The magic of connection: seven ways to host people with skill and grace
Imagine you’ve just stepped inside a new local restaurant. The space is inviting and well-designed, small candles and fresh wildflowers are arranged on each, unique table, and ’90s R&B is playing at the exactly the right volume. It seems perfect — but what happens next is even more important than the atmosphere: does the host make you feel welcome? Do you feel like they’re genuinely happy to see you? Are they friendly in a way that makes you feel good?
Research shows that our memories of a fabulous meal have more to do with emotion of the experience than what was actually on the menu. Yes, a delicious plate of cacio e pepe might bring you back, but nothing can top the energy you get from an authentic human connection. The act of hosting is transformative. When people care about your comfort and take care of every detail, incredible things happen. Fleeting moments become memories. Even the food tastes better.
As an experience designer and creative producer, I’m obsessed with moments that inspire connections. I’ve spent more than a decade studying the art and science of hosting, and I’ve learned that nothing matters more than showing people that you (actually) see them and you care about how they feel. Hosting is about anticipating and accommodating your guests’ needs — often before they even realize they need something.
Whether you’re hosting a dinner party or planning a million-dollar brand launch, the rules are the same. Here are my guiding principles for creating memorable, transformative experiences.
Serve the shyest person in the room
Unless you’re a natural-born performer, few people enjoy feeling like they’re on display. It’s uncomfortable. If you optimize your event to make shyest, most introverted person in the room feel at ease, then everyone else will have a better time, too. Consider how people enter the space and where they go next. Make sure someone is there to greet and introduce your guests. Ask open-ended questions that don’t get overly personal. Helping guests build rapport with one another is also the host’s responsibility. Provide some context when introducing people and try to share a quick fact that creates a connection.
At one point or another, we’ve all walked into a party or professional event where we don’t know anyone else. It can be disorienting. If you know that some of your guests will have that same sweat-inducing experience, think about how to make them immediately feel welcome. Set up areas where they can interact with physical objects or displays. Provide treats and little surprises. Whether it’s inviting your guests to help out, displaying some interesting coffee table books, or creating snack stations in different areas, design strategic moments that encourage people to engage and participate.
Design for all five senses (sensory hosting)
Instagram, streaming videos and digital technologies have made our image-obsessed culture even more focused on what our eyes can see. Human experience, however, is multi-sensory. It’s multi-dimensional and it doesn’t stop at sight. Sniff a bottle of perfume you haven’t worn for a few years and the scent will instantly jolt your brain back to a specific time, place and mood. That’s the power of smell. Hearing, touch, and taste can have a similar impact, so don’t leave them out of your experience.
As a host, you have the power to influence all of your guests’ senses. Ask yourself questions that touch on every detail: does the room smell inviting? What will people hear? Give your guests something delicious to taste (even outside of a food-focused event) and consider the ergonomics of chairs, tables, garbage can placement (yes, you read that right) floors and anything else they’ll touch.
My friend, Josee LePage, is a master of sensory hosting. Every time I stay at her LA home, there’s a glass bottle filled with water and a vase of flowers next to my bed. A candle burns in the bathroom. The sheets are crisp, clean and fragrant. She stocks the kitchen with fresh-roasted coffee and written instructions for the espresso machine. Quirky, creative books and magazines are laid out on the coffee table and her favorite records sit beside the turntable. She has anticipated all of my needs and desires, which makes staying in her home a true pleasure.
Encourage natural transitions
When guests arrive for dinner, you probably don’t trade their coats for a plate of ribs. Instead, you hand them a drink, invite them to sit on the couch, and talk about the day. When it’s time to eat, you move to a different space (even if you live in a tiny NYC apartment and your ‘dining room’ is approximately three feet to the right).
Think about how to move people from one space and experience to the next. Lead them through an emotional story and create transitional moments along the way. If it’s a public event, ensure the seats or tables are comfortable, the facilities are clearly marked, and there are signs and labels where people will naturally seek them out. Give them gentle hints and guidance. Create little moments that mark a change in activity or mood.
Smooth out even the smallest details
I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing creative brands throughout my career, including Airbnb, Uber, Dwell magazine, and Moleskine. Every collaboration has taught me something important, but no one emphasized the tiny details like Marco Beghin, the former president of Moleskine America. Right before one major event, he eyed the room carefully and called me over to his side. “I see a line on the wall, Me-lee-sa,” he said in his lilting Italian accent, pointing at a thin seam running through an otherwise-pristine display. “It’s not nice to see the line on the wall, right Me-lee-sa?”
You know what? He was right. That line might not seem like a big deal, but as a designer, nothing should distract from the atmosphere you’re creating — whether it’s a seam on the wall or a trash can in the entryway. Look over your space and your work with an eagle eye. Is anything out of place? Are there objects or details that guests shouldn’t see? Edit ruthlessly to create a beautifully seamless experience, from beginning to end.
Work with (and hire) awesome people
Follow this one rule and you’ll be ahead of the curve for anything, I swear. People who care deeply will naturally create generous experiences and work hard to solve problems. Everyone on your team should feel invested and understand what they’re contributing to the mission. At the same time, it’s important not to assume that will people automatically understand that mission.
If you’re in a leadership role of any kind, be sure to clarify what you’re trying to achieve. For example, “our goal is to provide exceptional and memorable service, above all else.” From cleaning staff to bartenders to floral designers, when people know how their work ties into the guiding vision, they will be better equipped to take initiative and give their very best.
Gratitude and acknowledgment also matter deeply. Recognize people when they do a great job and be specific about how and what they achieved. Encourage them to use their talents, skills and best judgment. I always try to ensure that my team knows we’re in it together — whatever the current “it” might be. We’re not perfect and we’re all going to mess up at some point. But how will we work together and fix what’s broken? That’s what matters, not perfection.
Stay centered and present
Being an excellent host means focusing on what’s in front of you. Events naturally have a lot of moving pieces. Even a dinner party can require careful timing to ensure you don’t burn the meal or run out of wine. But if you’re not having fun, your guests won’t feel relaxed. They take invisible cues from you, so do your best to stay present. Listen and respond to what people need, what they’re saying, and how they’re reacting to the experience. Use your gifts and show people the truest, most authentic version of yourself.
Hosting an experience — of any size or for any purpose — can be incredibly rewarding. You have the opportunity to influence someone’s life, whether you’re creating a splashy brand experience or feeding them a beautiful meal in a warm, welcoming setting. Understand that privilege. Enjoy the moment.
Make space for belonging
Light the candles and turn up the stereo, but most importantly, remove the barriers to belonging. Deep down, that’s what we all really want. It’s what we crave. Hosting is a way to help people see each other for who they truly are. When we connect on a core, human level, everyone leaves the experience a little better. We’re all transformed. Make space for people to feel safe and be themselves.