Expert Tips for Entertaining Outdoors (Now That Summer’s Over)

Hone your hosting skills for the chillier months to come.

October  1, 2021
Photo by James Ransom

Entertaining has always required finesse. Accommodating guests, finalizing a menu, and even figuring out a playlist takes planning, and that’s probably why hosts always resemble an orchestra conductor when the event’s actually taking place. Add in an ongoing pandemic, and well, the job is much harder.

In the warmer months, hosts could gather in outdoor spaces that were either as comfortable—or for those of us without air conditioning—more comfortable than an indoor setting. But now that temperatures have cooled, a familiar challenge has reemerged: How to host outdoors without turning guests into walking coat racks. Thankfully, there’s a way to do it that should still feel festive, not freezing.

“I may live in L.A. now, but my Canadian roots and lifelong love of skiing have led me to quite enjoy cooler outdoor social scenarios,” interior designer Patrick Maziarski says. “As we continue to gather safely with our friends and family, accessible exterior design plays a key role. The purpose of design is to create warm, inviting, and functional spaces, indoors and out.”

We turned to the pros (designers William Brian Smith, Emily Henderson, Patrick Maziarski, and Justina Blakeney, as well as event planner Jennifer Taylor to lend their ideas for transforming an outdoor space into a cold-weather oasis for guests and hosts to enjoy. Read on to hone your hosting skills for the chillier months to come.

Know what you want

Smith thinks that those entertaining outside should be specific about what they hope the party is like. “Are you wanting a gathering to be more about lounging or eating?” he asks. “Determining the main goal of the gathering should help maximize space.”

Turn the Yard Into an “Outdoor Room”

Possibly the best advice to follow when setting up an outdoor entertaining zone? Treat it like any other room in your house. Cushy seating, thoughtful lighting, a rug to ground it all—that’s how to make your guests feel at home without being inside your home. “A rug can work some serious magic in any outdoor area,” says Justina, “It can anchor and define the space, add color, and give your feet a softer surface to walk across.”

Consider creating a color palette

Henderson doesn’t differentiate the styling needs of an outdoor space from an indoor one, and if you’re looking to create a welcoming mood that can last far beyond the event, she recommends thinking about the colors that would be best. “I love blues, greens, whites, wood tones, and hits of black, but whatever makes you happy is what you should choose,” she says. By sticking to a palette, it’s easier to decide which details—like pillows, throws, bowls, and napkins—would coordinate.

Assess every outdoor option

For those who don’t have a dedicated outdoor space but want to host at home, make sure you note every option at your disposal, even a driveway. Sure, a driveway may not be a conventional place to host a gathering, but Maziarski welcomes the opportunity. “It's literally a blank slate,” he says. Maziarski would start the design process by noting if the driveway is either wide or narrow. “If you're fortunate enough to have a larger driveway, consider more substantial seating, like Adirondacks, rather than fold-out chairs,” he says. “If your driveway is on the narrow side, line each side with benches.”

Try Adding a Patio Warmer

You may well remember the great patio warmer shortage of 2020 (aka, all the bars and restaurants buying up get patio warmer and space heater in the U.S. in an attempt to keep their outdoor customers warm), and have given up hope for finding a warming solution. But fear not, they’re available again, and now is the best time to invest in one as the temperatures keep dropping. There are propane and electric versions to choose from, depending on your preference, and the good news is that people will actually want to participate in your hosted activities if there’s promise of not losing their hands to frostbite by the end of it.

Designate areas for seating

Food and drinks not only create their own “zones,” but they also tend to not need much in the way of design. Seating, on the other hand, could use a little help in encouraging guests to gather. Instead of simply having chairs out, arrange them in a way that looks primed for conversation. And when you want to say “Pull up a chair,” you gotta have a chair—or at least something people can sit on. “If you're planning on entertaining in your outdoor space, think about creative ways to maximize your outdoor seating options,” says Justina. “Bench-style seating is great because you can load it up with comfy pillows and don't have to worry about moving chairs or heavy furniture around.”

Seats should come with blankets

While most guests will likely come bundled in jackets and scarves, sitting will make them cold. Smith would either place heating pads inside or under seat cushions, or drape hoodies onto chairs, for extra warmth on a budget. Maziarski jokes that there are probably neglected blankets around your home that could make an appearance. “Pull out that old trunk of musky blankets and throw them in the wash,” he says. “And, again, if you're in need of some extra wool blankets, check out thrift shops.”

Don’t underestimate a bar cart

A bar cart has an obvious purpose, especially for a party, but Henderson thinks it’s the perfect versatile piece for an outdoor gathering. “You can use it to hold plates and cups, act as a dessert bar, or work as an arts and crafts station,” she notes. “The possibilities are endless.” Alongside a bar cart, keep plenty of trays around, too. They’ll make it easy to transfer kitchenware, food, drinks, and even board games from one corner of your party to the next. Oh, and one more tip: “I like to throw a little floral arrangement on the top,” Henderson adds. “It looks pretty and doesn’t have to be expensive.”

A fire pit is a welcome sight

“The obvious suggestion for an outdoor winter room is a firepit,” Maziarski says. “If you can get one, then gather some wood and kindling and warm your guests with a classic touch.” Fire pits aren’t necessary, though. Space heaters can also create a comfortable glow with must-have heat, as Smith notes, and can easily move around the area depending on guests’ comfort levels.

But don’t skimp on proper lighting

To make an outdoor space seem ready for a good time post-sunset, Henderson says that it’s all about the lighting. “Lighting is so important to me,” she says. “String lights are a really affordable way to add a lot of visual impact and create a really nice mood. I also love multi-sized lanterns on the floor in a cluster.” If your patio is partially enclosed, Henderson also encourages hosts to use real candles for illumination and ambiance. “But,” she says, “I will never turn my nose up to flameless candles. They are equally as great.”

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Just wondering. Do you really understand what quarantining mean? Are you encouraging people who are quarantining to get out to outdoor party safely against health official’s recommendations? ”
— Love F.

What are you doing to make the most of the outdoors this fall? Tell us in the comments.

This post was updated in October 2021 with more hosting tips for chillier months.

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Kelly Dawson

Written by: Kelly Dawson

Writer and Editor


Melissa December 7, 2020

Thank you for these clever ideas to keep people connected while keeping them safe.
Love F. October 25, 2020
Just wondering. Do you really understand what quarantining mean?
Are you encouraging people who are quarantining to get out to outdoor party safely against health official’s recommendations?
dgarey November 2, 2020
I agree, the article presents solutions like polluting fire pits and plastic outdoor rugs that look awful after one season and end up in a landfill. Then seems to encourage gatherings that have been shown to be super spreader events.