Turning a workshop or class into a lively, hot-ticket event can be an intimidating challenge for an eventholder. It’s also critical for success—and maybe not as tough as you thought. Parties That Cook, a ten-year-old culinary events company with gatherings in the Bay Area and Chicago—and at a brand-new Seattle outpost—has found remarkable success, even during a down period for the industry, with a formula that pushes the social side up in the mix. We caught up with Bibby Gignilliat, the company’s founder and executive chef, and she shared a bunch of fantastic tips for creating events that are so fun, attendees practically forget they’re educational.

What is Parties That Cook?

Parties That Cook offers unique hands-on cooking events that create an atmosphere of camaraderie and collaboration—perfect for companies looking to increase internal ROI and productivity by working together more efficiently, boosting morale, and rewarding employees. We have applied a similar model to private cooking parties for individuals looking to bring their friends and family together for special occasions, as well as a variety of hands-on cooking classes open to the public. From Date Night classes for couples and Gourmet Dating classes for singles to Cinco de Mayo cooking and tequila tasting and Farmer’s Market Tapas at the Ferry Building, individuals can mix and mingle while they learn new skills and create delicious gourmet dishes.

What kind of success and growth have you seen with your events?

Recession is the mother of invention. With a down economy and slashed corporate budgets, we needed to invent new ways to generate revenue.  Last year, we increased our cooking class offering and added Valentine’s Day classes and Mother’s Day classes.  They all sold out.  This year, we doubled our offering and have added new classes to meet the ever-growing demand.  Our new classes include Cinco de Mayo cooking and tequila tasting, Farmer’s Market Tapas featuring local and organic ingredients, Father’s Day, and more events themed for the holidays. We have also expanded into a third city this year (Seattle), and to spread the word, we launched with a Valentine’s Day class for singles and one for couples.

How have you set yourself apart from other groups offering cooking classes and events?

Our cooking class parties are all upbeat and hands-on, designed to get people mixing and mingling while cooking together.  After an interactive, Food Network-style demo, the group is divided into teams and each team prepares a recipe from the class menu. We create an upbeat atmosphere with lively music, and after the event, we send digital photos and electronic copies of the recipes to each guest.  The menus are designed to incorporate current food trends and to teach new tips and techniques that can be used at home. Guests come away with new kitchen skills and newfound friends (or maybe even a date depending on the class!).

You seem to have attracted a lot of top chefs and cooking professionals. How did you connect with them and get them involved with Parties That Cook?

We get most of our five-star chefs from referrals from our friends, staff and customers.  This ensures top talent.  We also occasionally post openings on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, in our SideDish Newsletter and on Craigslist. At our events, we emphasize “edu-tainment” or “info-tainment,” so lead chefs are always professional, charismatic, skilled cooks with dynamic presentation skills.

Just using Valentine’s as an example, you do a great job mixing up your offerings: reaching out to both singles and couples, hosting multiple events across a metro area, etc. How important is diversifying so that you offer something for everyone? What tips can you offer in this regard?

We highly recommend targeting different groups to expand reach and branding. Our classes feed our corporate team building events, which are our bread and butter.  Offering diverse classes also helps generate media attention. We like to offer different locations within a market to appeal to different clientele. For example, for Valentine’s Day in San Francisco we offered classes in San Francisco and down on the Peninsula.  We like to make it easy for our clients to pick a location that is convenient.

One thing that’s really intriguing about PartiesThatCook is the way you’ve blended the class format with social events. Attendees are learning and socializing at once. Can you speak more to that?

We find that many of our guests come to our events with two goals in mind: to learn to cook and to meet people. For example, at our singles classes, we make sure that each team has an equal number of men and women and we rotate the women to the next team a few times during the cooking.  It is speed-dating meets cooking class!  At the end of a singles event, we send out the roster of attendees so that “matches” can be made.  We know of two marriages to our credit! We also find that couples are often looking for food-focused friends and some have even started cooking clubs with their new found friends after attending one of our classes.

The party atmosphere at our classes enables these easy connections. We often encourage guests to bring a bottle of wine for the group to enjoy, and set up the recipes so that people are always cooking and interacting in small groups.

What kinds of venues do you use for your events, and what are your key criteria in picking them?

We select venues based on ambience, location and ease of parking. We try to find places that have amazing kitchens, though we can also create a kitchen out of a barrel room like we do at Crushpad Winery. We are a mobile kitchen and can bring everything from small appliances to satellite burners and ovens. That flexibility allows us to work anywhere. Our only requirement is a sink!  Lastly, we often partner with other interesting venues so that we can cross-promote.  Some of the future events we have this year involve newly formed partnerships: Tres Agaves in San Francisco for Cinco de Mayo, La Honda Winery in Redwood City, Efeste Winery in Seattle and Calphalon in Chicago.

What do you do with social media? How big a role does it play in your event promotion?

We promote our classes on our Facebook Fan Page and on Twitter. We imagine that our clients use the share buttons on our site and on Eventbrite to spread the word among their friends. This is helping to fill our classes as the word is spread virally.

Any other tips and best practices you can share with others trying to host dynamic workshop-type events?

We have an easy-to-use ticketing service, Eventbrite [ed. note: that’s us!] that enables us to post new classes quickly and promote them easily through social media sites and Google searches.

We provide fun food-oriented nametags that ask a question to inspire conversation. Along with their name, clients will put the answer to the question. Some fun questions include: What is the best cure for a hangover? Another is: What the weirdest thing you have ever eaten? Often when people show up at our classes, they don’t know anyone so these questions help to break the ice and get the conversation flowing.