Celebrations/Weddings | Special Sections

Party planning 101: know your budget and guest list, local experts say

Planning a wedding, bar or bat mitzvah party, or another big occasion? Experts suggest you start by determining your budget, dates and the number of guests you plan to invite.

That may sound fairly obvious, but Marci Rogers, director of sales at the Tucson Hilton East, says all too often people start looking for a venue without these basic decisions in place. The hotel offers a planning sheet to get families started on the right path.

Flexibility on dates can be helpful, says Rogers, who notes that Friday and Saturday nights tend to be the busiest nights for ballrooms. “So if you have a particular date that you absolutely have to have an event, that’s great, that’s fine [but] there may not be discounts available.”

Sunday nights, however, and certain holiday weekends are less in demand, she says. “If you’re willing to go with those, you’re going to get a much better overall price.”

Marianne Langer, owner of Concepts, has been in the party planning business in Tucson for 23 years. She starts by asking clients about the maximum size of the party. “Then I add about 10 percent, because the list always gets bigger,” she says.

A few more basic questions help her determine what the client is looking for: an outdoor or indoor wedding, or for a bar or bat mitzvah, a full dinner dance or just a kids’ party.

Then she can start to recommend venues from the dozens of possibilities around town, from resorts to ranches to country clubs and beyond, such as the Reid Park Zoo and the Pima Air & Space Museum. She’s even coordinated a June bar mitzvah party at a water park. For really big parties, she notes, the local options are limited.

Langer will caution clients about venues where the outdoor site for a wedding ceremony may be a bit of a hike from the reception area, a factor to consider if there are guests who use walkers or wheelchairs.

She’ll also tell clients which venues are most open to negotiation. For example, for a wedding she has coming up in three weeks, she negotiated a 90-minute free cocktail hour, which she says is a $10,000 value.

Negotiating space is a big deal, says Langer, explaining that if it’s not stipulated in your contract, your venue might rent the foyer outside your ballroom to another client. Some places charge extra for a stage or dance floor, she says.

Some planners may mark up the discounts they’ve negotiated, Langer says, but since she usually sets her fee up front, she passes all the savings on to her clients. A good planner can find discounts that meet or exceed their fees, she says, explaining that she tracked her figures for an article she wrote for a national magazine. “I thought, I’m getting underpaid,” she says with a laugh.

At the Radisson Suites Tucson, Isabelle Luceri, catering sales manager, likes to start  prospective clients off with a site tour, especially for people who aren’t familiar with the hotel.

“The first step is to find a venue and get the space blocked,” she says, explaining that the hotel has several different ballrooms as well as an outdoor ceremony space.

She’ll guide clients through the details of planning their event and tell them when each step needs to be completed, such as tastings and finalizing a menu.  But her role is different from a party planner, she says, who would oversee everything down to the order of wedding party introductions at the beginning of a reception.


One of the most charming features of the Radisson, says Luceri, is the orange grove where wedding ceremonies are held.

“There’s a long walkway and at the very end there’s a metal arch decorated with white lights.” The orange trees lining the path are also wrapped in lights, she says, and guests are welcome to add additional lights or other decorating touches.

As a full-service planner, Langer coordinates and creates the décor for her parties, from linens to flowers to chuppahs (wedding canopies).

“I can build anything. As far as chuppahs, I must have 20 different kinds. I built them out of everything you can imagine,” she says, recalling an acrylic version that was “probably my best masterpiece.”

“I have a separate house that I keep all this in — it’s my playhouse, my workshop. I have probably a thousand pieces of glassware,” giving her many choices for floral arrangements.

Langer can also do her own electrical work, plumbing or piping and draping for her creations, helping to keep costs down, she says, because “I’m not depending on anybody else.”

For bar and bat mitzvahs, she has designed centerpieces for a multitude of themes. She recalls one basketball-themed bar mitzvah that incorporated real basketballs, which were donated to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson after the event as part of the boy’s tzedakah (charity) project.

Langer likes to build her centerpieces tall — 4 or 5 feet tall. “This way they don’t block anybody’s view and they fill up air space,” she says.

Kosher events

Many venues can accommodate kosher events. The Hilton Tucson East has done several events for Rabbi Israel Becker over the years, says Rogers, who explains that some items can be purchased through the hotel while the rabbi may arrange for others to be brought in from providers in Tucson or Phoenix.

The Hilton Tucson East doesn’t offer to kasher its kitchen. “Taking the kitchen away from a hotel for a certain period of time is challenging not only for the folks doing the event but then for the rest of the hotel guests. Being flexible and allowing some items to come in, that really fulfills everyone’s needs,” Rogers says. This works for kosher events as well as others where people may want to use an outside caterer for authentic ethnic fare, such as an Indian wedding.

Langer says there are several local venues that will rent a ballroom and provide servers while allowing clients to bring in their own caterer; others will allow clients to bring in a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) to kasher their banquet kitchen.

For times when she relies on outside vendors, such as table and chair or linen rentals, “I like to give the business to Tucson companies,” Langer says, unless the client has someone specific in mind from another city.

The same goes for photographers. “I just really think that there’s some talented people in Tucson and we should use them. Tucson first!”