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Making a Guest List? Here’s What You Need to Know

“Wish we had more time to chat—every time he has a party I think, I didn’t get to talk to anyone!”

This is the text I received from a friend who hosted a big, backyard celebration with 30+ people this past weekend. Oftentimes, at big parties like this one, the guests get to enjoy each other’s company and have wonderful discussions, but the hosts, not so much. As a host at a big party, you’re doing a lot of hello-ing and goodbye-ing. And taking rainchecks to “catch up for real later.”

People often ask me about my secrets for building a guest list. 

I am flattered when, at the end of a night when your cheeks hurt from having smiled so much, a guests says, “You brought together such delightful people.” This happens more often than not, and I don’t know that I truly have a secret formula for how to achieve this. 

I will happily share what I have learned, though, with one important caveat: Introducing people at a party is kind of like setting up friends on a blind date. I have learned that there’s no way to anticipate exactly how well people will hit it off. Even if people seemingly have a lot in common—you just never know if they really will enjoy each other. For example, there has probably been a point in your life where your two closest friends were not necessarily friends with each other. Yet, you appreciate them both so much. See what I mean? It happens! 

Over the years, we have stopped trying so hard to find the right mix of people to invite to a particular event. What we do instead is think about who we’d like to spend some time chatting with…and we extend invites accordingly. 

The Guest List – Size Matters

When making a guest list, I do think about the numbers, though. Size matters! In my experience, how many people you invite is the single most important variable to consider and has the single biggest impact on the overall vibe. How many people you invite has a much greater impact on the guest experience than any effort you make trying to match-make the right mix of personalities.

Small: We keep guest lists for our seated dinners to eight to twelve people (that’s the max for our table). Why the range? A dinner party of eight ensures cohesion. A party of twelve is more buzzy, but if the seating is at one long table, there will still be enough moments of full group, “shared” experience.

  • If you want to go deep on a conversation or two, and if you want your guests to meet and connect, limit the guest list to eight.
  • Another tip is to avoid including too many new people—that is, people you (or the others) are meeting for the first time. 

Large: If it’s a buffet party and the weather allows for making use of indoor/outdoor space, we do sometimes invite more people. How many? To be honest, I get twitchy after twenty—it’s just too loud and too messy for me (assuming you don’t have servers keeping things tidy).

  • In bringing twelve to twenty people together, you’re creating parallel experiences vs. a shared group experience. 
  • The risk with the “go big” parties is that many people will gravitate to socializing with the friends they already know. They often find the familiar faces in the crowd and don’t really look up to mingle. If your goal is to introduce people and go beyond the introductory name/how you do you know the host/what do you do for a living, this size event makes it hard.

Extra-Large: If you want to put things in motion and let the guests take it from there, then sure, go big. You’ll surely feel like the host who texted me. But if that’s cool with you, go for it!

Full disclosure: I am way too fussy about details to enjoy hosting the extra-large party, so you’ll never see me hosting one—at least not at home. I do enjoy them as a guest, though. It’s a great way to meet people and it’s liberating to feel free to drop in/leave as you want to.

A Checklist for Making a Guest List:

Physical Space & Gear

  • Think about how much stuff you need to ensure it’s a comfortable, enjoyable experience for all. When I lived in a 450-sq.-ft. apartment, I had dishes, glasses, and chairs (including the stools that doubled as plant stands) for exactly eight people. The biggest party I ever threw living in that apartment? Dinner for eight.
  • Consider the full life cycle, from serving pieces to how much fits in your dishwasher. Also consider how much waste you are willing to produce. It can be heartbreaking to see bags of trash after a party—if you have not considered it prior. 

Budget

  • If you’re planning to serve an expensive main course or have some swanky cocktails planned, do the math and see what the budget allows for. That will help you arrive at the right number of people – and you can build your guest list backwards from there.

Anchor People

  • I avoid thinking too hard about how the guests will get along, and I focus instead on who I’d like to spend time with. 
  • That said, it’s wonderful to have someone on your guest list who is going to notice if the water pitcher is running low, or the trash is full. Not everyone will do that, and that person is your anchor. They get an invite to everything.

Hope this helps you sort through your next party list. And keep the questions coming!