Saturday, October 16, 2010

That's Entertaining! Host and Hostess Gifts - Almost Everything You Want to Know

"The Perfect Gift" by Chris Peplin
by Barbara Burtoff

If you fail to bring a gift for the host and hostess of a dinner party, will you be considered rude? If you bring a gift that’s all wrong, will you be remembered unkindly forever after?

Sherri Athay of Essex, CT has been advising folks about perfect presents for more than 20 years. “Hospitality gifts are not compulsory,” she says, “they are voluntary. So, no, it wouldn’t be rude of you to show up empty-handed, though it might be considered less than thoughtful.”

And what would make your gift choice inappropriate? Here are her six worst offenders:
  • A pet for the children. “This gift requires forever after care and there may be long stretches of time at your host’s home when no one will be available to provide it,” says Athay.
  • A toy or piece of electronic equipment that requires assembly, installation or maintenance that the recipient is not able or willing to tackle.
  • Cleaning products and equipment for their house or apartment. “A man might find these utilitarian but a woman would prefer to be gifted with a cleaning service,” she offers.
  • Something out of season, such as lined leather gloves in July.
  • A treadmill or other exercise equipment for a couch potato.
  • Four hours with a home organizer for someone whose surroundings are filled with piles of papers and magazines. She explains, “The giver might think this is exactly what the recipient needs but suggestions for self-improvement or change might not make the receiver gush with thankful words.”
Well, what about wine, chocolates, a music CD, or flowers or a plant? These are popular gift choices. Does she consider them okay? Maybe yes, maybe no, she says. Some never touch alcohol, can’t have tempting sweets around, are only willing to add to their music collection if it’s a specific type of music they enjoy, or may be allergic to flowers or plants. One additional point about flowers as gifts: Do not take cut flowers to the dinner with you. It puts the hostess in the awkward position of leaving her guests to search for a suitable container. Bring them in a vase or have them delivered the day of the party or the day after.

Any advice about how much to spend? “The cost needs to be considered from both angles,” says Athay. “If you choose something that is too expensive, it could make the host and hostess feel uncomfortable, especially if it would stretch your budget and they know it. Think about the appropriateness of the gift, not the price.”

Sherri Athay along with her husband, Larry, wrote the paperback, Present Perfect: Unforgettable Gifts For Every Occasion, which covers gifts to show your appreciation for hospitality but also birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, items to welcome new neighbors, art lovers, music aficionados, retirements, military men and women, as well as Christmas, Hannukah, expectant parents, children’s sleepover parties, the individual who has everything and so much more. (Available from the Amazon link at the left or at

Here’s the question she is asked often: So what is your idea of a perfect present? “There’s no one correct gift for all. You’ve got to do your homework before the dinner and learn a little bit about what your hosts like, want, can use. It could be something like a serving piece, a game board for the children, a toy or something else for the family pet. If you don’t know the hosts well, ask someone else going to the dinner who knows them better than you, or make observations while at their home and send something afterward.

Recently, I asked Cleveland Park Listserv members to share their thoughts about hospitality gifts. I gave them to Sherri Athay and asked for her comments:

#1: “I don’t feel that people have to come to my home with a gift of any sort tucked under their arm. However, some of the nicest tokens of appreciation I have received from guests have been unique to where they come from. Maple syrup comes to mind. I always appreciate things that can be consumed or that will wilt eventually so I can just enjoy the memory and don’t have to find a place for some tchotchke that will need dusting in my overloaded house.”

Athay: Perfect! I love the idea of consumable gifts. Here are some more: candles, theater tickets, a gift certificate to a restaurant, fancy soaps, cocktail napkins.

#2: “One of the best gifts I ever got was a homemade package of scones ready to pop into the oven the next morning. The guest had directions with temperature and baking time. It was fun to have something so yummy and easy the next morning after entertaining the night before.”

Athay: Perfect! This guest provided the hostess with a homemade gift and a thoughtful break while busy clearing up and putting away party dishes and serving pieces.

#3: “We have a good friend whose wife’s family has a charming cottage on Cape Cod. For years, we’ve been invited there for vacation. Over the years, their family grew, as did ours, and as did the families of other friends who were invited to visit there. The house does not have a washing machine so our friends have to take all the dirty laundry home with them. Last year, we bought a collapsible canvas hamper that, when empty, lies flat in the trunk. We filled it with rolled up beach towels and then topped it off with fun beach items: games for the kids, sunscreen, Frisbees, coloring books, etc. The gift was fun to think up, but more so practical as I know they always have to haul all the sheets and towels home to be laundered.”

Athay: Perfect! A great deal of observation, thought and creativity went into it.

You may wonder how Sherri Athay became a gift-giver’s guru? She says that years ago when her husband finished school and started a job, they were invited to a birthday party for one of the managers at his office. He didn’t have any idea what would be appropriate for a gift for someone he worked with. He asked his wife to select something. She didn’t know what to get either, so she went in search of a book of gift-giving ideas and etiquette. She couldn’t find what she wanted and asked friends for suggestions. It wasn’t much of a leap forward to deciding she should write the book.

Today, she can rattle off literally hundreds of suggestions. Keep in mind, she cautions about office gifts, that a one-size-fits-all present will not have the same effect as something more personal. Here’s one for someone who always brown bags lunch: Outfit a basket with table service for one for someone who eats at his or her desk. Elegant china, crystal, silverware, and linen can make a tuna salad sandwich seem like a gourmet treat. If this individual prefers Chinese take-out, add to the basket a rice bowl, chopsticks, a teapot and fortune cookies. As for gift-giving to an employee of another company, first check their policy regarding acceptance of gifts. Don’t put someone in the awkward position of having to return your gift if it’s against the policy or breaching work rules to keep it.

As a result of this book and its many categories of gift-giving, business firms approached her to help them market gift products, i.e., making their gifts better known to companies that would have to supply many gifts to employees for different occasions. Still later, firms asked her to help them find gifts costing one thousand dollars or more, for individuals in top jobs who were retiring or deserving of a celebration for a major accomplishment. She also was asked to come up with creative presentations; this is what she is doing now.

She answered two more questions.

Please say a few words about a note or card to be attached to a hospitality gift? “Tape it to the box or include it inside the present so it doesn’t get lost. Always add a few personal words of appreciation.”

Does the host or hostess owe the gift-giver a thank you note? No, it’s not owed, but if the present is something special, it would be a thoughtful thing to do.


Barbara Burtoff spent 10 years as a food writer and editor for the Boston Herald daily newspaper. She visited farms and markets, attended culinary schools and cooking contests, and covered parties of all sizes from large, gala fundraisers to small gatherings at home. She then left to finish an M.S. Education degree, expanded from one paper to national syndication focusing on consumer/shopping issues, nutrition and psychology of eating topics.

That's Entertaining! is published by the Cleveland Park Listserv. (c) 2010 Barbara Burtoff.  Your comments and ideas are welcome below.

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