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Bruce Russell's top tips to help you plan the perfect party

Worried about guests hanging around for too long or flowers getting in the way of a good conversation? Event planner Bruce Russell suggests five hassle-free ways to plan a party, while expert florist Paul Thomas adds some helpful advice on the blooms to pick

Cocktail reception at home

Guests: This depends on the size of the entertaining space, but, remember, you’re hosting, so make it manageable. In most instances, I’d say a maximum of 50 people.

Food: Canapés and bowl food should be served. Make sure it’s plentiful and visually striking as it will be the mainstay of the catering. Have lots of options for different dietary requirements.

Drinks: Serve champagne (you can’t go wrong with the classics – my personal favourites are Veuve Clicquot, Laurent-Perrier, Ruinart and Nyetimber), red and white wine, and don’t forget original non-alcoholic options; people are getting tired of elderflower and sparkling water. Don’t overreach yourself. If you do want to offer cocktails, then pick one signature drink and make sure you know how to make it. 

Time: 7-11pm, but with a view to things running a little later.

Entertainment: You will want background music, but nothing that will disrupt conversation. Maybe a duo or a small swing band, space permitting. Also, think about the acoustics: can the room support the sound?
Dress code: Cocktail comfortable. Suggest cocktail dresses but as it’s at home, people can afford to be a little more informal.

Hiring and firing: It is better to have no staff than bad staff. Briefing them before the party is crucial to make sure that they look – and sound – 
the part. Don’t be afraid to be specific either (e.g. no facial hair or wear a particular uniform), so you don’t get a shock on the night. 

Top tip from Paul Thomas: Nothing beats candlelight for creating a warm, inviting atmosphere, but avoid flame at eye level as this creates a blind spot. Little nightlights scattered around flowers create a pretty twinkling effect. Plus, the low-level light is rather flattering as well.

Afternoon summer buffet

Guests: Bear in mind that a British summer can be unpredictable, so having shelter in case of rain will be important if guests can’t be accommodated indoors. Around 50-75 guests, including kids, will ensure a good buzz without fear of overcrowding.

Food: I love having separate food stations, some staffed by chefs cooking, as well as some with pre-prepared options. Why not have a grill, a seafood stand and plenty of salads and vegetarian options? You’ll want an abundance of food so that nobody goes hungry and people can graze all afternoon. It’ll also means that any late arrivals are easily accommodated.

Drinks: It’s really fun to have a punch with an alcoholic and non-alcoholic option. Make a big batch ahead of time and let people serve themselves. Mini bottles of beer and champagne in ice buckets provide a good option for larger groups as people can grab their own drinks without the host having to make endless rounds with a tray.

Time: 2-6pm, but things could run on.

Entertainment: You can have lots of fun here with something performance-based. For example, if you have a pool, you could have a synchronised swimming showcase.

Dress code: Summer casual.

Calling it a day: To subtly hint that the occasion is drawing to a close, ensure that food service finishes at least 30-40 minutes before closing, and tweak the tempo of the music. The key is to have gradual change without ever seeming inhospitable. Having pre-booked taxis offers a clear sign, while invitations often include a time for ‘carriages’. 

Top tip from Paul Thomas: For more extravagant parties it can look wonderful to have flowers above eye level using tall clear glass vases holding flowers above. This method of decorating will really help furnish a large open space like a marquee. When using transparent vases, it’s essential to keep the water as clean as possible. I recommend purifying the water; Milton Sterilising Tablets work a treat.

An evening meal

Guests: The sky’s the limit here, but make sure the guest list befits the occasion. Whether it’s a dinner for ten or 200, the key will be in the experience that you offer.

Food: Depending on the scale of the event and the venue, a carefully crafted menu with three or more courses is a good option, or à la carte if the restaurant can handle it. If there are pre-dinner drinks, then a few canapés can be served, but you don’t want to spoil people’s appetites so a little quantity control is required. 

Drinks: There should be a good wine list to complement each course and a range of digestifs after dinner. 

Time: Drinks at 7pm, with dinner at 8-11pm.

Entertainment: This is an occasion that requires subtle background music and the repertoire should be tailored according to the size of the dinner and venue. You could opt 
for a live pianist with some vocals, but the performance shouldn’t be unduly distracting.

Dress code: Formal, but do specify if you mean black tie or for ladies to wear long dresses. The key with a dress code is to be clear and specific – it’ll ensure that the event looks the way you’d like it to. Plus, nobody likes to turn up to a party feeling under or overdressed.

Table plans: Don’t separate couples and think about the dynamic of the group as a whole, with due consideration given to creating the right chemistry and who will and won’t get along. 

Top tip from Paul Thomas: Make sure you choose a tablecloth in a shade that is complementary to the flowers. And always follow the golden rule with table decorations: make sure your guests can still see each other. Test the flower height by sitting at a table and judging how high you can go before hindering your guest’s view. One of the joys of flowers is their perfume, but be a little wary of over doing it as some blooms, such as white lilies, can be quite off-putting with food.

Party abroad

Guests: Overseas outings tend to be better suited to closer friends and family. 

Food: This should be locally themed and really play to the strengths of the destination. Whether you opt for canapés, brunch or a sit-down lunch or dinner, make sure your catering decisions are based on what suits the destination, type of event and venue.

Drinks: Where possible, choose local ingredients and make it fun and visually impactful.

Time: This entirely depends on the type of party, destination and climate – it might be an afternoon affair aboard a yacht or a dinner under the stars. 

Entertainment: DJs with a carefully curated playlist are often a good bet for parties abroad. There might be some logistical considerations when it comes to flying acts in or sourcing the right calibre locally, but where possible a few options that showcase the local culture will be well received.

Dress code: Pick a dress code that people can easily pack in their suitcase. 

Invitations: Give as much notice and detail as you can: location, timings, distances, will people need to take time off to travel? A ‘save the date’ can go out from nine months before the event, with invitations sent two to three months prior. You can also send out a taster of what guests might expect at the party, such as a box containing a mix for the signature cocktail that will be served on the night. These personal touches can really lift an invitation and turn it into something special.

Top tip from Paul Thomas: For a large-scale event ask your florist to develop a mood board for the look and ambience you want to create. I love to take clients to the flower market with me. A few hours of research there will help no end with budgeting and inspiration. 

Afternoon tea

Guests: It is an intimate occasion, so best to have around five to ten guests for the right ambience.

Food: You can get creative when it comes to presentation, but I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to ingredients. I love the classics: finger sandwiches, pastries and, of course, scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam.

Drinks: Classic champagne is a must, or if you’d like to be a bit more quirky, how about a tea-based cocktail?

Time: 3-5pm. Much later and it moves into cocktail hour!

Entertainment: You could hire a pianist or maybe a harpist, but nothing too intrusive. For a contemporary twist, hire a DJ, but remember that entertainment for afternoon tea is only ever a subtle addition.

Dress code: This is a good opportunity to dress up. I’d call for cocktail attire – dress and heels – to inject the right kind of elegance.

Catering: A good catering company will be able to turn their hand to different occasions and work collaboratively with the host to deliver stand-out food and drink. I often use Last Supper, Urban Caprice and Bubble Food. It’s essential to agree the brief and budget right from the start and to do a menu tasting.

Party favours: Guests will rarely finish afternoon tea, so a beautifully packaged box of leftover goodies is always a welcome treat, perhaps accompanied by a blend of the tea that was served. 

Top tip from Paul Thomas: Selecting the right hue of flower can make all the difference. It’s good to choose an accent colour from the room so your arrangement is in harmony with the space. Other factors to consider are the season: hot clashing colours for autumn, and soft pastel shades for early summer.