Tips for a successful 21st birthday party

The tips that follow assume you are organising a twenty first party for 40 to 100 people. Much bigger than that you may need a professional venue, security and perhaps a professional event organiser. Day time parties are easier to manage. Check the date doesn't clash with friends or major concerts!

1. Food service

With a 21st it's important that food is served as soon as guests arrive. This limits the impact of the alcohol. Serving finger food throughout the evening works very well at reducing over-indulgence in alcohol. More than most events, it's important at a 21st for people to mingle and finger food works great for this while keeping catering costs under control.

2. Tips on a theme

A theme makes the night more memorable, gets people involved and makes the party distinctive. It helps with decisions about catering and music. It can be used as a means of self-expression by the party boy or girl. Are they outdoors types or intellectual types? What is their taste in TV/music/movies? Do they have a particular cultural interest or hobby that could be a theme? Use your imagination! Here are some suggestions:


  • Hollywood -- Get some guests to be paparazzi outside and take photos of people as they arrive. Present a video of the guest of honour later and introduce it like a movie premiere.
  • 60s/70s/80s themes are good fun. Easy for everyone to costume and the music selects itself. The year the person was born is another possibility.
  • Fancy dress (well obviously) but note that this might not work if everyone plans to kick on afterwards somewhere else.
  • Colours make good themes, so do letters of the alphabet. Usually the initial of the party boy or party girl's first name.
  • Casinos are a good theme because you can organise themed activities and games. Activities eliminate the boredom that mixed with alcohol leads to trouble.
  • Pool parties, cruises and discos are popular. Here are a couple of more outrageous options: wedding theme, sci-fi, car rally, sleaze, progressive party...


3. Preparations

Reduce stress: organise things well in advance. This includes all the catering and entertainment but also things like the memory board (a pin-up board full of photos) and the web page, if you're putting one together. A 21st Facebook page will help build excitement and can be used to post baby photos and party photos. (If your child doesn't know how to organise a Facebook event, make sure they ask a knowledgeable friend for help so that security settings are strict. Let's not invite all of Facebook). Get all-inclusive quotes for everything (music, food, security, entertainment, equipment hire...) in writing well before the event.

4. Briefing your son/daughter/parent

Successfully navigating the 21st requires parents and the 21 year old to agree terms. The best time to do this is before a decision to proceed is made. The 21yo will want the parents to fund the event. The parents will want to be sure the party does not end in the Emergency Department of the local hospital or with the Police Tactical Response Group using tasers on the guests.

Points of discussion usually include the number of guests, ending times, ground rules for speeches and sometimes include discussions about drug use. If the focus of the event is ‘a fantastic party with family and my best friends’ the conversation about numbers is irrelevant. It just needs a list of best friends. Hopefully your birthday son or daughter are among those mature enough to see beyond a contest to see who can throw the biggest party. The conversation about the party should be ‘how can we make this fantastically memorable without relying on alcohol or drugs’.

The fact is, most kids by age 21 will have been to parties with alcohol or drugs, so if their 21st is to be special, it should be different to the normal parties they go to. The real difference is, this party is about them in particular, about their special friends and about becoming an adult.

5. Security - Minimising risks

Invitations are a necessity. They should be produced at the door. Names should be crossed off a list. Alternatively, send a security bracelet (a tamper-proof security band) with the invitation. This makes it easy for someone to control admission and drinks service. If you consider the security risk high, engage a professional security outfit. Ideally they would employ ex-police officers who understand how to handle conflict resolution. Invitations should specify a closing time. Remember that if you specify midnight, people will generally leave between then and 1AM.

  • Lock all doors.
  • Remove valuables from sight
  • Keep the entertainment going. Tips: dancing is great. Karaoke is great. Videos of the 21 year old are great. Gather everyone in for the speeches. Then let them spread out, then gather them in again for the cutting of the cake. It sounds mean, but regular interruptions reduce the risk of people getting up to mischief.


6. Choosing a venue

Home is cheap and may be your preferred option. But professional venues do clean up and they have a fixed closing time. It's harder to get people to leave a domestic premises. Some venues will allow you to use your own caterers; others will insist you use theirs.

7. Tips on managing emotions

There are two sets of emotions to worry about here. The parents and the 21yo. Parents are often pre-occupied with the preparations of the event but on the day, when it comes time to give a speech, they are sometimes unexpectedly emotional. If you are uncomfortable with that, ask your 21 year old if you can practise your speech in front of them. Doing it privately a day before the event will let you be emotional without the onlookers and on the big day you'll be less likely to break down. As a caterer for many twenty firsts I frequently see the birthday girl in tears at her own 21st birthday party. Before the event, she needs to read this:

It's a party, it's not a test of your popularity. It doesn't matter how many people turn up; it doesn’t matter who fails to turn up or who turns up with who's boyfriend. The significance of this event is your adulthood. If anything goes wrong, you get to handle it like an adult, smile like a princess and move on to the next admirer. It's not about THEM, it's about YOU. *hugs*

8. Formalities

The Key

The handing over of the birthday key is a 21st tradition, symbolising the freedom to open new doors and accept new responsibilities. You can get a fresh key cut and put it in a nice presentation box or have one set in a necklace. Some people do the birthday cake in the shape of a key.

The Gift

Sometimes parents arranged a birthday gift and want to surprise their child at the event. The presentation would normally be made at the time of the speeches.

The Speeches

This lends a sense of occasion and again, makes the night stand out as something special. These days the format of the speeches is often less formal. It doesn't have to be a long speech and should only be that if the parent is a very good speaker. One of the parents may want to mention the achievements of their child, what makes them special, what made the parents proud and publicly congratulate them on making it to adulthood, say that they love them and that they've done the best job they knew how as parents. It's not necessary to tell funny stories. If the twenty one year old is sensitive about what might be said in the speech they should make that clear before the night. The birthday girl or boy should respond (brief is okay) by thanking the parents for emotional, financial support.

9. Volunteer helpers

One thing people often do at twenty firsts is enlist family and friends as support in the food service. There's no doubt this is a great way to lower costs and it helps people mix. Passing around a tray of food gives the older generation an excuse to get to know some of the younger people. But here's what happens: the family have three volunteers and hire one professional staffer through the catering company. The volunteers get caught up in conversation and because they're volunteers, don't worry too much about passing around the finger food! The professional staffer is run off her feet and guests complain about the food being absent or cold. If someone volunteers, get them to agree to work certain hours at 100% or hire an extra catering person.

10. Remember to have fun!

Employ professional people where you can afford them, plan well in advance, have clear communication with each other up-front and trust each other's intuition. Congratulations!

More questions?

If you have further questions about running a 21st party, particularly on the catering side, contact Santino on (08) 9331 2874. You can get a catering quote from FingerFood Catering in about three clicks.

  Just to let you know the food was magnificent and

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