How to Create Next-Level Theme Parties

Attendee self-expression and a sense of place are hallmarks of today's best soirees.

A theme party should be absolutely transformative, creating a palpable sense of wonder and excitement. It's not attended, but experienced, and the experience extends far beyond the event itself, as guests post about it in real time on social media, happily sharing the joy with others. 

If this sounds like a tall order, crib from event specialists who've already pulled off dazzling evenings. 


Vibrant hues set the tone for "Celebrate Life in Color," a themed bash planned by Debra Dohnert, CMP, senior manager of special events for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. The event, for a group of 300 mostly female and Millennial guests, took place at Miami's Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne. The space was decorated to evoke the city's Wynwood neighborhood, a haven for aspiring painters, graffiti artists and innovators. 

One highlight of the party was a wig bar called "Show Your True Colors," an idea Dohnert's colleagues had been unsure of during the planning stage. But she went ahead and bought a bunch of wigs in different styles and colors from a shop in New York City -- and they were a huge hit. "Everyone at the party took turns adorning the different styles for photos and social media posts," she says.

The theme also carried over to a multi-flavored vodka bar featuring straws that changed color during the sipping process. Dohnert notes, "It's enhancements like these that get people talking. I'm not afraid to take a chance on ideas that might be a bit unexpected, as they are often the ones that make the biggest impact."


Melinda L. Burdette, CMP, HMCC, director of events for Meeting Professionals International, pays close attention when attending concerts and festivals to glean fresh ideas for events. This proclivity helped her create a festival-like environment during the opening celebration party for MPI's 2018 World Education Congress held in Indianapolis in June of last year.

The idea was to create fun opportunities for attendee engagement on the sprawling lawn at Indy's White River State Park. Some 2,200 meetings industry professionals were treated to a variety of experiences throughout the verdant site. 

A main stage featured the a cappella group Straight No Chaser, while two smaller stages were set up for deejays. For mingling, attendees sat on grouped inflatable outdoor furniture, grabbed food and drinks from various tents set up throughout the space and enjoyed a variety of lawn games. 

At activity stations, guests made floral crowns, metal bracelets stamped with inspirational messages and concocted aromatherapy blends. Such attractions "allowed our attendees to talk to each other while enjoying the environment we had created," says Burdette.

"My objective is somewhat different, as my audience is meeting planners," Burdette adds, "and I have to show them new and inventive things they can take back to their own events." After the gathering, seeing the number of people who had saved their floral crowns -- and even wore them on their return flights -- affirmed for Burdette a mission accomplished


Pick a decade -- ideally one that most attendees have experienced -- and re-create the glory days. Julie Blank, director of strategic accounts for Brightspot Incentives & Events, took that sense of nostalgia to the seas on a chartered cruise for incentive winners. The seven-night sail on Seabourn Odyssey took winners to the Italian Riviera. 

"We had nightly get-togethers in the bar, but one night far surpassed the others -- '80s night," says Blank. "Hundreds of our guests showed up decked out in their favorite 1980s attire to relive the era. We had people dressed up as Cyndi Lauper, Hall and Oates, KISS and Madonna. The décor was inexpensive but effective. We used a lot of glow sticks, '80s movie posters, inflatable boom boxes and cassette tapes, 'Totally '80s' signs, banners and neon lights."

Guests accessorized with glow jewelry, fingerless gloves and slap bracelets while dancing to vintage hair-band tunes. "This really helped get people talking and sharing memories, which led them to connect on a deeper, more personal level," notes Blank.

A 1980s night organized by Brightspot Incentives & Events had the group boogieing.
A 1980s night organized by Brightspot Incentives & Events had the group boogieing.


At the W Punta de Mita in Mexico, theme parties tend to be more immersive, thanks in part to the property's lush jungle setting. "We recently hosted 'Jungle Glowga,' a glow-in-the-dark nighttime yoga event accompanied by a live deejay," says Javier Puente, the hotel's marketing and PR manager. "We knew we had to take advantage of our site to give this event a unique ambience that would evoke local nature."

The event kicked off with attendees lining up to be body painted with glow-in-the-dark colors. Next came a one-hour power-yoga class underscored by W's signature deejay beats, followed by a cocktail party on the spa's relaxation deck, surrounded by lush foliage. Throughout, healthy bites and cocktails played into the wellness theme, including quinoa power balls, acai berry yogurt and the resort's signature DRR05 cocktail made with aloe vera and sparkling wine. 

"Jungle Glowga,' a glow-in-the-dark nighttime yoga theme party, was held at the edge of the jungle at the W Punta de Mita.
"Jungle Glowga,' a glow-in-the-dark nighttime yoga theme party, was held at the edge of the jungle at the W Punta de Mita.


One of Dan Bolton's favorite events treated 500 guests to a "Taste of Tahoe," on the California/Nevada border. Bolton, director of conferences and events at Riskalyze, a financial-tech company, rented a private beach and arranged for a yacht to make short trips throughout the evening. A local woodcarver was on hand, using tools to sculpt the trunk of a felled California redwood. Keeping with the financial mission of the company, his work depicted the "Fearless Girl" and charging bull from Wall Street in New York City. The carving was such a hit that the company auctioned it off, with proceeds going to a local charity.

firepit riskalyze
Dan Bolton of Riskalyze rented a private beach where attendees chatted around fire pits.

Fire pits and custom s'mores stations were scattered throughout. Beer experts from the local Alibi Ale Works supplied the quaffs, while a chef prepared some of the top requested dishes from a number of local restaurants, including bison burger sliders, a variety of special soups, and chicken and waffles. 

"We wanted our attendees to be immersed in the experience of Lake Tahoe, and it did not disappoint," says Bolton.

Similarly, theme parties held in Louisville, Ky., that seek to reflect its nickname of Bourbon City, involve the locally produced libation in lively ways. Louisville Tourism, the city's convention and visitors bureau, often helps planners bring in any or all of the nine urban distilleries based in downtown to organize tastings and cocktail classes. Some groups take it one step further decorating the room with bourbon barrels and other distinctly distilled touches. 

ConferenceDirect, a global meetings-solution company, recently celebrated all things California at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa. "We had an elevated video-mapping presentation on three walls of our ballroom depicting the state from Napa to San Diego," says Nancy Monte-Frye, senior director of events at the property. "The event featured live music from local artists, while the menu complemented all the regions of California featured in the video mapping."