You Don’t Have to Be the ‘Perfect Host’ — But Here are 10 Tips for Being a Darn Good One, According to Party Planners

updated Dec 20, 2023
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

‘Tis the season to host a party! Whether you’re playing chef and planning an intimate dinner party for your friends, inviting your family for a holiday feast, or throwing a big bash to ring in the New Year, you’ll want to make your event one your guests will remember fondly for years to come — and that doesn’t mean over-the-top fancy decor, expensive floral arrangements, or gourmet cuisine, but rather, thoughtful comforts and meaningful touches. 

While any hosting gig comes with its fair share of bumps in the road and unexpected challenges, there are a handful of ways to make your event run smoothly, regardless of whether or not you forget to pick up dessert. Avoid panicking while hosting and have a blast thanks to these pro holiday entertaining tips from party planners who really know their stuff.

1. Focus on your guests.

When you’re worried about wowing your friends and loved ones, it’s easy to get bogged down on details like what napkin rings go best with your chargers. But Sarah Klingman, CEO and founder of virtual party planning company Gthr, warns, “There’s so much information out there these days about decor and aesthetic, it’s easy to get distracted by elements that guests may not even notice.”

“The biggest key to success to hosting an event, big or small, is to create a plan centered around the guest experience,” she says. So before you focus too much on any detail, ask yourself, ‘Will my guests even care about this?'”

2. Minimize your responsibilities.

“The less talked about key to success,” says Klingman, “is finding ways to alleviate your stress as a host, so you can be present and engaged with your guests.” How you do this can vary dramatically based on the event and your budget.

If it’s in your budget, hiring a cleaning service to help you deep clean before the event can allow you to focus on party-specific prep tasks. Alternatively, you can recruit some friends to help with setup. “If budget allows, I strongly recommend catering the food rather than cooking, or opt for a potluck,” says Klingman.

3. Write down everything.

Virtual wedding planner and pro hostess Ellie Durbin recommends doing thorough prep to make sure no stone or hosting duty is left unturned. “I write everything out: the menu with cooking steps, bar items, all the dishes and equipment, a shopping list, a decor list, and tidying to-dos,” she says. Once she’s written out her lists, she maps out a schedule for every single step and tries to do as much as possible ahead of time.

4. Capture the memories.

A great party should be memorable; taking plenty of pictures can help you and your guests remember the good times. Beverly Hills party planner Lisa Lafferty suggests encouraging partygoers to shoot their own pics by creating a designated photo area where guests can take pictures at their own pace. “Adding props or a themed backdrop make the photos more exciting,” she says.

5. Don’t forget the kids.

Unless you specify that your party is adults-only, expect people to bring their kids along. For parents to have fun, their little ones need to be kept entertained. Lafferty recommends creating a designated play area or kids lounge with kid-friendly movies or music playing.

Stock the area with toys, video games, or other activities, like a holiday crafting station. If you want children to stay out of the general party area, don’t forget to provide food and drinks and always have an adult present.

6. Plan a delicious — and realistic — menu.

Consider what’s in season, what’s timely, and what covers your guests’ dietary preferences. “Prepare a balanced menu that suits the weather by selecting seasonal ingredients for optimum flavor and freshness,” suggests party planner Elizabeth Blau. And give yourself some grace, especially if you’re hosting more than a couple of people. “With larger groups, the menu should be simpler and less complicated,” Blau adds. 

In addition to the flavors of the foods you’ll serve, you should think about the practicalities of eating them. “If you are tight on space or have a larger group, plan a buffet or appetizer-heavy menu so you don’t have to worry as much about seating,” says Durbin. “Create a ‘fork-friendly’ menu so it’s easier to eat standing up or with a plate on your lap.”

7. Give guests plenty of notice.

Hey, the holidays are busy and you want to make sure your guests can attend. “Formal invitations should be sent in the mail at least four weeks in advance,” says Blau. “If you’re sending out a casual invite, an email or phone call is great.” Add a little pizzazz to your invite via Paperless Post or other evite sites if you want something a bit fancier than a Gmail message.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh

8. Make it easy for guests to enjoy themselves.

A well-planned holiday party should make eating, drinking, and mingling as simple as possible. ​​”If you have a well-stocked bar, I like to frame a little sign with some suggested easy cocktails like a French 75 or Aperol Spritz so guests can make their own,” says Durbin. “Be sure to put out citrus, a squeezer, a little cutting board, knife, and cocktail shaker too.” 

Alternatively, Klingman suggests making a big batch of themed cocktails ahead of time. “When guests start the event off with full bellies and a themed cocktail, you’re already set up for success,” she says.

9. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Try and brush off any oopsie moments; your guests probably don’t even notice those little accidents, and they definitely don’t expect perfection. Did you burn the entree? Order pizza and laugh it off — it happens! “Things don’t always go to plan, but try to stay breezy,” advises Durbin. “Guests will echo your energy, so if you’re stressed out and not enjoying yourself, guests will pick up on that.”

10. Set out little touches for overnight stays.

Are your siblings coming to stay? Is your BFF home for the holidays and crashing with you? Is your mom taking over the guest room? The small details will make them feel welcome and at home.

Durbin recommends asking overnight guests what they like to drink in the morning (including their preferred brand or style of coffee creamer!), their favorite snacks, and breakfast items to make the AMs a breeze. Keep clean towels out when they arrive so they don’t have to ask when it’s shower time, and provide the Wifi password and a charger so they can connect their tech when they arrive.

Durbin also recommends stocking the bathroom with toiletries just in case they forgot to pack toothpaste. “And make sure there’s a plunger in the bathroom,” she advises. “No one wants to have to ask!”

You don’t have to plan every minute of their stay, but Durbin has a great suggestion for downtime. “If you have some lazy days around the house planned, it’s fun to put out a puzzle for everyone to work on throughout the day,” she shares. 

With so many thoughtful touches, your guests will be clamoring for an invite next year — or returning the favor when you need a spot to crash.