To make Aunt Carmen’s 80th birthday party memorable, we needed to come up with a theme. Great parties need themes to make them flow and focus the event. We wanted this to be a celebration of her life, so we started by asking: what does she like? Aunt Carmen has owned shops, hotels, and restaurants, designed shoes, and developed real estate. But her latest passion is … slot machines!
We thought this was hilarious, so we started thinking about a Monte Carlo casino-type party, complete with fake money, chips, and cards. Unfortunately, Uncle Arturo really disapproves of her gambling. So that killed that idea early on. Lesson number three: no controversial themes. Remember, parties about bringing people together; not about starting fights.
Luckily, Aunt Carmen’s Chinese name means “orchid” and she actually loves growing orchids. We made a few phone calls to make sure that they were in season, and then we were set.
Next was the budget. With so many people sharing in the costs, we needed to keep costs low. This meant no Gracious Style tablecloths or china (or anything else!). So while we could look to Preston Bailey and Vera Wang and Colin Cowie for inspiration, the reality was that our limited budget meant that we had to focus on the essentials. For us, these were: the location, the cake, the photographer, the party decorations, and her present.
For the location, I called restaurant after restaurant, only to be told that they could not accommodate the number of guests we were expecting. Living in L.A., it’s easy to forget that smaller cities just don’t offer the same kind of facilities we’re used to, so in the end we narrowed the search to two hotels: the Costa Rica Marriott, which is more Spanish …
… and the InterContinental Real Costa Rica, which is more contemporary:
Both were nice and they had really good information online, but the Intercontinental felt more sophisticated and it was in a more convenient location, so we chose that one. Lesson four: when planning large events in smaller cities, focus on larger venues with lots of professionals on hand to make sure things go smoothly.
The cake was to double as a centerpiece and dessert. We found Adriana, or Nana (www.nanascakes.cr), a really friendly baker who specializes in fun cakes like this one, which she made for a couple who had met at the park while both were out walking their dogs:
… and this one, for a chef who was turning 30 …
… and this one for a wedding (she used real tulle on the bride’s veil):
Although her style was more whimsical than what we were looking for, we loved her sense of humor and attention to detail. She was also really accommodating. Since we could not meet in person before the party, Nana offered to make us sample orchids and e-mail photographs for approval.
Her enthusiasm was contagious. On the day of the event, she showed up with five workers and assembled the cake on site. It was stunning! This is what it looked like:
And here’s a close-up, with the small butterflies we added for whimsy:
Which brings us to lesson five: Trust your instincts and work with people who are passionate about what they do. This is true regardless of what country you are in or what language they speak.
Next, follow us as we tell you how we decorated our tables, on less than $100 each.
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