Up Your Hosting Game

We all know, either intuitively or from careful observation, that a great hostess turns a party into a memory. But how – exactly – does she do it?

For answers, I sat down with my dear friend and Hostess Extraordinaire, Lauren Bender.

Lauren and her husband are extremely generous and gracious hosts. They frequently open up their home for charitable and professional benefits, as well as for their most beloved friends and families, and genuinely love to entertain. Many of Lauren’s parties have been featured on top party planning blogs and websites, including Bloom Designs Online, Amy Atlas, The TomKat Studio, Hostess with the Mostest, and The Party Dress.

Lauren and her husband, Kevin

In addition to having a designer’s eye for detail, Lauren has a remarkable memory and is one of the most sincere, thoughtful people I know. These qualities make her a fabulous hostess (and an extraordinary friend.)

Here’s what Lauren had to say about what she does to make her guests feel welcome at a party.

Present Perfect: For all the years I’ve spent planning and hosting events for work, I’ve never really mastered the art of entertaining in my own home. I love to do it! But I also find it to be stressful. I tend to either over-think everything and have a miserable time, or I have a fabulous time and worry later that I neglected my guests!

You, however, always seem so relaxed at your parties, and yet I also know how incredibly attentive you are to your guests and their needs. How do you do it? Give me your top tips.

Lauren: Thank you! I am flattered that you are seeking my advice for this subject.

The first thing that comes to mind is BE PREPARED. We could probably dedicate an entire post just to this topic. There is A LOT to do before hosting a party.  Whether that’s cleaning my house, preparing food, stocking the bar, or getting myself dressed and ready, I always make sure I’ve given myself enough time to get prepared beforehand. I try my best to be 95% ready the morning of the party. That way, I can spend most of my time face to face talking to my guests rather than having my back to them in the kitchen.

My next tip is to be cheerful and warm.  I like to greet my guests with a big smile and a strong hug so that they know how happy I am to see them and have them in my home. I think (I hope!) that makes them feel welcomed.

Thirdly, accommodate your guests as much as possible in advance.  This may sound obvious, but I find there are so many details that can be easily overlooked. For instance, if I’m going to be hosting families with young kids for a swim party, I try to stock up on extra swim diapers and sunscreen and make sure I have lots of towels on hand.  I’ve learned to make sure I’m aware of any allergies or dietary restrictions my guests may have so that I can provide appropriate food choices for everyone in attendance.  When I know a friend’s preferences, I’ll offer him his favorite brand of beer or make a dessert she loves.  If I’m going to have a pregnant guest coming over, I make sure to have multiple non alcoholic beverage choices and a comfortable place for her to sit down that isn’t too far away from all the action. These details tell my guests I care about them and encourages them to relax.

Ever the attentive hostess….

This can be a hard one for a lot of people, but I think it’s important to stay calm.  It’s easy to get frazzled and overwhelmed when there are wet kids running through the house making a lot of noise, or something is burning in the oven, but everyone enjoys themselves more when the hostess stays calm. This is something my mother-in-law does extremely well and something I try to emulate.

Be aware. Again, it seems obvious, but take notice if someone’s drink needs to be refilled or if a guest doesn’t seem to know anyone.

Sit down. Although there is a lot to do, I think it’s important for me and my husband to sit down with our guests. It tells people that we’re able to relax so they can too.

Finally, and this is probably the most important advice I can offer, HAVE FUN! When the hostess is miserable and tense, everyone is miserable and tense, too. Conversely, if you’re having a great time, your guests will have fun, too.

A late-night dance off proves Lauren knows how to have fun at her own parties.

These are great. Thanks, Lauren. With respect to being prepared, can you name a couple of specific ways you prepare your house? For example, I notice that you always have a scented candle and paper guest towels in your bathrooms during a party. What are your favorite candles and where do you buy your guest towels?

Guest towels and a lightly-scented candle freshen the bathroom for guests

Yes, I definitely love to burn candles when I entertain because I think they help to create such a nice ambiance.  I actually have seasonal preferences.  During the fall, I love to use the Spiced Chestnut candle from William-Sonoma because it exudes a warm and cozy feel.  During the spring I prefer the Seda France Japanese Quince candle because it’s fresh and fragrant. In the summer I usually prefer the Nest Grapefruit candle because it is light and bright smelling. And in the winter – especially around the holidays – I like the Votivo Red Currant, which gives off a very festive and warm vibe.

My favorite bathroom napkins are Caspari Paper Linen guest towels.  Although I prefer to buy them from a local store called Salutations, you can also find them on Amazon.  Again, depending on the season and time of year, I choose different napkins, but I always prefer a monogram or personalization, if possible.

You have three young kids, just like me. My house gets cleaned on Tuesdays, so if we’re having a party on the weekend, I can get pretty uptight with my kids, trying to keep the house clean the rest of the week . How do you avoid that? How far in advance of a party do you have your house cleaned?

I have lowered my “clean house” expectations when throwing parties. I have learned that it is more important for me to cheerful and pleasant towards my family than it is to have a perfectly clean house.  Ideally I would like everything cleaned the morning of a party, but that doesn’t always happen.  I at least try to have a clean and presentable “main area” where the majority of the guests will be and a clean bathroom for the guests to use.

My husband and me with Lauren’s daughter (and our goddaughter) during a school fund raiser at Lauren’s
Fresh hydrangea makes a full and simple bouquet

Do you have a go-to floral arrangement? 

Yes, I love to have flowers in the house when I entertain.  You can’t go wrong with a simple bouquet of white hydrangea in a big mint julep cup. I usually pick mine up from Trader Joe’s the day before and keep them in my refrigerator until the morning of. They are classic and always look beautiful in bathrooms and on coffee tables.

What alcohol do you stock your bar with? Are there any other accessories or garnishes you have out on the bar? 

It really depends on the crowd we are having.  For instance, when we have our family over, I know exactly which beverage each person prefers, so I set out everyone’s favorite – Citron vodka for Mom, Bacardi and Coke for Grandma, and Beefeater Gin for Grandpa.  On the other hand, when I am hosting a large group of women, I usually stock up on wine and champagne. When we are having couples over, I stock up on wine, beer, and vodka.  For a kids’ party, I stock up on juice boxes. It really depends on the group.  Regardless of the group, however, I always have a bowl of cut lemons and limes to garnish cocktails, soda, water, and beer.

For smaller parties, a bar tray for liquor is a nice option
A rustic bar for a beach-themed dinner party

I’m one of those people who likes to pour my own drink. How do you feel about self-serve bars? 

I love self serve bars when you have an intimate gathering.  When you have a big group, though, self serve bars can become a huge tacky mess of half empty bottles everywhere! You just have to know your crowd and if it’s on the larger side, be sure to have a trash can nearby and stop by every once in a while to manage those empty bottles.

What do you do about beer? As you know, my husband loves Coors light and always buys cans. I don’t mind serving them, but they look so ugly. Do you mix cans and bottles? How do you display them?

No, I usually don’t mix cans and bottles. I usually place an attractive-looking drink tub somewhere prominent and fill it with bottles of beer, as well as different kinds of white wine, sparkling lemonade, and sparkling water. Then, I put cans of beer, soda, and bottled water in a cooler and place the cooler down low in an accessible place so that it’s still convenient for people, but not a focal point.

Displaying bottles in a tabletop drink tub looks inviting
Lauren taught me how to put a proper cheese platter together, shown here on a monogrammed cheese board given to us by Lauren and Kevin

Your husband, Kevin, is also an amazing host. Has he always been that way or did he learn that from you? Do you decide ahead of time how to distribute the labor (for example, do you agree that he will handle drinks and you will handle food?)

Thank you.  I like to think that he has always been that way. I’m sure his Jesuit education helped. An Ignatian spiritual belief is that the virtue of hospitality is an attitude of heart and service to others. As you know, Kevin has a huge heart. He truly enjoys sharing our home with others.  We do not decide ahead of time who will handle what, but it seems to organically happen that way. He naturally thinks about lighting the BBQ, heating the Jacuzzi, and turning on the music, while I think about heating the appetizers and tossing the salad.

How far ahead of a party start time do you aim to be dressed and ready yourself?

In a perfect world, I would love to have myself ready an hour before guests start to arrive, but I’m usually putting on my lipstick when I hear the door bell ring!

Have you ever experienced a party disaster? An incident that ruined or came close to ruining the occasion?

It’s funny you bring that up. Yes! The idea to keep extra swim diapers on hand started after a toddler, who was wearing a regular diaper at the time, had an accident in the jacuzzi at a family Memorial Day party. Looking back on it now, it makes a funny story and, years later, we still laugh about it with the boy’s parents. But at the time, it was a major buzz kill.

On the more serious side, we set up a fire pit for marshmallow roasting at my son’s camping-themed birthday party one year only to quickly shut it down after two boys started sword-fighting with lit sticks. And we had a frightening incident with a young swimmer who appeared to be drowning. My sweet mother-in-law, very swiftly and calmly, walked right into the water (in her white pants, no less) to rescue the child. He was fine, thank god, but it was a real wake-up call for all of us. Since then, I’ve always hired a lifeguard for swim parties. That reassurance and extra set of eyes is invaluable.

A Memorial Day pool party (apologies for all the pasty-white dads.)

Growing up, my parents were social, but rarely entertained in our home, so I entered adulthood with very little hostess know-how. Nearly everything I know about entertaining in my own home I’ve learned from you and other girlfriends. Who taught you to be such a good hostess?

That’s very kind of you. As I mentioned earlier, my mother-in-law is someone I really admire when it comes to being a gracious and attentive hostess. She is so placid and calm – she’s completely unflappable – and it puts everyone around her at ease, even in situations that would be stressful for me. I really admire this quality in her and I often ask her how she’s able to do it. She chalks it up to meticulous and careful planning, but she makes it look effortless.

My mom can set the most beautiful table you’ve ever seen. Just stunning. Everything from her floral arrangements to the hand-calligraphied place cards to the silver is done with great care and attention to detail. Between these two ladies, I guess I’ve learned a thing or two over the years.

Finally, you host so many parties – and so many different kinds of parties (formal, informal, family-friendly, adults-only) – what is something you’ve learned about being a gracious GUEST over the years? What have guests done for you that you appreciated in the past? 

A gracious guest RSVP’s in a timely manner and arrives in a timely manner. I make a point of responding to every invitation as soon as I’m able to because I know how important it is to the hostess to know who is attending.

Also, I’ve really come to appreciate it when a guest offers to get me a glass of wine or a drink when they see I am busy with something.  It’s such a treat!

Drinks, Anyone?!

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7 thoughts on “Up Your Hosting Game

  1. What a great post! Lauren is definitely the ultimate hostess. Thanks for sharing the little details that make parties memorable

  2. Lauren is truly one who sets the bar on entertaining in her home. Pair that with a memory and graciousness about milestones like birthdays and it’s a win-win! Love this post, Tracy!

  3. I just hosted book club last week–much easier than a real party–and I read this post early in the week. I was more relaxed and enjoyed myself more because your tips helped me think ahead and be prepared. Great details!

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