Your complete guide to hosting the perfect party

An etiquette expert tells you how to go about planning the perfect party, right from making the guest list through saying the goodbyes

party marked on calendar

When hosting a party, excessive formality isn’t necessary, but adding your own personal touch to the event is. Here’s how to go about planning to host the perfect party.

In this article »

Determining the type of event and guest list

Before pulling together your guest list, consider the reasons for having the event or party. Do you want to entertain clients, celebrate a promotion or anniversary, bid farewell to a colleague or neighbor, or invite your co-workers or friends to dinner? Know your reasons and know your budget.

The success of most events will be measured by the mix of the guests—though many people think the most important ingredient is the food—but that is only a close second! As you assemble your guest list, you want to consider inviting those whose company you enjoy, guests who you know will mix well together, or those friends to whom you owe an invitation.

All guests should feel special and know that they were invited because they have something special to contribute to the event.

Choosing the date

Be considerate of your guests’ schedules and lifestyles when choosing a date. For example, if it’s a weeknight, make sure that the party doesn’t run late for those with early work schedules, or if your client just arrived after a long plane flight, if timing permits, give them a 2 – 3 days to recuperate from jet lag.

Extending the perfect invitation

Depending on the formality [or lack thereof] of your event, you can choose which way you want to invite your guests.

If you are composing a written invitation, or online invitation, make sure that it has all the relevant information. It’s polite to provide directions. Don’t make your guests search and fumble through an unfamiliar area of town. If you are mailing the invitation, enclose a separate sheet of paper with accurate directions.

If you are hosting a large affair, one of your responsibilities as the host is to provide parking. Alert your neighbors to the event, and let them know that your guests probably will be parking on the street. If the parking situation is difficult, and your street or home cannot handle a large number of cars, consider limiting your guest list.

Extend an invitation that is welcoming, inviting, and so wonderful that it is impossible to resist. An email invitation is fine if you know everyone checks their email often and the event is casual. Remember, your invitation sets the tone and style for the affair.

Always let the guests know what the occasion is and, if you’ve designated a guest of honor, who he or she is. If you’re hosting, say, a casual brunch and you expect guests to contribute a dish or beverages, let them know in the invitation.

Last minute preparations

On the day of the party, take care of last-minute details. Here are a few tips

  • Mentally walk through the event
  • Review the names of guests, spouses, and significant others
  • Allow plenty of time to set up and dress up
  • Try to give yourself half an hour to relax before the party begins
  • If you have a non-smoking household, now’s the time to make arrangements for smokers by reserving a  separate space for them.

Welcoming the guests

As your guests arrive, do your best to greet them at the door.

Introduce newcomers all around the room until the number of guests gets too large. When that happens, introduce newcomers only to the people who are closest at hand.

The goal for making introductions is to provide information about each other in order to give you a common ground to carry on a conversation. Be sure to always introduce the person using their first and last name.

As a host, you face a challenge when an uninvited guest arrives at your party. A gracious host will greet an uninvited guest as if you were hoping for such a visit—your job is to ignore your guest’s breech of etiquette! Begin making introductions immediately to make the extra guest feel at home.

Serving cocktails, appetizers and snacks

Serve cocktails for no more than an hour, and provide appetizers and snacks while serving alcoholic beverages.

Be careful about serving too much alcohol. Keep an eye on guests that may overindulge. Also, be considerate of those guests who choose not to indulge in alcohol. Serve plenty of juices, soft drinks, bottled water and the like, and don’t push anyone to have “just one drink.”

Making all your guests feel at ease

Keep an eye out for shy guests who plaster themselves to the walls. Engage them in conversation, and introduce them to someone you hope can draw them out.

Do your best to be comfortable and keep in mind that “etiquette means making others feel comfortable”. Your guests will take subconscious clues from you—if you’re laughing, talking to people and having a good time, chances are greater they will too. If you are relaxed, most people will have a good time without ever knowing why.

As the host, don’t get too caught up in making sure every person is entertained every minute of your party. Your guests will take the initiative. The success of your party depends on lots of laughter, good conversation, delicious food, and everyone feeling comfortable.

Above all else, maintain your sense of humor in the face of adversity. The most important things are your attitude, friendliness, and genuine pleasure in your guests’ presence.

Managing the meal

You can never have too much food at a party. Remember to have plenty of water, hot coffee, tea, and snacks on hand for events that go late into the evening.

How you organise the meal depends on the number of guests and the atmosphere that you want to create. Your main options are a buffet meal and a sit-down dinner.

The buffet meal

A buffet works for 10 guests or 100. It is a great way to build camaraderie and allow people to mingle. A buffet can be a bit formal or casual, depending on the seating arrangements and style of food.

With a buffet, you can serve guests without having to traipse back and forth to the kitchen. Arrange everything on a side table, stack up the plates and silverware, and let your guests help themselves. Buffets can work beautifully if you avoid a few hazards that can turn a party into a nightmare. Be sure to:

  • Think about traffic flow. Make sure people have enough room to get to and away from the buffet table. Consider setting up the buffet table so that people can serve themselves from both sides.
  • Set up glasses and dinner beverages on the dining tables so that your guests don’t have to juggle food plates and drinks.
  • Organise menu items in standard menu order: main courses first and desserts last.
  • Be sure to have backup serving dishes of each menu item so that they can be replaced easily. Guests shouldn’t have to scrape the bottom of a serving dish.
  • Without exception, provide adequate seating for everyone invited. Have enough tables and chairs, or arrange your furniture to accommodate them. For very casual occasions, the floor and some cushions for the lawn are perfectly fine.

The dinner party

A dinner party is a small affair, usually with no more than 12 guests. The conversation at a dinner party should be general, social, and witty. The food at a dinner party should be prepared and served in courses—at least three and no more than five.

Friends dining together on the table
The food at a dinner party should be prepared and served in three to five courses

This type of party is an opportunity to use your wedding silver, your fine china, and your crystal. If you don’t have enough matching plates and silverware, mix and match.

When it comes to a sit down meal and serving food and drinks, if you remember only these three things, you’ll do fine:

  • Water glasses should be filled before your guests sit down at the table.
  • Guests are served from the left, and dishes are removed from the right, unless the arrangement of the tables and chairs does not allow this system.
  • Make sure that all the utensils for each course are on the table before the food arrives.

Making and receiving a toast

the-perfect-party-3Toasts can be made with wine or any other beverage. Traditionally, you do not toast to yourself, although some people now think that it’s okay to raise your glass in response. In either case, you do not drink if you’re the one being toasted.

Toasting was once a man’s job, and only the men drank the toast while the women nodded and smiled. Now it is perfectly appropriate for anyone to make a toast and for anyone to respond to the toast, regardless of gender.

A few more rules…

  • The host can and should propose the first toast [a welcome toast] to begin the dining.
  • If the event has a guest of honor, the host proposes a toast to that person.
  • If the guest of honor is a dignitary, a very important person, or a distinguished elder, it is a sign of respect for everyone to rise to perform the toast.

The guest of honor, regardless of gender, responds to the toast by thanking and toasting the host, and thanking everyone for their attendance. In fact, guest of honor or not, if you’re toasted, you should always respond with a toast.

At large events where you want to command the attention of a room or of more than one table, rising for the toast is traditional. For smaller events, rising isn’t necessary; simply ask for everyone’s attention. When you have the floor, be respectful; take a minute or less to make the toast; and be seated again.

Ending the party

One of the toughest challenges for a gracious host is the delicate process of getting your guests to go home. Moving your guests homeward is really a two-sided issue, because they are expected to exhibit their own good manners by knowing when it’s time to leave. The party should be over an hour after dessert is finished.

As people begin to leave, station yourself at the door; accept their compliments; thank them for coming; and wish them a good evening. Don’t apologize for a dish being overdone or for running out of tonic. Just say how pleased you were to have them at your party.

Bonus content: Rules for party guests

When you attend a cocktail party without seating, you will be challenged to hold on to your food and drink at the same time. Here’s what to do:

  • Hold your drink in your left hand so that your handshaking hand is not wet or cold from the glass.
  • If you are holding both drink and food and someone approaches you, put the food on a nearby table and offer your right hand [unless shaking hands would be awkward for the other person].
  • With a little practice, many people can master the art of holding a small plate and a wineglass in their left hand. If you are unable to perform this astounding feat, try to stay near tables or other surfaces.
  • If you cannot comfortably shake hands, smile, bow, nod or shrug in greeting; the other person will understand.
  • If you are the person making the greeting, it is rude to stand there with your hand out while the other person is looking around for a place to set his food and drink down.

A version of this article first appeared in the June 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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