Hosting lessons I've learned from seven years of throwing an annual party

lounging in the meadow
Friends chillin' at our annual anniversary party. Photo by Megan Finley

After our wedding in 2004, Andreas and I decided that camping with our friends in the forest of my mom's property was so much fun that we wanted to do it every single year. This last weekend marked our 7th wedding anniversary, and therefore our sixth annual camp-out, which somewhere along the line became known as Meadowfabulous.

Ariel roasting a hot dog
I'm Ariel and I'm here to roast some weenies and spread some knowledge.
The annual event has morphed over the years (simply stated: more babies, less inebriation), but every year things just get easier and easier in part because I'm getting my systems (yes: I have systems!) better settled and smoothed out. The first couple years of Meadowfab, I spent most of the weekend running around in a white-hot panic of logistical terror and social anxiety. Once I made a few tweaks with the format and processes, things got way easier.

Here are the biggest lessons I've learned from seven years of hosting this weekend event, most of which are applicable to all sorts of parties:

Keep it to a manageable size

As a hostess, my goal at first was MOAR PEOPLE! More friends! More fun! More dancing! I am a promoter at heart, and for a couple years our camp-out got bigger and bigger every year, as our friends brought their friends, who brought their friends. In 2007, some random couple I'd never met before showed up at 3am and set up their tent up practically on top of Dre's and mine. I had a dark moment in my sleeping bag, thinking to myself "Who the fuck even ARE these people!?" and from that point on, I decided the camp-out needed to be smaller.

I love meeting new people, but when the camp-out got to the point where I didn't recognize whole clusters of guests, and couldn't even figure out who I should ask to introduce us, I knew it was time to scale things waaay back. No one was disrespectful, but I realized that I didn't want to play hostess for 50 of my friends' friends. I wanted to see 30 or so of OUR friends. Resist the urge to get sucked into feeling like the size of your party is tied to some sort of middle-school concept of popularity. Quality over quantity when it comes to hosting.

Maybe you don't want to host the alternate reality

tyler+axe
Dude, I'm so wasted right now -- you know what I really want to do?!
Earlier in its history, Meadowfab definitely had a lot more inebriation of all sorts. Our friends like to party, and initially our goal was to provide the most awesome gorgeous setting for them to get their psychonaut/shamanic journey on. After a couple years, it became very clear to me that I couldn't handle the liability issues — and I mean that both literally (what if someone had hurt themselves?) and figuratively.

Taking care of high/drunk people can be a huge burden, and I spent a lot of time fretting over the pack of girls who'd turned a dirt-floored shed into a VIP lounge, or the friend of a friend who got high and wanted to do some wood chopping, or the guy who asked me if he could take a large crystal into the woods for a while. The amount of bottles to recycle after the weekend filled several wheel-barrows. I started feeling resentful about people being so hungover that they couldn't help with clean-up on the final day of the camp-out.

If you change things, give it a couple years to shake out

We made the big shift in 2008 when we decided to stop setting up a full sound system. There was some outcry at first — what would the party be without dancing? How would it work if the focus wasn't on staying up all night on Saturday? Can I still bring my 10 friends?

It was a little rough that first year to say there will be NO MUSIC, sorry. NO you probably shouldn't bring all your friends (and their friends). YES it'll still be fun, just in a different way. That first year felt a little odd as people adjusted to the new format. But by the following year, the folks looking to get REALLY fucked up just prioritized other parties over ours. Dre and I were just fine with that.

Do not over-engineer

cienna and ariel
Ok, so first I was thinking we could do a scavenger hunt, THEN the pancakes, then we can play corn-hole and have the campsite decorating contest, and THEN we can -- wait, why are you looking like that?
I'm a pretty hands-on hostess, and I have all these great ideas for how our camp-out could be SO AWESOME. Scavenger hunts? Welcome bags? Making pancakes for everyone in the morning?! But after years of spending the entire weekend running around engineering and spending NO TIME actually enjoying myself, I realized I needed to stop it. I could spend three hours making pancakes … or I could just sit back, let folks serve themselves from a buffet of food, and actually have the time to shoot the shit with my friends. Amazing!

This also extends to social engineering. I used to feel like every single guest's social comfort was my responsibility, and so I spent a lot of time dashing around introducing people, trying to engage the shy folks, putting the busy-bodies to work helping with various tasks, etc etc. Ultimately, I learned to just pick my guests carefully, and let them work their own magic.

Cultivate your guestlist carefully

Oh man, this is important. For me, I like our camp-out to be a way to get friends who may not have met each other to mingle and see why we think they're all awesome. Each year, there are people who've never been, who know no-one. Each year there are guests from out of town. It's pivotal that everyone invited be one of those folks who can plop down on a camp-chair next to a campfire and say "Hey, I'm so-n-so — who are you?" You need a good mix of single and coupled friends. You need people who blend. You need people who don't want to get high and play with an axe.

When you're really thoughtful about your guestlist, you don't have to do as much social engineering because your guests know how to introduce themselves, help clean up, or spread information through the party. When you pick your guests carefully, the party almost throws itself.

Take notes for the following year at the party

Half-way through the weekend I remembered that last year we'd had this issue where our breakfast/lunch food options felt WAY too focused on bready/starchy food … but when I'd assembled our annual Costco shopping list, I'd gotten all the exact same carb-tastic things. I started a little note to myself: next year, more protein. Next year, do the talent show a little earlier. Next year, consider a forest-wear fashion show. I put all the notes into a Google Calendar item that'll pop up next July, so that I can remember all this stuff when I'm actually planning next year. Perfecto!

In summary, annual parties are a little different than one-off parties because you have the weight of expectations and get a chance to tweak things as the years go by. But the core issues are the same: getting just the right people together, and letting them do their thing.

Any of you throw annual parties? Any great tips to share?

  1. My friends and I are coming up on our third annual lake/camping weekend in the middle of Nebraska. A couple things we've learned:
    * Have a place to communicate ahead of time. Facebook Events is awesome for this.
    * Write down what's expected: bring cash to fill up the boat and jetski, team up with two or more people to put together a meal for everyone.
    * Don't let one person have the final say on the guestlist, but don't make it a group discussion either.
    * Having two or three key people "host" the campout — this spreads out the heaviest responsibilities.
    * Make sure newbies are properly introduced to the jetski. Yes, we're still reeling from our first accident :)
    * There's no way to stop accidents from happening BUT learn from past mistakes.

    1 agrees
  2. My parents host a huge (over 400 people) Halloween party every year. They live across the street from a parking lot so that works out nicely. My mom keeps her Blackberry in her pocket through the whole event and takes notes throughout the night for adjustments to make for the next year.

    You learn as you go. Do what's fun!

    1 agrees
  3. A friend and I host an annual "Orphans Thanksgiving" where we get together with out circle of friends, everyone brings a dish, and we talk about what we're thankful for. We're always looking to extend the circle and bring more people into the love, but I think we'll reach maximum capacity in a few years. None of us has a living room big enough to accommodate everyone anymore!

    2 agree
  4. We also do a few big campout parties a year, one which is one year 5, called Fire Mountain. We have sussed out the deets pretty well in 5 years and we have come up with the following helpful tips

    *Leave no trace ( a la Burning Man) Pack in, pack out. Even the recycling
    *do-acracy. You want a omlette brunch on Sunday morning, then you are now the leader of it. Dont suggest an activity youre not willing to spearlead
    * a combo lock on the front gate. If you dont know the combo, you dont get in. If you got kicked out last year, you wont get the combo this year.
    * friends are ok, but if you bring people and they fuck up, youre not welcome either. Likewise, friends of friends are not ok. If you cant personally vouch that someone is not going to get high and play with an axe, dont invite them.

    9 agree
    • Oh AND if its THAT kind of party, designate a red light district or a grown-up dome thats well marked and somewhat secluded, for the people who like to get naked and freaky. Especially if there are also going to be kids at the campout, so they can avoid stuff mom and dad dont need to explain quite yet.

      3 agree
  5. I wish I had a meadow for a party. This looks so fun. We do an annual birthday party. One giant party for us and our five kids.

  6. Every year on New Year's Eve, we host a party and art trade. There are fewer logistics since the only people "camping out" are those who crash on the couch, but I found myself nodding along to everything you wrote.

    We also had this "big is better" idea for a while. I had the same kind of "who the fuck are these people?" moment a few years ago, the same year that a friend of a friend's boyfriend got seriously wasted and a little grabby with some of the ladies and had to be forcibly sent home in a cab. Since then the party's been a little smaller, a little more our speed in terms of inebriation, and more fun. This year will be our 10th anniversary, and it's gonna be epic!

    1 agrees
  7. If you enjoy hosting and quirky writing, I suggest reading Amy Sedaris's "I Like You". My 23-year-old brother and his friends do a trip to the Indiana Dunes every year and this year he put his foot down along the line of "We do not need ten 30-packs of Busch for five guys for two days." The little guy's growing up.

    3 agree
  8. Don't ever, ever be too afraid to put your foot down and say NO. If it's to the one who wants to play with an axe… or the one who brought his out-of-town cousin you wind up pouring into the backseat of their vehicle… or even, eventually, calling it quits.

    Sad as it is, I became very tired of being the one everyone looked to for set-up, planning, reservations, food ideas, and "babysitting" for those old enough to take care of themselves yet somehow still incapable. The last time we tried, I wound up out money for reservations, food, and a great deal of time and patience when things just 'didn't work out with timing' for a group of people who decided to do their own thing elsewhere. Last minute. As in, I-know-it's-tomorrow-but-we-made-other-plans. A small group of people never said anything at all, just didn't show up. Sadly… I'm done.
    I miss the good times. The aggravation turned out to no longer be worthwhile. Things change.

    (Yes, I know this can sometimes be avoided by knowing the guest list very well. People change too, though.)

    3 agree
    • I hear this. I thought about calling off the party completely, but scaling it back from ~100 people to ~30 made all the different for us. :)

      2 agree
    • Since I love planning trips (like an event, but while moving ;-) ), I have found that whenever you are planning any group event in which other people are supposed to give you money for it, have them give you the money up front. Paypal is your friend, sending checks in the mail is your friend. If you don't you will always have that person/those people/everyone that calls you the day before saying "Oh, I can't go now because I blew all my money on stupid stuff/have other things to do/don't feel like it", and you will just be out all that money, and they certainly won't pay you back, even if you made it clear that they needed to pay whether they came or not. However, if you have their money, they will make dang sure they are going; it never fails- funny how that works, huh?

  9. Thank you for writing this! My fiance owns a cabin in the middle of nowhere and as his partner, I get stuck hosting every time he wants (or his friends want) to go out there. I'm not a huge fan of hosting in the first place but to host a party for his friends and their friends of friends can be very stressful for me. No one contributes any food so we get stuck buying ALL the meat and veggies plus non-alcoholic drinks. Some people will bring enough beer for themselves to drink but then start dipping into our drink stash. I do all the food prep and cleaning while he cooks and fixes things as his friends sit around drinking with each other. People ride around in our toys but when they break them, they walk away from it and say "oh well". I also stand nervously watching while they blow things up and go crashing over trees in our ATV – no one can hear you scream in the middle of nowhere and the nearest hospital (assuming we can even drive out of the property) is 45 minutes.
    Sorry, needed to vent. That being said, it is way too much fun out there (when I find the time to enjoy myself) to stop going. His best friends have really stepped up to helping him take on some responsibility. But as far as coming out to someone's cabin in the woods empty-handed, my mother raised me better than that and I just cannot fathom how people can do that. People can be so inconsiderate when it is not their own property. I'm glad I'm not the only one who gets stressed out when hosting big parties in the woods.

    1 agrees
    • It can be really hard to change the expectations for a party that's been going on for several years. It's all very well to say people "should" know better, but when they've been hosted like they're at a bed and breakfast for multiple parties, they have no way of knowing that the expectations have changed. I think Ariel's take was spot on–for me, it was weird for a year, and then people got over it, and anyone who didn't like the new game plan stopped coming. You and your fiance may want to email out your expectations before your next party (bring your own food, you break it you fix it, whatever) and if anyone doesn't shape up, you don't need to make drama about it then and there, but they don't get invited next year.

      3 agree
    • Maybe for next year, make a secret facebook event for the group? Only invite the people you want to go, and ask everyone to pick a food item to bring (provide a list). I love secret groups on facebook- they can be so helpful.

      1 agrees
  10. My sig other's family owns a beach cottage that we get to use for a weekend in the fall and a weekend in the spring. After a few trips out I decided on a new way of doing things.
    There is a google docs sheet. Any individual who has been there before and is coming again has to sign up to head (& purchase food for) a meal OR to run clean up after a specific meal. If you sign up for clean up you also have to buy booze/ice to share with the group.
    This way everyone knows when/how they should be helping and who to ask about when lunch is going to happen. (New people get a pass to learn how things work, plus they usually help anyway.)

    3 agree
  11. I know you're doing more advertising than book writing lately, but I think you would write a kick-a$$ hosting book, Ariel. Amy Sedaris' is good, but I have that thing memorized already. MOAR!

    3 agree
    • Aww! Thanks for the encouragement. Maybe I should crank out an eBook or something… :)

      5 agree
  12. Also, have shit loads of hula hoops (I need at least three expletives to express my love for the number of hoops in your pictures). We have monthly mini burn and everyone brings their skill/flow/fire toys to share. There is nothing more awesome than 15 people playing in the woods with LED light up hula hoops! Our town's hoop community is pitiably small so I have started bringing them to all parties just so we can recruit!
    Yay hoops!

    1 agrees
  13. Pack a GIANT first aid kit with all the usuals and include: sunblock, more sunblock, insect spray, even more insect spray, antihistamines, gastrolyte, tweezers, 3 pairs of scissors (the first two always get nicked), a cortisol cream, tampons (for the usual and nosebleeds), any medication you take, an asthma inhaler, an epipen (for bee stings), anti-bacterial gel, and calamine lotion. Whack it all into a GIANT toolbox and no-one has to have a miserable time coz they had an ooopsie.

    2 agree
  14. I've been hosting an annual Canadian Thanksgiving party for all my friends for the past three or four Octobers. The first year I tried to make EVERYTHING. Will there be turkey? YES. Stuffing? Homemade. Cranberry Sauce? with orange zest. Mashed Potatoes? 10 lbs. Green Beans? Steamed. Appetizers? A variety. Dessert? so much pie. Drinks? I mulled my own cider…

    And it was delicious and my friends enjoyed themselves greatly. I, however, spent the entire day and evening in my kitchen, which at that point was not attached to our social/dining area and I pretty much missed the whole party.

    Now I do the basics. I make the turkey, stuffing, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce (since it's in advance) and green beans. My friends are asked each year to post in a FB invite what appetizer, side, drink, or dessert they're bringing.

    It makes it way more family-like because everyone contributes and exchanges recipes. And I don't have to spend a small fortune on top of a butt load of time.

    2 agree
  15. Have a back up host in reserve!

    Our family hosts 2 big front yard parties every year- (no, it's not camping in the middle of nowhere, but it is wicked fun and requires a lot of coordination). I always make sure someone outside of our family knows all the details and is willing to step in as host if we need to deal with an exigent issue. It's usually Lizzy, and Lizzy has been a savior a few times. Get yourself a Lizzy!

    1 agrees
  16. We just got married in a weekend camp out at my farm (not where we usually live) and there's been a request for a yearly party in the woods. Great comments and ideas to consider, since we would now be hosting our first "yearly" party in the woods- with drunks, trucks and chainsaws complete!

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