On Being a Great Host
When you throw a party, your responsibilities go beyond providing great eats and stellar cocktails, say hospitality pros Jim Burba and Bob Hayes.
As the host, it’s up to you to make sure that by the end of the gathering everybody who should know each other has met and that along the way all your guests are engaged and comfortable. That doesn’t happen without planning.
“You need to go over the guest list in advance and think about what people might have in common,” says Burba. “There’s always something. Two guests both went to Pac-12 schools and their football teams play each other. They grew up in the same town. They share a passion for opera or theater.” Sometimes, Hayes adds, these common interests might determine the guest list. If you’re inviting Sandra, who will be hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in the spring, you might want to also include Sal, who has been to Peru a half-dozen times. When you’re introducing two guests, provide the icebreaker: “Steve, this is Mary. She has season tickets to the Anaheim Ducks too.”
“There’s a choreography to hosting parties,” Hayes says, “and you have to have your moves down.”
One critical move is the “swoop in and separate” when you see “friendship clusters,” groups of close friends who form impenetrable circles. “A host has the power to break those up,” Hayes says. “You need to insert yourself, pull someone in or pull someone out. I’ll just grab someone and say, ‘Come on, you need to meet this person.’ ” You can also encourage mingling with a well-timed canapé. “If you send the caterer over with a tray of hors d’oeuvres, people will stop talking,” Burba says, “and that creates an opening for people to move in or out of the circle.”
A gracious host keeps moving, at least at the beginning of a party. “Your goal is to make introductions,” Hayes says. “You want, especially, to keep an eye out for anyone who might be standing by themselves and connect them to a group. Then you float on to another guest or knot of guests. Every three to five minutes you float. Once the party is off the ground, you can go back and spend more time with whomever you’d like.”
If you’re a comfortable host, your guests will relax too. “There are a lot of moving parts to a party, and you need to maintain a sense of humor,” Burba says. “If something on the stove gets burnt or somebody spills their wine, you don’t have a fit.” Accidents will happen; prepare for them. “Don’t put your grandmother’s best crystal out if you’re not prepared to have a glass or two broken,” says Hayes. “If somebody spills red wine on your carpet you say, ‘Don’t worry; that’s what carpet cleaners are for.’ ”
Still, you can do things to minimize damage. “At a cocktail party we tell the bartender to only fill the glasses one-third to one-half fill,” Hayes says. “Otherwise you’re going to have spillage before the guest crosses the room.” And unless they’re doing a sit-down dinner, Burba and Hayes skip the buffet table in favor of passed bites. “If you put a spread of food out on a table it gets ignored,” Hayes says. “Or, people have to interrupt their conversations, which means leaving the party, to go eat something.” Choose passed one-bite hors d’oeuvres instead, and skip the mini-enchiladas or chicken satay. “I hate drippy sauces or anything that’s complicated,” Burba says. “You want food you can just pick off the tray and pop into your mouth. Otherwise, people are looking for a place to put their napkin and thinking about their greasy fingers instead of the person next to them.”