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A Party-Planning Primer From the Professionals

October 17, 2013 By:
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Red carpets are now pink, chalkboards are replacing place cards, and eggplant is a popular color — but not a popular vegetable. These and many other secrets were revealed when local party planning pros were asked to dish on the most popular trends in food, drinks and decor.

International foods continue to be among the top requests for wedding and Bar Mitzvah menus. “Many families are now traveling with their children when they are very young, so the kids get exposed to different cultures and cuisines,” explains Randy Schaller, director of catering/food and beverage operations for Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue. “Also, our own neighborhoods are becoming more diverse, so ethnic food is part of our everyday life. For example, in the past, people asked for Asian food — and meant Chinese food. But we had one Bat Mitzvah girl who specifically loved Vietnamese food. We got to create a menu that had rice noodle dishes, two different types of pho, grilled meat over cold noodle salad with lime-peanut sauce and other interesting items. Requests like that are great for us, because our kitchen gets to create different dishes. If a client has an adventurous palate, we rise to the occasion.”

Travel-found ideas aren’t confined to the menu, Schaller says. His staff created a Mexican mitzvah theme by using different sombreros in the decor, covering the tables in burlap and serving margaritas, grilled meats and fish. Another Bar Mitzvah was inspired by a recent trip: a safari. “The family had done a zip line, rope climb and all sorts of activities,” Schaller reports. “For the Bar Mitzvah boy’s reception, we made the whole room look like a jungle. We even had a zip line going across the room with a puppet attached to it, zipping around.”

But most Bar Mitzvah themes are very hometown-oriented. “Sports — with specific sports teams — are the most popular theme for boys,” reports Valerie Tkach, banquet manager at Spring Mill Manor in Ivyland, Pa. “We’ve done a lot with Phillies colors. Last weekend, we did an entire room in orange and black because the Bar Mitzvah boy is a huge Flyers fan. In March, we did a March Madness Bar Mitzvah. The guest seating area was done like a basketball court. The centerpieces were flags of the different teams.”

Many Bat Mitzvah themes focus on the girl’s favorite things: handbags, shoes, frozen yogurt places, movies and shopping, for example. B’nai Mitzvot are quite different at Center City’s Hard Rock Cafe, although that might be a self-selecting crowd of people who are music fans. There, guitars are used as guest books and signed with silver or gold Sharpies, explains Dawn Bundick, Hard Rock’s sales and marketing manager. Mock-tinis and Mock-aritas are served as kid-friendly versions of adult cocktails. The most unique reception that Bundick organized had a “mock-sino” casino. Instead of money, kids received chips to trade for prizes. Bundick also coordinated a rock ‘n’ toll theme: The Bar Mitzvah performed with the live band during the party. And then there is the pink carpet, which Bundick says is replacing the red carpet at Bat Mitzvahs. 

If you’re thinking, “There are now red carpets at Bat Mitzvahs?” you won’t have to think twice about a color scheme that has returned from the mid-1980s. Pink and black are popular colors for Bat Mitzvahs at Spring Mill Manor, Tkach reports. But when it comes to colors for weddings, one color reigns surprisingly supreme: grey. 

“I have literally seen 50 shades of grey at various weddings over the past year,” Tkach says. “Bridesmaids’ dresses, groomsmen’s suits, napkins, table coverings, chair coverings, and on and on. Grey is the big color of 2013 and 2014. It’s grey on its own, or grey with yellow or with purple — usually a deep royal purple.”

Schaller has seen the same thing at his Hilton. “Grey is a fantastic color,” he says. “It is soothing and elegant. It goes with whatever color dresses the bridesmaids wear and can be paired beautifully with other colors of linen. In fact, black is much less popular now because we have other colors available.”

Other in-demand colors for weddings include teal, purple (and its deeper version of eggplant), pink and cappuccino. As for what goes on the tables, Schaller says that, instead of tall flower arrangements, centerpieces are now composed of little glasses filled with blooms of various heights, including short stems. 

But it’s candles that are lighting up centerpieces, Schaller says, and Bundick says the same of weddings held at the Hard Rock Cafe. “Candles, candles and more candles,” she says, “with flowers being secondary.” She’s also seeing couples forgo numbers, instead using the names of streets in their hometowns to identify tables. Another of Bundick’s picks for great ideas: chalkboards instead of place cards

While modern technology remains central to entertainment, many families are making choices that have a homespun feel indicative of the Etsy generation. Sherry Muir, special events coordinator at Pinecrest Country Club in Lansdale, says that popular party favors include hand-painted wine glasses and repurposed vases filled with fresh flowers. Bundick has seen favors like hand-carved soaps, etched glass coasters and miniature potted plants that guests can replant to symbolize the newlywed couple’s love growing. At the Hilton, party favors are also taking a more practical, less chotcke-esque approach. “Instead of favors that are knickknacks that guests may take or not take, brides and grooms are giving favors that are something sweet, like pieces of chocolate or chocolate-covered pretzels in a small but attractive box,” he explains. “Another nice idea is to give guests lox with a bagel and cream cheese in a take-away container so they can eat it for breakfast the next morning.”

While that provides sweet endings, weddings begin with invitations and Tkach says that there is a new trend of couples sending invitations to celebrities. “From what I understand, it started with a guy who tweeted or Facebooked an actress asking if she’d be his prom date and she agreed,” Tkach says. “From there, someone figured out that if you send an invitation to well-known people, even though they aren’t likely to attend, they usually send a nice form letter expressing their regrets. We had one couple who sent invitations to Prince William and Kate, the Obamas and other famous people. They sent letters — on their stationery — saying, ‘Thank you for inviting us and we wish you the best.’ The Notre Dame head coach even sent back an autographed photo with a very nice letter. The bride and groom gathered all of those letters and displayed them on the gift table at the wedding. They were interesting to read — and definitely conversation starters.”

Melissa Jacobs is the senior writer for Special Sections. This article originally appeared in Simchas, a Jewish Exponent supplement.

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