12 Last-Minute Ideas to Help Holiday-Party Procrastinators

Event planners and caterers offer tips and ideas including food walls, ornament decor, and gift exchanges.

D.I.Y. versions of cocktails served in miniature liquor bottles can be an easy catering option, says Riviera Caterers co-founder Bobby Stern.
D.I.Y. versions of cocktails served in miniature liquor bottles can be an easy catering option, says Riviera Caterers co-founder Bobby Stern.
Photo: Blaise Joseph Photography

With holidays such as Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa all less than two weeks away, planners who haven't hosted their office or home holiday parties yet might find themselves scrambling to put together a festive event. While the task can seem overwhelming, we asked caterers, venue owners, and event planners from across the country for tips and ideas on how to smoothly host a last-minute holiday party.

1. Be flexible in picking the date.
"The biggest thing for planners is to really try to manage client expectations and be flexible on the day," says New York-based Riviera Caterers co-founder Andrew Cavitolo. "Every company wants to have a party on a Thursday, followed by Wednesdays and Tuesdays. Definitely go for a Monday or a Friday night, which are actually less popular."

2. Focus on catering first, then the venue.
"Planners' first action is to call the venue. But if they work backwards, they'll have more information," says Cavitolo. "If you call caterers who talk to multiple venues at the same time, they will know the market better. You'd be able to get a lot more information as a whole than just cornering individual venues."

3. Incorporate a gift exchange.
AGENC founder and C.E.O. Cara Kleinhaut suggests incorporating a white-elephant-style gift exchange among co-workers as an easy activity idea for smaller office parties. "We did one toward the end of the evening, after everyone had a few drinks," says Kleinhaut, citing her Los Angeles-based company's recent holiday party. "As the owner of the company, it was fun to see everyone interact, and it wasn't something that I had to lead."

4. Don't get hung up on decor.
While Kleinhaut suggests grabbing affordable sparkly decor from local craft and flower stores, she explains that decor is usually the least important element of a holiday party. "It's about getting together and having some drinks and relaxing together as a team. No one is really looking at the decor," she says. "They're looking at what's on the drink menu, and looking for opportunities to relax and connect with co-workers."

5. If decor is important, focus on trends.
Randi Lesnick, C.E.O. and founder of Randi Events and Nashville Event Space, explains that bright red, white, and deep red florals will always add to festive decor. "Poppy floras are always a good choice, and mini Christmas trees hung upside down with warm uplights," says Lesnick. "White and silver flocking seems to be the trend this year, and the Pantone color is 'greenery,' so natural greenery is a must."

6. Use ornaments as decor.
In terms of presentations, Riviera Caterers co-founder Bobby Stern says a good low-budget option is grabbing ornaments from local craft and discount stores. "You could use gold, silver, or red Christmas ornaments, and use things that you see in your everyday life to add to the holiday spirit," he says.

7. Find a venue that suits your company.
"Find a venue that suits the personality or culture of your agency or office," says Kleinhaut. "If you want a space where everyone can circulate and talk, don't book a place with a big dining table. Make sure the space accommodates that kind of mingling."

8. Come up with an easy, eye-catching food display.
Riviera Caterers is known for its large-scale vertical food walls, which offer guests the luxury of grabbing a food item such as a pretzel or a doughnut without having to wait. "It's not a difficult thing to make, and it's like a food step-and-repeat," says Cavitolo. "It's a focal point for a room."

9. Consider the tablescape.
"Make sure your caterer does a lot of tablescaping," says Lesnick. "[They should use] a lot of different heights and theme the tablescape toward the holidays." 

10. Put a twist on holiday cocktails with mini liquor bottles.
Stern notes that cocktails like eggnog and hot toddies can be made in advance and served in tiny liquor bottles. "These drinks are customizable to any event," says Stern. "You can purchase mini bottles at your local liquor store and prepare them ahead of time. That way you can enjoy your party, and socialize and entertain your guests."

11. Serve dishes as presents.

For seated holiday dinners, Cavitolo notes that an eye-catching touch is to serve certain courses—be it an appetizer or a dessert—as a present. One example he gives is serving a dish in a cookie tin and tying it with bows.

12. Host holiday karaoke.

For a last-minute activity, Lesnick suggests incorporating holiday karaoke as a quick and entertaining way to get guests in the holiday spirit.

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