Chestnuts roasting, sleigh bells ringing, halls decked, etc. Boasting delicious foods, festive music, reunions of families and friends, and general merriment, holiday parties are full of fun. But they can also be a source of stress, especially for hosts trying to balance event planning, cooking and cleaning with having a good time.
Luckily, much like Santa's elves, some locals offer their services as holiday-party helpers, stepping in to manage much of the planning and execution of parties so their hosts can actually enjoy their events and guests.
Tonja Parsons, a Mountain View resident, has been working in "personal-party service," as she calls it, for around 12 years. She and others in her field do everything from arranging venues to tending bar, to preparing and serving food, and cleaning up at events all over the Peninsula. Parsons charges $30 per hour for her services (four hours minimum per event), but costs may vary.
Parsons now has a full-time job at an estate in Atherton but will still help out longtime freelance clients around the holidays. She said it's typical that helpers will have a day job (or are in school) and work a catering job around that schedule.
"It's good, hard work and most of the time fun and fulfilling," she said.
Parsons got into the business by working with Just Us Catering in Menlo Park. The flexible nature of the work suited her lifestyle and family needs.
"I was ready to go back to work when my youngest son turned 16 and the job allowed me to work and still be involved with his school and athletic events," she said.
Since then, she has worked on a freelance basis, connecting with clients by word of mouth. If you don't have a friend or neighbor to ask for recommendations, you can search the Web, such as under "event services" on craigslist.org or on sites such as collegelabor.org, partyserving.com and taskrabbit.com.
Parsons advised that hosts seeking event helpers reach out as far in advance as possible, with some longtime clients booking her a year in advance.
"When it comes to November, December and New Year's Eve, book as soon as you can," she said. But, she's had other clients seek help at the last minute and that has worked out, too. It never hurts to ask.
"Clients should be specific about what they require. Guest count is key. Without enough service people the party won't come off well. Your budget should include the cost of enough service people. A gratuity is always nice, if you are happy with the outcome of your event," she said.
And for those interested in lending their services as party helpers, Parsons said it's not formal training but rather physical fitness, good organization, attention to detail and great customer-service skills that really count.
"For me, communication and problem solving are key skills in working with clients. Many events start out with a plan that may often need to be altered for one reason or another. Being able to adapt quickly is a strength," she said.
Experience in the kitchen helps, too.
"I am not a formally trained chef but have been baking and cooking since I was very young," she said.
Over the years, Parsons has met many interesting people through her work.
"I have worked for politicians, tech people on Stanford events, at Castilleja School, for the Rotary Club, Avenidas. I did meet Isabelle Allende at an event, and she kindly sent me two personally autographed books," she said.
Susie Richardson, a Palo Alto resident who has worked with Parsons many times over the years, says she enjoys working in tandem with Parsons much more than she would hiring a full-service catering company because she's able to relax and enjoy her guests while still feeling like the party is her own.
She agreed that word of mouth is best, and said that she and her friends use their neighborhood group websites as a way to share recommendations on temporary staffing needs.
She and Parsons have developed a partnership and friendship through their work together. A catering company, she said, comes in and throws a party at your house for you, while working with a helper is a team effort and less formal.
"A catered party is too much like a restaurant for me. It's important that people feel comfortable and at home," she said. "And the thing that's so wonderful is that at the end of the party my house is clean."