Photo by the Proud Mom-of-the-Bride-to-Be

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

One Engagement Party - Some Ideas, Lessons Learned, Suggestions and Tips

A first-person, start-to-finish, account of planning and having an engagement party that went off without a hitch; offering some ideas, lessons learned, suggestions, and tips

Author's Note

As you'll soon see, I'm not a party planner. In fact, when my daughter and her now-husband announced their engagement, and I was faced with being responsible for planning the engagement party, I hadn't planned any even that big since my own wedding - and even that didn't have as many guests as the engagement party would be having.

I've planned more than my share of bridal and baby showers, and couple of retirement parties. My parents' twenty-fifth wedding anniversary was quite the big event, but it was held where my sister and I wouldn't be getting involved with decorating, bringing desserts, etc. As for those showers, I'd planned those years ago, before people tended to have one, big, shower with a lot of people. I'd planned those when it was most common to have two or three smaller showers (which, of course, means I have a lot of experience planning a large number of showers but not so much experience planning individual, "higher volume", events).

I've written the account of my daughter's engagement party for a few different reasons. First, I thought some of ideas I used for the party might be something that someone else might like use, or at least modify to their own preferences. Also, I thought I'd share a few things that I learned through taking the party from "just an idea" to "went off without a hitch". Something else that I thought might be worth sharing are the few suggestions/tips that may help someone else avoid unnecessary hitches.    

No Hard-and-Fast Etiquette Rules For Engagement Parties

Although we live in a time when just about anything can go when it comes to engagement parties and weddings, when the time came to plan my daughter's and her fiance's engagement party I did want to adhere to a certain degree of "general etiquette rules" the second thing I began to think about was finding a location for the party that seemed appropriate for the "degree of formal" that the wedding would be. There really aren't any hard-and-fast "rules" about engagement parties. They can be as casual or formal as someone wants them to be, but a good rule-of-thumb is often not to have the engagement party be a bigger deal than the wedding.

The first thing I began to think about was what I might get to create the color theme my daughter liked, which was teal and orange or peach. The color scheme, along with the fact that the party would feature only vegan food and desserts, became something of a foundation on which the additional party plans would be built.

Things To Consider

   Selecting A Location For The Party

We looked at restaurants, function rooms, and a nearby country club. Many restaurants either didn't have large enough function rooms or else just weren't nice enough. The country club was beautiful, although the whole atmosphere was dark and heavy inside; and since the party would be held in November the inside environment mattered. The country club, perhaps needless to say, was a. on the high-priced side, but more of a problem was the fact that there was no flexibility with regard to decor or general environment/atmosphere. We told that what flowers (etc.) we saw were the flowers we'd get the night of the party. Also, as with many wedding/function venues, there were flat-rate packages for the meal, which can be fine unless one is not entirely sure yet whether there will be forty, sixty, or eight-five guests.

What the party would have cost wouldn't have been all that terrible (although, of course, it certainly wasn't a bargain), but the restrictions and requirements for numbers by certain dates; factored in with the fact that a. the atmosphere wasn't really what I had in mind, and b. there was that heavy, dark-wood, look to the whole building; not only made us decide this wasn't the right location to have the engagement party, but meant my daughter and her fiance would look for a more fresh, natural-looking, venue for their wedding as well.


So, we decided to rent a local hall after seeing the interior and talking to the woman in charge of functions. The building wasn't fancy or beautiful on the outside, but it was attractive enough that it wouldn't look horrible to arriving guests. The nice thing about it was that there were several attractive function rooms - again, not fancy but very attractive. In fact, they were kind of warm and cozy without being suffocating. The great thing about the hall was that I had complete flexibility with regard to decor/theme/menu etc. etc. Although my daughter wanted to remain completely surprised about the details of the party (once the color theme and location had been established), I did ask her a few preferences right from the start: White tablecloths or colored? To-the-floor tablecloths or not? That may have about all I asked her about preferences for the "eventual and inevitable" party. I didn't want this once-in-a-lifetime event to involve something she really didn't want.  


The Invitations

Since between sixty and eighty people would be being invited I did some looking around to figure out what seemed like the most sensible and reasonably priced approach to the invitations, particularly since I didn't want to have to go the "make-them-myself" route. Since I tend to prefer as many "ready-made" things as possible one of my first calls was to some local gift/card stores. I wasn't sure that ready-made invitations wouldn't be good enough. After all, some of these stores offered some pretty nice cards (etc.). First, I learned that they don't necessarily keep enough of the same kind of invitation on hand for so many people. Next I realized that I would not be getting any particular bargain by buying ready-made invitations with blank lines for the details. I looked into places like Staples and discovered that a. I didn't really like what I was seeing offered, and b. I could have probably gotten what I wanted if I also wanted to get "heavily involved" in the creation of the invitations. I didn't.         

After looking into VistaPrint I went with them. They offered a wide selections of designs, with the option of customizing the fonts and text placement on a ready-made design. The price was reasonable, and I "created" just the perfect invitations. The price became a little less reasonable when I went with self-stick envelopes that had my return-address pre-printed on them. (Hey, besides having a lot to do, I'm a left-handed writer whose handwriting tends to be, at best, only readable; and at worst, it runs downhill when I don't lined paper to keep my words on the straight-and-narrow. Yes, I have about six different kinds of return-address labels, and three perfectly "wonderful" ink stamps for the same purpose; but having those pre-printed return-addresses in just the right color and font just seemed more appealing for this special occasion.

Sent out with computer-printed address labels, the matter of my own questionable penmanship and my daughter's father's even MORE questionable penmanship, was avoided (Emily Post-approved or not).

And Yet Other Things To Consider - A Little More "Atmosphere"

Color Theme                           

I wanted what might be described as "elegant-lite, leaning toward fresh and airy more than toward ostentatious and heavy". With white/off-white walls in the room, a stone fireplace that took up a good part of one wall, carpeting, sconce lighting and dimmer switches (which I'd asked about ahead of time, because I didn't want "K-Mart lighting"), the plan was to have classic white tablecloths and use teal/dark turquoise cloth napkins to add color. As part of emphasizing the teal/blue tones look, I decided to use "linen" favor boxes as close to teal/turquoise as I could find. With the cloth, almost heavy, napkins the lighter tone favor boxes lightened up the overall look. The boxes were filled with small "light teal" (I don't know if once the shade is light it would still be called "teal") and white, heart-shaped, mints. In the aim to emphasize the color theme I found found a mix of "bites" type candy by the people who make Peter Paul Mounds/Almond Joy. The "bites" mix included dark chocolate coated, "blue" coated, white coated, and tan coated candies with chocolate and coconut inside. Also added to the favor boxes were a few pieces of dark chocolate, as well as a gold-wrapped, white-chocolate, truffle from Lindt. I wanted to "splashes of sparkle" wherever I could use them without having the look morph into the look of a New Years Eve party or little girl's birthday party. Pretty, color-theme-appropriate, paper napkins were available at the dessert table.

Having decided to put novelty, heart-shaped, candy dishes on each table; as well as on the bar and dessert table; My daughter's father and I hand-selected hard candies that would be in keeping with the color theme but that would also contribute to adding "sparkle" to the tables. Selecting those candies one-by-one from a supermarket candy bin was probably the most tedious task involved (especially since the candy bin is in one of the busiest places in the store, but I digress). For the most part, it was a little tricky to have both a color theme AND enough white to keep the decor looking as light, classic and "dressy" as I was aiming for.

Shades of orange and hints of sparkle or sheer ribbon turned the simple teal napkins into that color theme I had in mind. I selected the sheer ribbon with a shiny, wired, edge for the favor boxes. I found (online) pale peach flowers - one for each favor. The flowers had shiny white "pearls" as centers, and they had splashes of tiny "pearls", which added a hint of sparkle. (The colors don't show up as accurately in the pictures as I'd like them to, but it's too late now to get better pictures.)

As an extra "favor-type-of-thing" for guests to take, I found hand-made, sheer, butterflies that had hints of sparkle on the wings with "pearls' adding a hint of sparkle too. My daughter's father and I joked that the butterflies were really useless little things that served no purpose other than to add to the shades-of-orange accents, and we knew the guys at the party would have little interest in them; but we figured the women and any little girls in the guest's life might like them. Actually, they really weren't favors at all, obviously; but what do you with over a hundred, orange, decorative, butterflies once the party is over? (And so, they became "favor-type-of-things".)

Light teal decorated the tops of dark fudge, vegan, brownies (which were included among the other pastries and fruits). A few other accents aimed at keep with the color theme were added to a dessert table - clusters of flowers tied with sheer, orange, ribbon; a butterfly or two, a "thoughts/wishes" (of the guests) box was multicolored but included the main colors (again, however, the colors in the pictures are slightly off). Notepads and small pens to be used by the guests as they wrote their thoughts, wishes, for the happy couple to read, and keep once the party was over.

Simple Glass Vases And Other Incidentals That Helped Create A Little (Sort Of) "Dressier"/"Dressy-ish" Mood 


I found simple glass vases, simple glass candle-holders, mirrors for under the candle-holders, where Anchor Hocking and other USA-made glass at stores offering such products at low prices. The heart-shaped candy dishes were an afterthought that I wasn't entirely sure about. My daughter's father and I, however, kept reminding ourselves that this was not the wedding and it wasn't necessary to stew over whether the hint-of-whimsy (as far as I was concerned) dishes were corny or "anti-Martha-Stewart-like" or not. Worth noting: The florist shop was selling the very same vases I used for several times more what I paid for them by getting them elsewhere.

Clear "crystal-looking" trays, baskets, etc. were used for things like sweeteners, plastic flatware used for desserts, some condiments, and any extras offered that weren't offered by the caterer.


I ordered white Alstroemeria and greens for the vases that would be placed on each table, as well for the fireplace mantle, where I placed a larger bunch of the delicate-looking yet long lasting flowers. The long-time florist's guidance was helpful because she explained to me that besides being affordable, this particular flower was predictable with regard to when it would be at its peak with regard to being in bloom (so I was able to pick up the flowers the day before the party and still be confident that when selected guests were sent home with a vase full of flowers the blooms would last for quite awhile in their homes). Included were the right, muted shade of green, Eucalyptus in the hopes of adding a hint of scent. I'm not sure they really did, but it's tricky to achieve that fine line between "hint of scent" and "flower scent so powerful that people are tasting it in their dinner".

The Meal

The caterer provided the vegan meal after we had a couple of consultations and worked out a buffet-style meal that was most likely to please, hopefully, most guests. Originally, I was told I would have to supply the vegan margarine. Later the caterer told me she'd found a supplier, so that detail wasn't necessary. The arrangement was that the caterer would provide the hot food/meal. I would provide the desserts. The future-groom's mother, my sister, and I took care of the desserts. For anyone wondering where to find egg substitute for baking, Whole Foods is where we found it. In our area ingredients for vegan cooking are offered in "regular" grocery stores, but the offerings are fairly limited.

The Cake

(Names "edited out")

Looking for a bakery from which to order a vegan cake was a challenge. A number of vegan bakeries specialized in wedding cakes, but I wasn't looking for a wedding cake. Also, they tend to sprinkled through Eastern Massachusetts, and not "sprinkled" all that generously.

It took a little bit of phone tag, but I got in touch with the woman who manages the bakery at Whole Foods. She first had to ask whomever it was she reports to whether she could order a frozen sheet cake. Once it was established that she could I set up a meeting with her to see the types of frosting colors and decorations that would be available. I selected an orange and green color theme (orange flowers and green stems, leaving, and writing), as well as the type of flower I wanted used in decorating. Live and learn: The bakery supervisor explained to me that vegan frosting changes color slightly after twenty-four hours or so. Because of this the woman also showed me the "final colors" that the frosting would be - not just the pre-twenty-four-hour shades. She was incredibly helpful, although she seemed to keep emphasizing that she wasn't all that accustomed to baking such a big vegan cake. The sheet-cake for sixty-or-so guests turned out incredibly beautiful. (Oh, by the way, I selected gold because I knew we would have the fudge brownies and scattered chocolate candy offered in one place or another. Somehow, too, the gold cake seemed more "engagement-/wedding- related".)

A Few Other Matters To Address

The Lighting

I brought strings of white "Christmas" lights for across the fireplace mantle and down each side. An extension cord was need, so that's worth mentioning, I suppose.

We chose "relaxing" lighting for during the meal, which meant we dimmed the lights a little but not very much. Wall sconces around the room, and behind the bar; as well as the candles on each table, helped create the mood I'd wanted to achieve. Also probably worth mentioning, bringing a butane light for lighting candles makes lighting candles on several tables quick.

My daughter's father discovered a floor-standing disco ball and ordered it for the dancing portion of the party. It was a whimsical edition, and when the lights were further dimmed in sections of the room, and the disco ball was switched on, it actually did kind of transform the previously more "under-stated" dinner atmosphere to more of a party atmosphere.


The caterer provided, of course, coffee and tea. Besides what was available at the bar (including soda for anyone who preferred that), bottles of wine were placed on each table with dinner.

With dessert there was champagne toast to the future bride and groom.


I put together some treats for the few children who had been invited, including child-safe favor boxes that did not have potentially hazardous and glued flowers on the lids, and that had child-friendly and child-safe stickers on them instead. With the exception of a baby so young the food and desserts weren't factors anyway, the only other children there sat at the same table with their parents; so I included some small dishes of candy that I thought the children might find more like some of the candy they may have had at children's parties.

A few entertaining activities and some treats with child-appeal can go a  long way keeping child-guests happy at an evening event.

A few entertaining activities and some treats with child-appeal can go a long way keeping child-guests happy at an evening event.

A Speedy And Efficient Set-Up When Time Is Limited And One Doesn't Know Who Will Be Available To Help Immediately Before The Party Begins
When one chooses to "create the atmosphere" by himself, rather than just going with what is offered by the facility, that means that even a fairly generous set-up time must be used wisely.
My challenge was that I had plenty of offers for helping with set-up, but several of the people offering couldn't say exactly when they'd show up. Four members of the groom-to-be's family were coming from quite a way away, and in different cars. They were also hauling desserts and coolers. Traffic was what it was. My sister, another "offer-er", was picking up the cake. The only people that I knew, for sure, would be there the minute set-up time was "open" were my two sons, their father, and I.

The only way I knew to deal with the "iffy-ness" of not knowing how many people would be involved with set-up was to write a simple list of what needed to be done, but then to draw a diagram that included things like "what" and "where". I left the two printed sheets of paper on the bar, where anyone who showed up could look at them and get to work without my stopping and going over everything with each new-comer as he arrived. The tables were, of course, set up and had tablecloths on. The caterer would be dealing with the silverware and glasses. One matter was that we still weren't entirely sure of exactly how many chairs we'd be using, or whether we'd be using extra tables. That was something that would be dealt with by my sons and their father once see saw "what was what".

On the simple list I broken down tasks that could be completed very quickly by one person or more "whipping around" the room. There weren't very many more complicated tasks, so I listed them separately. The idea was that if nobody got there in time to help, once I'd done my part with the "whipping around" tasks, or else once I knew I had little choice but to leave those simpler tasks to my sons and their father; I'd head over to do the more complicated tasks.

The two main "more complicated" tasks were the matter of decorating the fireplace and setting up the lights for it; and setting up the dessert table, which was to have a few decorations and the "wish box" and related items. (Rather than leave the purpose/"instructions" for the "wish box" to the chance that some people wouldn't know what they were supposed to do with it, I wrote the instructions/explanation on a "sign" that my daughter's father printed and that we put in a frame next to the box.)

In any case, those more complicated tasks were temporarily set aside until either someone else showed up to do them, or else I could address them once it was clear that nobody else would be showing up in time to help.

The two printed sheets freed me up to team up with one son as we ran around and laid down the ironed napkins and later ran around and placed the butterflies; while my other son and his father did the same on the other half of the tables. It was super-quick and super-efficient; although it didn't help that one of the caterer's people was running around behind us, rearranging the silverware that we'd placed where I wanted it. There was a minor debate about that between the caterer's person and me, but it wasn't a big deal. With all my careful plans, however, I found it kind of frustrating, but amusing, to have someone running around behind us, undoing what we were doing.

As it turned out, as the dessert-bringing folks arrived with all their stuff, it made sense that the future mother-of-the-groom deal with the dessert table set-up. As the first, simple, tasks had been done, it also made sense that my son deal with the lights on the fireplace. Having left "fill the vases with water" on the list for someone else to do, I addressed the matter of careful flower-arranging. In the end, we all had ten or so extra minutes to fresh up, get rid of the boxes (etc.), and relax for - truly - a couple of minutes before the guests-of-honor and guests arrived.

A good time was had by all. (Well, maybe two of those child-guests - two little boys who pretty much only liked chicken nuggets and pizza - didn't actually have as good a time as most of the other guests did. Their three-year-old sister and teen sister seemed to have a good time, though.)

I have no doubt the future in-laws probably thought I had some form of OCD, but I don't usually do this kind of thing.  It sure helped keep set-up effortless, though.

I have no doubt the future in-laws probably thought I had some form of OCD, but I don't usually do this kind of thing. It sure helped keep set-up effortless, though.