The editor shares when pop-up parties make sense

There was a Thanksgiving celebration about 10 years ago when we rented a round house on stilts situated along the marshes of Deer Island in Hilton Head and prepared a feast for about 10 people.

By then, we had been creating what I like to call the pop-up Thanksgiving dinner for about three years. Our children were young adults, unmarried and on staffs of companies that required them to sometimes work on Black Friday. We decided to travel so that we could continue what had always been a fairly big family tradition with all the trimmings. 

Our daughter, who was working in retail, flew in from Boston late the evening before Thanksgiving. Our son wrapped up his work that same day, inviting a handful of his peers, reporters from Hilton Head’s newspaper, to join us the next day.

Preparations started about three days earlier when we loaded the car for the drive from Central Ohio. I packed my poultry seasoning, a rolling pin and a few other necessary tools. We planned to work on magazine-related deadlines from afar for a few days while juggling the Thanksgiving chores that would need to be completed. Who knew there would be a pumpkin shortage that year that would require scavenging all of the grocery stores in Hilton Head?

Months earlier, we had rented the ’60s-era sealoft house. Its sweeping views of the golden marshes provided a welcome change in scenery from Ohio in late November.

If you’ve ever rented a home sight unseen from VRBO.com or Airbnb.com, you’ll understand how we held our breath as the key turned, just before we stepped inside. We loved that house from the moment we arrived.

We laughed at its original pink, tall, round bathtub. I was a bit disturbed by the spiral staircase inside that disrupted the flow of the tiny place. And the home’s original oven caused me some trepidation wondering if it was up to the task of a Thanksgiving feast. I tested it early, baking pies on Wednesday morning. They came out baked to perfection, so I knew we were in business to tackle the big bird that was defrosting in the refrigerator. 

We scheduled dinner for Thanksgiving evening, planning a family bicycle ride to a coffee shop that morning. After coffee, I headed back to the round house alone where I would stuff the bird and squeeze it all into the rather small oven. (It would be put in a double aluminum pan, proving that it was, in fact, squeezable.) 

After hiking up the long stairway that wound through the trees to get to the door, I panicked. The door of the round house was locked and the key was inside. Our son arrived just in time to see me bouncing off of the door with my shoulder, attempting to break into our rental in a mad panic that the bird would never be cooked in time for dinner with guests.

Within 15 minutes, he had unlocked the door with a screwdriver, and the turkey was stuffed and placed in the oven to roast. That evening, just after sunset, we lit candles, set a long, folding table we brought along in the trunk of the car, added the tablecloths, some seasonal décor and hosted a fun Thanksgiving feast that we will always cherish.

Resilience, goodwill and a charitable heart is all that is required to create some of the warmest events in life. I’m not one of those people who believes that holidays—and parties—are always best at home. Events are more about the people involved than the china we use. Don’t get me wrong. I love good china and I’m not a fan of paper plates at all. But in our family, we’ve had as many great times with the pop-up party on clear plastic as we have had with the family heirlooms at home.

Since that Thanksgiving dinner, the pop-up party has become one of our family’s specialties.

Last May, we had hardly a glitch when my now-grown daughter and I met up in New York City, where we helped host a 70th anniversary gala for 120 people at a site overlooking Central Park that we’d never seen. (The party was for a journalistic organization for which I served as president at the time.)

Freelance journalists from around the country and New York City-based editors and agents enjoyed two specially crafted cocktails, hors d’oeuvres passed by the caterer involved, and then they walked away with a dose of Midwestern charm—each carried a small white paper bag stuffed with an iced Cheryl’s cookie and an ink pen that we had customized for the occasion. [Disclosure: Sealed white bags got around the caterer’s rule about not bringing in outside food.] 

The following evening, I felt fortunate to have located one of Cameron Mitchell’s Ocean Prime restaurants around the corner from our Manhattan hotel. This is where I and some other leaders of this group hosted a pop-up dinner party for a young man who had flown in from Malta to accept an award that was being given posthumously to his journalist mother. Granted, it was an easy evening in terms of preparations, but the conversation was one that we will never forget. 

It was a busy weekend. The next day my daughter helped me host a luncheon for 30 volunteers in the spacious parlor of my hotel suite. While I attended the conference, my daughter spent the morning setting up a simple buffet she’d carried in from a deli across the street. In an elevator, she toted it all up 47 floors where our guests could enjoy spectacular views of the city.

I have come to appreciate the success of a good pop-up party, one that is created in a space that offers all sorts of surprises with guests that you are just getting to know. Below, are some simple tips I’ve learned about hosting the best party possible:

Know your guest list. Have a general idea about the number of people you can possibly host in your rented space. Issue a save-the-date with a specific time, date and location announced months in advance. Once you have a confirmed list of attendees, tell them that the final details will be sent via email (or text) the day prior to the event. On that day, communicate to all about the directions necessary for visiting the site, finding parking, getting elevator access to a hotel suite or any other obstacles that you have identified since arriving. Understand the rules that rental homes or hotels might have when it comes to hosting guests. The Low Country shrimp boil for 60 that we hosted the evening before our son and daughter-in-law’s wedding—after the official rehearsal dinner—was the reason we chose to rent a large house for the wedding weekend instead of staying at the hotel involved. The groom’s grandparents appreciated the easy commute, too, as they had their own suites within the same house. (It was pure luck that this homeowner came from a family that appreciated a weekend full of wedding events and encouraged us to invite guests in.) Weeks in advance, make lists about what you should take along and what you should buy on site. There’s no need to pack a 5-pound bag of peppermint mints in your suitcase if you can buy them at a Walgreens instead. Customization goes a long way toward adding special touches. About a month in advance, order custom-printed white paper bags, napkins or candies imprinted with a special message or logo. Customized touches, even on paper napkins, will surprise your guests and prove you’ve spent time thinking about them. (Note, customization is inexpensive, too—unless a costly wedding is to follow.) Know the neighborhood. Use Google and other searches to figure out what you can buy nearby. This will help you understand the local grocery stores, bakeries, wine shops, delis, florists and the like before you even get to town. Pack only the essentials—and things you especially love. Do you want to use your own tablecloths? If so, they’re easy to pack in a suitcase. Do you need your own salt-and-pepper shakers? Probably not. Grocery stores generally have various styles to choose from. Tip generously to those who help. I packed a large suitcase to exactly 50 pounds to haul in the items needed for the New York parties involved. Thus, anyone who offered to help me along the way received a generous tip because it was impossible for me to carry that bag. Conversation is easy. When you’re hosting a pop-up party in a new space, you’ll have plenty of stories to share about preparations involved and the things you’ll want your guests to see by the time they arrive. Take, for example, that odd round bathtub in the Hilton Head sealoft. We encouraged every guest to take a peek. Then, there were the crushed velvet, disco-era furnishings in that Manhattan hotel suite. My daughter and I are still discussing whether they were new or vintage. But the four modern sofas certainly got a lot of use that day. We’ll be talking about that party for a long time.