In the Land of Hospitality

20+ Tips for hosting a gala at home
Elizabeth Dondis

Hosting a gala at home can be an intimidating task, but when you live in the South, where hospitality is an art form, the stakes are even higher. Fear not! We talked to some of the most seasoned pros, some household names and others dear friends to reveal the entertaining secrets that every hostess for parties – large or small – needs to know.

Julia Reed, the acclaimed Southern entertaining expert, writes in her book Julia Reed’s South, “The main thing is that it all should be a pleasure – the planning, the list making of guests and groceries, the decoration of your table, even if you only have time for a bowl of fruit or a couple of low cylinders of grocery store roses.”

With all the hard work necessary to put on a gala at home, and all the details to consider, having fun might seem a tall order. However, the consensus is clear: The hostess or host sets the tone for the entire event.

Peggy Laborde, hostess of many a philanthropic evening, says, “My best advice is to be relaxed and enjoy your party. The single most important thing you can do is smile and make people feel comfortable, even when disasters occur, which they will.”

Jill Pipes, another Uptown hostess who recently held a cocktail party for KID smART honoring local artist George Dunbar, agrees, saying, “The women I find most inspiring are my friends. Southern women have an instinct for hosting and make it appear effortless.”

Jeanne Harang Boughton, a former Junior League President with a talent for fun affairs, thanks her grandmother for instilling the values of entertaining in her, “I remember how she would be able to pull a party together, being creative with her surroundings and making every guest feel at home.”

The truth is behind all this grace and ease is a great deal of knowledge, hours of planning and a strategic approach.

Bronson Van Wyck, of Van Wyck & Van Wyck, a family-owned, global environmental design and event production firm based in New York, shares his approach to party planning, “No one entertains like people in New Orleans. It’s a city filled with history – the trees, the architecture, the homes, they have all been there so long that they have their own stories to tell and a patina to celebrate.

“I think that’s why New Orleanians are so thoughtful; they know they need to engage all the senses when they host a party.

He continues, “It’s also a special thing when people host at home; it’s a chance to peek behind the curtain and it’s so much more interesting than a corporate ballroom. It’s a time for the hosts to tell their story in their surroundings that reflect them, their lives, their personalities and their passions.”

His advice? “So, think about what happens when the guests arrive. How will the story begin? How can you instantly make your guests feel welcome? Can you offer cocktails in the garden and then invite them to progress into the house and its rooms?

“Keep the guest’s journey and the flow of the party in your mind all the time, place your bars strategically so they don’t choke up the party or block a way out.”

“People are not at a party to sit down,” he continues. “Remove the big easy chairs and perhaps create some seating with smaller gold party chairs. Consider the lighting; no one wants harsh illumination that makes them look 10 years older. Think about bringing in lights to create a glow that puts everyone at ease.

“If you’re outside, think practically: Are there security lights to turn off? Are you likely to be eaten alive by mosquitoes? You have to consider your guests’ entire hierarchy of needs and take care of each, one by one.”

“Once the basics are covered,” he says, “allow your own personality and creativity to come through. A mix of high-low can be fun, M&Ms and caviar can happily coexist.

“If your party is for a philanthropic entity, find ways to engage your guests and deepen their relationship with the cause. For an event for The Edible Schoolyard NYC (a nonprofit founded by Alice Waters), we created chandeliers made of thousands of carrots. It was a simple idea in a way, but it communicated the essence of what the event was about in a fun, enjoyable manner.”

He concludes, “Extend your hospitality to your neighbors; if they can’t come to the event, send them a hamper for the morning with breakfast items and some bloody Mary mix, perhaps one of the ones we produce at Arrowhead Farms. A little courtesy goes a long way.’

Dana Hansel, who has lent her house to many a nonprofit always considers the neighbors and adds special touches to her parties, “For a school’s donor recognition party, I added a trivia game about the school and awarded prizes.

“Sometimes you have to learn from your mistakes, or ideally from someone else’s. Dana continues, “I had a party once where someone threw my linen towel onto the candle in the bathroom. Needless to say, a house fire was avoided only by the quick reaction of the next guest who threw the linen into the sink to water it down. Going forward, I don’t have candles in the bathrooms for large parties.”

Expertise and Creativity

Susan Zackin, of Z Event Company, an event planner with over 30 years experience, is well versed in hosting at home. Hosting a large event is a challenge at a home because the backyard or outside area is usually needed to accommodate the guest list. The weather then becomes a major issue and a “plan B” must be in place in the case it rains.

“Even if you entertain regularly, when you’re dealing with large groups of people having an expert on hand will allow you relax and enjoy your party instead of being tied down to managing all the logistics.

“Entertaining is a gene in the South,” she continues, “passed down through generations, so people like to add special touches and creativity. Sometimes we’ll add a special drink or bar to reflect the hosts’ personalities or we’ll have the valet leave a special gift in the guest’s cars.

“Other times, bigger, more creative ideas are needed; this past year we designed the ‘50th Odyssey Ball’ for NOMA and we suspended over 3000 balloons from the ceiling from monofilament to resemble champagne bubbles.

“Even when disasters do occur, our expertise enables us to come up with solutions. We had a wedding on January 1, and knowing there would be torrential rains in the area we tented the reception location days in advance to keep the ground dry. The morning of the event, after it had rained all night, we saw that almost a foot of water had flooded most of the floor under the tent. With help from a key vendor, we came up with the idea to build a new raised floor over all of the water; we put a crew together on New Year’s Day and brought it all to the North Shore and completed the project in a matter of a few hours to save the day! Even the guests kept commenting on the fact that it was amazing we were able to make it work despite the weather.”

Kimberley Sayatovic, Founder and Creative Director of Belladeux Events, also explains some of the pitfalls of at-home events, “People in the South are usually very good at hosting smaller parties, but when you get into the hundreds there are additional issues to consider.

“Evaluate how many different vendors you are going to need and think practically about additional licensing or noise ordinance. It’s always worth checking with City Hall about these issues. If you hire a full-service caterer they’re legally allowed to serve alcohol at your house.

“You can still have an amazing party at home though,” she continues. “Just last year we completely transformed a client’s home into an Elizabethan castle and had the wait staff dress up in period costumes.”

When it comes to décor, Betsy Laborde who has hosted numerous galas at her beautiful home on St. Charles Avenue for organizations such as the Preservation Resource Center, Art for Art’s Sake, The Junior League and Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic Houses, as well as for numerous school events and wedding parties for friends, says, “When I open my house I do it with an open mind. I am always happy to provide the backdrop for the party but I leave it up to the organizers to adapt the space for their own purposes.

“We have found having an outdoor kitchen provides versatility and there’s usually an easy flow from indoor to out,” she says. “People are always so kind in thanking us but it makes us happy to see our home full of people having fun while trying to do things to improve our city.”

“There was one time though, when I didn’t order enough food for the table so I had to have my husband Gary throw a few filet tenderloins on the grill. In the end, they went like hot cakes.”

Walton Goldring, who lives just a short distance away on St. Charles Avenue and had only been living in her house a few months before she hosted an event for a nonprofit organization says, “There are many causes in the city that are close to my heart, and being able to provide a venue for people to connect and engage is a way for me to give back to the community.

“There’s a special approach to philanthropy in this city,” she continues, “it’s a very personal thing, driven to a great extent by many individuals who get together to celebrate the passion they feel about certain causes. I am grateful to be part of that culture.”

 Steve Ambrose of Ambrose Garden, who has worked with many hosts in his time, says, “With philanthropic galas you often have to be creative with the budget. We try to use things the hosts already have, like containers or green blooming plants which we can then enhance with flowers.”

If budgets are on the slimmer side, chef Nora Wetzel, who runs her own catering company, The Educated Palate, advises, “Bars can sometimes be self-service, especially for wine, beer or soft drinks. Cocktails can be made as a batch and dispensed from pitcher.

“It’s usually best to start with a theme, maybe there’s a hobby of the host or the honorees you can use to create some ‘tablescapes’ incorporating local flowers and foliage,” she adds.

“Fortunately, with food, people like local recipes and ingredients such as crab, shrimp, tomatoes and okra.”

Anne Lloyd of Nolavore recommends finger-food or small plates at large events; “People need to be able to grab bite-sized portions when they’re standing up holding a drink. However, even traditional dishes can be adapted and presented in mini form.”

Vicky Herman of R.S.V.P. Decorating, Inc., who has organized events for the likes of Bill Clinton and the King of Saudi Arabia, recommends working with professionals, “Whether you’re hosting hundreds or planning an intimate soiree, a little help from a professional goes a long way. Not only do we have access to copious resources, we might just be able to suggest a few creative twists, which will turn a great event into a magical, unforgettable experience.”

New Orleans is blessed with many event professionals who marry expertise with creativity. Seasoned hosts often have their own hand-picked teams with whom they work every time.

Fortunately, there many companies, like Party Rentals Delivered for example, who, although relatively new, offer reliable, efficient, first class products and services for all events large and small.

Perrier Party Rentals is another company with decades of event experience and extensive resources that hosts can tap into for anything from silverware to kitchen equipment.

Villere’s Florist in Metairie and Covington has been in business since 1969 and has provided arrangements for almost every social event at some point. Experts like Villere’s can guide a hostess through the options of flowers, tropicals and plants. They can help you choose between European and English, contemporary and classic arrangements, as well as custom design the floral décor to complement the style of your home and the vibe of the party.

New Orleanian Lauren Gurvich King, married to Jeremy King, partner in the Corbin and King company and creator of London’s most iconic and best loved restaurants in London as well as The Beaumont Hotel, believes focusing on the beginning of a party will lead to a happy ending, “One of the hallmarks of Southern hospitality is generosity on whatever scale.

“Set the scene with loads of foliage and flowers, candlelight everywhere for warmth and flattering lighting and a great New Orleans jazz band to greet guests as they arrive, as well as trays of one perfect cocktail to get everyone in a good mood. If you get the arrival right, the rest will flow beautifully.”

Hosting a gala in New Orleans, instead of being a daunting task, can actually be a time to call on friends, tap into friendly experts and have fun.

Dana Hansel’s 10 Point Perfect Party Plan

Dana Hansel is one of the city’s most practiced and generous hostess; she has lent her beautiful Metairie home to numerous nonprofits, among them local TV station WYES and the New Orleans Museum of Art. Here we have her top 10 tips for the home hostesses:

1. Walk your party; think about bottlenecks!

2. Think about electrics, do you need extra power supplies for a band or heaters?

3. Brief your staff on any restrictions, furniture or surfaces that cannot be used.

4. Rope off any “no entry” areas with a ribbon or some candles.

5. Assign a staff person to monitor the bathrooms; they’ll need restocking and tidying.

6. Create a timeline, with everything on it from setup to break down.

7. Communicate parking instructions ahead of time.

8. Keep a supply of Wine-Out, it works like a charm on spillages.

9. Invite the neighbors!

10. Have fun: If you do, your guests will, too!


Ambrose Garden Florist

Belladeux Events

The Educated Palate


Party Rentals Delivered

Perrier Party Rentals

R.S.V.P. Decorating, Inc.

Van Wyck & Van Wyck
(212) 675-8601

Villere’s Florist

Z Event Company
(800) 714-9050


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