This summer is quite a bit different from last summer, when most of us were hunkered down and isolated in our homes. Many of us are now taking to the roads and skies, eager to visit family and friends. One of our most popular columns over the years—published more than a decade ago—was not about leadership, recruiting, or resumes, but about the joys and travails of hosting houseguests. We publish it again, updated for the times in which we live.
When my husband and I built our dream home in Park City, Utah, in 2006, we had not given much thought to the etiquette of being a house guest. We thought good manners, if not instinctual, were the natural result of upbringing, education, and professional employment. We wanted to share our new home-away-from-home, and we told our friends and colleagues, “Come visit us when it gets hot in Houston."
And visit they did.
During our first Park City summer, we had no less than 30 guests in 10 weeks, while we both shuttled back and forth to our respective offices in Houston. And, no, our house is not a big house.
After that first summer’s experience, we learned to pace ourselves, realizing we could not work all week and fly into town and have houseguests waiting for us only to leave with them to fly back to Houston on Monday morning.
When I told friends I was writing an article on houseguests, I was inundated with, "Please tell them not to chatter endlessly." "Tell people not to mess with my remote control.” And so it went. Hosting visitors is a lot like the executive search business: You remember the few awful candidates longer than the mostly good ones. And so it is with houseguests. Ninety-nine percent are wonderful, but it is the exceptions you remember. Some of the stories are just too wild for someone to make up.
Based on our experiences, here are a few do's and don'ts:
1. Communicate with your hosts in the context of COVID
While unthinkable many years ago, your hosts may want to know if either of you pose a health risk. You should communicate whether you have been vaccinated, and if not whether you pose any health risk. And guests owe you the same transparency. Some people—even those who have been vaccinated—would prefer to keep a social distance, not share food, and have limited physical contact. Assess your host’s level of comfort in light of the pandemic.
2. Seek approval of your itinerary before booking reservations
My husband casually told a distant cousin, "Come see us this summer," only to get an email two weeks later saying that he would be arriving Thursday morning and staying for a week. If your hosts work (yes, this is we), don't plan on taking the flight that arrives at midnight on a weekday or showing up on a Wednesday unless you plan to be totally engaged on your own.
3. Be self-sufficient
This rule encompasses a wide range of activities and starts with getting your own ride from the airport. If we can pick you up, we will offer it. But make it easy on your hosts by grabbing an Uber, Lyft, a cab or public transportation, or better yet, renting a car.
Betsy, my Park City neighbor—a nicer person than I—makes several trips to the airport each month to pick up guests, and the main flight from Houston arrives at 11:35 p.m. with a 40 percent on-time record. Ouch!
Once at the house, ask your host for suggestions on what to do but don't insist your host accompany you. My friend Sue went to the Olympic ski jump—a prime Park City tourist attraction—with six different sets of guests one summer. "If I go one more time, the skiers are going to make me jump, and I will gladly do so not to have to show up there again," she says with a rueful laugh.
Under this same topic, don't wait for your host to cook you breakfast. Be self-sufficient in the kitchen and don't ask obvious questions like, "Where is the microwave?"
4. Don't make unreasonable requests
Our first houseguest walked into our house after arriving at 2:00 a.m., took one look at our guest room and exclaimed, "I do not sleep in queen beds. I must have a king."
My friend Sue bested me on this one when she told me of a married couple who did not sleep in the same bed, but insisted on sleeping in the same room. My friend went out and bought an air mattress at 9:00 p.m. Yep, you can't make this stuff up.
5. Be flexible
It is not your house, it is not a hotel, and it is free. With that in mind, you may have to do or eat some things you would not do if you were on your own. One friend, as a special gift, scored tickets to the symphony for her guests. The guests announced, "We don't like the symphony."
6. Conserve resources
My friend Jim recalls an obsessively tidy guest who woke every morning at 6:00 a.m. to do a load of wash. The washer woke up the entire house. They solved the problem by jokingly telling the guest that on his next trip he was getting three laundromat tokens for his week’s stay.
7. Buy some groceries
Most hosts will gladly stock their kitchen with food for you to eat. But if you are visiting with six children, do not go to Costco with your host and sit silently by while she purchases $250 worth of Gerber baby food and juice boxes.
8. Be nice to pets and/or children but please not too overfamiliar
If you hate cats, try to disguise it and make a feeble attempt to remember their names (Maxine, Margaret, and Major Orange in my case). As my friend Bob succinctly put it, "Our dogs were here before you, they will be here after you and, truth be told, we like them better than you."
Having said that, please do not feed your hosts' kids or dogs without checking with them. Andrea couldn't understand why, every time her sister visited, the dogs threw up. Little did she know that, in an effort to be a good houseguest, her sister was bringing bags of doggie treats each visit.
9. Choose that house gift wisely
I personally don't care about house gifts, but if you do bring a gift for the host, make sure it's not something that hangs on the wall or must be displayed on future visits. I know one guest who didn't get a re-invite because the owner embarrassingly could not find and display the knick-knack that the guest had brought the previous year to display.
The best house gift is a gift to the owner's favorite charity, a nice bottle of wine, or something that utilitarian—think plastic glasses or trays for an outdoor oriented mountain home.
10. Respect your host's space
Doug loves his in-laws but hates when they go in his bedroom and adjust the blinds while he is at work. Don't change the channel if your host is watching something. And in this highly politically charged environment, don’t turn on CNBC if your host regularly watches Fox, and vice versa. Don't fiddle with remotes/TVs/stereos/alarm systems, etc. if you don't know what you're doing. And even if you do know what you are doing, don’t do it. It also goes without saying not to purchase premium films not on your hosts' cable account unless you ask and reimburse. One host learned a month later that her guest had screened $50 of pornography films.
And don't let your children wander into the host's bedroom or bathroom while the host is bathing, sleeping, or otherwise doing what those rooms are for.
11. And if you Break it...
Even the most conscientious guest may find that they or their children break something. If it is not obvious, it can be tempting to just hide the knob that came off the chest of drawers, the remote control that fell into the bathtub, or a broken wine glass. Don’t do it. ‘Fess up. Your host will discover the mistake sooner or later and, unless they are running an Airbnb, you will be busted and stricken off the welcome list.
12. Tidy up when you leave
Leave your accommodations as you would leave a campground—do no harm and leave it in better shape than you found it. That means returning patio furniture to the place it was when you arrived, not leaving shoes for your host to have to mail back to you, washing dishes, stripping beds, etc.
And if you cook your special omelet in the morning, clean up after yourself. Otherwise you'll leave a lasting impression that ensures another invitation will never arrive.