Event Planner Bryan Rafanelli's Holiday Party Is the Best Possible Inspiration for Your Own
There are company holiday parties—and then there is Bryan Rafanelli's annual Christmas celebration, which is an affair above all the rest. Epic soirées are, of course, the lauded event planner's signature; the founder and chief creative officer of Boston- and New York City-based Rafanelli Events knows a thing or two about throwing fêtes to remember. But Christmas is a particularly special time for Bryan, he tells Martha Stewart Living, one that's rooted in family—and this sense of community warrants an extra-special gathering.
Bryan delivered that and more this year, throwing a company-wide party at the Rafanelli homestead in East Greenwich, Rhode Island—a no-brainer decision, he says. "As I thought about how to best share my gratitude with our team of 50 strong at the holidays, it was only fitting to bring our Boston and New York offices together in the middle, in my home state of Rhode Island—at mom Carol's house, where Christmas is always a blow-out bash with a revolving door of themes, décor, and new stories to tell," Bryan notes.
He and his mother shared hosting duties—a salient joint effort, too, when you consider the seasonal celebration's main inspiration source. "Christmas is [my mother's] all-time favorite holiday; she starts to decorate the day after Halloween," shares Bryan, noting that she is—and always has been—his resource on and guiding light to incredible entertaining. This became very clear while writing the introduction to his first book, A Great Party ($38.99, amazon.com)—which is dedicated to Carol—he explains. "As I went through that process, it crystalized for me that, as I took a bird's eye view of my career, all roads pointed back to my mother, who at 85 years young, continues to celebrate everything," he continues. "She has been and continues to be a driving force behind my understanding of the importance of celebration in our lives and goes to great lengths to bring spirit and beauty to everything she does."
Bryan looked to his mother's home when ideating the event, noting that the bones of the party were already very much intact. "Her home boasts an epic game room and no shortage of storied treasures to bring nostalgia and fun to the party—it was all too perfect a fit," he says. The mother-son duo collaborated on the details, from food and beverage to design (get ready for the epic oversized gingerbread house) and experiences, to craft a party that the Rafanelli Events team likely won't ever forget. Ahead, a look inside the get-together—and, most importantly, the planner's best tips for crafting a holiday celebration that resonates with your own loved ones.
Start Planning Early
The preliminary plans for Bryan's holiday celebration came together earlier this spring, in April. And while the head start was an organic one (the party was born out of the planner's book introduction, so he and his team hit the ground running when the idea originally surfaced), it was essential for guaranteeing the best-possible outcome. "As I always tell our clients, time gives you choices—and my mother and I enjoyed the luxury of time and embraced our most creative selves," he says.
Look Inward for Thematic Inspiration
"I'm inspired by people's stories—who they are and what they are celebrating," he continues. While Bryan's mother was at the core of this event's every facet, the planner cites one particular detail in her home that resonated during the planning process: "At my mother's house, there is an entire hallway covered end-to-end with family portraits. The photos tell our family's story, a perfect illustration of the genesis behind this party and my mother's influence in my life and in my company."
Incorporate Décor with History
The focal point of the party—the gingerbread house, which sits two feet tall and four feet wide and designed by Confectionery Designs—was a gift from Bryan's mother, and, perhaps best of all, it came with a story. "Almost 25 years ago, one of the very first events I worked on was the Children’s Hospital League of Boston, which raised money to support their patients. Part of the event included a gingerbread house auction, so I decided to buy one for my mother as part of her holiday décor," he says. "She never forgot it, and we decided to include one this year to honor our mutual commitment to the importance of giving back to those in need."
"When in a crowded space with guests mingling and moving about the room, what do you see? Shoulders and above," explains Bryan, noting that the décor during the holiday party perfectly followed this rule: Carol staged 85 ceramic carolers and 60 hand-wrapped gift boxes positioned on the perimeter of the molding in her Great Room.
To the delight of all guests, the planner's oldest brother, Kerry, donned a vintage Santa suit for the occasion. This wasn't Kerry's first rodeo: "Every year, Kerry visits children's hospitals, boys' and girls' clubs, and other youth organizations to spread Christmas cheer. Lawyer by day, Santa by night," says Bryan. "The team was surprised and delighted by Santa's visit, but moved by the story behind what he represents to the community."
Encourage Guest Participation
Bryan and Carol turned to Rafanelli Events' unparalleled staff to personalize the party; they asked them to select ornaments that reflected their most notable professional achievements and moments of the year. Bryan says that he "was floored by the results" and loved being able to tell the story of 2019 in an unconventional way—through ornaments!
Choose Nostalgic Food
The event's menu was centered around the concept of being home for the holidays and "the emotions that evokes," explains Bryan. He tapped The Catered Affair to create small plates of "classic comfort food," like mac and cheese balls, short ribs and mashed potatoes, and ravioli with butternut sage sauce—all of which were crowd-pleasers.
Provide an Inclusive Drink Menu
Bryan's cocktail motto? "Something sour, something sweet, something fizzy, and something chic," he says. The evening's beverage offerings also included Carol's signature holiday punch, comprised of ginger ale, strawberry soda, rainbow sherbet, and Champagne.
"We also included two mocktail options on the bar menu," he says. "Though holiday parties are synonymous with a festive tipple, it is important to remain thoughtful for guests who may choose to not participate."
Serve Locally Sourced Sweets
One of the staff's mother is a retired baker; she helmed The Creative Cookie in Norwalk, Connecticut, for 28 years, explains Bryan. "She was kind enough to dust off her apron and provide the cookies for our holiday event, which were delicious by the way," he says of the many, many flavors, from buttery toffee and sugar to double chocolate chip and snickerdoodle. "It added such a personal note to the event that was meaningful to everyone on the staff."
Stick to Your Vision
Bryan's best advice for all holiday party hosts? "Map out an achievable vision and plan to the last second," he advises. "We are meticulous planners because we understand the value of being present and in the moment. As a host, your investment in time and resources should pay off in the form of unhurried time with your guests."