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William Fogler

Shhh--Can Clients Keep a Secret? Planning Epic Surprise Events

Creating a surprise party brings a special set of challenges for event pros--here's how to pull it off.

Planning, designing and executing a corporate event or wedding everyone knows about takes professional expertise. But putting together a big surprise party--and making sure the person who knows nothing about it will be thrilled by everything from the decor to the guest list--requires an extra set of skills.

At WM Events, we have had the pleasure of planning surprise birthday parties, wedding anniversaries, corporate luncheons, and even a surprise celebration for one of our own staff members –-now, that was tough to keep secret.

Despite the necessity of keeping everything top secret, the host needs to be certain the honoree will appreciate details such as the venue, the food, the cocktails and the theme. Careful planning will help ensure the event, whether corporate or private, will come off without a hitch and excite everyone involved. If it’s going to be a surprise, make sure it’s a good one.

1. Get to know the honoree by a peripheral route.
With a surprise event, the planner cannot ask the guest of honor about his or her preferences, so it’s vital to find creative ways to learn about these. Reaching out to best friends, children and parents and gleaning whatever information is possible will start to paint a picture of who the honoree is and what he or she finds important. Obtaining photos, including those from childhood, can also help create a deeply memorable event.

2. Set up a communication system.
Because secrecy is key, communication with the host and other involved parties must be thoroughly considered. For one party, our team easily communicated with the host husband through his business email. But another couple had their emails linked through iCloud, so the planners set up an entirely new email just for the party.

Communicating after-hours can also be helpful. In fact, planning a surprise event can feel altogether clandestine. At one surprise anniversary party we planned, the honoree’s octogenarian mother pulled me aside and said, “Thank goodness, I can stop lying to my daughter now!”

The issue of receiving payment can prove challenging when a couple’s financial accounts are held in common or are linked. Clients might have to find creative ways to get large sums of money from these accounts in order to pay deposits and other event fees. It might even be necessary to allow clients to pay more of the cost later so that nothing suspicious will appear on bank statements during the planning process.

3. Choose a venue.
Surprises can be daunting, so choosing the right location can help the guest of honor feel comfortable. The venue should be a place that either has meaning for the honoree or is one he or she will immediately appreciate. This could mean holding the event at the honoree’s home, especially if she already loves to entertain.

If the venue will be new to the honoree, something that perfectly suits his design style is sure to make the right impression. For one client, we couldn’t hold the event in her favorite place because it was another city. Instead, we brought Savannah, Ga., to her, creating it through the use of iconic elements that would leave no question that the event was created for her.

4. Find a personal theme.
Whether it’s a color, a style, a generation or a place, incorporating a theme that speaks specifically of the guest of honor will show her who is being celebrated. In addition to creating Savannah at an Atlanta venue, we crafted a party around the guest of honor’s name, Rose, which naturally lent itself to incorporating popular rose gold hues and plenty of glitter. The party tagline was “All that sparkles is Rose.”

For a surprise birthday party held for a younger honoree, the theme was all about what would feel hip and relevant to a millennial. This theme called for street food, street art and Moscow mules at a trendy in-town venue. Guests, who were invited by a street artist-designed invitation, enjoyed a taco bar and treats from an ice cream truck.

5. Put the focus on the honoree.
While it can be tempting for the host to plan the party of his or her dreams, the task of the event planner is to keep the focus on the honoree. In addition to choosing the right venue and theme, giving the guest of honor center stage is key. This may include creating a giant slideshow with photos collected from all invited guests or carving out time for special toasts.

The recent trend of guests not taking photos during events works well at surprise parties, too. With hired photographers charged with recording the festivities, guests can be free to focus on the celebration. Similarly, some hosts request that only the guest of honor can post photos to social media so that she gets to control what is made public about her event.

6. Set the arrival time and entertain waiting guests.
For any surprise event, timing is important. Asking guests to arrive one hour before the honoree provides enough time for anyone running a bit behind. Including a 15-minute window when no arrivals are permitted just prior to the honoree’s entrance will take care of serious latecomers, who will have to wait until after the big reveal. At the same time, be clear about arrival times on the invitation so that guests do not show up far in advance when party setup is still underway.

During the hour or so waiting period, provide food and light refreshments such champagne and water. This time is less about trying to entertain guests, because you do not want to get them deeply involved in anything. Simply allow the guests to mingle as they await the grand entrance of the guest of honor.

7. Strategize the honoree’s arrival.
When it’s time to shout “Surprise!” it should be as much fun for the celebrated as the celebrating. Consider having the honoree walk through the door into an unexpected experience, like 150 of her closest friends and family waiting inside the restaurant she thought she was visiting for dinner. Or go for something truly epic, like a blindfolded honoree attended by a marching band or arrival by helicopter onto the roof of a spectacular venue overlooking the city skyline. 

Most important, make sure the photographer is focused on the honoree at this moment to capture the look of surprise when she realizes what is happening. Her reaction will be priceless and make all of the challenging planning worthwhile.

8. Keep the surprises coming.
Even after the grand entrance, it’s possible to continue astounding the guest of honor throughout the event. Maintain the energy by introducing one surprise after another. Add an impromptu renewal of vows to an anniversary party. Have an a cappella group suddenly start performing. Invite a special friend or surprise guest from far away or long ago. Fly in a favorite musician from another city. Ask a top chef to prepare a special dish. Create a progressive experience for a continuously expanding event. There is no limit to how surprising a surprise party can be.

9. Send guests home with something to remember.
The guest of honor will remember the party forever, and guests can too when you thank them for coming with a gift that is sentimental and can be kept or used at another time. Party favors should be important and related to the guest of honor. This could mean celebrating an oenophile with customized bottles of wine or giving guests custom cigars and matches if the honoree is a cigar aficionado. Even a pretty cookie or filmstrip from a photo booth can offer a moving reminder of the event and the guest of honor.

People think it’s going to be easy to whip out a surprise party. To do it well, it takes a lot of planning and foresight. Remember, it’s all about the honoree, and it’s the job of the event designer to get the host to put his or her ego and wishes aside to keep the focus on what the guest of honor would most like.

Designer, planner, consultant and founder of Atlanta-based WM Events, William Fogler believes that experience is everything, and if you’re going to make a real splash, you’d better be ready to commit your heart and soul. A native of Denver, Fogler has been making his punctuation mark on the events industry for nearly two decades and brings a West Coast style and sensibility to his adopted city of Atlanta. Launched in 2004, WM Events is a full-service event planning and design firm that handles corporate events, high-end social affairs, weddings and "all sorts of intimate or monumental happenings."

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