Michigan event planners tend to tap Pinterest and industry blogs for insight into the hottest trends. But they might want to also start consulting their colleagues specializing in bar and bat mitzvah celebrations.
The bar or bat mitzvah, the coming-of-age ritual for Jewish children who have turned 13, often includes a sprawling evening celebration. (The term is Hebrew and gendered: a boy celebrates a bar mitzvah; a girl, a bat mitzvah.) Metro Detroit is home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, and with many of those residents having ties to New York, the events often see the hottest trends first.
“We do weddings as well, and a bride and her mom will come in and want something really cool and ask for it, and we’ve already seen it 50 times,” says Rebecca Schlussel, director of marketing at Star Trax Events, an entertainment and event planning company that specializes in bar and bat mitzvahs. “One thing that’s unique to our industry is that the bar mitzvah client has the date four to five years ahead of time. They have a lot of time to see what’s new and to do their research, and they’re on top of it.”
The bar mitzvah typically comprises a daytime religious ceremony followed by an evening party (with possible ancillary events as well). That party frequently includes the child’s friends and their families, as well as the parents’ friends and their children. Metro Detroit is home to about 400 such events each year, and it’s not uncommon for a child of the right age to be invited to attend several dozen of them in a given year.
“We must be on top of our game in order to provide something unique and different,” Schlussel says.
Rocking a Theme
A bar/bat mitzvah doesn’t have to have a theme, but it usually does.
“The themes are always beyond your imagination,” says Courtney Kubit, CMP, sales manager for Hyatt Place and Diamond Center of Suburban Collection Showplace, which hosts many such events. “That’s something I caught on with early on. The planners really transform the space.”
Ann Arbor-based photographer Abby Rose, who’s been shooting bar and bat mitzvahs since 2004, agrees. “About 80 percent of the bar mitzvahs are sports-themed, for example,” she says. “But people get creative—tennis balls suspended from the ceiling, inspirational quotes blown up on the walls, custom jerseys to sign. Every time I think I’ve seen it all, people do something else.”
Themes can crop up well before the event itself. Rose says she’s increasingly shooting lifestyle photo shoots in advance of the big day.
“A lot of clients really love doing lifestyle sessions,” Rose says. “People will use themed photography of their child and bring that into the event. I had one client who wanted a ‘Pretty Little Liars’ theme and did the whole photo shoot around that. People put serious thought into the themes when there are photo shoots. And then they get some beautiful pictures they can use in the décor.”
Putting Kids at the Center
Perhaps the bar mitzvah’s chief distinguishing feature is that its guest of honor is a budding adolescent—but the adults expect a rollicking time, too. Balancing those interests poses interesting planning hurdles.
“One of the challenges is that 13 is a strange age,” says Geoff Kretchmer, Star Trax Events’ president. “Depending on birth order and personality, some 13-year-olds aren’t ready to be part of a dance party. You don’t want them in the corner on their phone the whole time on their Snapchat feed—you want them participating. It’s really important we look at the entire population who will be there and provide something for everybody.”
Often that means activities like foosball, henna painting, perfumebottling stations and a lot more. In fact, one area where bar and bat mitzvah clients tend to stick to what works is entertainment.
“Entertainment is such a critical part of an event, so clients are much less likely to ask for what’s different,” Kretchmer says. “If you have a party with fabulous, beautiful décor and no one is dancing, the party is a failure. People are much less inclined to take a risk on entertainment.”
Perhaps nowhere is the need to please the younger set more apparent than in the food. At most social events, even those that include children, food is typically planned with the adult palate in mind, with kids’ tastes as an afterthought. Not so for the bar or bat mitzvah.
“Probably across the board, no matter how high-end they are, kids are eating sliders and finger food,” Rose says.
“There are so many things that go into kids’ food,” Kretchmer says. “For one, kids eat for 10 minutes. So it’s helping the parents understand when you’re doing a budget that the spend on kids’ food should be way down the list.
“What was happening years ago was the food for adults was geared toward adults, but the buffet line for kids was filled with adults,” he adds. “So simplifying it, making it easier to eat, that’s a trend for kids and adults.”
Serving food that’s easy to eat quickly and to carry around also helps the event’s flow, Kretchmer says: “You want energy at your party the entire time. You can’t possibly dance for five hours. That said, when you sit 45 minutes and you have a salad and a heavy meal, it makes it harder to get them going. Most of our clients don’t want that lull time.”
Sensitivity to young people’s needs can also mean flexibility around technology.
“We get a few parents each year who say, what do you think about a no-phone rule?” Kretchmer says. “We say no. For some kids, it’s a safety net. [Parties can be] hard for them, it’s socially challenging. Your phone is your blanket.”
Remember: Most of Your Guests Can’t Drive
Transportation is a serious consideration for bar and bat mitzvahs. Some of the parties are kids-only; even those that have plenty of adults in the mix still want to provide fun, easy options for getting around.
“Party transportation is a big trend,” Schlussel says. “I don’t know if it’s because so many events are happening right outside our area, in Pontiac and downtown, but people are renting buses.”
The bus rides often feature music and, sometimes, a snack, a small giveaway or even a video-montage preview of the events. Security typically accompanies the riders.
Ana Skidmore, owner of TwoFoot Creative, planned her first bat mitzvah in the spring. She says logistics for the event, which was a drop-off party for kids held at a barn, got tricky.
“Pick-up and drop-off were definitely more challenging,” she says. “Because of where we were, the reception wasn’t as good, so kids wouldn’t always get the call from their parents.”
Teenagers aren’t great at following the rules. Planners for their parties can have fun ignoring received wisdom, too.
“You can still keep bar and bat mitzvahs very elegant and classy, but you can also get more fun and kitschy—you can get so creative,” says event planner Bonnie Steinbock, owner of Elm Events. “It’s a 13-year-old being honored here. Other events like weddings are beautiful, but they’re usually not as crazy and fun with the décor.”
Schlussel agrees: “There is no box.”
Rarely are bar and bat mitzvah parties set with, say, 20 round tables. Instead, mismatched seating and tables rule, with lounge seating common for kids and a combination of square, rectangle and high-top tables for adults. Older siblings might have a high-top communal table. Even chairs aren’t a given—planners pull in benches and stools, or bleacher seating for a sports theme. And seating isn’t one-to-one; kids tend to be on the move, and chairs take up precious real estate.
Of course, teens’ tastes often change, and a parent closely attuned to a child’s mercurial wishes might keep a planner hopping. Skidmore says her guest of honor’s mother retained her two years ahead of time, but waited to finalize details.
“When we first started, she said, ‘We’re not going to plan any of the details yet because [the daughter] is going to change her mind 20 times,’” Skidmore says. “So we got into the design much later, which made me a little nervous. And we met with the DJ probably four weeks before the event, because music changes too.”
And though rules are made to be broken, going wild and crazy for the sake of itself can go wrong, too. Rose says she has seen innovation sometimes overrule consideration of guest experience.
“I see a lot of people go way overboard with crazy lighting,” she says. “It can be cool, but if it’s not done right, it can detract from the event. I did one recently with projection mapping. It was super cool, but it was going during the candle lighting and other important moments. People looked like their faces were tie-dyed. Sometimes it’s not thought through.”
Set Good Boundaries
Social events can present a planner with delicate dynamics among family members and friends. Bar and bat mitzvahs are no different.
“The No. 1 rule is to never talk about pricing in front of a child,” Kretchmer says. “A child compares their party to everyone else’s party. So it’s grossly inappropriate to say, ‘You can have this, but it costs $4,000.’ Our rule is to say, ‘These are all great ideas, we’re going to put them into a proposal for your parents, and they’ll make the decisions.’ We want to engage these kids in a discussion without making any promises.”
That discussion should focus on the child’s interests and preferences. “If we can get them excited, it’s so much better,” Kretchmer says. “We try to talk about things that don’t include pricing. As much as you can, make them feel they’re a part of the party. Music is typically the sweet spot for the kid because they’re walking around listening to music all day.”
Perhaps most of all, Rose says, it’s important to remember that bar and bat mitzvahs are community celebrations that should be happy and connected.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about the people and the energy they bring,” she says. “I’ve shot over-the-top parties that cost a small fortune that were kind of duds because the energy wasn’t there. And I’ve shot really small parties where there was a lot of joy. The staging and event production, when that’s beautiful, it’s awesome and fun to shoot. But they’re not going to make or break your party.”