Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Overnight Hospitality: How to Make Your Guests Feel Right at Home

We’re going to be having out-of-town guests the next three weekends. That’s not including seven teenage boys (friends of my sons) who are spending tomorrow night at our house. Now we don’t always have that much overnight company in such a short period of time. But this month we do. And we’re actually really excited about it! We enjoy hosting overnight guests. It’s nice to have friends stay with us and be able to spend extra time with them.

In some cases, it’s a matter of out-of-town friends taking a special trip out to the Dallas area to see us. Other times, we have friends coming to Dallas for some other reason or they’re passing through the area on a driving trip to somewhere else and they need a place to stay. And then sometimes it’s a matter of friends who live an hour or more away coming to dinner Saturday night, and they don’t want to drive all the way back home after the meal is over. These are all reasons people might spend the night at our home.

Now I’ve heard the old adage—“Guests and fish stink after three days.” I can honestly say though that I’ve never experienced that as a host—and no host as ever made me feel like an unwelcome guest after three days. But I know it’s possible.

I also know that it’s not a given that an overnight stay is automatically going to be a positive experience—for the guests or for the hosts. There are certainly steps you need to take ahead of time, to prepare for overnight company, and to make it a positive time for all.

So how do you make overnight or weekend company a really positive experience—for the host and for the company? What steps do you take to make your guests feel truly welcome? I’ve written down my thoughts below. This is based on my experiences, both as a host, and as a guest in other people’s homes.


1.) If at all possible, dedicate a bedroom and bathroom that will “belong” to your guests while they are staying with you. We have two guest bedrooms: one with an ensuite bathroom, and the other is actually a second office that has a bed in it and doubles as a second guest room. There is a bathroom just outside this office/guestroom. I know not everybody has actual “guest” or “spare” bedrooms like we do. If you don’t, it’s nice to be able to designate one of your kid’s bedrooms, along with a second or hallway bathroom close to that bedroom, that is just for your guests to use while they’re staying with you. Have a rule that no one in your family will be going into that bedroom or bathroom while your company is staying with you. This is a nice way to provide your guests with some privacy if they need it. That way if they want to take an extra-long soak in the bathtub, they don’t have to be concerned that that someone else might be waiting to use the bathroom.

2.) It may sound cliché, but tell your guests to “Make themselves at home.” This is one of the first things I try to say to guests when they walk in the door. It really helps people feel more comfortable and relaxed in your house.

3.) Thoroughly clean the guest bedroom and bathroom before your company arrives. This includes changing the bed linens, and having clean bath towels and wash cloths set out for your guests to use. If you allow yourself the luxury of paying for a professional cleaning service every now in then, this is a good time to do it. Schedule the cleaning for the day before your guests are to arrive.

4.) Have extra blankets available in the guest bedroom. We have an armoire in the guest room that we’ve filled with extra blankets. You may also want to invest in a blanket stand or quilt rack to hang some extra blankets on. It’s nice to have them available for your guests—just in case they feel chilly at night and want them. Also, on the kingsize bed in the upstairs bedroom, there's room for three standard-sized pillows on the bed. I like to make each pillow a different firmness: one firm, one soft, and one in the middle. That way there's sure to be at least one pillow that pleases your guest.

5.) Stock the bathroom. Make sure there is extra toilet paper in the bathroom cabinet. Leave out a box of Kleenex. Have liquid soap by the sink, a dispenser of hand cream sitting out, and some fresh guest soaps in the shower. I buy small, hotel room-sized bars of bath soap, and put several different kinds in the shower for my guests to use. I also leave out a basket of extra toiletries in a basket on the bathroom countertop—bath beads, bath “tea bags,” shampoo, bubble bath, bath fizzies, bath washes, sleeping masks, ear plugs, inflatable bath pillows, slipper-socks, travel-sized mouth washes and hair spray cans, small tubes of toothpaste, unopened toothbrushes, etc.—and tell guests to “Help themselves.” The basket isn’t big enough to hold everything, so I fill up the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink with toiletries too. It’s also nice to have a hair dryer and plunger in the guest bathroom—just in case they’re needed.

6.) Have inflatable mattresses, cots and sleeping bags on hand—just in case they’re needed for families you have stay over. Sometimes we have friends with little children spend the night. There’s a king-size bed in the upstairs guest bedroom for the parents. If they’ve got little ones, we’ll put a cot or twin-sized inflatable bed in that room as well, so their kiddos can sleep in the same room.

7.) Make sure there’s somewhere in the bathroom for your guests to hang their damp towels. Our guest bathroom upstairs only has one towel rack, which isn’t always enough space to hang all the bath towels a couple and their small children might use. So we put an over-the-door towel holder on the bathroom door—to have an extra spot to hand used, wet towels.

8.) You may want the guest bedroom and bathroom to smell nice, but avoid using plug-in air fresheners, air filter scents, scented candles or solid air freshener cones in those rooms. I have been to people’s homes in the past where I walked into their house or guest bedroom and was overwhelmed with a very strong, artificial cinnamon or vanilla smell in the air, and I instantly started feeling headachy. Once you’ve had something like that in the air, the scent lingers and is hard to clear out. Keep in mind that while you may like these kind of artificial scents, a lot of people (like myself) can’t handle them. If I want to make a guest bedroom smell nice for my guests, I open the windows for a few hours before they arrive to let in some fresh outdoor smells.

9.) If your guests are going to stay for more than one night, be sure to have space in the guest bedroom closet for them to hang their clothes. We make keep that closet mostly empty—except for about a half dozen hangers. There are also empty drawers in the armoire in that room for guests to put clothes.

10.) Make sure you have somewhere in the guest room where your guests can put their luggage. I have been in guest rooms before where the room was so crowded and small, that there was literally no where to put my suitcase, or to open it up. We have a lot of empty floor space in our guest bedroom closet where suitcases can be stored. Or, you may want to buy a folding luggage rack for your guest room.

11.) Some practical items to have available in the guest room: an alarm clock, a radio, or perhaps a clock-radio. Even if your visitors are on vacation, they may still want to set an alarm for the morning. Having access to a radio is nice, just in case they want to listen to some music or the news before going to sleep.

12.) A water bottle and a glass on the nightstand or dresser are also practical items to put in the guestroom. That way your guests can drink some water before they go to sleep or if they wake up at night—without having to go into the kitchen.

13.) Budget-allowing, it’s nice to put some non-practical items in the guest room as well. I like to place a vase with fresh flowers on the night stand or a table in the room. You can pick up a bouquet of flowers at the supermarket that are fairly inexpensive and arrange them yourself. Right now, a lot of grocery stores have small potted hyacinths, daffodils and tulips for sale. Those are a nice idea, especially if you can find a plant that is just starting to bud. You guests will see the flowers open up all the way during their stay. Another idea: Put some chocolate mints on the pillow, or a chocolate rose bud from your local candy shop. Sometimes I also like to place small gifts in the bedroom. If the houseguests are a family with small children, I might wrap up some coloring books and crayons for the kids, or a small toy. I like to make homemade soap, and often I’ll fill a small gift bag with several different kinds of my soap in it for my guests.

14.) If your guests are visiting your area for the first time and they’re going to want to do some sightseeing, collect some travel brochures and area maps and put them in the guest room—either on the bed, desk, dresser or a table in the room. You can usually get a lot of brochures about local attractions at your area Chamber of Commerce or even local hotel lobbies.

15.) If your guests are bringing their laptop and want to check email, etc., or do some work from your home, you might want to leave a note on a table in the guestroom, with your Wi-Fi Internet code on it.

16.) Place some books, magazines or the recent newspaper in the guest bedroom. Some guests like to read for a while before going to bed. I have a small bookcase in our upstairs guest bedroom, with a variety of books on the shelves.

17.) Fill a fruit bowl in the kitchen with bananas, apples, pears, oranges, peaches, etc., so that your guests can have that as a healthy snack whenever they might want it.

18.) Okay, to be honest with you, I like to have some not-so-healthy snacks on hand for my guests too—microwave popcorn, chips, granola bars, donuts, freshly baked cookies, etc. I’ll often bake up a batch of cookies right before our guests are to arrive, and leave those on a platter on the kitchen countertop or coffee table in the family room.

19.) If your guests like their morning coffee, set up the coffee maker the night before so it’s ready to go with the right amount of coffee grounds and water. That way if your guests wake up before you, they can get the coffee going. It’s nice to have a small basket of several kinds of tea bags sitting out too, just in case your guests prefer tea. Put a sugar dispenser and honey bear next to your coffee pot and teabags, and maybe leave out a note saying that the half-and-half is in the fridge and where the cups and spoons are. Planning ahead like this is really nice if you’re not a “morning person” but your guests are. (I’ve had to learn this, since I am most definitely NOT a morning person!)

20.) Go to the grocery store the day before your guests arrive and pick up some “Continental Breakfast” style foods—yogurts, English muffins, bagels and a tub of whipped cream cheese, frozen waffles, orange juice, cereal and milk—so that your “early riser” guests can have some food to help themselves to during the wee hours of the morning. This way your guests are taken care of, and you don’t have to get up super early to prepare a huge breakfast.

21.) Plan a bigger morning meal—more like a brunch—for mid- to late-morning. There are a lot of really wonderful do-ahead brunch entrees you can make. My favorites are mini quiches (which I often make and freeze several weeks in advance and just reheat in the oven right before serving), overnight “soaked” French toast, and refrigerator-rising cinnamon rolls and yeast coffee cake. I’ll include those recipes in a blog post sometime soon.

22.) Ask your guests for a rough idea of when they plan on arriving, and ask them to call you when they are about a half hour away (if they’re on a driving trip), or when they are picking up their rental car if they are arriving at the airport. That way you can make sure you—and your home—are ready for your guests when they arrive. Also, you can have a meal, snacks or dessert (depending on the time your guests arrive) waiting for your guests when they walk in the door. A couple years ago my family and I were on a driving trip to Austin (4 hours away) on a Friday evening. It was a LONG trip, with lots of weekend traffic.We couldn’t see well the last half hour of the drive because it was so dark, and we got lost enroute. By the time we got to our friends’ house, we were completely frazzled. However, they had wine, cheese and cracker platters and other appetizers waiting for us—plus very mellow music playing in the background. We instantly felt relaxed…and at home.

There are lots of ideas here, and I don’t always do each one of these tips every time someone spends the night. A lot depends on whether the guests are coming “on vacation” and for several days, or whether it’s just a quick overnight stay. Anyway, I hope at least some of these ideas work for you, at least some of the time.

Now if you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear from you. Do you enjoy having overnight company? What do you like—or not like—about it? What are the biggest challenges in being an overnight host? Do you have any suggestions for what’s worked well for you? And those of you who have been house guests—what have people done for you to make you feel truly at home? Please leave your comments below.

Happy Hospitality!


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