The toast of Texas (via Westchester)

Carla McDonald, founder and editor-in-chief of The Salonnière. Photograph by Nell Seilor Carroll. Below, classic summertime entertaining. Images courtesy The Salonnière.

Carla McDonald may now be the toast of Austin, Texas, society — but the founder and editor-in-chief of The Salonnière, an elegant website that celebrates the art of entertaining, traces it all back to her Westchester roots.

But it’s not all fun and (party) games. In addition to sharing party tips and profiles, McDonald also focuses on the potential for parties to make a difference. McDonald, who has chaired dozens of nonprofit gatherings and planned events around the world for many a global luxury brand, has also shared her expertise as an on-air authority for television and been quoted in publications ranging from The New York Times to The Washington Post, from Town & Country to Women’s Wear Daily.

She moved to Austin when her husband founded a software company based there.

For our hospitality-themed issue, McDonald graciously — how else? — shares a bit of her story with us:

Tell us a bit about The Salonnière. How did it come about? Who is your target reader — and how do you describe the site to someone who’s not yet familiar with it?

“The Salonnière is the nation’s leading site dedicated to the art of entertaining. Our content encompasses everything from party tips to profiles of great party hosts, past and present, and our readers run the gamut from celebrities and well-known philanthropists and dignitaries to business people and event professionals. What they all have in common is they’re social — they love going to and throwing parties. I founded the site in 2013 because I wanted to shine a light on the incredibly talented and generous people in America who are carrying on the tradition of the great salonnieres of the 17th and 18th centuries, like Madame de Pompadour, who leveraged the power of parties to make a huge difference in the lives of others. Party hosts play a vital role in our lives and communities and, before The Salonnière, there was no media outlet shining a light on — and celebrating — their efforts and achievements.”

One thing that really impressed us is that while The Salonnière has a polished and elegant look, there’s a definite feeling of playfulness found throughout. You speak about “giggle water and other libations,” offer tips on “teeny” accessories to fit into your evening bag or suggest “The Turkey Top 40,” holiday-party playlist. Was keeping it conversational — with a sassy attitude to boot  — always part of the plan?

“Yes. Everything about The Salonnière is intentional. For example, our stories are designed to be read in three minutes, which is the average length of an informal cocktail-party chat. And we try to keep our writing style light and amusing to create a cheerful context that makes people feel like they’re at a party when they’re visiting us online. I guess you could say that we try to be ‘tipsy’ in both tone and content.”

How do you decide what topics to cover? Do you draw on trends, news of the day, etc.? What is your research process like?

“We’re a party-loving group, so there’s never any shortage of story ideas. Our ideas come from a variety of places — from the latest trends in socializing to reader requests to our own curiosity about how to entertain more effectively and with greater joy. One thing we always strive to do is shine a light (highlight or focus) on the people who use parties to enhance the lives of others. That’s why The Salonnière 100, our annual list of America’s 100 best party hosts, is such a vital part of who we are.”

Your site has a lot of “bold-faced names.” These include the annual Salonnière 100 list that recognizes top hosts known for throwing “parties with a purpose,” as well as interviews with those noted for their exceptional entertaining skills. These profiles have ranged from Cathy Graham, whom we featured in our May issue, to Mark D. Sikes and Bunny Williams, who both created dazzling rooms at this year’s Kips Bay Decorator Show House in Manhattan. How do you decide on whom to feature — and what do you think these features add to your site? 

“In our RSVP section, which features Q&A-style interviews with party hosts, we tend to feature those who have made The Salonnière 100, because our readers are hungry to know more about how the best party hosts in the country entertain. They want to know their secrets, favorite resources, what products they trust and use and how they’ve overcome party challenges. They want to learn and be inspired. Those stories are full of what we call ‘fêtespiration.’”

Do you think people today are well-versed in entertaining or are more in need of tips than in the past?

“There’s a more relaxed approach to entertaining today, which is both a positive and a negative. On the plus side, many barriers to entertaining have come down. For example, there are great resources available today that make planning parties easier, like
Paperless Post, which makes the invitation process affordable, effortless and eco-friendly. On the flip side, people are taking a more lackadaisical approach to the RSVP process. Today, guests think nothing of ignoring an RSVP request or deciding at the last minute not to attend a party. That creates such a headache for party hosts and turns many off to the very idea of entertaining. Technology and social media have also introduced a new facet to entertaining that requires fresh considerations. For example, today, party hosts think, ‘What will be my party’s Instagram moment?’ and ‘How am I going to deal with so-and-so seeing a post from my party when I didn’t invite her?’”

Can you share a bit about your own background, especially in relation to both Westchester County and then to entertaining? Did you grow up in a home always filled with parties and special events?

“I spent a number of years living in Westchester County. I went to elementary school in Pleasantville, middle school in Yorktown Heights and graduated from Harrison High School. And I lived in Larchmont for a few years after college, when I first started working in New York. 

“As for my love of entertaining, I’ve always been very social. I’m a classic extrovert. As a kid, I watched my dad entertain with flair. He loved having his friends over for cocktail parties. I would see all these people dressed up, laughing and having a wonderful time. I thought, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to throw a lot of parties!’ When I was in college (and the drinking age was 18), I spent the summers working as a bartender. That was a dream job. Essentially, I got to go to a party every night and get paid for it. Then I spent my career in public relations, which included organizing events for luxury brands and celebrities. Parties have been a big part of my life since I was a little girl.” 

A tablescape inspired by the sea.

And finally, what is the best advice you’d give for successful entertaining? 

“The best advice I can give is to relax and have fun. The mere fact that you’re hosting a party is a huge gift to those you’ve invited. You’ve invested time, energy and money to bring people together to create magic and memories. If someone meets the love of their life, a new business partner or a wonderful new friend at your party, they’re not going to care one bit if the steak was overcooked or the soufflé collapsed. Laugh off any party mishaps and raise a toast to the joy of life’s surprises.”

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