Expected Guests: setting up a guest room and entertaining

Jack and I are blessed enough to have a rumbling old house with three bedrooms – the master bedroom, the guest bedroom, and my study, which has an extra-wide loveseat that folds into a twin bed. We can easily accommodate three guests at any given time, but even when I was living in a one-bedroom studio apartment, I still entertained house guests.

When done right, it’s a delight. There’s nothing better than having my mother or close girlfriends stay with us for a weekend. Our conversation and interaction isn’t fragmented in a way it is when they stay in a hotel. We can stay up as late as we like talking and sipping wine, and the furthest we have to trek to go to bed is up a flight of stairs. Likewise, we can spend the morning together in bathrobes, fixing breakfast together, instead of hurrying to get our faces on to meet one another at a restaurant or hotel.

And if you’re going to do it poorly, don’t do it at all – it’s not worth the hassle for you or your guests. Remember: it’s always your house. You have the right to decline.

Whether you only have a small space, like I did with my studio, or a full-sized guest bedroom with its own bath, there are some steps you can take to make sure you can accommodate house guests with a maximum of grace and charm.

Setting Up a Guest Room

1. Evaluate your setup.

At the minimum, guests need a place to sleep, a bedside table for light and water, and adequate space (whether it’s the bathroom or a separate area) to prepare themselves in the morning. Even the most rough-and-tumble trooper may need a place to take his contacts out.

When I had my downtown studio, the same loveseat we have in the study did duty as my guestroom. My “bedroom” had a folding screen that I pulled over when I had guests, to partition a modicum of privacy for the both of us. A living room side-table did double duty as a night stand when the loveseat bed was folded out. An old-fashioned upright reading lamp behind the loveseat provided a way for guests to read into the night or have some guidance when they stumbled to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Now that we have our house, my basic studio setup – loveseat, side-table, lamp – have been recommissioned to make an extra guest room in the study.

Our real guestroom has a slender antique twin bed with a chest of drawers that doubles as a nightstand, a vanity (because even our master bathroom has virtually no counter space),  a sitting area (simply a comfy chair and side-table) for reading or putting on lotion or shoes, adequate (empty!) closet space for guests to hang up clothes, and two large bookshelves where Jack and I keep our literary overflow from the study.

2. Prep work

Linens are the biggest concern in a guest room. Upon my mother’s example, I keep the spare set of sheets and a set of freshly washed towels in the guest room bureau, and an extra set of pillows and a heavy blanket zipped up in a storage bag beneath the bed. This ensures that all my guest room linens are in one place, and I don’t have to root around the laundry closet looking for the twin-sized sheets.

Having towels automatically stationed in the guest room means guests don’t have to root around our linen closet either, or ask us for them in the morning.

You’ll also want to make sure your guest room has appropriate window treatments to block out light. Often times we forget about the guest room, simply relegating it to an overblown store-room of sorts, and ignore the fact that people are going to sleep there – don’t do this. Ensure there’s adequate window privacy for undressing and adequate blockage from the sun in the morning and the moonlight at night.

Guests come with luggage, clothes, and general accoutrements. This means they need storage space just like everyone else – if you have a closet in the guestroom, make sure it’s clean and organized with room for guests to store both hanging clothes and suitcases. A bureau for folded items (and private items they don’t want in plain sight) is hospitable.

If you have no closet in the guest room, then a bureau or chest-of-drawers is certainly a must. Think of adding a rack for hanging clothes.

A few hooks, such as on the back of the door, are useful in a guestroom in a way that may be superfluous in the master bedroom. Your guests are still relegated to one room as their private space, whereas you’re used to having the whole house. This means that while you hang your towels or bathrobe up in the bathroom, or coat in the downstairs closet, they may want to keep these articles with them, especially if they don’t have a private bath. (Just executing a showering shift between house guests can be tricky – you’re not used to a variance in your schedule, and the house guest doesn’t know your schedule. This means that running back to the bathroom to return a wet towel may not be an option right away; don’t relegate your guests to having to hang it over a chair.)

Don’t forget a working, easy-to-set alarm clock, and be sure to stock up on toilet paper and the like, letting guests know where the extras are if you run out.

3. Making a room or space a temporary home.

Like I’ve said before, if you’re going to be as unaccommodating as possible to “make a statement” about unwanted guests, then cowboy up and decline them in the first place. Otherwise, put in some effort.

Jack and I keep a hotel-styled waffle-weave robe, clean and freshly pressed, on the back of the guest room door. This was actually Jack’s idea, but I didn’t think people would ever use it.

Boy, was I wrong. There’s not a house guest we’ve had – and we’ve had dozens – that didn’t use that robe. From treking back and forth to the bathroom to sitting downstairs eating breakfast with us, that robe has been a guest favorite for years now. One girlfriend who stayed with us during her messy divorce confided, “That robe was the absolute best thing – I was going through such a horrible time, and I hadn’t even really packed when I left. That robe helped me feel like I wasn’t an imposition, living out of a suitcase.”

Likewise, when I was growing up, my Aunt Cecile kept a huge fishbowl of sample cosmetics, lotions, shampoo and conditioner, and soaps in her guest bathroom. As a little girl, I loved this, but as a young woman, this also meant that Jack and I didn’t have to trek out to the store or ask our hosts to borrow theirs when we realized I’d forgotten to pack shampoo.

Now, I do the same, only with a sweetly arranged basket. I nick the travel-sized shampoos, soaps, and mouthwashes from hotels, I add the fancy sample-sized moisturizers and lotions I get when I buy my makeup, and I’m always on the lookout for cute miniatures of things to add to it (like Lucia’s organic guest soaps or Pre de Provance’s square little suckers in delicious scents).

Likewise, it was Jack’s idea to contribute nice disposable razors and a miniature shaving cream, as he always forgets his when we travel.

I also keep a water pitcher and glass on the bedside table, and fill it before bed the first night (guests will catch on after that, and fill it on their own if they want it). This ensures they don’t have to wander around a strange house in the middle of the night, fumbling for light switches and looking for where you keep the glasses. If you’re particularly fancy, you can substitute an ice bucket and a bottle of water.

It’s also nice to keep a few books on hand for bedtime reading. Jack and I store our literary overflow from the study on a bookshelf in the guestroom, usually our short-story anthologies, as they make for good guest reading.

Consider, also, where guests will have to get ready – where women will fix their hair or put their face on, and where men will fix their hair, put in contacts, etc. Jack and I have no real bathroom counter to speak of, so a vanity is a must for both our master bedroom and the guestroom. Even if you have bathroom counter space galore, a vanity can add a nice touch to a guest room, as some guests prefer to do their eyebrow plucking and mascara and whatnot in private, and it helps ease bathroom scheduling when guests can do half their morning routine in their room.

Having a vanity present also gives them a space to work and keep up with correspondence when needed. (Keep a pen and pad on the bedside table for jotting telephone numbers or directions.)

When having house guests who stay more than a day, it’s nice to present them with an info sheet that covers the basics of your home. Lifehacker provides a pretty extensive “home reference guide” for guests in the form of an editable PDF that you can easily type in and print. At six pages long, it might be excessive for your guests, but I encourage you to look it over, as it covers things that might be important but could also slip your mind – like ordinances about parking on your street, or the fact that the toilet handle needs to be held down.

Such a packet also ensures you don’t have to barrage your guest with a verbal lecture of information.

At the very least, include:

  • You and your spouse’s cell numbers
  • Your WiFi or Internet access SSID and password
  • The address of your home (useful if they’re GoogleMapping, etc)
  • Location and number of the nearest ER/Hospital, outpatient clinic, and pharmacy
  • Any specialties for turning on the sound system, television, or media system in either your guest room and/or your living area

Entertaining Guests

1. Do your shopping (or “marketing,” as Mama used to say)

Jack and I keep no food in the house. This is largely not an exaggeration. When I’m not working, I’m better about it, but when both of us are employed, we tend to work jobs that are more in the 60 hours a week range, which means a lot of meals with clients in restaurants, friends in bars, or breakfasts grabbed en route somewhere else.

This means we’re lucky if there’s a loaf of bread in the house, which is pretty awful for house guests.

When my mother comes to visit, I know she’s going to be banging around the house while I’m at work in the morning, so I make sure to have breakfast items that don’t require much cooking (like oatmeal, cereal, fresh milk) on hand. And, at the very least, the woman mainlines San Pellegrino, so I keep a few bottles in the fridge for her. If you’re not a “baking” kind of person or if your own tight schedule doesn’t allow it, pick up some pastries (like croissants) the afternoon before – it’s certainly better than nothing.

Likewise, while I know my mother or close girlfriends are perfectly capable of foraging for themselves, other guests (such as my brother-and-sister in-law) require more formal entertaining on my part. Since I like to bake, I do so, preparing pancake or waffle batter the evening before and then chilling it in the fridge for early-morning consumption, or getting up early to fix a coffee cake or muffins.

When it’s apparent we’re going to be kicking around the kitchen at the same time (like on Saturday mornings), I bite the bullet and assume we’ll break bread together, fixing some eggs, bacon, and turnovers for an informal breakfast at the table.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure you have the staples on hand to do it with.

Likewise, beware the holidays. Working in the performing arts means that holidays are often my and Jack’s busiest time – not only do we work, but we’re usually working a split shift of shows, which means relatives or friends who visit over the holidays may be left to their own devices around meal time during a period when every major restaurant and even fast-food takeout is closed for the holiday. This is a major snafu, and you can avoid it by having either food that can be cooked (if I buy it, my mother will throw on a pot roast for herself and Daddy, which is doubly awesome to come home to at the end of three shows in high heels) or easily prepared (like sandwich fixings, pasta, or microwavable meals).

And lastly, of course, keep the coffee highly visible. There’s nothing worse than waking up after your hosts have already gone to work and trying to figure out where they keep the coffee with only one eye open.

2. Have optional planned activities

Jack and I usually combine seeing friends with vacation – we may swing by a girlfriend in Spokane on our way to Seattle, or visit a relative in Hilton Head on our way to Savannah. This means we appreciate being asked to do things, but we also usually have our own agenda as well.

Being a hostess to house guests does not mean being their maid, concierge, activities coordinator, et al. Likewise, most guests prefer not to be entertained every second – it’s exhausting.

Instead, plan a few choice excursions you and your significant other would go on anyway, then invite them along with ample opportunity to decline. Don’t invite yourself along on an activity if the other party hasn’t extended an invitation. Being a hostess or house guest does not make you automatic BFFs – when I say that Jack and I are going to drive up to Jackson to visit our aunt, we usually don’t want our host to come with. Likewise, your guests may be planning a romantic dinner for two in the city, not an outing for four.

Some choice invitations Jack and I have used in the past:

  • “Jack and I were going to go to the new American Art exhibit at the museum this afternoon – would you like to join us?”
  • “We were going to see the new play in town on Friday evening; would you like us to get you tickets when we get ours?”
  • “We’re trying to plan how many for dinner this evening – we were going to go to that new French bistro downtown with some friends. I know they’d love to meet you. Should I include you in the reservation, or do you guys have your own plans?”

3. Give them the tools to explore on their own

When we have house guests, I pick up our local “[Our City!] Magazine” as well as the local weekly alternative newspaper with a listing of all activities that week and place them in the guest room.

If you live in a city with public transport, such as a metro or train system, pick up one of those little folding transit maps to add to the guest room so guests can get around on their own.

In the days of iPhones and GoogleMaps, sometimes providing restaurant recommendations and the like can seem superfluous – it’s not. There’s nothing that beats the advice of a local, like “The best brunch to be had is Betsy’s Diner, but get their early because they get slammed about 10:00 – try the strawberry-rhubarb jam!” or “The closest coffeeshop, over on Main Street, also has a great antique book and retro vinyl selection, but remember they close at 3:00pm” or “We know you like thai food, and there’s a great sit-down restaurant at 4th and Broad, but be sure to make reservations on OpenTable or call ahead on the weekend!”

You can impart such advice verbally, but sometimes it’s better to think it out the day before guests arrive and write it down to place in the guest room. Many such advice has been given to Jack and I before we had coffee in the morning, and once we’re freshly showered we’re left scratching our heads, saying “Did they say it was on Kennedy? Taft? Madison? I know it was a street named after a president.”

Closing Up Shop: After Guests Leave

  • After guests leave, immediately strip the bed and throw the sheets and towels in the wash.
  • Replace items like pillows and blankets to their proper storage areas so you’re not hunting for them later.
  • Take water glasses, pitchers, etc. down to the kitchen for washing; there’s nothing worse than introducing a guest to their room and realizing you forgot to grab the last guest’s water glass, complete with ChapStick stains.
  • Air out the room. Guests use hair spray, lotions, perfume, etc. Air out the room after old guests leave and before new ones arrive.
  • Do a floor sweep or vacuum. There’s no reason to clean the guest room every day – our remains shut off when not in use – and it’s easy to dust the day before a guest arrives. But guests, like pets, will shed – hair when they brush it, powder from their compact, fuzzies from their sweaters, etc. If you don’t do a floor sweep or vacuum post-departure, you’re likely to forget about it and be left with a sudden, taxing job at the last minute when you go to inspect the room for new guests.
One Response to “Expected Guests: setting up a guest room and entertaining”
  1. robin says:

    I love this article. My guest room is currently a dumping ground with a desk, but plans are in the works to fix it up. I will definitely be using some of your tips.

    I love your blog, keep it up. 🙂

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