How To Create a Sensational Outdoor Party

Skift Take

Outdoor events present a whole new set of challenges and complications. Here are 10 tips to ensure that you create a stunning outdoor party.

With winter now in full swing hosting a party in the great outdoors may seem like some far fetched idea but we eventprofs know a thing or two about planning ahead, so Winter is when many of us are planning for our biggest and best outdoor events. The great outdoors can create unique opportunities for events large and small.

1: Location, Location, Location

For many, the first response to events is to rent a fancy banquet hall and let the opulence of the space show the magnitude of the event. And, honestly, I’ve both planned and attended several truly wonderful events. But sometimes smaller gatherings in particular can feel overwhelmed in these immense rooms and some people will never be at home there anyway. If you really want people to experience the feeling of an occasion consider holding it in the great outdoors. Step one is all about scouting an outdoor location that captures the unique character of the event.

The grandest celebrations can build their wow-factor out of the simplest, most everyday materials. For me, I am rather literal, events or parties that revolve around “love” work best (weddings, anniversaries, engagements etc) but you can do the same for product launches, that have love for the product and have the same response from your audience of wow. Grandeur isn’t a problem; the old, towering trees that line most forests can serve as a natural metaphor for the scale of the occasion, the timelessness of love and the growth of things together. Outdoors, lends itself to a rustic, elegant formal dining arrangement that blends perfectly with the scene and sentiment.

2. The Look

Flowerpots erupting with fresh herbs and orange zinnia can replace the usual vase of cut flowers and be placed on a large wooden table clothed in a mustard and rust-coloured check pattern. Mossy urns of rich, green foliage can perch on stone pedestals that blend seamlessly with a forest floor, Dinner plates of the most extravagant onyx can dress up candles and glassware in mustard and amber hues to make the table glow with homely sophistication. Most importantly of all, candles of deep yellow tones, set on iron candelabras and in tiny votives, can guide guests through different parts of a twinkling forest to drink and dine at nightfall;: a journey as romantic and mysterious as love itself.

Fusing the rustic with the formal may seem like a troublesome contradiction or a décor disaster waiting to happen, however, it is precisely at the intersection of two seemingly unrelated ideas where I believe I thrive creatively. For one thing, adding a casual, rustic element to a formal party – potted herbs at a sit down dinner or Spanish moss on antique candelabras – invites guests to relax into the formality rather than merely feeling impressed (or oppressed) by it. At the same time, setting a silk-laid table and velvet-upholstered chairs in the middle of a forest nook invites guests to step up to the significance and formality of the event rather than feeling like they are attending one more event or party that has been done before. With this in mind, I always try and create a party décor for guests that is both fabulous and farmhouse, chic and spare.


3. The Invitation

An engraved invitation, is a nice touch, perhaps (see what I did there) rimmed with boxwood hedge leaves to set the tone when it arrives at the guests homes in an ecru-coloured silk box. This will give the smallest hint of what is yet to come.

4. First Impressions

Try and create a simple grassy pathway to a cocktail reception – like a red carpet – waymarked with bold, yellow sunflower heads.

Choose bright yellow tapered candles, small orange and yellow votive candles, and the odd zinnia blossom to bring a flame of colour to any wooded area. Individual candlesticks at a cocktail party can become massive iron candelabras dripping with Spanish moss. The hints of a sun kissed colour palette can have the ability to blaze brighter with a golden-hued silk-checked tablecloth, bold yellow and rust-coloured napkins, amber glasses, flax coloured place and menu cards, and copper coloured votives dipped in turmeric, paprika, and dried mustard for extra fiery tones. Instead of scattered pots of herbs and leafy greens, a naturally regal centrepiece of plentiful fresh herbs, electric-orange zinnia, moss, ferns and glossy galax leaves can rise from an ornate urn beneath tall, tapered candles with mica shades. For the final touch, pristine silver flatware, brought “down to earth” by handles carved into the shape of snapped twigs, and surrounded with plates of pure onyx.

5. How to Make Spice-Rolled Votive Holders

  • Paint simple glass votives candle holders with glass paint, making sure to paint in uneven strokes so that the candlelight can shine through
  • Dip the top in regular white glue – about 1/2 inch will do.
  • Dip glue covered edge into dried spices (turmeric, dried mustard, paprika etc.)
  • Allow the spice-covered glue to dry
  • Add a tea light when ready to use

6. The Scent

Marriage and coupling is like a garden; you have got to weed out the problems, protect it from environmental hazards and nurture it every single day in order to make it last. Instead of the heavy perfume of roses – an old standby of most outdoor parties and events – I would limit the flowers in the centrepiece to scent free zinnia and let the natural fragrance of fresh potted herbs fill the air with invigorating aromas. The aromas of vibrant mint and basil carry the memories of loving toasts when champagne and fresh herb cocktails were in hand. These outdoor events work well with product launches for perfumes; trust me as I have done more of these then outdoor weddings.


7. The Touch

Whenever I am in a beautiful natural spot, I am inclined to just sit down and take it all in. Swept away by the the moment, I never seem to think about whether the grass is damp, the sand soggy, or the rocks a little too abrasive for my mohair suits. Who amongst us has not returned from a picnic to find a grass stain or a sandy shoe, but when entertaining outdoors in high style, the textures of nature must be perceived visually, not underfoot (or tush). I try to work with two textures: the rough-hewn to behold and the refined touch. Cover most surfaces with raw natural textures, like rugged sheet moss, nubby Spanish moss, uneven stone urns, coarse ferns, and leafy zinnia, all of which can be purchased at any garden store. In contrast, the seats, glasses, plates, knives, forks and napkins – anything in short,which the guests will come in contact with – are of the smoothest finish. Velvet cushions soften the chairs, while slick onyx plates, amber goblets of fine glass, and pure silk linens add a luxurious touch to the table. In an ideal marriage of nature and nurture, guests can experience delicate comfort even as they perceive the unpolished edges of nature’s own striking décor, proving that dining “in the rough” does not have to feel that way.

8. The Taste

For any large group where the age and tastes are diverse, like all events, the menu needs to be as user-friendly as possible. And, if you are dining in a neutral setting, you will want to avoid the ungainly presentations and baroque pairings of nouvelle cuisine. For this, we will need to return to the classics, flavours that are simple, memorable, and as striking as the setting. Take for instance the herbed champagne cocktails; a simple leaf of basil or mint floating in each glass of grappa and herb-spiked Moet & Chandon, offering guests the kind of delicacy that awakens the taste buds in high style and, moreover, with a literal taste of their natural surroundings.

The dinner menu itself can present a similar experience of subtly transformed standard, try to always feature fresh earthy ingredients. Perhaps a prawn salad brightened with cucumber, garlic, and lemon-grass echoes to contrast with the sweetness and quiet zip of the champagne, while juicy melon dashed with orange and Grand Marnier can add more robust flavours to the mix.

A Sample Menu:

First course
Prawn Salad with Cucumber Garlic, and Lemongrass

Second course
Melon with Orange and Grand Marnier

Third course
Fillet of Lamb Wellington with Madeira sauce
Potato Purée with Garlic and Sage
Pan Seared Asparagus with Lemon Citrus Sauce

Fourth course
Chocolate Raspberry Wine Cake.


9. The Sound

Unlike the staggered arrivals of a typical dinner party, events of this nature (I did it again) often assemble together as they approach a wooded dinner setting. When this rare opportunity presents itself I love to cue sweeping emotions. I find Andrea Bocelli’s voice lifting in the trees seems to beckon guests towards the music and the event itself. The seemingly untouched forest suddenly becomes a Metropolitan Opera. This is the power of sound in entertaining: a short nature walk turns into loving theatre. But a peak is a peak; big effects depend on brevity. So, as the party gets under way, I suggest you shift gears from divine romance to earthly romance: from Bocelli to Dinah Washington and Sonny and Cher.

Here are my MUST HAVE musical selections:

Dinah Washington: Unforgettable

Shania Twain: Come on Over

Isreal Kamakawiwo’ole: Facing future

Chantal Kreviazuk: How to lose a guy in 10 days OST

Sonny and Cher: Look at us

Barry White: The Ultimate Collection

Ani DiFranco: Wishin’ and Hopin

Diana King: I say a little prayer

Wicked: For Good OST of the musical Wicked

10. Finishing Flourishes and Other Top Tips

  • Nobody likes to dine with mosquitoes and flies so when hosting an outdoor dinner party keep a less-imposing insect repellent like Skin-So-Soft.
  • Leave the cut flowers inside. Potted plants accented with orange or yellow buds make an easy, economical and appropriate centrepieces for an outdoor dinner table. You can either give the buds as gifts or blend them them into your garden when the party is over.
  • Flowers are not just for the table. Line the path with pots of dripping shrubs and blooms for a cheerful “map” to the party.
  • Love is a many-splendored thing. Bring a little of it to the heart of each guest at an anniversary party by writing different cherished loved poems in calligraphy on individual paper fans. Just secure a twig “handle” between two sturdy sheets of paper that match the menus and place cards, then fasten them together with rubber cement. Punch a hole on either side of the twig and then tie a sheer white ribbon around it. Leave one fan on each seat.
  • Hanging lights from trees is another great way to create a spectacle, I often do this with pearls and brightly coloured origami of sparrows in flight.
  • Do not always rely on nature to produce that “natural” look, specially where moss and leaves are concerned. Use only the store bought kind on surfaces that your guests will touch,as, the “real deal” often holds small (but hungry) bugs.
  • Take advantage of the interweb! Although you should always have alternate plans to bring an outdoor party in, the extended forecasts available online can help you track how likely that scenario is and plan accordingly.

In Conclusion

Designing a party that really resonates in someone’s imagination is its own reward. In the process of planning and celebrating a special occasion, my clients share their personalities, their dreams, their happiness with me. In return I try and share mine with them, which is why I never simply go by the blog (so to speak).

Creating a one-of-a-kind event – something that really lives up to the name event – is never just about some wild eureka moment or a vision of party planning poetry that beams down from heaven. It is about learning about what works and making it your own. It’s about introducing the tried, the true, and the traditional into your own life to make it new again. I always say that the party itself is only a percentage of the party plan – you should enjoy every step of the way. With this in mind in my blog posts I have tried to include tips and instructions for how to fashion the details of every party in the book, I have equally spent time trying to evoke the sensations and the meanings they generate.

Above all else, I hope the lessons and ideas in these blog posts help to inspire that same wonderful feeling in you and your guests. That is really the amazing thing about giving someone a party that touches their heart through the five senses: it has a way of touching your heart back.