The Summer Entertaining Guide

Expert advice for creating the ultimate warm-weather event

When it comes to summer hosting, the attitude should match the weather—easy, warm, and relaxed as a summer breeze. “It’s summer, so you can’t take yourself too seriously,” says New York event-planning guru Bronson van Wyck, whose firm handles intimate weddings, charity galas, and everything in between. “Don’t get complicated.”

Sound advice. But, as we all know, sometimes effortless takes a bit of effort. To help you channel your energies in the right places—including on your guests and their good time, once the event begins—we asked a few of the food, design, and event worlds’ most masterful personalities to share their secrets to the ultimate summer soirée.

The Prep

First things first: It’s summertime. Embrace the warmer weather. “Move the indoors out,” says interior designer and entertaining expert Nathan Turner. “Don’t be afraid to take your dining table out for the night, and other furniture, too. Your guests should be just as comfortable as they would be indoors.”

That’s true for Lady Fiona Herbert, the eighth Countess of Carnarvon—who calls Highclere Castle, setting for Downton Abbey, home. The cover of her new entertaining book features a table set right on the estate’s well-manicured lawn. But while her pedigree might suggest a stiff formality, the countess insists on a healthy mixture of order and surprise. That’s why although she doesn’t share a full list of who’s attending beforehand, she does set out place cards—“they just make it easier and take away the anxiety of people wondering where to sit.”

It also helps bring guests together. “Some will sit next to someone they’ve known for years, others will enjoy making a new friend. Or arrange them around shared interests—place two people together who you know would have a lot in common.”

And she likes to start with snacks and “a champagne cocktail so that people can get here when they get here and we don’t have to worry about rushing into supper.”
 <em>Splendor in the grass at Highclere Castle</em>
Splendor in the grass at Highclere Castle

The Party

Having a vision for how your party progresses is a good thing. Having a hard-and-fast timeline—especially in summer—is not. “Keep it loose,” says Darcy Miller, author of the party-planning book Celebrate Everything! “Too much scheduling can make your guests feel pressure, but too little planning can create lulls.”

Pro tip: Hire a singer or musician, even for just one song. “An intimate performance truly ties guests together,” says Lisle Richards, a New York City restaurateur who co-owns the Meatpacking District hotspot Kola House along with Eric Marx. “It becomes a communal experience—and something people will talk about.” Lady Carnarvon concurs: “I'll sometimes ask a young pianist from the Royal College of Music to perform.”

Whether or not you bring in entertainment, the most important thing is not to “forget to acknowledge who or what you’ve all come together to celebrate with a toast,” Miller says. Raise a glass an hour into the party—after the fashionably late crowd has arrived—when everyone has a drink in their hands. “It gets everyone in the spirit of the party.” And remember, adds Lady Carnarvon, even the most carefree party requires a bit of shepherding. “As the host, it’s on you to mix people and engender conversation.”

The Details

The details are essential, but they’re also the sort of thing that can drown a host. Want to minimize intra-event stress? Try a build-your-own bar. Whether it’s for cocktails, tacos, or party hats, a table that puts your guests’ food or drinks in their own hands will take some pressure off. “But the best part is that it doubles as decoration,” Miller says. “It’s colorful and includes everything your guests need to create their own experience.”

Another old-school throwback you can try: classic summer flicks. “Project movies on the side of the garage or on a sheet hanging from a clothesline,” says van Wyck. “It’s a casual, easy way to reinterpret a summer moment that people are nostalgic for, and that brings people together.”

Or go back to the classics with games that may be old-fashioned but never get old. “I love to play charades or quiz games with guests,” says Lady Carnarvon.

As for table décor, it “should be pretty, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. I love to create different levels of fresh flowers [like narcissus and hyacinth] and candles with highs and lows,” adds Lady Carnarvon. “Make it feel abundant, but make sure that they’re not so high that you can’t see people across from you.”

And finally, make sure the lighting is right. It’s as important for an outdoor summer event as it is for an intimate dinner party in the dead of winter. “An instant deal-breaker is when party hosts have a security light on their shed blasting you in the face,” says van Wyck. “Eliminate that by incorporating soft lighting everywhere. Beyond citronella candles, think tiki torches and hurricanes.” That way, everyone can see just how good a time they’re having.
Stephen Milioti is based in New York and has written about design, architecture, fashion, art, and travel for The New York Times, New York Magazine, Elle, Fortune, The New York Observer, Departures, and Salon.
  • Courtesy of Björn Wallander
  • Courtesy of David Griffen Photography
  • Courtesy of Ralph Lauren Corporation