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It’s Thanksgiving, folks, which means many of us will be cramming too many people into our dining rooms, trying to make three times the normal amount of food for three times the normal amount of people.

That’s a recipe for some stress–and I don’t know anyone who likes themselves more when they are stressed. Imagine if that were true! “Oh, honey, I’m so stressed out and it just brings out such patience and love in me” said no one, ever.

So if you are hosting Thanksgiving this year, or hosting anything, anytime, I’d love to tell you four key things I’ve learned from creating experiences over the past decade.  Whether you are hosting a small group, hosting a kids’  birthday party, or hosting 24 for Thanksgiving dinner, the same principles apply:

Key #1: Your Vibe Matters

Your attitude matters more than you think. If you are the host, leader or facilitator, how YOU feel about the experience means more than anything else. When people come into your (home, party, small group) they are looking for someone to help them know how to feel. Should I be formal? Relaxed? Talkative? Quiet? Is this event fun? Emotional? Serious? YOU create the vibe. If you are stressed, the event feels stressful. If you are disorganized or scattered or slightly absent–yep, that’s what it will feel like. Your vibe matters more than the food, the entertainment, or the decor. So if you can find a way to get relaxed, whether that’s by keeping the food simple, setting out some games, turning on some music–whatever it takes, find a way to get pumped about the event. It’s guaranteed to go better.

Key #2: Beginnings and Endings Matter

All of us have had the unfortunate experience of not being welcomed into someone’s home. You arrive at (party, small group, holiday) and the host/hostess is no where to be found. You hang out in the hallway, clutching your coat and bag, more awkward than a preteen at a middle school dance. Ugh. Not exactly an easy beginning!

Great experiences have intentional beginnings and endings.  A great beginning–a warm welcome, a cool drink, an invitation to help–sets the stage for the rest of the event. A great ending–a meaningful conversation at the door, a hug, a thank-you–tells your guest that you cared that they came. Some of my favorite, meaningful conversations have happened on my front porch as I’ve said goodbye to friends.

The middle usually works itself out if the tone is set well at the beginning!  Party Hint: aim to be completely ready for the event 30 minutes before the experience actually starts. Shoes on, makeup on, food in place. This gives you time to relax, have a drink, take it all in–and that feeds right into Key #1.

Key #3: Set Self-Expectations

When I counsel leaders about small groups, retreats, or events, I’ve come to encourage them to do one thing: create an experience that you would like to attend. I love helping people know that since they are the host or leader, what matters most is that they create an experience they are proud of—that they would be delighted to be invited to. For each of us, this means our perfect experience will be smaller or bigger, more elaborate or more simple, more casual or more intentional. It means each of us has a setting for how we like to be engaged and what feels meaningful to us.

 But I can guarantee you: your vision won’t match someone else’s. And if that involves a family gathering, be prepared for them to tell you about it. Aunt Edna wants to know why you didn’t use the silver. Uncle Eddie wants to know why the TV isn’t where he can see it during dinner. Your mom liked your hair when it was longer and your brother won’t answer your “conversation starter” at the table. But you can be OK with that. You don’t have to let other opinions ruin what you’ve prepared. Some people don’t like change–at all. But you can gently, warmly, lovingly invite them to enjoy what you’ve created, without worrying too much about being everything to everyone. Create an experience you’ll be proud of–and the rest will work itself out.

Great Experience Key #4: Plan on Plan B

There is a 100% chance something isn’t going to work out. The craft will bomb; that new recipe won’t be nearly as good as you’d hoped. The rolls will burn and your neighbor will cancel at the last minute. You’ll have technical difficulties or leader difficulties or weather difficulties. You’ll need a Plan B in place, a back pocket go-to when something doesn’t go as planned. That might be a “when all else fails, we’ll go to the movies.” It might be a “when all else fails, I’ll ask this question.” It might be a “when all else fails, we can eat Chinese food.” Whatever your Plan B is, decide it will be OK if you need to use it. If your vibe is good, everyone else will follow along. And who knows? Maybe your Plan B will turn out even better than your Pinterest dreams.

Hospitality isn’t about perfection–it’s about the generous and welcoming experience of relationship. I’d rather eat fried chicken out of a KFC bucket in a warm and welcoming house than enjoy a five-course gourmet meal with standoffish, stressed people anytime. So as we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas, give yourself a pep talk. You got this. You can take these 4 keys and make something great. It won’t be perfect but it will be warm, and generous, and you.

What’s your favorite advice for creating great experiences?