Last updated: March 20, 2023
What makes a good happy hour? Is it the venue, the drink specials, or the music?
I believe it is none of those things. Not the venue, not the drinks, and not the playlist.
Instead, what actually makes a good happy hour is the people you invite, and the people who actually show up.
In this article I’ll show you how to plan and host the best happy hour ever. You’ll learn how to make it a success, how to make it easy, and how to make it a win for everyone who attends.
Why you should listen to me: I've hosted hundreds of happy hour events and cocktail parties in New York City and Austin, Texas. New York Magazine once called me a host of "culturally significant" parties. But don't take their word for it. Keep reading to see my tips that will help you meet new people.
Overview of Key Steps
Many of the steps outlined here are included in my book, The 2-Hour Cocktail Party. What’s different is that your happy hour will most likely be held in a bar, restaurant, office space, or other non-home environment. We’ll discuss the key things to be mindful of for all of those venues in a later section of this article.
For now, familiarize yourself with the key steps in planning and hosting a great happy hour:
- Build your guest list (ideally using the Party Runway technique)
- Collect RSVPs using 1-to-1 invitations (see our free platform tips)
- Write a compelling event description (templates below)
- Send a series of 3 reminder messages (download examples)
During the happy hour party, do these things:
- Use name tags for every single person
- Lead two or three rounds of quick icebreakers (I promise it won’t be lame)
- Take a group photo
- End the event after 2 hours (how to end it?)
When you do those things, you’ll have an excellent happy hour that is better than most casual gatherings.
Your guests will meet new people. They’ll appreciate your hosting skills, and you’ll get compliments the next day. Everyone will ask you, “When are we having another happy hour? That last one was great!”
This isn’t rocket science. But adding a bit of structure and planning helps shift your meetup from a random collection of people at a bar into a well-run event. I’ll show you how to do it.
Welcome readers! I promise that my book about how to host a 2-hour event is 20x better than this article. It has 220+ reviews on Amazon; look at them now. If you buy my book and think it isn’t packed with massive value to help you host a great event, I’ll personally give you a full refund. My Venmo is @nickgray and just email me your receipt to [email protected]
The Party Runway
If this is your first party using my formula, give yourself at least three weeks to plan the party.
You need those 3 weeks to fill up your guest list. Not having anyone show up is the number one fear of a new party host.
The runway also gives you time to buy a few necessary supplies like basic drinks and some snacks. But if you’re hosting this at a bar, you don’t need that.
Don’t panic about preparations or dumb decorations. Just use the runway to give yourself time to these things:
- Send a message to your core group or close connections. Invite them first!
- Create an RSVP page. I have a list of my preferred free platforms here.
- Lock in your first RSVPs.
- Then send invites to other prospective guests.
Read The Party Runway article to discover more about the things you need to do before your party.
The biggest mistake I see with new hosts is they plan a party with less than 1 week. This won’t work well: people are busy, they have stuff in their calendar already, and you’ll get more attendees if you can give them more notice of your event.
There’s a big reason to collect RSVPs for your party: it will drive attendance, create a “social contract” for people to attend, and generally make it easier for you to send reminder messages and notes leading up to your happy hour.
As of September 2022, these are the free event management platforms I recommend:
Two key things:
- Turn on the feature that displays the guest list.
- Don’t use Evite. Please, for the love of God, don’t use Evite.
Read about my favorite platforms, why I hate Evite and Eventbrite, and pro-tips for each platform in this article that I wrote: Event Platforms: Pros, Cons, and My Favorites
Write Your Event Description
- Include all the relevant information.
- Add photos of you (the host) and other attendees or co-hosts.
- Make it fun! Over-exaggerate, if needed. Entice people to attend.
- Create a start and an end time. It will help people show up on time.
See a bunch of sample event descriptions here. Or reference Chapter 7 in my book for the exact event description that I use for all of my events.
Reminder Messages for your Happy Hour
You must, must, must send reminder messages for your happy hour.
Why? Because people are busy. They forget about RSVP’ing. Work comes up, they have to stay late, or family issues. Maybe they get invited to something else on the same day and time!
Sending a series of pre-party reminder messages will generate excitement for your party and ensure high attendance.
Fun fact: the highest-performing article on my blog from an SEO perspective is this article about party reminder messages. So I made this YouTube video on the same topic:
The video just tells you to send this sequence of reminder messages to your guests:
- Seven Days Before
- Three Days Before
- Morning of the Party
Read this Reminder Messages article to learn more about sending messages to your guests in the days leading up to your happy hour. Or see Chapter 9 in my book to get all the scripts I use.
Use Name Tags
Sigh. I feel so strongly about this topic. Name tags are inclusive, help break up cliques, and generally make a “safe space” for people to meet new friends.
I’ve written an entire chapter in my book all about name tags and why you should use them. You can read it all online here.
I’ll tell you:
- The big benefits of name tags
- Best name tags to buy for your party (Cualfec 210s are my current fav)
- Practical Matters and Best Practices
Do 2 Icebreakers
It might be hard to do icebreakers at your happy hour. It depends on how many people you have attending. But it will be worth it! I promise.
Please see chapters 12 and 13 in my book, The 2-Hour Cocktail Party, for more information about this topic. The maximum group size that I suggest you do is 15 people. Any more than that, and your icebreakers will take too long.
To learn more about the proper execution of the icebreakers, read Icebreakers: The Ultimate Guide here.
Take a Group Photo
Circle everyone up 1 hour before the end time of your happy hour. Take a group photograph. Send it to everyone the next day.
I filmed a quick video about how I do this at one of my recent happy hours in Austin, Texas:
Here are the reasons why you should take a group photo:
- It will be a positive memory for you to keep and to think about after hosting.
- You can share the photo with people the next day as a thank you message to your guests for attending your happy hour.
And, most importantly:
- You can use the group photo when you invite people to your next party! It will be social proof to show that you have lots of friends and that you host a fun event.
End the Happy Hour
Ending a party is never easy. Asking people to leave is never fun.
But don’t worry! You can do it. After hosting and ending hundreds of parties, I’ve never lost a friendship or ruined a connection by ending my event on time.
In fact, this tactic of ending a party is so effective that sometimes I received Thank You notes from new guests.
In this How to End Your Party article, I will show you exactly how to successfully end your party and how to handle people who don’t want to leave.
The best tip to end your party: List both a start and an end time for your party on your RSVP page. Mention both the start and the end times in your reminder messages, too. Most hosts never include an end time! When you set the expectations that your party will end at a certain time, more people will show up on time, you’ll boost attendance, and everyone will know this is not an all-night happy hour. More thoughts here.
Running a good happy hour at your house or apartment can be easy. You’ll connect new colleagues, meet new friends, and even have some fun.
Remember to do these key steps along the way:
- Use The Party Runway
- Collect RSVPs
- Send 3 reminder messages
- Use name tags
- Lead icebreakers, if possible
- Take a group photo
Good luck! Let me know how it goes.
Did I miss anything? Email me to [email protected] and I’ll update this article with your suggestions.