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How to Plan a Surprise Party: The Ultimate Guide

Looking for tips on how to plan a surprise party, organize the attendees, and keep the guest of honor in the dark until it’s time? Here are some instructions on how to plan the best possible surprise party for anyone and any occasion. Keep reading to discover some useful tips on a variety of surprise party types, as well as a step-by-step guide to planning every detail.

Learn how to plan a surprise party in 17 simple steps:

Follow these step-by-step instructions for how to plan a surprise party your friends, family, or client will talk about for years to come.

1. Make the decision.

Surprise parties are polarizing. People who love them really love them. People who hate them really hate them. Unless the guest of honor has specifically said they enjoy surprise parties or would want one, it’s hard to know if it’s a good idea. 

Here are some ways to tell if  a surprise party is a good choice or not:

  • Ask someone who would know best (partner, close family member, etc.).
  • Tell the guest of honor about a recent surprise you loved and watch their reaction.
  • Reflect on how they reacted to surprises in the past.
  • Consider their personality — someone who likes to go with the flow will likely enjoy a surprise party.

Weirdly enough, you should actually consider throwing a surprise party for the person who swears they don’t want one. According to Business Wire, 43.5% of the people who say they don’t want one actually do want that very same party. So unless there are strong reasons why they wouldn’t enjoy it (and no, not wanting people to go out of their way isn’t one of them), then do it!

2. Play Sherlock Holmes.

Get the guest of honor(s) to help plan the party without telling them about it by carefully investigating their party-related likes and dislikes. Use natural conversation to bring these ideas up, otherwise you might give it away. 

You can: 

  • Pretend you’re planning a party for someone else. Get their opinion on your Pinterest inspiration board.
  • Remind them of other parties you’ve been to together. Talk about what you liked.
  • Comment on celebrity parties you see on social media.

And don’t forget to use your other available resources. Friends, family, coworkers, and event stakeholders who are close to the guest of honor can all chip in their two cents. 

Pro tip: Reserve the sleuthing for someone with a great poker face. If the guest of honor gets suspicious, you’ll need to convince them why they’re wrong and that there isn’t a party being planned for them. 

3. Assemble your team.

You can plan a surprise party all by yourself.  But if you have friends, family, or coworkers who are willing to help you out, add the following roles to your mini planning committee:

  • Team lead: Communicates with every team member, creates and oversees a party-planning workflow.
  • Designer: Chooses the theme, color palette, and decorations.
  • Sponsor: Funds and/or defines the surprise party budget.
  • Runner: Runs errands and keeps track of expenses.
  • F&B manager: Cooks or coordinates all meals, snacks, and refreshments. 
  • Guest manager: Creates a guest list, sends invitations, arranges transportation, and confirms RSVPs.
  • Guest of honor point person: Creates or implements the decoy plan that gets the guest of honor to the venue without ruining the surprise.

4. Start organizing.

To learn how to plan a surprise party, you need a checklist tool to track all tasks and a communication tool to coordinate everyone involved.  The most popular tools for for planning surprise parties include:

  • Facebook: Create a secret group, invite guests and collaborators, and add a Facebook Event with party details so guests can RSVP electronically.
  • WhatsApp: Start a private group and invite people to chat about details before the party.
  • Slack: Instant message and start conversation threads that all your team members can respond to with ease.
  • Trello: Create and assign party planning tasks with due dates to keep everything on schedule.

5. Decide on a theme.

Base the theme on the guest of honor’s interests (fandoms, sports, and hobbies work well), the type of surprise party you’re throwing, and the color scheme you’d like to use. Also, choose a level of formality you’d like to have now. Casual parties work better for a surprise party because it’s easier to hide your preparation, but formal surprise parties can be pulled off with a little extra creativity. 

Pro tip: The key to throwing a formal surprise party the guest of honor doesn’t see coming is to choose an upscale location that doesn’t seem too far out of the ordinary. Or, go with one near an area they already spend time in. 

6. Set a budget.

The budget for a surprise party varies depending on guest count, location, level of formality, and much more. But there are always ways to trim the costs a bit. Here are a few options to consider:

  • Limit your refreshments to BYOB.
  • Serve light snacks instead of meals.
  • Use one main decor focal point instead of decorating every inch of the space. 

Surprise parties don’t have many additional costs compared to a regular party. In fact, most surprise parties maintain that important element of surprise by using venues that aren’t too out of the ordinary. Think: a neighbor’s backyard or a public park. 

7. Choose a date and time.

Follow the traditional dates and time of day used for that party type. For example, weddings typically take place during the afternoon, so a surprise wedding party should do the same.

Pro tip: If you’re choosing a date and time for a surprise birthday party, go with an option that takes place before their actual date of birth to maximize the chances they’ll be truly surprised. One to three weeks before their actual birthday will do the trick. 

8. Book a location.

The best locations for a surprise party are:

  • Somewhere the guest of honor won’t accidentally go while setup is happening.
  • Near a location they frequent, such as a restaurant district or a friend’s house so that you don’t tip them off by breaking their expected routine.
  • Easy to sneak people into with multiple parking options spread apart, plus entrances and exits on different sides of the building.

9. Create a floor plan.

Use 3D event diagramming software and tools to figure out where you’ll hide people and supplies, place tables and chairs, and much more. You can also share your plans with your guests and designate entrances and exits for individual groups. Less is more when it comes to decorations — create one large focal point the guest of honor will see when they walk into the main party room, and plan tables and chairs around that.

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10. Design and purchase decorations.

The point of a surprise party is the surprise, and if there are too many decorations around, your guest of honor will be tipped off before they even see all of the guests.  A banner, some streamers, and a balloon or two will be more than enough.  If you’re going to order custom balloon colors or a special sign, plan this at least two weeks in advance in case of delivery delays.

11. Decide on activities to include.

Add some relaxed activities to your surprise party plan to take the heat off of the guest of honor so they can mix and mingle. Board games, poker, and a DIY cupcake bar area all great choices, but it will of course vary depending on the type of surprise party. Brainstorm what makes the most sense for the guest of honor and all of the attendees and go from there. Did you and the guest of honor frequent the pool hall in college? Consider choosing a venue with pool tables. Is the guest of honor your boss who loves darts? Set up a few dart boards throughout the location. The options are endless — this is where creativity is incredibly important!

12. Create a menu.

Once again, this step will depend on the type of surprise party. Food isn’t always a requirement, but most hosts like to at least bring a birthday cake and cupcakes if it’s a surprise birthday party. If you choose to create a menu for a full meal, go with something you know the host will love. Save on setup and cleanup time, plus help keep the secret under wraps for as long as possible, by ordering takeout or delivery set for after the guest of honor arrives.

13. Send invitations.

Digital invitations are the most discreet and easiest to hide. Paperless Post and Evite offer free customizable designs plus RSVP features and guest updates. Send your invitations one month to two weeks ahead of time and collect RSVPs a week in advance. 

Make sure you clearly communicate the fact that this is a surprise party by adding “surprise party” to the evite subject line and the main header of the message. Include parking and entrance instructions for those who want to jump out and surprise the guests. And for those who will arrive later, ask them to hold off until 15 minutes after the planned guest of honor arrival time so they don’t walk in during the surprise. This is another time that having some sort of communication tool or app will come in handy. You don’t want to be unable to communicate with guests if something goes awry (i.e. the guest of honor is running late) at the last minute.

14. Iron out the decoy plan.

To surprise the guest of honor on the day of the party, create a decoy plan. A decoy plan is what the guest of honor thinks they’re on their way to go do. The activity should require them to dress in a way that will be appropriate for the surprise party so that they’re not caught over/underdressed and embarrassed about their outfit. You’ll need a point person to create the decoy plan with them, arrange transportation, and time everything out. 

15. Prepare food and drinks.

If the party is catered, share the floor plan you made with your chef and finalize arrival times for party staff.  If you’re bringing your own refreshments, purchase shelf or fridge stable items 3 to 5 days in advance. Order any baked goods for the day before or morning of.

16. Make a playlist.

Use Spotify or another similar music app to come up with a playlist of relaxed beats, classic jazz, or top 40 hits the guest of honor will love to set the tone for the party. The faster, more intense the music, the more of a party vibe you’ll get. The slower, more casual the music, the more of a laid back vibe you’ll get. More relaxed music fits the tone of most surprise parties, so if you’re not sure which to do, default to this option. You can always mix it up, too. What makes sense during the surprise portion of the party might not make sense later on in the night.

17. Outline the reveal.

Ask yourself these important questions to plan the big reveal: 

  • Do you want everyone to wait standing in the dark then flick the lights on? 
  • Do you want attendees to pop up/out from behind furniture?

If you do a virtual surprise party, ask everyone to leave their meeting IDs blank or change it to an appropriate party greeting. Have them turn their cameras off. Then invite the guest of honor to the meeting or, if you’re physically present, enter the meeting for them ahead of time, turn the microphone on so people can hear you coming, and open the screen for the guest of honor to see everyone. 

For in-person surprises, you may also want a professional photographer to capture the moment. Or add some fun party props like cardboard glasses, streamer headbands, and glow-in-the-dark jewelry. 

Quick tips for common types of surprise parties:

Plan your surprise party with these key ideas in mind to pull off any celebration.

  1. Virtual surprise party.
    • Change all your backgrounds to photos of, or with, the guest of honor.
    • Use brightly-colored props like wigs, birthday candles, and balloons to make the call more like a party and less like a work meeting.
  1. Surprise birthday party.
    • Trade the tired “we forgot your birthday” cover up for solid alibis that explain why you “won’t be able to celebrate” this year to make the surprise work without hurting anyone’s feelings. 
    • Let guests know their presence is the gift and that additional items are optional. 
  1. Surprise wedding ceremony and/or reception.
    • Consider telling your parents so they have time to emotionally and physically prepare, but don’t tell anyone else. 
    • Pretend you’re throwing a party with a strict time and dress code to keep it a surprise. 
  1. Surprise proposal and engagement dinner.
    • Choose a venue nearby the proposal spot to make the surprise dinner more convenient.
    • To truly surprise them, don’t go to an unusual location – stick to your favorite date night places instead.
  1. Surprise homecoming party.
    • Prepare your home ahead of time with their favorite foods, entertainment, and supplies.
    • Consider limiting your guest list since the event will likely be emotionally and socially positive, but also draining. 
  1. Surprise baby shower.
    • Go against tradition and forego limiting the guest list to women, only to throw off the guest of honor. 
    • Pick a venue where you can easily display and open gifts since they might be large (think cribs and strollers). 
  1. Surprise going-away party.
    • Ask everyone to sign a card, memory book, or photo album with their name and well-wishes for the perfect sentimental gift. 
    • Don’t throw the party within three days of their move since they’ll likely be stressed over last-minute packing. 

Frequently asked questions about surprise parties:

How do you organize a surprise party?

Organize a simple surprise party by choosing a location, date, and time. Then secretly invite guests and trick the guest of honor into showing up. 

How long does it take to plan a surprise party?

It can take as little as one week to plan a surprise party or as long as six months. The timeline of surprise party planning is determined by the guest list size (groups of 25 or less are quicker to plan for than groups of 250+) and event type (i.e. a birthday is less complex than a wedding, etc.). 

How far in advance do you start planning a surprise party?

As a general rule of thumb, you should start to plan a surprise party at least three weeks in advance. Give yourself one week to prepare, another week to give guests an opportunity to clear their schedule, and a final week to collect RSVPs and make last minute arrangements. 

How do I plan a cheap surprise party?

You can plan a cheap surprise party by choosing a free location, doing BYOB, and limiting (or eliminating) decor. 

Now you know how to plan a surprise party!

In addition to party planning basics like picking a theme, decor, and venue, surprise parties require you to think outside the box and come up with creative elements that make the celebration extra special. Combine these step by step instructions with our ultimate party planning checklist to plan your next surprise party like a pro. 

Up next, check out these unique event decor and design trends you can use to deck out your surprise party even further.

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