Although even people in ancient times loved a good birthday party (the Bible’s book of Genesis mentions Pharaoh observing his own birthday with a feast for his servants), a surprise party would have been near impossible in the days before modern technology. Imagine trying to throw a surprise party when your invitations traveled by Pony Express or slow boat, and guests took days to arrive on horseback! Our high-tech era makes planning a surprise party easy, but it’s the excitement of keeping a secret, the element of surprise and the risk of the plan leaking out that makes the whole idea of a surprise party so much fun.
My own surprise-party experience was my 25th birthday. Although I’m generally a plan-every-detail, stay-behind-the-scenes kind of person, my husband prefers a little more spontaneity. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I walked into our apartment, exhausted after a long day at work, only to find the space filled with friends, family, balloons and birthday cake. My hubby had impulsively decided to throw me a surprise party just two days earlier. After my first astonished thought of “Thank goodness I touched up my lipstick before getting out of the car,” I settled in for a lovely evening of celebration, though I was a bit embarrassed at being in the spotlight.
Though my birthday turned out to be a success, according to Greg Jenkins, co-founder of Bravo Productions, one of the first rules of throwing a great surprise party is considering the guest of honor’s personality. Not everyone likes to be surprised, so if you suspect your guest of honor (GoH) might be overwhelmed, embarrassed or just plain horrified, respect her comfort level, and plan a different type of event.
If you’re confident your GoH will be thrilled by the attention, your next step is to decide where and when to hold the festivities. Cassandre Snyder of Cassandre Snyder Events points out that “It’s always best not to throw the party on the person’s actual birthday. A few days earlier work bests, because they won’t be expecting it.” Jenkins adds that it’s important to pick a location that won’t set off red flags as soon as the GoH approaches the venue. Whether it’s a bowling alley, restaurant, the beach or a family member’s home, choose a location the GoH visits regularly.
When it comes to planning the party’s menu, follow KISS rule: Keep It Super Simple. You don’t want to be sweating in the kitchen when the GoH arrives, so consider having food delivered by a caterer; or pick up pre-made salads, sandwiches, cheese platters and similar finger foods right before the big event.
Generally, you should invite guests at least two weeks in advance, but if you know someone is a blabbermouth, delay that invitation as long as possible. Jenkins adds, “In the case of surprise parties, do not use social media to spread the word. Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms are the surest way to tip the honoree off about the surprise party.” Instead, rely on emails, phone calls and text messages. Be very clear in your invitation that this is a surprise party, and include all details about where, when and how.
Once it’s party day, you might have to come up with a plan to get your unsuspecting GoH to the festivities. Snyder has a unique suggestion – invite them to a different party! “The best way to surprise a person is to invite them to a party. Just not THEIR party. Have an invitation created with someone else’s name and info. Make sure you tell those people closest to the guest of honor what you are doing, so that they can bring it up or talk about it.”
Stacy Doherty of Errands Etcetera cautions that you need to remind guests to park well away from the party venue, as well as stay away from windows, doors or outdoors areas where the approaching GoH might see them. Don’t turn off all the lights, however, unless the area would normally be unlit. You want your GoH to be surprised, not panicked, at the big reveal.
One recommendation shared by all the event planners is to remember your GoH is the star. Whether that person’s dream festivities include pizza and bowling, a sit-down, fancy dinner or a casual group of friends at the park, bring that scenario to life. As Jenkins says, “If you go through the trouble of throwing a surprise party, make sure the party is about the person intended.” Because when the cries of “Surprise!” go up, all you want to see is a dazzling smile of amazed joy.
What made your favorite surprise party great? We’d love to hear!