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In Season - Christmas Party Ideas

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Need inspiration for a christmas party? Anna Longmore reports on the hottest festive trends for 2006.


Dancing couple - christmas partyBy the time you read this, summer should be well under way and you could be forgiven for thinking that the only event you need to prepare for is your holiday. But, don’t we know it, Christmas seems to arrive earlier every year and it’s already high time to get those bookings in, particularly if you’re looking to stage an event on a Thursday or Friday night in December.

So where do you start? Knowing that it can be difficult to conjure inspiration for a winter event in the middle of summer, we’ve decided to stick to what’s hot. In the pages that follow, you’ll be able to read all about this year’s biggest party trends and find out who will be organising the best events for each.


80s PARTIES

Dust off your shoulder pads, roll up your sleeves and trawl Ebay for Wayfarers and stonewash jeans, this one’s a biggie for 2006.

‘We’ve found the 1980s are hugely in demand,’ says Jane Wade, the marketing director of European Events, which will be staging ‘Back to the 80s’ parties at the Bloomsbury Club in the run-up to Christmas. Described by Wade as events with ‘a real Top of the Pops feel’, guests can expect neon pink and royal blue to accentuate a nostalgic decor that will also feature lots of chrome, leather and plastic seating from the early days of Habitat. As for the soundtrack, think Madonna, Michael Jackson, Wham! and The Human League.

‘The great thing about these events is that anyone, from those in their early twenties upwards, has some experience of the 80s,’ says Wade, who sees the Bloomsbury Club parties as a welcome antidote to more highbrow corporate celebrations, which she thinks can sometimes take themselves a bit too seriously. ‘This theme offers a great excuse to be tasteless and get away with it,‘ she decides, perhaps forgetting that the puffball skirt is now back in fashion.

The piña coladas will also be flowing at ‘80s Now’-themed parties at The Brewery this Christmas. The in-house team has created what the venue’s PR, Andrew White, describes as ‘a celebration of the yuppie high life with a South Beach feel’. Unsurprisingly, this theme was inspired by the upcoming release of a Miami Vice film later this year. ‘We’ll have a huge Miami sunset in our main room and Club Tropicana will set the mood for the night,’ explains White, who may list felts and velvets among table decorations but nevertheless promises that food will not hark back to the era that brought us chicken Kiev and Viennetta.


DANCE FEVER

TV has always been a great inspiration for party organisers and, judging by the many dance-themed event concepts now on the market, top of their viewing list over the past year was the surprise hit series Strictly Come Dancing.

Jenny Dunster, the director of Whatever Artist Management, has been amazed by the demand for dance shows such as ‘Strictly Ballroom’. She says: ‘Our shows are sophisticated – no lamé costumes or luminous feathers – but incredibly fun for people of all ages. Usually, we have a singer/compere and four or five sexy young couples who dance a combination of Latin and Ballroom dances, with the option of a live band. Guests love the glamour of it all and everyone wants to have a go themselves, so there’s always quite a bit of audience participation.’

Even more hands-on are the ‘Strictly Come Latin’ workshops operated by Floridita Experiences. In these, guests are given masterclasses in mambo, salsa or cha cha cha, before taking part in a dance contest after dinner. As manager Elena Delpino explains, people love being taught by experts. ‘Our teachers are mostly Cuban and very experienced. They perform a show for the learners over dinner – it keeps them entertained and helps with the moves.’
Classes can accommodate small or large groups, from ten people up into the hundreds.

Event organisers’ newfound interest in dance has allowed last year’s big trend for all things Cuban to carry on in full force, and the Latin party spirit will certainly be thriving at the ‘One Night in Havana’ parties set to be staged at Vinopolis this Christmas – think salsa, mojitos and Cuban cuisine – but those looking for something a bit more unusual might actually want to look a bit closer to home.

Kim Einhorn, director of Theme Traders, predicts that the Scottish Reel will see a revival this Christmas. ‘It’s a ceremony that people know about, so they’re comfortable with it, but it’s also a new experience, which they love,’ she says. Dances are presided over by a caller, who tells guests what to do next – handy after the whisky tasting.


MODERN VINTAGE

Vintage style, from the Roaring 20s to the sparkle of 50s Hollywood and debauchery of the 70s, provides a suitably glamorous backdrop to Christmas festivities, but the gallop of technology and sophisticated concepts is giving this year’s events a slick modern feel.

Penny Ellis, the managing director of EventWise, puts the popularity of vintage parties down to the sense of occasion they create. ‘Guests like the glamour of this kind of event,’ she says. ‘Women want to dress up. They’re fed up with going to parties where they can wear jeans. The Christmas party is going back to being a really special occasion.’

Her views are very much echoed by Simon Mitchell, the managing director of Impulse Events. He explains that the ‘Tales of the Jazz Age’ parties his company will stage in the Banqueting Suite at Lord’s Cricket Ground have been designed to reflect the quality of this newly refurbished venue. ‘There will be a red carpet on entrance and guests will be entertained by a jazz trio while sipping martinis from lovely cocktail glasses, served by waitresses in glamorous feather boas,’ he says.

Over in the East End, 1920s chic will be given a contemporary spin in the ‘Urban Glamour’ parties at The Boilerhouse, which is part of the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane. ‘The venue is a warehouse, so our 20s-feel decor will feel edgy against the raw brickwork of the building,’ explains David Stringer, director of Launch Pad Events, which is organising the event. Traditional with a twist is also the concept behind the company’s Christmas events at the In and Out Club in St James’s, where a clear-roofed modern events structure will be erected in the courtyard of the Victorian building, while traditional furniture will be ‘funked up’ with bright fabrics.

But vintage is not all evening gowns and jazz bands, as The Finishing Touch is out to prove with its 70s extravaganza, set in a 1,650-seater structure in Battersea Park. The party is themed around the heyday of legendary New York nightclub Studio 54 – think cage dancers, trapeze artists, roller-skaters and an extravagant floor-show. ‘We’ve taken the atmosphere of Studio 54 but created it with 2006 technology,’ says MD Mel Atkins.

The Ultimate Experience will also be making the most of up-to-the-minute technology as it rattles through musical vintages at ‘Rock the City’ parties staged in a 900-seater venue near Liverpool Street. ‘The entertainment will start off retro, with the 50s over dinner. It will then fly through the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s to a contemporary feel, with a state-of-the-art disco,’ explains managing director Sam Gill. ‘The bar and reception will feel very 21st century with plasma screens behind the bars, and we’ll use a DVD DJ who’ll play music videos for the disco.’


BESPOKE BITS

If you were organising a Christmas event five years ago, you’d probably be choosing between buying a set-priced event at a ready-themed venue or commissioning an event organiser to create a unique event just for your company. These days, organisers encourage clients to mix the two approaches by adapting events to fit their own requirements.

HC XmasSam Gill of The Ultimate Experience recommends starting with a package. ‘The key to a successful Christmas party is the ability to adjust the theme and look through extras,’ he says. ‘Value-wise, it’s always better to re-theme, and we ensure our themes give that flexibility. Swap the jazz band at “Midnight in Manhattan” [the theme for LSO St Luke’s in EC1] and you could choose to have an art deco 30s party or an event styled on a 90s Manhattan warehouse apartment. Similarly, “All that Jazz” [at Salter’s Hall] could be changed to have a 40s, 50s or contemporary feel.’

Music, be it a live band or disco, is a must-have at any festive party, but organisers also offer a host of other entertainment options for clients looking to add a bit more interest. ‘We give the client a huge shopping list of options and leave it to them to decide,’ says David Stringer of Launch Pad Events, who has found that some kind of ‘meeter-greeter’ to welcome guests – a stilt walker, perhaps – always proves popular. Or how about some more functional entertainment? The Powderpuff Girls, a uniformed team of professional make-up artists, install themselves in the ladies’ to help groom guests, while Pout offer pairs of fishnet-clad lovelies to touch up your lip gloss.

As many venues have sophisticated lighting and sound systems, customising an event with production can be relatively straightforward. At Finishing Touch’s Battersea Park venue, for example, the hydraulic ceiling drops down to allow for lighting to be changed easily. However, organisers are also willing to discuss more hi-tech extras. ‘The latest thing is Arcstream’s poolSystem,’ says Jane Wade, the marketing director of European Events. ‘It’s an interactive floor projection which allows you to create things like a winter scene where snow clears from the guests’ feet as they walk around, kicking the snow about,’ she explains.

Food is another obvious candidate for upgrades and most organisers are now taking clients’ demands for high-quality food very seriously. European Events, for instance, has enlisted top chef Jeff Galvin (who earned Michelin stars at L’Escargot before setting up Marylebone restaurant Galvin with his brother, Chris) to oversee its menus.

Impulse Events raised its food stakes with last year’s launch of sister company Mint Catering, which managing director Simon Mitchell set up in partnership with catering ace Pete Phillips (ex-Rhubarb). ‘Clients want a particular standard of food now,’ explains Mitchell. ‘We are very particular about our ingredients. You’ll go to some large-scale events and the pudding will have been bought in. Nothing we do is pre-packaged. Everything is fresh, British and seasonal.’

This arrangement also affords clients more flexibility, as Mitchell explains. ‘Because we cater for the mid- to top-end of the market, most of what we do is included. At £125 a head, we’re not going to charge extra if you want lamb instead of turkey, or Merlot instead of Cabernet Sauvignon. We can afford to be flexible.’ Hence, clients are invited to a tasting session, where menu options are sampled and discussed, before a final selection is made.


SUBTLE STYLING

Although the market for themed parties is still thriving, events organisers are looking at other ways of delivering extraordinary events. And as Mel Atkins of The Finishing Touch explains, there’s been a big shift in the way companies go about designing their parties. ‘The industry is starting to move away from theming. Some of the most successful packages now rely on 90 per cent lighting and production and only 10 per cent theming,’ he explains.

Launch Pad Events opts for subtle styling rather than in-your-face theming. ‘Our parties are more lifestyle-orientated. We take a lot of influence from fashion, interior concepts, modern design and magazines like Living etc, Deco and Vogue and translate those into a party setting,’ explains David Stringer. The company’s ‘Cocoa Christmas’ events at Shoreditch Town Hall, for instance, will be styled around a chocolate-and-cream concept, where a decor of button-fronted purple velvet seats – very Cadbury’s – and cream daybeds will be accented with vases filled with cocoa beans and cinnamon sticks. As this event is already selling well, Stringer firmly believes guests feel more comfortable in a subtly decorated environment. ‘Styling is less contrived than classic themes and appeals to a wider audience,’ he insists.

Launch Pad is not the only company to have seen the merits of a more restrained approach. ‘A lot of venues are going for heavily themed parties, so we’re going back to the original Christmas concept – red, white and green colours, glowing candle light, lots of glamorous decorations and delicious food – for a lot of our events,’ says Penny Ellis of EventWise.

As themes are toned down, the setting has to work that much harder to impress, and Ellis has noticed that her clients are dedicating more of their budgets to a stylish backdrop. ‘They’re going back to the really grand venues of old: the V&A, the Natural History Museum, Banqueting House,’ she explains.

Whether you’re after a subtly styled party or a full-blown themed extravaganza, there are plenty of options about for this Christmas (for a quick-view guide, check out the Party Locator overleaf. If you’re still looking for inspiration, try calling one of the event organisers in our Little Black Book box (left) – they’re all experts at the Christmas game – or visit the festive portal that made Square Meal number one for Christmas searches on Google: squaremeal.co.uk/christmas.


BRIGHT IDEAS FOR XMAS TIPS

‘Use a venue that allows you to have the whole event within the same space. This keeps everyone together, prevents the room from clearing as soon as the entertainment starts, and helps maximise the decoration budget.’ Jamie Simon, event producer, Impulse Events

‘Remember who your guests are and always tailor the event to their demographics.’ Jane Wade, marketing director, European Events

‘Don’t aim your Christmas party at senior attendees or company directors. The clever organiser realises that the party is mainly for the benefit of the junior staff and that it’s in giving them a great night out that you will make the directors happy.’ Sam Gill, managing director, The Ultimate Experience

Use colour-changing LED lighting blocks instead of standard up-lighters. While more expensive, these allow you to change the style and mood of the room very easily. At the end of the evening, turn up the green light and watch how quickly guests depart. David Stringer, director, Launch Pad Events

‘Consider a taxi service at the end of the night so people don’t have to leave early to get home on public transport.’ Antonia Armstrong, head of events, Vinopolis

‘Ensure you have a 20 per cent leeway on capacity so you don’t have to change venues if your company is suddenly restructured.’ Penny Ellis, managing director, EventWise.

‘Make sure that you inform all invitees about the theme and dress code well before the event to avoid any embarrassing situations.’ Denis McCourt, director, Awesome Events

‘When dealing with event suppliers or agencies, make sure you are fully aware of any hidden extras in terms of cost as this may have a significant effect on the total bill.’ Hugo Miller-Brown MD, Crown Society

‘Get a comprehensive rundown of what the event company or venue will be giving you so there are no last-minute surprises. If they say it’s a themed party, make sure they’re not just offering a backdrop or themed cocktail.’ Bert Habib, event consultant, Uptown Events


Editorial feature from Square Meal Magazine Summer 2006