How to Make (and Enforce) a Guest List

See if these names ring a bell: Michaele and Tareq Salahi. No? You’re in good company. They weren’t familiar to those in charge of the guest list at the 2009 White House State Dinner either. But they got in, famously shaking hands with the President and mingling with the Prime Minister of India. The incident erupted into a back-and-forth that ended in congressional condemnation and public ridicule. All this over a piece of cardstock—an invitation.

Michaele Salahi and Barack Obama at the 2009 White House State Dinner
Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton

Creating a guest list is a daunting task. Who do you invite? Do you allow plus-ones? How do you estimate attendance, and how do you enforce your guest list? These are just a few of the questions that dance through the dreaming minds of PTA dads, brides-to-be, and White House Social Secretaries alike. But not to worry; we’re here to help.

Start with a Wide Net

Save the meticulous thinking for a later stage of planning, and include everyone that comes to mind in a Word document. If you’re planning with other people, consider creating a document in the cloud (such as a Google Doc) that your planning team can collaborate on. Don’t challenge others’ input just yet. Let the invite ideas flow, and then see where your numbers stand.

Making the Cut

Now that everyone from Andy in accounting to Zelda in Zurich are counted, set some criteria for narrowing the list. First, how many people can you actually admit? It’s common practice to invite more guests than you have room for, if you know that many invitees will ultimately decline the invitation. The rule of thumb for a wedding, for example, is to expect 80% of in-state guests to attend. Unless invitees are likely to share news of their inclusion with others, you can also opt to have two lists: an “A” list that gets the first batch of invitations, and a “B” list that gradually makes the cut as those “declines with regret” checkboxes open up additional seats.

Next, what is the purpose of the event? Our event manager, Elle Harala, advises, “You want the right crowd, not just a crowd.” An open house provides the opportunity to invite a wide variety of guests, but high attendance alone doesn’t necessarily translate into success. “Some strategic thought is required for open houses,” says our director of operations, Bryan Jayne. “You want them to feel full and not empty, so the people who come don’t feel awkward. But you also want to make sure you focus on the part of the list that has the most potential for a substantial return.” Within the context of a company party, different objectives dictate starkly different guest lists. A team-building party could benefit from exclusivity, while an employee appreciation party will be more likely to have an impact if guests can enjoy the evening with their loved ones. And that’s where plus-ones come in.

Plus-Ones

It’s a question that puts pause in the voices of the unprepared, and shivers down the spine of the penny-pinching: “Can I bring a friend?”. According to Emily Post, spouses and partners should always be invited to weddings, but can be excluded from business functions if the budget or space is limited. Making the call on whether or not to permit invitees to bring guests of their own should be done early, made carefully, and communicated clearly. This will avoid the dreaded clarifying phone call or, even worse, the unexpected person at the door.

Marketing Your Event

Now that your guest list has been masterfully crafted, it’s up to the guests to show up. Lance, our VP of Event Management, encourages event coordinators to think about your event from the perspective of your invitees: “Market to your guests. Create a small flyer to build excitement and spark their interest in attending. Find out what makes your guests tick—food, beer, or activities—and encourage them to take a break from work to enjoy this special occasion.”

Enforcing Your List (Say Goodbye to Party Crashers)

If you’ve really knocked it out of the park with your party planning, there’s a chance you’ll have some uninvited guests. There are two kinds of uninvited guests: guests of guests who assumed they could attend, and cut-and-dry party crashers. For the former, you’ll want a policy in place to prevent awkward moments at the door. If your best sales rep comes with a date that he didn’t RSVP for, it will be in your interest to welcome her without hesitation. But when a group of college buddies approach your tent looking for a good time, you’ll need a clear-cut guest list, a confident response, and maybe even a strong bouncer or two.

Ever since the days of elementary school birthday party exclusion, guest lists have been the subject of much interest and concern. But with a little bit of preparation and a coherent plan in place, deciding who to invite (and who to turn away) can be a tear-free process.

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