6 tips for helpful hosts

Inviting guests to the cottage? An etiquette expert's guide to happy hosting

By David ZimmerDavid Zimmer

Women drinking on dock

Photo by Melissa Payne

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While we all know that good hosts should never serve unidentified wild mushrooms as a side dish, apparently there are some lesser-known offences by hosts that are driving guests nuts. The following is a list of practical tips for the helpful host.

Skip the tour

Once they’ve arrived at the cottage, guests generally like to relax and unwind. So don’t force them onto the Magical Misery Tour, where you point out noteworthy cottage features such as the lake (fascinating), the toilet (got it), the bedroom (check), the very old pine tree (don’t care), and the big rock where Great-Grandpa Marcellus chiselled his initials in 1908 (petty vandalism; still don’t care). In a similar vein, while you might think a self-published book about your lake is a magnificent celebration of cottaging, most guests would rather jab at their eyes with hot copper wire than read a 38-page history of Mud Bay. So don’t even ask.

Think twice about hosting large parties

A wedding by the lake can seem like a romantic idea during the planning stages, when all is rosy and bright. You’ll keep it small and intimate! Just beer and burgers and flip-flops! Brandon will play his guitar! But wait until you experience “wedding creep,” when the guest list expands to 180 and there is serious talk about a chocolate fountain imported from Venice. You’ll need a huge tent, caterers, rented tableware, and portable toilets for all those people. Where will everyone park? Where will they sleep? What’s the back-up plan if it rains? Why are you crying?

Accept help when it is offered

Most cottage guests are all too willing to help out with chores, and only a very foolish host doesn’t graciously accept that assistance. Without proper guidance, however, guests can be like wandering sheep, so take charge and give specific instruction to manage multiple tasks. For example, if Ron and Nancy shuck the corn while Sid and Nancy split wood for the campfire and Sluggo and Nancy set the dinner table, you will be free to mix a perfect pitcher of Porch Crawler, your signature cocktail. Note: When guests offer to bring something to contribute to a meal, detailed direction will preclude six people all showing up with that awful spinach dip served in a hollowed-out round of pumpernickel.

Nix the competitions

The most disturbing trend in cottage entertaining is the cook-off (a.k.a. the food challenge), where guests and hosts are pitted against one another to create the best version of some dish. If there is any activity that better reveals the ascendancy of reality television over intelligence, imagination, and compassion, I have yet to see it. Here’s why food challenges suck: By pitting Sheila, who always travels with a lump of Quebec foie gras in her hat box, against Ed, who loves Worcestershire sauce (“I put that **** on everything!”), you will only succeed in making Sheila look like a jerk for pummelling a hopelessly under-gunned opponent and having Ed realize that his first two wives weren’t just being spiteful when they said his taste buds were stupid. Cook-offs can get nasty and, more to the point, who wants to eat samples of 14 exotically flavoured turkey burgers?

Assess your guests

Depending on the level of rustification at your lakeside retreat, it is important to provide guests, especially the more citified among them, with some tips to help them enjoy their stay. Is the tap water in the bathroom safe to drink? Why is there a dirty bucket beside the toilet? Is that rat trap in the closet really for rats? While your family might have grown accustomed to certain peculiarities at your place, more genteel guests may not understand that the snakes in the bottom drawerof their dresser pose no threat and will move off once the weather warms. Many guests are also unused to sharing property with black bears, so a good host must gently explain how to use one of the 12 cans of pepper spray near the back door and that one should never, ever, leave a diaper pail sitting on the deck. Note: Occasionally, guests with unrealistic expectations must be rudely corrected. So if a particularly sensitive cosmopolite makes snide complaints about a lack of air conditioning or wireless Internet, it is acceptable to return them to their vehicle and point them in a southerly direction.

An oldie but a goodie

Cottage walls are thin, so any late-night whispering about Jimmie’s face-singeing halitosis, Connie’s obvious unsuitability for motherhood, or how much you hate the Petersons’ yappy little dog will very likely be overheard. Awkward! And just because your husband’s Cialis prescription has kicked in, that guest bedroom with the curtain dividers is not an appropriate spot for a shagtastic celebration. Note: Sound also travels well over water. So even if you consult your doctor about possible side effects and paddle out to that distant mossy island, there’s a good chance everyone on the lake will hear your horizontal jogging and applaud with enthusiasm.


This article was originally published on June 28, 2011

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David Zimmer