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Hostess Helper

The Party Diva makes planning events stress-free - for a fee


It's your party, but you don't feel like crying one bit. A blizzard of glittery snowflakes dangling from the ceiling has transformed your living room into a snow globe. Guests stream in, handing their coats to helpers dressed as elves, and accept cups of steaming cranberry cider. Then they move on to the buffet, where gustatory delights await them: curried chicken salad cradled inside hollowed cucumbers, quesadillas stuffed with beef, caramelized shallots and Stilton cheese, and pastry shells filled with butternut squash and "four-cheese custard." Relaxed and happy, you chat with friends and family. You know that there's plenty of food, that the drinks will keep flowing, and the line-up of jazzy songs could keep your guests dancing until the next holiday season.

Sound like a fantasy from a glossy magazine? "Party Diva" Lisa Hall believes it can happen anywhere - even in Vermont.

The 46-year-old South Burlington resident gave up a full-time catering business last May and put her creative and organizational powers to work as a party planner. As the Party Diva, she helps organize parties of any size, from an intimate evening for two to a 500-guest wedding. Sound expensive? Although she hates the word "budget" - she prefers "spending plan" - Hall insists that her services are within reach for just about anybody. You just need to know what you want.

A native of Queens, New York, Hall got her business start when she was in her early twenties and went to work as an executive conference and event coordinator for Estée Lauder. There she planned glitzy gatherings for executives from around the world - she hired caterers and DJs, found venues for events, and made sure everything ran smoothly. Eventually she moved to EMI, and, after taking cooking classes at a culinary school in Greenwich Village, launched a part-time catering business called "The Little Feast." When she moved to Vermont in 1999 to get married, she left the day job, and its six-figure salary, behind. But she brought The Little Feast north.

"Vermont is a wonderful place for a person to journey down their own path," Hall suggests. "As a creative person, you don't have to fit into a mold."

What Hall did next was certainly out of the ordinary: While still running her catering business part-time, she took work as a waitress - to learn more about what Vermonters like to eat, she says. To get info on the big picture, she also joined professional associations such as the International Caterers Association and the Leading Caterers of America. She frequently attends events to keep up with food and entertainment trends. What's hot now, according to Hall: Spanish food and Asian-themed parties.

After taking The Little Feast full-time for a couple of years, Hall decided to shift her focus to party planning. "The goal is not only to ease people's stress and ease their minds but also to save them money," she explains. New Yorkers are used to paying for services such as gift-wrapping and valet parking. But will her business model fly in Vermont, with its strong DIY ethic?

Hall argues that doing it yourself isn't always the most affordable option. Why drive to four different towns in search of snowman-themed placemats when there's someone who already knows where to find them? If that same person can help you concoct the perfect punch, so much the better.

"I know a lot of vendors," Hall says. "I know the catering companies, I know the party companies. I'm like a complete resource guide. If someone wants an amazing special effect, I know where to get them."

Rather than making a specific recommendation, Hall will help a client narrow down the field. "I will give two or three choices," she says. "It's not for me to say who's best."

"I think she's a party girl at heart," says Judy Raven, executive director of the Shelburne Art Center, who has worked with Hall a couple of times. "She has lots of style and she's creative."

Geri Ann Higgins, marketing director at the University Mall, has hired the Party Diva for an 80-person backyard barbecue wedding reception and a scholarship ceremony. The latter was "a very elegant but very affordable reception," Higgins says. "She always has great suggestions on how to make things easier."

So how much does all this cost? Hall charges $50 for the first 30-minute telephone consultation and $15 for every 15 minutes thereafter - the price is slightly higher if you meet in person. If $50 is all you want to spend, she'll take the time to point you to resources so you can do everything yourself; she's even been known to read a really good recipe to a client over the phone, she says. The more you can spend, of course, the more the Party Diva can do for you - from helping you get organized to negotiating with the caterer to actually showing up at the event and making sure everything runs smoothly.

Whatever level of service a client opts for, Hall's role is, in essence, to "bring out the party planner in everyone." That way, you can have your event - and enjoy it, too.

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