Affordable Theme Party Ideas

Great ideas for affordable special events

Themed events can be entertaining and engaging for attendees, but they also can be expensive. The challenge for most planners today is to make a splash without using a lot of cash. Following are some creative theme concepts that can be carried out on a modest budget.

Welcome to town Some destinations provide natural themes, with iconic foods, décor and more. For example, instead of expensive floral centerpieces, pile tables high with the meeting city's most touristy trinkets, which guests can take away as mementos at the end of the night. Anything from key chains with dangling landmarks to shot glasses featuring famous neighborhoods can be arranged on the table for a smorgasbord of souvenir send-offs. "It immediately brings a sense of the destination to the table, and it gets people to play with things," says Jennifer Witherington, director of sales at Mana, Allison & Associates in San Francisco.

Witherington recently threw a Welcome to San Francisco event for a Canadian insurance group, with souvenir-shop centerpieces that included stamped postcards of the City on the Bay that could be mailed home to friends and family during the conference. She also decorated food stations with low-cost replicas of neighborhood icons for photo ops. Thus, Nob Hill was equipped with a wooden replica cable-car front, Fisherman's Wharf had crab traps and moraea plants, and two six-foot-tall Chinese parade dragons were set up in Chinatown.

Instead of a formal sit-down, Witherington suggests buffet stations to highlight food from a destination's different neighborhoods, such as clam chowder, crab cakes and shrimp cocktail for San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, and pastas and pizza for the city's Little Italy. Likewise, attendees could head to a faux Ghirardelli Square for chocolate.

Mary Baird-Wilcock, owner and senior event planner of The Simplifiers in Austin, Texas, says planners should invite local food vendors to cater the event as sponsors; it gives the vendors a high profile, saves money and offers attendees a variety of local flavors.

Salsa night "It's tempting to overload on décor," says Rachelle Stone, vice president of sales and marketing with Miami-based Advantage Destination. "But you can hit so much more space just with lighting and sounds."

For a recent client bash, Stone spiced things up with a Latin theme. Instead of spending valuable budget dollars on fancy room decoration such as hacienda furnishings, tropical flowers or a rustic fountain, she spread the wealth by engaging as many senses as possible.

To set the tone, Stone hired a Latin band (although a Spanish guitarist could be substituted for less) and five Latin-dancing couples who brought attendees onto the dance floor, where they whirled around under festive lights splashed across the room. It was an effective way to fill the space and kept the 3,500 guests entertained and engaged.

In the past, Stone also has included a Cuban coffee station and a cigar roller to allow the complex aromas to add to the atmosphere.

"Today, companies want to see the value for their dollar," Stone notes. "People aren't going to remember what the tables looked like, but they will remember the dancer who pulled them onto the floor and taught them the samba or the smell of that hand-rolled cigar."

When it comes to food, Stone says Spanish tapas can be a more cost-effective alternative to a sit-down or buffet and can feature mini tacos, bacon-wrapped dates and Cuban-spiced prawns.

Buskerfest Jugglers and magicians were the highlights of a recent "buskerfest" produced by Nicole Marsh, president of The Arrangers DMC in Denver. A nine-person troupe of buskers, or street performers, wandered around the outdoor area of a performing-arts complex, interacting with the 500-plus attendees while a percussion group banged on trash cans Stomp-style. The event's street-fair nature can be duplicated in any budget outdoor space.

The buskers catered to individuals and smaller groups of attendees to create a more personalized experience, and their colorful costumes in effect served as décor (Marsh suggests having the entertainers switch costumes midway through the night and tweak their routine to provide more bang for the buck).

Attendees enjoyed carnival foods such as corn dogs, sliders and cotton candy while strolling around, taking in the live acts and playing carnival games under red- and white-striped tents. For prizes, Marsh saved money by using the client's own logoed apparel, mugs and key chains that were left over from previous events.

Beach party The benefit of throwing a beach-themed event lies in its inherent informal nature. "You can keep it casual," notes Giuliana Balistreri, account executive with Destination Concepts in San Diego. "After all, guests are at the beach. They just want to relax."
According to Balistreri, the most important thing is to skip the potential logistical nightmare  and expense  of renting public beach space and stay at a beachfront resort with private beach access instead. "It's the labor and logistics that costs the most time and money," she notes. "When you use a private venue, all the components are there, and it requires less manpower than starting with an empty beach. Renting labor by the hour gets expensive." Using a venue with an indoor option also can provide refuge if the weather does not cooperate.

For a Hawaiian island vibe, cover tables with bright floral-print tablecloths and drape faux flower leis over chairs or hand them to guests as they arrive. Decorate counters or side tables with grass skirts or hang surfboards or wooden tiki carvings on the walls.

For music, a Beach Boys cover band, a calypso trio or even a lone ukulele player can do the trick. Luau dancers can provide entertainment or teach hula lessons.

For an indoor "beach" party, tables can be decorated with any brightly colored linens. Inflatable sand toys, beach balls and blankets can be spread around the room for easy, inexpensive décor.

Outdoors, tiki torches, beach chairs and teak furniture can be placed in the sand around a bonfire to allow mingling and networking. A beach volleyball net, horseshoes or beach bocce can be set up for activities.

Offer simple hors d'oeuvres, including seafood items such as mini crab cakes if the budget allows. The main course can be kept on budget with a beach barbecue serving burgers and kalua pork sandwiches. Mai tais or pina coladas add a tropical touch. For dessert, offer grilled pineapple over ice cream.

Game day This event begins when attendees show up dressed in their favorite college or professional sports team jersey. "This creates a lot of conversation among guests and gets a little razzing going, which is always good for networking," notes Nicole Marsh from The Arrangers DMC.

A deejay can play jock jams or school anthems, while sports-related arcade games such as Pop-a-Shot, speed pitch or air hockey can provide both entertainment and décor. Further atmosphere can  be provided by team pennants, plastic racing flags or anything with team logos. Cover tables with local team colors, helmets as centerpieces or even a pile of ballpark snacks such as Cracker Jacks.

Food can be kept to simple stadium fare, including burgers, brats, baked beans, and chips and dip, or go the ever-popular tailgate route with barbecued tri-tip sandwiches and salad. For an added touch, let hawkers carrying popcorn or peanuts wander the venue doling out snacks to attendees.

Local team mascots can be employed to greet guests as they arrive, though Marsh warns against hiring them for any longer than an hour, as they can lose their charm quickly while the meter is running.

Though the event is casual by nature, planners can take it to the next level by renting out space on the field of the hometown sports stadium, or by sprucing up the menu with Kobe beef sliders or gourmet hot dogs.