How to Throw The Unforgettable Unconventional Party

by Jillian Leslie on

I was talking to LA based party planner, Suzanne Carvlin, also known as Suzanne The Party Girl.  She specializes in throwing parties that are a little less conventional than your typical hotel ballroom wedding with rubber chicken.

So I asked her some questions to get her expert advice on how to approach throwing a party that doesn't quite stick to the script, and here's what she said...

What are your favorite kinds of parties?

I love parties that are guest-centric and the party hosts are relaxed, greeting all of their guests to make them all feel welcome, and all are having a great time.

For weddings, I really love it when the personalities of the couple getting married shine through, and when you feel that they have put a lot of thought into their guests' experience.

Let your guests know what to expect. The best option is to let your guests know what to expect before they arrive at your party by posting information on a website or even sending out a follow-up to the invitation in the form of a newsletter. You can share things such as what the weather may be, if the party is inside or outside, where the entrance is, what food is being served, if you will have dancing, etc. Let your guests know that there will be some fun surprises, though!

Also, the flow of a party or wedding is extremely important! If your guests are left waiting for things to happen, they will be either bored or starving or both! Keep the flow moving and the food and beverages readily available. If your guests aren't left wondering when they will finally have a drink or something to eat, they will be much more relaxed and in the moment with you. Also, have a place for guests to set their coats and any gifts that they may bring with them so they aren't left lugging large items around.

It is so important to think of ways to involve your guests and to let them know that their presence is appreciated! Say hello to every guest if you are the host or guest of honor! And keep everyone happy and entertained!

Describe some of your favorite ideas to "shake things up."

Have your cocktail hour before your wedding ceremony, but make certain that you serve an array of food items with the drinks. Try two specialty cocktails and lemonade/iced tea/or other summer winter non-alcoholic beverages. A full bar can be fun, but if you do it that way, keep the pre-ceremony time to under 1/2 an hour or your guests may start to become "unwieldy."

Instead of a photo booth, try a photo backdrop with a camera that can capture more than 3-4 people. has a great "Smile Booth." See here:

To really make it fun, provide costumes! You can keep it simple with feather boas, giant sunglasses and mustaches on sticks. Or, you can really go nuts with full costumes from your local party rental store. In LA, Hollywood Toys and Costumes is a great place to purchase costume items:

Not everyone loves to dance, but everyone loves to be entertained! Interactive entertainment is what guests love. Try a balloon-maker, cotton candy spinner, a cigar roller (great if you have a lounge area), or, my favorite are mobie trucks for food stations. Think "In-and-Out Truck". In LA, you can hire a mobile truck to bring you mini ice-cream sandwiches (my favorite is ,, sushi, beers on tap, and more!

You can even follow many of them on Twitter to find where they are located on any day or at any time to go to an impromptu "menu tasting." (mobile ice cream sandwiches that you can even put your custom writing onto), (mobile sushi), (mobile hot dogs), (mobile Sprinkles cupcakes).

Think of your favorite things to do when you go out and incorporate that. Consider your guests. For example, when you are invited to a wedding, do you think, "Yea! I can't wait to go!" or do you think, "Another wedding. There goes my Saturday night." Make it fun for your guests and it will be fun for you, too!

Here are some pictures from one of Suzanne's recent parties where she "shook things up."

Flowers by Flower Wild, Photography by Phil Cosby
Flowers by Flower Wild, Photography by Phil Cosby

Having a party with different gathering areas minimizes the amount of centerpieces that you need, but you can still choose an area to flood with flowers for a huge impact.

Pepe on Guitar, Photography by Phil Cosby
Pepe on Guitar, Photography by Phil Cosby

Choose different styles of music for different lounge areas. It is really affordable to hire solo musicians for a few hours.

Rentals from Classic Party Rents, Photography by Phil Cosby
Rentals from Classic Party Rents, Photography by Phil Cosby

Keep your decorations simple. These are vintage table cloths owned by the bride. Flowers were purchased at the local Floral Mart and then arranged in jelly jars.

Big Mista's BBQ, Photography by Phil Cosby
Big Mista's BBQ, Photography by Phil Cosby

Serve comfort food buffet style to save money on a formal dinner. Guests love food that makes them feel like they are a kid again. This buffet features amazing BBQ by Big Mista's and good ol' mac and cheese!

The Middle Class jug band, Photography by Phil Cosby
The Middle Class jug band, Photography by Phil Cosby

Save money by hiring a band that specializes in one type of music as opposed to a large entertainment group that does multiple types. You can cut your band budget in half!

(P.S. That is Billy Bob Thorton on guitar.)

What locations do you like the best for throwing unusual parties?

I love unique wedding locations. Unique locations are my specialty!

Two of my favorites are the Marvimon, downtown, and the Smogg Shoppe in Culver City (which is also eco-friendly despite the ironic name). The Smogg Shoppe ("LA's greenest oasis") is in a refurbished and beautified automotive center and has now achieved the US Green Building Council's Platinum Certification. Not to mention that it is a great location and perfectly laid out for a smashing party!

The Marvimon is another oasis of vintage beauty nestled in the hills near China Town. Many beautiful weddings have been coordinated there. My favorite is one designed by Jo Gartin of Love, Luck and Angles.

One location to seek out is the rooftop of the Mercury on Wilshire. It is a new, stylish condo complex, but we rented the rooftop for our event. It has stunning, almost 360-degree-views, of the city. You can see the Hollywood sign, the Griffith Observatory, the nearby Downtown skyline, the South Bay and the ocean. It has a grass area perfect for a ceremony and a pool area for cocktails. You could cover the pool with plexiglass for your ceremony, have cocktails in the grass/patio area and your reception with dancing in the pool area again. They also have room for caterers and you can have a custom tent pitched in case of inclement weather.

Have your reception in a restaurant. The ambiance, amazing food, tables, chairs and china are already in place. I went to a wedding at Lucques on Melrose that was just amazing. The ceremony was on the outside patio and the dinner was inside and served family style with dancing back outside on the patio. It was great fun! The Foundry on Melrose, owned by chef Eric Greenspan, is another great option with wonderful food.

More favorites of mine are the locations owned by Cedd Moses, such as the Broadway Bar, Cole's Downtown (great vintage event space!), Seven Grand and the Golden Gopher. I am waiting for the perfect couple who has rocking style for a reception (or even an engagement party or rehearsal dinner) in Coles. The possibilities are endless!

Speaking of restaurants and unique locations. The Waffle on Sunset and Vine on the lowest level of the House of Blues headquarters. Chic diner fare and a patio, inside diner seating and an upstairs bar = crazy, cool, 50's-chic reception!

The Art Deco Society also has links to some of the swanky-est historic places in LA, perfect for a vintage, classy and elegant affair. You would not only have a stunning location, you would be aiding in the preservation of LA's unique and storied history!

A very current and little-explored idea for weddings is something that Martha Stewart Weddings did this Summer in New York called a "pop-up" wedding. There are so many unique locations that have been left vacant as the result of our economic downturn. You can approach the property manager and ask to have your wedding reception in one of their vacant buildings. You would probably need to do this on a shorter timeline as they would rather rent the space to a retailer, but you could haul in decorations and rentals and have your wedding in a gallery-like space that would probably never be duplicated. I would definitely suggest you seek the assistance of a wedding coordinator for this one! There are a lot of logistics to sort out, but everyone would always remember your one-of-a-kind wedding event!

What are ways that throwing a non-traditional party can help you save money?

Well, for starters, you can save money on the food. You don't need to serve a 5-course meal. You can keep your party fun and alive by serving elegant comfort food or just good food period. It doesn't need to be expensive. Think of your favorite foods to eat and serve those.

Love mac and cheese and BBQ? Go for that. Your guests will have more fun eating food that they enjoy. Also, if you have a lot of places for people to sit and eat as opposed to a formal seating plan for the entire night, guests will have the opportunity to mingle with more people. In LA, a great BBQ caterer is:

Save money on your bar. Have 2 signature cocktails and an array of non-alcoholic drinks. That is a huge money saver! If you want, add wine and beer and include a few basics such as vodka, bourbon, and rum. Definitely have free something to drink, though. Include sodas, tea, coffee and water. No one has fun while dying of thirst.

Bands that are not formal are much cheaper! A local jazz band, bluegrass band or even a jug band will cost you around $2000-3000 or less as opposed to $5000-$10,000 for a band that can play jazz, swing and top 40. One couple whose wedding I coordinated found all of their musicians at their local Farmer's Market!

Save money on wedding favors. No one really wants a wedding favor unless it is practical. Except for your parents. And you for your keepsake box. Seriously, no one else wants a mini candle with your names on it. Sorry to break it to you. Your guests DO want a candy bar, cotton candy, make-your-own sundaes, cupcakes, funnel cakes, and all of the things that they only eat when they are at a carnival or celebrating a major holiday.

So, instead of the traditional favor, give your guests the gift of entertainment and food. Wouldn't you rather leave a party with fresh chocolate chip cookies and a mini milk, or a cheeseburger, or hot coffee in a to-go cup?

You can forgo a traditional wedding cake all together or you can have a small ceremonial cake for a topper on a cupcake tree. That will save you money on the wedding cake overall because cupcakes are apx. $2 each instead of the usual $6 per slice for wedding cake.

Instead of splurging on expensive centerpieces for every table, rent fun props from a prop shop. You could also use personal photos in frames with a few blooms on the table. Or, use live potted plants or succulents in boxes that are live and can be replanted. These are usually much less expensive than cut flowers.

Do spend money on lighting and candles, though. You need ambiance to set the mood!

How do you keep things feeling intimate and personal when throwing a big party?

Have different areas where guests can mingle and chat. If you break up a large party into 3 areas (more than that and your party energy becomes too diluted), guests can feel free to check out other things to do and meet more guests.

Have an area where guests can dance and then stage ottomans and benches around the dance floor where guests can rest their feet or watch the dancing.

Have an area for cigar smokers and whiskey drinkers. You could even throw in some card games where guests can place "bets" redeemable for tickets to a drawing.

Have a lounge for the kids with activities, games, coloring books and hire off-duty nurses or LVNs (Licensed Vocational Nurses), or Certified Babysitters who know First-Aid (just in case) to watch and entertain the kids.

Think about the flow of your party and imagine yourself navigating your event in your mind. Where would you enter? Would someone greet you? How would you know where to go next? Having live people guide guests is the ultimate guest service. Navigational signs are a great option, too. You can also have frames staged throughout the event that describe what is going on in that area and what guests can do there.

Thank you Suzanne for your fabulous advice. We may steal some of your awesome ideas like the mobile ice cream sandwiches, the photo backdrop, and the "pop up" location (I love that!) for our Catch My Party launch party. Stay tuned...


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