Cecilia Kammer, owner of Capitol Beverage Service in Houston. “The Old-Fashioned is very popular right now. Another drink is bourbon mixed with vanilla bean and sugar, then poured over ice with an orange zest.”

Creech reminds us that even beverages can be part of the entertainment factor at events. “Cocktails can really make an event unique and fun,” she says. “Layered drinks are making a comeback, with colored sugar rimmed around the glass.”

In addition, Creech says, “From Champagne divas to aerial bartenders, presenting drinks in unique ways is trending.”

Just as presentation can transform a plain appetizer, the look of a drink can add to the experience at events.

“Besides the ever-popular prosecco, there is demand for sparkling moscato, which is a little sweeter, and a pink moscato because it looks so beautiful in the glass,” Kammer says. “I also encourage clients to rent goodquality glassware for their bars. Different glassware for each type of drink, it makes the bar set up look so elegant and the guests appreciate the extra effort.”

Todd Fiscus, owner of Todd Events in Dallas, also is seeing a more luxurious approach to drinks. “We’re really into decanted bars,” he says. “We take the liquor out of their bottles and put them in beautiful crystal decanters with monogrammed labels. It’s such a fresh and elegant way to do a bar. It also shows your guest that you have thought about all the details on this special night.”

Eclectic Entertainment
Combining entertainment with social media and creating movement throughout the event are two trends that work well for New Year’s.

“Ancillary entertainment is vital to any great event these days,” Creech says. “Great food and music is not enough anymore. Adding photo booths, slowmotion booths, la hora loca [Spanish for the crazy hour], professional dancers, ancillary actors, interactive stations and late-night bites entertains guests from start to finish.”

Lo explains that a slow-motion photo booth “takes a video that can be shared via social media or even projected onto a big screen at an event. For New Year’s, I can picture people making slow-mo movies of throwing confetti or using a noisemaker.”

The location of the event itself can serve as entertainment. “Most New Year’s events are done in hotels or indoors,” Fashakin says. “A unique idea would be selecting an outdoor location with trees and a great view. You could end the night with a fireworks show.” 

Infusing all elements of the theme to create a seamless experience gives guests something to talk about. Kratt has created a Streets of New York theme that is perfect for New Year’s “with a live ball dropping,” she says. “For one corporate event, we had confetti and all the flavors of the New York streets, including a hot dog stand, dim sum and mini pastrami sandwiches. Guests were entertained by a big band with a Frank Sinatra impersonator who sang songs of New York while guests danced the night away.”

Ringing in the new year is a fun, fresh start for guests, and event professionals are charged with creating the first memory of the year—quite a task, year after year. We hope these trends sparked some innovative ideas of your own. Until next year, cheers and happy planning!