How to Plan a Creative Retreat Weekend

How to Plan a Creative Retreat Weekend via Chrystina Noel

In early March I had the pleasure of attending (well, and planning) a creative retreat weekend for three pretty fabulous ladies. We spent the weekend in Lancaster, PA – only 1.5 hours of Philadelphia, but it still felt great to get out of the City for a while – and to have some ladies to chat with about blogging and business troubles that we’re currently facing these days. And you know what? It was really quite easy to put together, I highly recommend it if you’re stuck in a rut and looking for a little more inspiration in your life. Here’s how to make it happen:

Choose a location

Admittedly, every part of me wants to be the person who emails a group of people and then decide all together where you want to spend the weekend, that’s just the kind of girl I am. I knew that was going to be really complicated though, so I went ahead and chose the location: Lancaster, PA, which turned out to be perfect. Here were my criteria:

  • Close enough to the city that it made sense to go for a weekend.
  • Not super expensive.
  • Must have cute coffee shops.

How to Plan a Creative Retreat Weekend via Chrystina Noel

Figure out a loose budget

Before you invite people to something, you need to know how much it’s roughly going to cost, that way people will know whether or not they’re able to financially commit. Break down your costs into the following categories:

  • Hotel/Lodging: Find a boutique hotel, an AirBNB, or stay at a friend’s house who lives in the area. Admittedly, I had a bunch of hotel points that were going to expire soon, so we used points to rent a hotel for two nights, which made this part of the trip $0.
  • Transportation: How will you get there? Will you need to rent a car? Is it cheaper to take public transportation than to have to park a car over night? What will gas and tolls cost?
  • Meals: Every individual has her own control over this, but have an idea if you want to go out for expensive dinners or stick to the basics ahead of time.

Figure out a loose itinerary

This will help provide some framework around what people will expect to do, what they will get out of the weekend, and what kind of logistics they should be planning for. Questions to consider include:

  • When will you arrive?
  • How many nights will you be staying?
  • What type of meals will you be eating?
  • What will you do each day?
  • When will you leave?

 How to Plan a Creative Retreat Weekend via Chrystina Noel

Send out your initial email

Choose some people that inspire you to come on the adventure. Keeping the list small will keep it manageable (in my brain once your group is large enough that you can’t all stay in the same location, you’re making it too complicated for yourself). Here’s what my initial email looked like:

Hi guys,

…I have 2 nights at a Holiday Inn that I need to book before Friday. I know some of you live in that area already, but I thought it would be fun to do a blogging retreat type thing at the Holiday Inn in Lancaster/Litiz. We can stay Friday and Saturday night. We can find a cute café to visit, we can set aside a bunch of time for blogging stuff we want to get ahead on, we can go out to dinner, and the stay itself will be free. I’ll be more than happy to itinerary it out if people are into that. And we can all drive there.

Upcoming dates that work for me:

  • February 3-5…



We found a date that worked (2 months out) and put it on the calendar all within 3 days.

Finalize some of the details

Once you know you’re going and book a place to stay, you have some time to figure out the details. I said in my email that that I would “itinerary it out” if people are into that. It turned out everybody was into the idea of a loose itinerary, and I would highly recommend it just to make sure the weekend has some forward momentum.

  • How will you be splitting the costs? Know this information ahead of time. Will one person be paying and everybody else will Venmo them. Should people come prepared with cash?
  • Structure your itinerary. Here was our plan: Arrive Friday night, have dinner at Bull’s Head, go to a café Saturday morning, mastermind conversations, lunch, go to the West Elm Outlet in the afternoon, have a nice dinner at Luca, wine in the hotel room, Sunday brunch, and head home. It was a loose enough itinerary to have a plan, but vague enough that we could decide things as we went (like what coffee shop to choose, where we would eat, and how long everything would take).
  • What will people need to bring? Sure, there’s toothbrush, toothpaste, underwear, etc, but should people also come prepared with specific questions? In doing my research for how to plan one of these, I found a great freebie from Sarah von Bargen at Yes and Yes called How to DIY a Creative Mastermind Retreat, where she mentioned having everyone give a small presentation on a topic to everyone else. I decided to keep it simpler for the first time around and ask everybody to come up with something they were struggling with right now to talk about.

 How to Plan a Creative Retreat Weekend via Chrystina Noel

Don’t forget to:

  • Exchange phone numbers (and consider starting a group text message to get people excited and coordinate logistics).
  • Make dinner reservations ahead of time.

Things I would do differently next time:

  • We had some really great conversations, but we didn’t accomplish much on the getting shit done front. There was time in the afternoon we could have planned better to be work session time.
  • Don’t be doing the Whole 30 before you go to a really great bar. (Ha, this was my own personal problem.)

My biggest worry before we got there was that people weren’t going to get anything out of it. It was actually really stressing me out. All of my worrying turned out to be pointless though (as worrying usually does). The weekend went wonderfully. Four people was just the right amount. It was amazing how effortlessly the conversation flowed from blogging to life to business ideas to shopping to internet culture. This is all to say that so long as you choose people that you’re excited to spend time with on your retreat, it will all turn out fine in the end.

Let me know if you end up planning a creative retreat weekend – or if you have any additional questions about planning your own. I’d love to help you out.

As for me? I’m definitely thinking about planning other one. I just need to choose the next location. I’ll keep y’all posted.

Find The Best Wine Under $20

Wine Party Games - Find the Best Wine Under $20 via Chrystina Noel

It’s been two years since I had my last “find the best wine” party. The inspiration for this party was the suggestion to add a chalkboard to my living room that could be utilized during parties. It seemed like the perfect time to take a second stab at finding the best wine under $20. (Last time it was under $10, but now we’ve grown up a bit.)

A word for the wise. (Just going to lay this out there right off the bat.) There’s something I forgot about this type of party. In order to get the absolute most out of it, you should definitely specify which type of wine you’re trying to find the best of – whether that’s find the best merlot under $20, find the best sweet wine under $20, or find the best wine to pair with my favorite gouda under $20. That would definitely bring more structure to the party and result with an actual outcome. When you have 10 different bottles of wine, you’re essentially voting on your favorite type of wine. I guess we’re just going to have to do it again. (Rough life, I know.)

That said. Please note that for the 22 oz. beer party I had where the purpose was to just try as many beers as possible, I think it was totally acceptable to have all different varieties. It made it more interesting for the pallet – and there was something there for everyone.

Now, onto the party.

Wine Party Games - Find the Best Wine Under $20 via Chrystina Noel

I was very proud of myself. After a few weeks of parties where I had way too much food, I think I got it right for this one.

Wine Party Menu

  • Baked Ziti, Ricotta, and Mozzarella – it’s super easy to make ahead of time, feeds a lot of people, and is great reheated if you have leftovers
  • Cheese – this is definitely the most expensive part of the lineup, we went with gorgonzola, midnight moon, truffle tremor, and gouda, the gorgonzola definitely didn’t go as fast as the others, I would probably leave it out next time unless there was something special to pair it with
  • Spinach Dip – I don’t know why I took this out of my circuit of usuals, it’s so easy to make and it’s delicious. It also gives you an excuse to put more healthy things on the able to dunk in it.
  • Philly Pretzel Factory Pretzels – I still ordered too many, I really need to work on this (1 per person is too many)
  • Sweet Snacks – Cookies, brownies, and chocolates
  • Savory Snacks – Bread, crackers, carrots, and popcorn

Wine Party Games - Find the Best Wine Under $20 via Chrystina Noel

Wine Party Games - Find the Best Wine Under $20 via Chrystina Noel

The Party Setup

This is actually a pretty easy party to setup for, and the activity takes care of itself. There are only a few things you need ahead of time:

  • A rating system – we decided to rank each wine 1-10 (worst to best), I found this to be much easier than needing to put all of the wines in order of worst to best. This does, however, mean that you could rank every bottle of wine the score of an 8.
  • A way for people to record their wine ratings – this is how you find the best wine under $20, last time we did this we used score cards that everyone carried around with them and I typed the numbers into an excel spreadsheet at the end of the night. This time we used the chalkboard wall.
  • Bags to cover the bottles – this is so that you can’t judge a book by its cover (or wine by its bottle), we also labeled them so we knew which bottle was which
  • A way to tell your glasses apart – I have a stash of “wine charms” that everybody got to choose from
  • A great icebreaker question icebreaker games are my favorite (in case you’re new around here), we went around in the circle and everyone told the story of the first drink they ever had

One of the fun parts of this party is that everybody actually brought two bottles of wine with them. We tasted one of them and the other one went into a prize pile. So with 11 bottles of wine, there were also 11 prize bottles of wine available for the winners.

Wine Party Games - Find the Best Wine Under $20 via Chrystina Noel

Wine Party Games - Find the Best Wine Under $20 via Chrystina Noel
Wine Party Games - Find the Best Wine Under $20 via Chrystina Noel
Wine Party Games - Find the Best Wine Under $20 via Chrystina Noel
Wine Party Games - Find the Best Wine Under $20 via Chrystina Noel

Drinking Responsibly

There are a few things you can do to make sure that your guests stay put together. Also, you can tell that we’re growing up, because I don’t think I did most of these last time we had the party.

  • Serve food – between the baked ziti and pretzels I felt like there were enough options to keep people full throughout the night
  • Make sure there’s water nearby – don’t make it so people have to ask for it, keep it right in front of them and always full
  • Provide a dump bucket – you’re not going to like every type of wine you pour, it’s okay to dump some of it out at the end of your glass (that said, we suggest you only pour a few ounces to not be wasteful until you know you like it)

Wine Party Games - Find the Best Wine Under $20 via Chrystina Noel

Tallying the Score

At the end of the party, you unveil all of the wine bottles, total the score, and find out who won. The persons who won took home 5 bottles, second place took 3, and third place took 3. (I think? It’s a little hazy.)

Wine Party Games - Find the Best Wine Under $20 via Chrystina Noel

Wine Party Games - Find the Best Wine Under $20 via Chrystina Noel

And then what happens is you leave a bunch of tipsy engineers alone with the numbers too long and they try to find the standard deviations to see if the scoring was really fair. Admittedly, some people scored bottles over a range of 6 numbers and some scored over a range of 3 numbers. There’s probably a way to even the playing field a little bit in the future. Maybe you rate 1-7 instead of 1-10. Also, I think if the wines were more similar it would be easier to compare them. I’m not sure that our top three bottles are actually the best bottles because of the aforementioned reasons, but here were the winners:

  1. Bottle 6: 19 Crimes, The Banished, $8.99
  2. Bottle 8: Joel Gott Zinfandel, $14.79
  3. Bottle 5: Apothic Red, $7.49

Wine Party Games - Find the Best Wine Under $20 via Chrystina Noel

Wine Party Games - Find the Best Wine Under $20 via Chrystina Noel

At the end of the day, a great time was had at all. I recommend getting through the tasting in somewhere between an hour and 90 minutes so that the rest of the wine is available for drinking the rest of the night. We closed out the night with board games – and I made a cup of tea because that’s what happens when you get older.

Have you ever had a party like this? How would you have you tried to keep the scoring fair? I’d love to hear more about it in the comments below.

My 28th Disney-Themed Birthday Party

My 28th Disney-Themed Birthday Party via Chrystina Noel

As many of you know, I turned 28 in December, and as expected there was a 28th birthday party to accompany that. The theme of that party was Disney. The agenda for the party? Watch back-to-back Disney movies while coloring, drinking, and picnicking on the floor.

It was possibly the most “Chrystina” birthday party I’ve ever had. And it was the weirdest thing to not have to host the party. Why? Because we were watching movies.

That said, I still haven’t quite figured out how to talk about the party yet.

There’s that question everybody asks, “so, how did the party go?” That’s the hard one to answer.

My 28th Disney-Themed Birthday Party via Chrystina Noel

I don’t know. It was fun. It was pretty. The movies were excellent as per usual. But there were a heck of a lot of things I would have changed. So I’m going to give it to you straight and tell you the good and the bad.

My 28th Disney-Themed Birthday Party via Chrystina Noel

So if you’re one of those people that just wants to hear what went well and thinks it’s ridiculous that I’m complaining about a fabulous birthday party, just read the first half of the post and stop there. K thanks.

10 things I would do again at my 28th Disney-themed birthday party

  1. I had people vote on the movies ahead of time. There was a doodle poll. I put 10 movies on there that I would be happy to watch and I let everyone pick their favorites. At the end of the day Mulan and Aladdin were the winners, with Hercules as a very close runner up.
  2. I told people to bring a picnic lunch. It was kind of fun and it was a cost saver on money. I gave gift cards out to the people who brought the best picnics.
  3. I chose colors for the party. As Ben and I were walking around The Christmas Tree Shoppe I realized that I was going to have to decide on colors for the decor if I was going to get anything done. I decided to keep it classy with black and white. Black and white both (a) reminds me of movies, and (b) is a good way to make a kids-themed party more adult-like.
  4. I bought cake stands to use on the food table. This gave me the opportunity to vary the heights of the things on the table creating a very nice visual.
  5. I bought one coloring book and let people rip pages out of it to color. One was all we needed since everybody only had time to color one (maybe two) pictures from the book.
  6. I chose a venue that already had a projector, sound system, and DVD player. This made it really easy to bring the movies in.
  7. I borrowed the Aladdin DVD from a lovely lady in a Buy Nothing / Sell Nothing group on Facebook. I posted that I needed to borrow the DVD for a party and she volunteered her copy. This saved me a lot of money since I think Aladdin is currently in the vault.
  8. I bought balloons to decorate with. They definitely added some great height. I also splurged on a $9 Disney balloon. Way better than a bouquet of flowers since it’s still floating 2 weeks later. (And I will probably tape it to the wall when the air is finally out of it.)
  9. I made a paper chain for decoration. Paper chains are my favorite way to decorate. They’re easy and meditative to make, they look really classy, and you can always keep them for the next party.
  10. I liked that it was a kid-friendly party. No kids actually ended up coming, but as I’m getting older and I have more friends who have kids it’s nice to find a balance that works for both. (Please note: We drank the juice boxes I bought for said children anyway.)

My 28th Disney-Themed Birthday Party via Chrystina Noel

My 28th Disney-Themed Birthday Party via Chrystina Noel

5 things I should have done differently for my 28th Disney-themed birthday party

  1. I would spend more time on the guest list. For some reason I decided to make a guest list really quickly and send out all the invites. ROOKIE mistake. There are so many more people I would have loved to see. There are so many more people I was having one-on-one outings with in between the time I sent the invite and the party that I had to awkwardly be like, “hey, so you totally should have been on this list.” I’m not letting this happen again. If I’m planning a go-big-or-go-home party in the future I will definitely definitely spend more time on the guest list.
  2. I wish I hadn’t spent money on a venue. The venue was beautiful. But at the end of the day the party turned out to be 25 people total. We almost could have done that in my living room. And I could have saved a heck of a lot of money.
  3. I bought far too much alcohol. This is a common theme in my life. Ben tried to stop me. It just seems so embarrassing to run out. That said, I think I brought 4 cases and left with 3.5 cases. If not more. I also left with 3 cases of La Croix, half a dozen juice boxes, 1.5 cases of water, and at least 6 bottles of wine. Oops?
  4. I would have told people to bring slippers or a change of shoes. There’s no way I could have known this ahead of time. It was really really cold and crummy weather that day. And you pretty much walk straight from outside into a hallway into the venue. So we asked people to take their shoes off when they came in so that people weren’t picnicking in water on the ground. This made us all pretty cold (and left us with wet feet).
  5. I got the suggestion that I should have had more time for people to mingle. Essentially the party was 4 hours. That was 30 minutes at the beginning, a 90 minute movie, a 30 minute break, and a 90 minute movie. That wasn’t really time for anybody to see anybody. We also could have played some kind of game. (They suggested mafia, I was thinking Disney song lyric games. Same difference.) I don’t know if the answer to this should have been only watch one movie or have a longer party, but I felt I should pass it along.

My 28th Disney-Themed Birthday Party via Chrystina Noel

Usually I would write “I would have taken more photos” in the things I should have done differently category (because I genuinely didn’t take any photos), but I’ve pretty much accepted this is a way of life at this point. It’s just not humanly possible to remember to take photos during your own party. This is why people hire photographers.

All of the photographs in my post were taken by my friend Mary. Thanks, Mary.

A Hot Chocolate Bar

Last weekend was the 14th Annual Christmas Cookie Swap. The guest list includes people from all different points of my life, and this year I took it to a new extreme. There were people with whom I went to middle school, high school, and college. There were some family members, some of my sister’s friends I’ve gotten to know over the years, and the lady who lives downstairs – and at one point my neighbors I have grown up with (all 6 of them) came over to crash the party (who were, of course, welcomed wholeheartedly). It was quite the crew.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been trying hard to step up my party game in the past few months. I’ve been working on setting the whole stage, putting consideration into decorating, and planning out activities for the party. That said, this party doesn’t take place at my house, I couldn’t find any flowers that felt Christmas-y enough at Trader Joe’s, and the activities for this party have always kind of been laid out: eat cookies and sing Christmas carols. Exhibit A:

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

Of course, y’all already knew about the party favor bags. I set those up in the entrance way so that people would see them before they left. In retrospect, I probably should have made a sign that said, “take one of these when you leave.” But they looked great, and the people I remembered to tell were excited to take a treat bag when they left.

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

The biggest addition to the party this year was a spiked hot chocolate bar. They’re all the rage on Pinterest these days. (Exhibit B, Exhibit C, Exhibit D, Exhibit E)

5 Steps to Make a Hot Chocolate Bar

  1. Lay out the mugs.
  2. Don’t forget to buy the hot chocolate.
  3. Make a sign. I found a chalk board in the children’s play drawer in my kitchen. It was hot pink so I covered the edges of it in green wrapping paper.
  4. Add in some flavors. Flavors can be alcoholic: godiva liquor, kahlua, baileys, vanilla vodka or non alcoholic: candy canes, peppermints, and marshmallows.
  5. Pour on the toppings. Don’t forget the whipped cream, but then remember that you can decorate the whipped cream with sprinkles, mini chocolate chips, or chocolate shavings.

Here’s how it turned out:

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

I’ve learned through the years that not everyone is going to want to use the hot chocolate bar. And not all of the toppings are going to get used – especially with wine to drink. So setting out only a few glasses was absolutely alright. One thing I would consider doing differently is having the hot chocolate pre-made as opposed to needing to turn the kettle on every time we wanted a cup, but I think it went well for the first year. Maybe next year I’ll get one of those pendant banners that are all the rage. We’ll see.

The food staple of this party is always the stuffed breads. The party starts at 7, so most people have eaten ahead of time, but the stuffed breads are a great way to tide people over and provide some balance to all of the cookies for the swap. Ben suggested getting pretzels in Philadelphia before we left to take to Connecticut. They were a big hit! That said, 21 pretzels was far too many, next year I would do 15. Yet again, not everybody wants a pretzel.

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

And then there were a few new additions to our line-up. I’ve been on a chili kick recently, so we had chili available for anybody who wanted it. Then I bought two cheeses (the delice de bourgogne was gone by the end of the night), carrots, and hummus.

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

The final touch I added this year was cookie name tags. Usually we just make people guess what type of cookies they are, but I think putting out the signs really helped this year. From year’s past I’ve learned that what happens is everybody brings about cookies, we all eat cookies while we are there, and then most people don’t take any cookies when they leave so I end up with a bunch. So this year I told everybody not to aim for only 30 cookies. (I still had a lot left over…)

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

I never actually took a picture of the table full of cookies because I was too caught up in the hustle and bustle of saying hello, getting people drinks, attempting to figure out what was wrong with the bottle of chardonnay I opened and offered to my friends fiancee that I met for the first time, and putting on a Christmas performance with Biz and Kerry (usually we have more than just 3 people around the piano, but this year it was 3 people around the piano and about 15 watching… it made me wish we had rehearsed…).

Anyway. That’s it. I hope you’re inspired to make your own hot chocolate bar! It was fun!