How to plan a non-wedding party

Full disclosure: this is a non-running post. If you don’t care about party planning, feel free to skip this. I just wanted to document my process in the hopes of helping anyone else out there in the same boat and looking for advice.

OK, so where do we start? Last year, the Gypsy Runner and I eloped. We headed down to the County Clerk’s Office in Oakland, called in a friend last-minute as a witness, and got married. We told no one of the official date. Being that neither of us are religious, this was perfect for us. Also, I’ve attended (and been in) enough weddings to know that I wasn’t eager to do the whole traditional ceremony plus reception thing. Not to mention that, while the GR loves going to other people’s weddings, the idea of being the center of attention himself was probably the worst thing he could imagine.

However, I have always wanted to have a party/celebration where all of my favorite people get together, eat, drink, and are merry. Oh, and have a fun dance party, too. My parents, as a wedding gift, generously gave us money to host a celebration. We decided to have it a year after we got married and call it an anniversary party – one, to get away from the idea of a wedding; and two, to have it in the summer time, which was more convenient for our out-of-town guests to join us.

Once we decided on a general time frame, it was time to start planning. While there are tons of resources out there for wedding planning, there are less/almost zero for what I had in mind: a non-wedding party. Yes, there are websites like Offbeat Bride, which offer more non-traditional suggestions, but they are still very much geared towards wedding-weddings. So, I’ve written this post for anyone out there looking for tips or even just to read about someone else’s experience planning a non-wedding party.

Before you start planning…
The biggest thing in event planning is the budget, which dictates how many guests you can invite, how much you can spend on the venue, food, drink, decorations, etc. Fortunately for us, my parents’ gift paid for most of the party. I foolishly thought that a non-wedding would cost a lot less than a wedding. I mean, it was substantially cheaper, but it was still the most I’ve ever spent (or will ever spend) on a party.

The next thing is to write out a guest list. I listed names on a spreadsheet, and I also tried to guess who would attend. We invited a lot of out of town guests who either came solo or couldn’t make it. We also had our party during peak vacation time, so several people bowed out for that reason. Having a solid headcount was super helpful in deciding on a venue and on the food and alcohol budget.

Finally, prioritize what you want out of the party. We considered a Chinese banquet style sit down dinner, but ultimately decided that an evening cocktail party would be more casual and fun. Our top priorities were good food and drinks, a logistically easy venue, and for me – dancing. Just as important, we decided what was not important to us — things like favors, flowers, a professional photo booth, etc.

The Venue
This was pretty challenging, since I was looking for a non-wedding event space and there are very few resources out there. Somewhere along the way (probably Googling, “non-traditional wedding venues”), I came upon Peerspace, which is like airbnb for event space rentals. (For what it’s worth, Yelp also led me to a couple of venue options.) Even though I didn’t really know what I was looking for, I was ultimately drawn to industrial spaces with a modern appeal. The GR and I also talked about hiring a food truck, so being able to park the truck at the venue was essential.

Other keys (some of which I had in mind at the start, others which became important during the planning process):

  • central location
  • parking or public transit nearby
  • enough space for guests and tables/chairs
  • clean/updated restrooms
  • bonus: audio/sound system (no need to hire a DJ)

As for cost, I will say that many of the more popular spaces (i.e., easy to find on the internet) that jumped out at me were very pricey, especially for Saturday evening rentals. When looking at the rental rates, you have to also consider things like:

  • does the fee include set up and/or clean up time?
  • in what state do you have to leave the venue (in terms of cleanliness)?
  • are you limited to specific vendors?
  • are you limited in terms of alcohol? (we had to buy wine from our venue, since they’re a wine importer)
  • are there additional costs? for example, some places require an on-site manager or security during the event, an additional clean-up fee, and/or additional fees for bringing in outside food or drink
  • does the venue have tables, chairs, and/or glassware that you can have access to?

Ultimately, the place we chose was slightly pricier per hour, but they also gave us about 3.5 hours of free set-up time (2 hours on the day before the event). They also received our party rentals for us on the day before. Another reason I went with this particular venue was that I hardly had to decorate. There was lovely bar area already set up, and the interior had nice paintings, lamps, and plants. I just had to add a few personal touches and it was all set.


The bar area. The only things we added were the banner, bar menu, and drinks.

Like I mentioned above, we had considered a Chinese banquet (such a great value, IMO), but we preferred the idea of being able to walk around and mingle, as opposed to a sit down dinner. We gravitated toward food trucks because they’re slightly cheaper than catering and everything is made to order. They come with their own utensils and napkins – one less thing to think about. And yeah, they can be unique – though also becoming passé/less trendy. We tried 4 different trucks before deciding on KoJa Kitchen, which worked out great for us. Everyone loved the food and the servings were satisfying. I heard that they were fast too – people waited about a minute for their food after ordering.


Our guests at the truck

If you’re thinking about going the food truck route:

  • popular food trucks (like Chairman Bao) were already booked 6 months in advance, so if you have a place in mind, jump on it immediately
  • contact the food trucks in advance and they might offer a free tasting. We got to try food from 2 trucks for free this way.
  • food trucks are more affordable than most catering options, but they aren’t cheap. Expect to pay ~$20-30/person.
  • think about where the truck will park and if you’ll need a system to make sure only your guests get served (i.e., tickets, tokens, passwords, etc.)

Other food: we didn’t know if everyone was going to like the food truck, and we were also worried about wait time, so we had plenty of appetizers from Ann’s Catering just in case. We ended up ordering way too much food, but I guess better too much than not enough? We also ordered too many cupcakes from our favorite shop. A lot of people told me they were too stuffed from the food truck to enjoy them, unfortunately.

We had planned on an open bar where people could just help themselves, but when our venue’s event planner suggested a bar service (Polly Martini), I decided to look into it. While I couldn’t afford what was suggested (2 bartenders and a busser), we ultimately decided on 1 bartender plus consultation services. This included pre-party planning (to decide on cocktails), a shopping list, and bar setup and service for 5 hours. It was a splurge, but I decided at some point during planning that anything or anyone who could make decisions for me was worth a bit of extra cost. Also, the idea that someone would be manning the bar helped to decrease my stress level. I wouldn’t need to worry about chilling and restocking the beer or opening the wine. Plus, the signature cocktails ended up being a big hit! I also hired a busser – actually, she’s an undergrad who works at UC Berkeley, to help me with the event. That was super helpful too.

I initially wanted to hire a friend of a friend to take pictures, but the GR didn’t want to do that for various reasons. Fortunately, we have a very talented friend, CC, who happens to do portrait photography on the side and agreed to take pictures at the party.  I just got the pictures back and they’re great! Some nice posed shots and a lot of funny candids too.


Photo credit: Casey Chattler Photography

This was the one thing that caused me a lot of anxiety. I had no idea what to do for centerpieces on the two tables I was renting, or any of the other decorations. Luckily, the venue didn’t need much, and with the advice from some helpful friends and a little perusing on Pinterest, I came up with a few simple ideas. For flowers, I ended up going to Whole Foods the day of the wedding and getting a couple of pretty bouquets. My friend CC made us a cute banner, and I hole punched table confetti (it was pretty ridiculous how much they charge for round pieces of paper).

The one thing that ended up being more work than I anticipated were the printed photos. I wanted to hang up pictures of me and the GR, our families, and friends who would be at the party. But this required sorting through my whole photo collection (16,000+ pictures!) and deciding which ones would make the cut. My one consolation was knowing that I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now, and this party forced me to sit down and get it done.

Dancing & Entertainment
We purposely left the structure quite loose, though I definitely wanted to make a speech about halfway through the party to thank everyone for coming.


Making a quick speech

After my speech, our friend JS ended up giving a surprise roast/speech, which was hilarious and well-received. Our other friend ME had made some games (cornhole and giant Connect 4) for another wedding, which he set up for us. I also set up a little DIY photobooth with Instax cameras, which was fun. People were supposed to take a photo for our guestbook and one for themselves – the closest thing we had to party favors.  20170722_203218Instead of hiring a DJ, I set up a  playlist on Spotify. Our friend IV is a Spotify expert and he introduced me to the crossfade playback option to get rid of those pesky silences between songs. He also helped me sort songs by beats per minute so that they would flow better.

Hair & Makeup
This wasn’t directly related to party planning, but it was definitely a thing I was worried about. A lot of hair and makeup people will charge you extra if you want to do a trial before a special event. I didn’t feel like doing that, so I tried to do some DIY shortcuts. For hair, I learned how to curl it myself, which was fine. But in the end, I took a risk on a stylist from a local salon on the day of the party, who curled my hair for only $35 and in about half an hour. So worth it! For makeup – my original plan was to go to Sephora and get a makeover before a friend’s wedding (they’ll give you a “free” makeover as long as you spend $50 on products). If I liked the makeover, I’d try to book the same person for the party. Unfortunately, the makeover turned out too heavy for my taste. So I spent the next few weeks learning how to do my own makeup more naturally – but also with a bit of dramatic pop. I have to say that I’ve learned A LOT about applying false eyelashes, using concealer to look less tired, and how to shape my eyebrows – thanks to some friends and also YouTube tutorials. 😉

All in all, I think it was a fun and successful party. The biggest downside was that I didn’t get to talk to everyone for as long as I wanted (or some, hardly at all), but that’s bound to happen.

If you have any questions at all about planning, please let me know in the comments and I’ll try my best to help!



Howdy! My name is Jen and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I like to eat, run, and blog, but not usually at the same time.

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10 comments on “How to plan a non-wedding party
  1. Great job! I also went with a non-traditional space (for my wedding) – a warehouse!

  2. Cathryn says:

    Oh golly I missed being part of this. I was grumpy this weekend. Love you guys xxx

  3. Amy says:

    Looks like such a fun party! Happy One Year!

  4. Angela says:

    It was a great party! We had lots of fun eating the delicious food & hanging out with friends/chatting with new folks – thanks for inviting us! 🙂

  5. bt says:

    Agreed that it was an awesome party. I’m always so impressed when people plan and throw a big party — it’s such a lovely gift to give all of your friends. We had such fun catching up with folks we hadn’t seen and meeting new people.

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