On sunny Saturday in mid-May, Caitlin Moran kicked off summer early, with friends, cocktails, and a busy grill.
Moran, an Annapolis-based stylist and editorial director of the lifestyle website The Glitter Guide, is an expert party hostess – so even her backyard barbecues are handled with extra care and extra flair. At her party in May, she served sparkling sangria and instead of standard-issue burgers on the grill, she created a make-your-own gourmet pizza bar, with a variety of cheeses, meats, and fresh vegetables available as toppings.
Summertime is prime entertaining time – and an ideal time to host a party at home. According to global market research firm Mintel, in 2012, nearly a third of Americans hosted a summertime party celebrating Memorial Day, Labor Day or the Fourth of July. Those three holidays are summer's big party days but Marylanders celebrate warm weather and relaxed schedules all season long.
Casual backyard get-togethers are fun but Moran promises that establishing a trendy theme and paying attention to details can take house parties to the next level.
Starting with the menu, even simple twists can elevate a party from standard to special, says Moran.
"Having a theme is a nice way to make it special," she advises. "Even if it is just 'gourmet burger night' vs. burgers and dogs." Seasonal menu items – anything with herbs and fresh vegetables – are especially appropriate.
Hiring a food truck is another fun and trendy take on the backyard barbecue, says Baltimore event planner and interior designer Stephanie Bradshaw.
"We have a lot of food trucks coming to parties after weddings," she says. "But you can also just have the truck drive up to your house at the party."
Bradshaw likes the idea of keeping summertime menus simple and easy for hosts.
"It's trending to have less complicated food in the summer," she notes. "You don't want to be spending a lot of time in the kitchen. I cater everything! You have less stress!"
She also recommends adding sparkle with a fun – and easy to follow – dress code. "I think that dress codes are fun – like caftans or all white."
"Mad Men" actress Christina Hendricks made headlines this spring when she announced plans to celebrate her birthday in Palm Springs with a "caftans and casseroles" party. The flowy gowns have become popular among entertaining and lifestyle bloggers, who tout the dresses' retro cool style – and practical summertime comfort.
Charming, theme-oriented home accessories are another easy way to highlight a party. For a carnival or circus-themed event, New York-based event planner Jung Lee suggests playing on the bright colors and patterns of the Big Top, with items like striped and polka dotted straws and mix-and-match glassware.
She fills the glasses with crushed ice and red wine syrup for an adult spin on a snowball – a favorite summertime, carnival treat.
Amy Fresty and Ellen Lunay, the owners of Here., an Annapolis pop-up shop with a constantly evolving theme (think "Lazy Days of Summer" and "Flirting with Spring"), host a launch party each time their store opens in a new location. Like Jung, they say that details make the party.
"Create a logo, use it on the invitation and print up a menu, even if it's just casual finger food," suggests Fresty, saying that Pinterest is a great source of graphic design inspiration.
Especially for casual summer events, Fresty insists that paying attention to a few important details can have more impact than, "going overboard at the party store with the matchy-matchy plates, cups, napkins and table décor. Choose a color story instead," she recommends. "Keep it understated."
Moran agrees with the Here. approach to color. "Come up with a color palette, even for a barbecue," she advises. "Use it throughout the event on things like cups and flowers. Even if you just tie pieces of ribbon around a wine glass – it takes five minutes but people love it."
Moran also enjoys hosting summertime parties that focus on seasonal activities, like flower arranging or planting herbs.
"For a shower or girls' night, it's fun to create a planted pot herb garden," she says. "You can put pots out and get herbs from Home Depot. It's just a fun activity that's practical and affordable. You can paint the pots, too, mixing the DIY trend into entertaining."
Recently, Moran hosted a flower-arranging party, where guests arranged loose blooms and took home their bouquets as favors. Ambitious party hosts can even hire a florist to instruct guests on the finer points of arrangement.
Moran recommends Trader Joe's as a great source of flowers, noting that they offer a variety of seasonal blooms and greens at reasonable prices.
As summer winds down, party activities reflect the upcoming change in seasons. Jennifer Grove, president of Baltimore-based Sky Blue Events, is planning an end-of-summer party to kick off a new book club that will start in the fall.
Initially, when a friend asked her to help plan the party, Grove was hesitant. "The intent is good – read a book, sit around drinking wine and cheese – but it's not my scene. It's a tired concept." But then, Grove thought, "What if I could help host something that would get people excited about doing it again? Something stylized, colorful, light."
The inspiration for the party, "luxe meets library," is apparent in the details, from J. Crew-designed invitations ("Let's get this on the books," they say) to white paper-covered books stacked strategically around the party space and topped with pretty potted orchids.
The wrapped books double as favors – guests will unwrap them to reveal the first book the club will read.
Since the focus of the event is on the books and the club kickoff, the party doesn't have to be food-heavy, says Grove. "We'll keep it bright and colorful," she says, with late summer treats like white wine sangria and a mango, watermelon and bleu cheese salad.
Of course, no matter how much attention is paid to themes and details, parties are ultimately about people.
"Make sure to introduce all your guests to each other," says Here.'s Fresty. "Create a festive and cozy atmosphere by making everyone feel like they already know each other."
5 tips to make your summer party sparkle
Parties, ultimately, are about people – but detail-conscious hosts set the stage for fun. Here, experts recommend simple ways to take a summer party from good to great.
Elevate your space. Today, party hosts have décor options that run far beyond the standard issue picnic table. "People are putting more effort into creating outdoor spaces they want to spend time in," says stylist Caitlin Moran. "Dining and living sets created for outdoor spaces look more like regular furniture vs. a cheap patio set and there are tons of accessories for home and garden in colors and finishes people want."
Offer a signature cocktail. Experts agree that offering a signature cocktail is a summertime party must. Tie the drink to the event, with an herbaceous cocktail for an herb potting party or pretty rose wine for arranging flowers or a snowcone for a carnival theme. Try this recipe for a Clos du Bois Rouge Syrup and Snowball: Mix 1 cup of Clos du Bois Rouge with 1 cup of sugar in a small saucepan over heat until the sugar has dissolved. Cool completely before pouring over crushed ice.
Food bars are stars. "Sundae bars are really fun in the summertime," says event planner and interior designer Stephanie Bradshaw, who recommends stocking a dessert bar with ice cream and candy toppings. Caitlin Moran loves food bars and fun drink bars, like a sangria bar that includes three different types of the summery wine cocktail.
Anticipate needs. A basket holding outdoor party necessities will please your guests, says Moran. "Guests notice little things like that," she says. She recommends stocking the basket with sunscreen, bug spray, citronella candles and activities like firefly catchers to keep kids entertained.
Hire experts. For every Here. launch party, Amy Fresty and Ellen Lunay hire both a professional musician and a bartender, to help keep the party lively and moving. Even for casual parties at home, they recommend both. "Live music elevates any social environment," says Fresty. "A new musician just starting out shouldn't charge more than $25 to $50 an hour. Have them play for at least two hours and be sure to have their 15-minute breaks covered with a playlist. If you can splurge a little, hire a bartender. It's not only impressive to your guests, it will make the cleaning up way easier and get everyone what they want quicker."