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Wednesday May 2, 2012

Planning parties for kids

Even for professionals, putting together an exceptional party for the little ones is no child’s play.

IT was a lazy weekend afternoon – a day perfect for presents and cake – as unsuspecting guests turned into the driveway. Beyond the double doors that would receive them lay a visual feast of significant proportions – one that promised to redefine anything they ever knew about birthday parties.

At a glance, the decor seemed simple enough. But a closer look would tell you that much thought had been put into fine-tuning the simplest of details.

Replicas of children’s book titles hung on strings like laundry drying in the wind. White picket fences guarded a row of party favours decked out in miniature Little Red Riding Hood wicker baskets.

The centrepiece that was the banquet table was laden with fairy-tale elements like cotton candy fashioned as “Little Lamb’s Wool” in a jar; ruby red Snow White apples; Hansel and Gretel lollipops; Humpty Dumpty custard; instructive “Eat Me” Alice In Wonderland cookies; Willy Wonka chocolate bars; a trail of Enchanted Forest toadstool-shaped quails’ eggs and cherry tomatoes.

The enthralling storybook-themed event, organised by Jokee Tan of the Klang Valley-based party-planning outfit Coochicoo (coochicoo.com.my), was held in celebration of her client’s two-year-old twin daughters’ birthday.

Some might be inclined to classify the soiree as an affair too lavish for toddlers. But the fact is, today’s parents are willing to spend a whole lot more to keep their children content, even if it means sparing no expense for things as ephemeral as a birthday bash. In a 2007 article in Time magazine, greeting card company Hallmark estimates that worldwide, people spend over US$600mil on kids’ cards, gift-wrap and partyware every year. Today, paraphernalia related to children’s parties is a highly lucrative business.

Tan, who founded Coochicoo – a name based on a term used by adults when they playfully tickle the kids – about four years ago, says that of late, she has received numerous requests to plan themed parties for children as young as a month old.

“Of course when a child is that young, the party is really for the adults. One of my clients got so much attention at her daughter’s birthday party that she said it reminded her of her own wedding,” adds Tan, a former art director with an advertising firm who quit after a decade on the job to become a full-time mother.

The 30-something mum-of-two had first started a freelance service to customise full-moon gift packs to capitalise on a market flooded with generic giveaways (like “roast chicken with a pair of red-dyed eggs”).

She went on to try her party-planning skills at her younger son’s full-moon celebration, a “Honey Bunny”-themed bash reflecting the Lunar Year of the Rabbit the boy was born in. The party came complete with carrot-like balloons, a lime-green and orange macaron tower and customised party favours made up of a medley of bunny cookies, mini jars of honey, and gummy candy-filled toy eggs.

If you’re planning to celebrate your child’s birthday, engaging the services of a party planner does require spending – big or small, depending on the scale of your imagination.

Events planner Party Duo (partyduo.com.my), helmed by Joanne Mae Hew and Cindy Teh, charged no less than RM15,000 for the kid-centric parties that they helped put together for clients including entrepreneurs and royalty.

“We once had a party in a hotel for a preschooler who loved The Lion King musical. Apart from providing a safari-like setting, we had a live band and our own team of singers and dancers who re-enacted parts of the musical for the guests,” recalls Hew, 45.

Every Party Duo effort is a full-blown affair, facilitated by a professional photographer and a master of ceremonies. “We always have an emcee at our events. He will be the life of the party – getting the kids to participate in the games and interacting with the grown-ups,” Hew says.

Set up in 2005, Party Duo operates out of Flower Hub, a floral boutique located in Ampang Hilir, Kuala Lumpur, in a space shared in partnership with a restaurant that serves organic food, Earth Food.

“Nowadays, celebrating birthdays has become a trend. Most of our clients want to throw a party for their children every year. There are people who are willing to spend on these types of things, and there are those who don’t. It’s all about priorities,” Hew observes, adding that parents should consider organising large-scale parties only if they want to, not because of peer pressure.

Fab yet functional

For the discerning parents, they would want the parties they organise to be more than just aesthetically appealing.

“Some clients can be very particular about decor, which could take up 70% of the budget, leaving only the rest for activities to entertain the kids. Most of the time, though, our clients would just tell us to make the place look pretty, but more importantly, ensure that the kids have a good time. That’s what we want as well because at the end of the day, the children will remember what they experience more than what they see,” says Deborah Chan, who runs party-planning ensemble Splattered Paint (splattered-paint.com) with her husband, digital marketer Terrence Ooi.

While the couple have no children yet, Chan, 29, has loved working with kids since she was 15 when she became active in organising educational activities for her church’s youth ministry and Sunday school programmes. “I started getting enquiries to host children’s events and thought, ‘Why not start something and see where it goes?’ We saw a market for very busy parents who have no time to plan for things like birthday parties,” she says.

In this day and age, adding entertainment value to a party is not as simple as hiring a walkabout magician/clown/mad scientist, says Chan.

“We once had a client who suggested having a magician at her son’s party because, apparently, he enjoyed watching magic shows on TV. She said to him: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice for all your friends to sit down and watch the magician do tricks?’ And his answer was: ‘Not really. I want to play games!’” recalls Chan, a full-time programme manager with a conservation group based in Kuala Lumpur.

She believes that parents sometimes have preconceived ideas, which may not necessarily coincide with their child’s interests. “If a child is old enough to be vocal and share ideas, we prefer to have them sit in for a discussion because that’s when you find out what they really want.”

Spoilt for choice?

On an episode of the MTV reality series My Super Sweet 16, which documents the lives of teenagers with wealthy parents who throw huge coming-of-age shindigs for them, a teen was seen screaming at her mother and saying she “hates” her after receiving a new Lexus costing US$67,000 (about RM200,000) before, instead of during, her party, which would have given her a chance to show it off to the guests.

While the show has been criticised for its materialistic tendencies, it gives rise to a concern that lies burrowed in the hearts of modern parents.

“Back in those days, the most that we had at our parties were a fancy cake and simple games. There were no such things as party packs. I guess there’s this fear that the kids of today will be so spoilt that they expect huge birthday bashes every year,” says Izreen Abdullah, the owner of party advisory Fluff & Stuff (izreen.blogspot.com) in Kuala Lumpur.

“My daughter, for one, had been to some parties only to ask why they were so small. I’ve been guilty of doing big parties for her with 30 or 40 kids to accommodate our large family and group of friends. I’ve since tried to make it a point to always remind her that she’s got a blessed life,” says the 32-year-old of her only child.

“The one day that you have that party is really a treat and a celebration for your child. It’s the rest of the year that you have to account for – how you raise them and what you tell them to ensure that they act and behave in a certain way around other people,” says Izreen, not forgetting her parental responsibility.

Coochicoo’s Tan has also admitted to having planned not-so-modest celebrations for her elder boy, Aiden Ebbers, three.

“Aiden loves Toy Story. So when he turned three, I threw him a surprise Toy Story-themed birthday party at the kindergarten. That was one of the most memorable events that I’d planned. I’ll never forget the expression on his face when he came through the classroom door, the defining moment that made it all worth it,” she recalls.

For her son’s Toy Story indulgence, Tan transformed a corner of the classroom into a scene straight out of a Pixar Animation Studios film, where the guests were given green pompom-topped alien hats to wear and decadent goodies (think Mr Potato Head chocolate moustaches) to munch on.

“Kids can be quite stressed on a daily basis, so it’s okay for them to let go for one day,” Tan reasons.

Smart parties

With many kids having more than one party to attend in a year, should parents be concerned with the enticing spread of cupcakes, glazed doughnuts and marshmallows at these gatherings?

“For our party favours, we tend not to include heaps of sweet in them. One or two is still essential as children will not be satisfied if you give them a bunch of boring healthy snacks. Instead of giving them chocolate, we always opt for raisins. We also prefer whole grain chips to sweet crackers,” Splattered Paint’s Chan says, adding that the parents themselves are beginning to request for healthier alternatives, such as low-sugar cupcakes or carrot cake, rather than chocolate confections.

Party Duo’s Hew says that most kids are often too busy having fun at a fete to actually load up on the sweets. “We always try to cut down on the amount of sweet treats we hand out to the kids. Given that people are becoming increasingly health-conscious, we’ll give our clients the option of catering from Earth Food. Contrary to what most people think, organic food is actually very tasty and not at all bland,” she points out.

While zero-waste parties or eco-friendly events featuring things like edible and compostable decor are already common overseas, a majority of the child-centric events here still have room to grow, perhaps into something more substantial than simply a day of fun and games.

Party Duo made it a point to introduce a “Smart Party” element into the events they organise in the hope of cajoling the children into learning while they play. “In all our parties, we like to include an educational element subtly. For instance, we once had a ‘superhero’ party where we highlighted the positive values a superhero must have,” says Hew.

Co-founder Teh remembers a theme party based on another Pixar animation, Cars, where they taught the kids all about road safety. “We designed a song-and-dance session about zebra crossings, the significance of ‘stop, look and go’ and how to read traffic signs.”

However, there were clients who just weren’t too keen on having an educational get-together. “Some of them would say: ‘The kids have had enough of school. I just want them to have fun.’ But who says educational parties can’t be just as fun?” Teh asks.

Party planners may be hired for their skills and expertise, but at the end of the day, it is the level of involvement from the parents that makes one event unique from another.

“Most parents are involved up to the point where they find out what their child wants, then they’ll leave the rest to us. It would be nice if they would actually take charge of some of the details and add their own flavour to the event. They could even do things like make party invites with their child to send to their guests,” Chan suggests.

Memories are made and never a given. What type of memories could parents create with their child through a party?

“Parties should have some sort of novelty to them. If it happens too frequently, they’ll become just another gathering. You can have smaller parties every year, but the major ones should come with a special reason, so the children have milestones to remember,” says Chan.

Worth the effort

An elaborate party may be a costly affair but mothers like business analyst Anis Azlinda Abdul Ghani, 34, say it’s “money well-spent”.

Last year, with Izreen’s help, Anis threw a whimsical Alice In Wonderland bash for her only child Alis Soffea Ariff Hakim’s first birthday.

The party, held at the Kokopelli Travellers Bistro in Section 14, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, was attended by over 100 guests. The younger invitees received personalised party favours based on age group and gender.

“If I could, I would’ve organised my own party but I didn’t have the time nor do I have a good eye for things like that. I had ideas but it was Izreen who helped put everything together,” says Anis.

While Alis’ second birthday party this year was a rather simple affair – Anis and her husband took leave to spend some quality time with their daughter and her grandparents – next year, the family plans to stage another themed event for the tiny tot.

“I think by next year she’ll know how to appreciate having her own party,” Anis adds. “All parents want to give the best to their child, and I certainly don’t think throwing birthday parties for my daughter will make her spoilt. Alis is the only grandchild on my husband’s side – I’m more concerned over the fact that she gets her way with her grandparents all the time!”

General practitioner Dr Umayaal Vanthini spent a good few thousand ringgit inviting over 150 people to a naming ceremony for her son – the first grandchild in the family – held one month after he was born.

The 34-year-old mother-of-two in Kuala Lumpur says: “My father had 150 people on the guest list. But during my confinement, my husband and I caught dengue fever so we got Izreen to help out with the party. It was on such a short notice but she was able to make everything fall into place.”

Eleven months later, Dr Umayaal again had hundreds on the guest list, this time for her son’s first birthday celebration. “We view these events as family gatherings, a reason to get everybody together. People are so busy nowadays, when do they ever meet up? It’s not about throwing a big party, it’s about keeping the family connected and giving kids the opportunity to get to know their cousins,” she says.

Yvonne Tan, a businesswoman, admits to having splashed out RM16,000 on an underwater-themed first birthday party for her elder daughter, Ashley Chien, who turns three this year. Held at Aquaria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur, the party had an extensive invite list but, nevertheless, one that included 60 kids from two orphanages. As it is, Yvonne, 29, and her husband have been active charity workers for years.

“When I had my two daughters, I realised that I could turn their birthday celebrations into something more meaningful – an event that’s meant not only for the birthday girl but also for the guests, who are not required to bring presents. Our parties are merely special days in a year to look forward to,” says Yvonne.

With Coochicoo’s help this year, Yvonne hosted a garden butterfly-themed party for her younger child, one-year-old Ainsleigh Chien, inviting 30 kids from Rumah Charis in Puchong, Selangor, to join in the celebration.

“I’ve been to kids’ parties where they were more adult-centric than not, with beer on the table and parents huddling in one corner by themselves. I wanted to have a proper kids’ party with great food, decor and activities to keep the guests, young and old, happy. When I contacted Jokee, she did the A to Z for me. All I had to do was decide on the theme and the colour scheme,” says an appreciative Yvonne.

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