When entertaining, we find the ultimate goal is to create memorable experiences for our guests, making them want to linger a little longer... and of course, RSVP ‘yes!’ the next time they receive an invite.
Today, we’re going to talk about one of the lesser-glamorous parts of entertaining – a big piece of logistics – the flow of your gathering.
Why is designing the flow of a gathering important?
The flow of a gathering is one of those things that is like a subconscious comfort – something you don’t know how badly you need until you don’t have it. When the flow works, it makes a world of difference to the finished result, but when it's not planned for, unfortunately, it can create a bad experience for your guests. Logistics, eh?
We wanted to share a few considerations, suggestions, and tried-and-true tips with you to make planning each entertaining space you need for your gathering easy, so you can spend less time on the logistics, and more time on the fun things like your event design, table settings, or décor!
The 5 Entertaining Spaces You Need To Plan For:
The Dining Space
The Serving Space
Pre- or Post- Meal Seating
Space for Activities
The Dining Space
Admittedly, most of our gatherings tend to be centered around a meal, so this space is usually the first on our list for planning. You’ll also find that once you have your plan set for the dining space, the rest comes together naturally.
You’ll need to decide on a few important elements before you can plan for your dining space:
The menu you plan to serve
The size of your guest list
The Purpose of Your Gathering
If dinner and conversation are the main events, planning to sit down at a set table is always a good idea.
If movie night or watching a big game is the plan, you might find that guests will be more comfortable with a more casual set up for eating or grazing at their own will.
Second, consider your menu to decide if the food you're eating will be better enjoyed at a set table, or if it's portable enough food to be enjoyed plated.
The typical rule of thumb is if you have to have a full set of flatware to enjoy the planned menu - for example: spoon for soup course or steak knife to cut into meat - it's best enjoyed at a set table.
On the other hand, if the food is prepared so that it can be picked up or enjoyed with a single utensil - for example, soup or stew as the main course just needs a spoon - a more casual approach works very well.
The Size of Your Guest List
If you're having a more intimate dinner party, you'll find that you may opt for a set table to prioritize gathering together for conversation because spacing could get awkward.
For larger crowds where it takes more effort or expense to create a designated seat for every guest (think big, formal event like a wedding or fundraiser), forgoing the set tablescapes and opting for a more leisurely grazing style of eating makes things easier.
Now that we’ve identified the two main dining styles as
- A Set Table
- A Grazing Style
we can take the next step in planning the dining space.
Things to plan for based on your dining style:
Quantity of seats
The furniture set up
Instructions for your guests
Quantity of Seats
For a Set Table: For a gathering with a more formal, set table you’ll need to plan to have enough chairs to accommodate every guest.
For a Grazing Style: Since a grazing style approach to eating typically includes standing, perching against a table or countertop, or sitting on regular home furniture, you’re off the hook for making sure there are enough chairs for everyone. You’ll still want to make sure a dining table of sorts is still available for those that prefer to eat sitting down at a table, rather than off their laps.
The Furniture Set Up
For a Set Table: You’ll need to decide if your guest list size will allow you to all sit at one table, or if multiple tables will be required. For either table quantity, it’s fun to explore the various shapes, sizes, and configurations of tables available.
- For a single table set up, your options are a rectangle, round, oval, or square table shape.
- For a multi-table set up, the most-common multi-table configuration is a scattered approach, especially if you have round tables to set. While this is to function logistically, we like to get a little more creative! In our family, we tend to like to be as close together as possible when sitting at the table, so we have been known to create a large-scale single table feel by configuring multiple tables in unique shapes like:
- a big Square Shape table
- a big U-Shape table
- or one year for Thanksgiving, we even created a big X-Shape table that stemmed out from a round table in the center that served all the food! We should re-create this to share...
For a Grazing Style: This is a major tick in the “pro” box for going with a grazing style for your gathering because really, your already set furniture is your set up. The best part is whatever furniture configuration you have in your home can work. For a little extra effort, you can pull out or arrange a few extra chairs in a certain space if needed, or you can also opt for a few high tops for perching.
For a Set Table: If you opt for a set table, you'll need to design your tablescape to include table settings and décor.
For a Grazing Style: Another easy thing about a more casual approach to eating is that with fewer designated areas like a table, you have less decorating to do. For an extra touch, a small, simple floral arrangement or a candle can designate a perch-able place but it is generally not required.
Instructions For Your Guests
No matter which style you go with for your gathering, we have found that guests like to be told what to do by the host. Plan to either spread the word softly as the time for eating nears, or clink a glass to welcome your guests, kick off a toast, say a prayer, and follow up with instructions.
For a Set Table: Guests will want to know where to sit. You know that awkward moment when you’re standing behind a chair gazing down at the table while your full plate hovers in one hand and your drink is clutched in the other wondering where to set it down? Try to avoid that by either: guiding your guests with where to sit or setting out place cards with their names for an informative and decorative approach.
For a Grazing Style: Guests still want to know where to sit, especially since they’re typically scattered throughout your home. Take the opportunity to give them a few options of rooms or areas to make themselves at home.
The Serving Space
Here, you’ll need to make the decision to know if you need to plan for a designated serving space or not: Your serving style – how will you serve the food you have prepared?
Serving Styles You Don’t Need To Plan A Designated Space For:
Family Style: Since guests serve their food themselves from serving dishes that have been put on the table, the only thing you need to plan for here is that you have designated enough space in your tablescape to place each serving dish.
Plated: As the host, you should plan to serve each plate of food individually from the kitchen, and serve to your seated guests at the table, so you will not need another designated space for serving. Just make sure the standard accoutrements like salt and pepper, butter, and bread are available and served on the table, as well as any toppings or garnishes needed for the guests to customize their meal – menu allowing.
Serving Styles You Do Need To Plan A Designated Space For:
Buffet: The most common set up for a buffet is a larger-scale table to allow for the full menu to be served in big dishes.
Stations: For stations, you can set up multiple areas or tables and break them apart in sensible groups depending on your menu. For example, the main course could be served from one area with accompanying toppings. Then, the sides from another close-by station, salad from another, and dessert from another.
The Bar Space
Another single decision here can guide you in the proper set up for your bar space: What drinks will you be offering?
For Refreshments Only: If you are serving refreshments only, you can plan for one area and line up a little suite of pitchers, carafes, or dispensers. Including an ice bucket (with a scoop!) and garnishes is a good, helpful idea so guests don't have to ask.
For Wine And Beer:
- Wine: Need a space big enough for a few bottles and a grouping of glasses.
- Beer: Need to consider a space big enough to have a container to ice-down bottles, cans, or a keg can be fun!
- Pro tip: If placing an ice bucket or bowl on the table, consider the condensation factor and plan accordingly!
- It’s best to have a larger spot designated for this full offering – in your in-home bar, on a small-scale table, a small countertop, or a bar cart.
For A Signature Cocktail:
- Plan for a designated spot to highlight your creation and give it a little extra love! It's always a fun idea to position your signature cocktail closer to the entry point for people to grab on their way into the party.
Pre- And Post-Meal Seating
This is an easy step because the furniture in your home should work as-is for this space! We like to intentionally use more sparsely used areas in our homes for this purpose (think a formal sitting room, around a fire pit, outside on the patio, or even a sunroom) to 1) actually use the spaces in our homes 2) for a scenery refresh and 3) to keep guests lingering a little longer and enjoying the space.
Another easy step because once you know the purpose of the gathering, your activities are pretty much set. Simply decide the amount of space needed for the activity, and make sure it's designated.
Hosting a shower? Make sure you have a designated spot for corralling gifts... and opening them!
Renting a bounce house for a kids' birthday party? Outside in the grass it is!
Playing a game of cards? Clear a small table with chairs.
Watching a big game, or hosting movie night? Pull extra chairs around the tv for comfortable seating for most guests.
Furniture Solutions For Your Plan
Now that we’ve covered all 5 spaces and presented quite a few options for furniture to use, how to configure the furniture, and where, you may be feeling a little lost without a designated entertaining space but the truth is you probably already have exactly what you need!
Renting furniture gives you the flexibility to plan for and get the exact quantity, shapes, colors, and sizes you need to execute your plan. If you’re hosting a more structured or formal gathering for a shower or fundraiser or even just big holiday with all of your family, renting Is probably your best bet!
Collecting And Sharing Folding Furniture
Our family finally got fed up with puzzle piece approach to gathering enough chairs for everyone to have a seat at the table, bumping into awkward chair arms, and the fact that the haphazard look of collected chairs can take away from the design aesthetic of the table itself (although sometimes, a little mix and match can add some charm). So, we pooled together to invest in a set of 24 bamboo folding chairs and a small collection of round folding tables that we collectively share and have at our disposal for setting up to entertain guests.
We find that we use them all the time! Knowing how much having these on hand helps alleviate that last minute scramble... we have even added a few more unusual additions to our entertaining collection as well. Let’s not forget the giant Lazy Susan we constructed to add authenticity to a Lunar New Year themed party for Marcie’s joint 60th birthday!
Now you don’t have to go that far, but you’ll find that investing in a few extra folding furniture pieces like tables or chairs will help alleviate more stress during set up.
Think Outside Traditional Furniture And Use What You Have
Like we said, you probably already have everything you need to set up a beautiful flow for your party! Even better, your guests will be immersed into your home as it is, instead of feeling like a formal set up.
Get creative! Designate a spot on the island counter for appetizers, clear frames and books off a console table to use for serving sides. Have a wet bar? Fill the sink with ice to house beer or wine bottles and serve from the adjoining countertop. Make use of the side table next to the couch for the signature cocktail bar or tiered serving for desserts.
The #1 Space Solution And Our Top-Pick For An Entertaining Essential: The Bar Cart
Bar carts have remained a popular trend in home décor and we can understand why – their multifunctionality and convenience makes for a much easier entertaining experience.
You can use them for their intended purpose: to serve drinks, or you can even think outside the box and use the cart for serving the main menu, serving desserts, corralling gifts, or displaying the planned activity. The fact that they are portable and usually include wheels makes it easy for you to tuck it wherever you need it!
Need... meet solution.
Put Your Flow To The TestNow that you have all 5 spaces planned for your gathering, the final step comes in the form of a sort of dress rehearsal. Put your flow to the test!
Once you’re all set up, save a few minutes for a final walkthrough. Start at the entry point and imagine you’re one of your guests. As you make your way through your home, anticipate your guests' needs at every space. If you find that you’re in need of something that’s not yet out – a wine opener, a place to put bottle caps or corks, a convenient trash can, an ice scoop, a serving spoon, etc.- go ahead and take care of it before the party starts.
You’ll find that as your gathering is underway, you’ll be more at-ease knowing your guests have everything they need and they’re comfortable in your home, which of course, makes entertaining more enjoyable for you, too!