It's December. It's cold, it's grey and every glossy magazine in every tinsel-clad corner store is promising to turn you from pasty to party-ready in 10 simple steps. What they don't say is that attending the party is easy; it's throwing one that's the real challenge.
Each year as the festive invites mount, guests who 11 months out of 12 would be happy with a few glasses of ros and a plate of posh crisps begin to expect more. They become, as Izania Downie, of hospitality firm Eventia, puts it, "hungry for the wow factor".
"At this time of year," says Downie, "people receive multiple invitations. They take their pick from the most exciting offers."
Given the pressure, it's no wonder that party hosts are calling on professionals to plan their big night. But it's not just Christmas that sees party planners in demand. Increasingly, says Downie, they're needed all year round: "There used to be two high-pressure seasons: from Easter until June, and then autumn. Nowadays, August is the only quiet month of the year."
The industry is booming. According the British Hospitality Association, we've never spent more on merrymaking. It was with this in mind that Wonkie Hills began party planning.
Having worked as a cook she was familiar with the industry, but her decision to focus on planning presented a mass of opportunities.
"It's been fantastic. Not a day goes by when I'm not thankful," she said. "It really is the ultimate in job satisfaction."
Now she runs her own firm, Zest Events, arranging parties tailored to client needs. "What I love is the creativity. You can take a footballer's wife or Lady Snoot: they both want to have fun but their parties will be totally different lighting, food or table cloths can make the difference," she says.
It's not all canaps and colour coordination, however; while for most a party is a chance to let loose, professional planners are expected to constantly regulate procedures. Before the invitations are sent, venues and suppliers need to be arranged, entertainment booked and service-staff hired. A head for figures comes in handy.
"Budgeting is one of the most important parts of an event organiser's work," says Joy Montmorency of the Association for Conferences & Events. "It colours everything from the type of venue to the kind of catering, how long the event might be and whether it calls for entertainment."
On top of their financial concerns, planners need to be able to guarantee security. "For political events or anything involving the royals, specialist security officials are deployed, working with the police," says Downie. "Planners are always aware of their responsibility to provide a safe environment."
But it's the ability to provide the fun factor, says Downie, while running an efficient operation that sets the best party planners apart from the mediocre. "The secret lies in project management. If the event is well-planned it rolls out on the day: the management team will be relaxed and guests won't have any inkling of the preparations."
Given the demands of the job, it's not surprising that party planners are expected to be well-trained. While requirements are flexible, those with a related degree, in hospitality, business studies or public relations are at an advantage. The government also offers a national vocational qualification in hospitality, as well as a Higher National Certificate in event management.
But it's only with practice, says Hills, that party planners develop the most fundamental of skills. "It's the small things that count. You need to love getting it right. That means striving harder to find the right solution. In this job, practice counts for everything."
How to get on
* More than 40 universities offer courses in event and conference management, while public relations and business studies are also popular.
* The Association for Conferences & Events runs a one- day course entitled "So You Want to be a Conference Organiser" as well as Level 3 NVQ training in event management. Visit www.ace international.org
* The British Hospitality Association can be contacted on 020-7404 7744 or at www.bha.org.ukReuse content