What's the secret to pulling off a fabulous soiree? There's more to being a gracious host than providing food and drinks.

"It's important that you be a guest at your own party," says entertaining expert Jennifer O'Neil.

Along with her equally fun-loving sister, Kitty, she enjoys hosting everything from casual get-togethers to themed events. The sisters say if you're relaxed and enjoying yourself, your guests will follow suit.

Here are more tips for making sure your event is the hottest ticket in town:

Rule No. 1: Be prepared

Ÿ Send invitations at least three to four weeks in advance. Give longer notice for more formal affairs and more popular dates such as New Year's Eve.

Ÿ Create your "to do" list at least a week in advance, including the menu, drinks and quantities, decorations and party events.

Ÿ Tidy up.

Ÿ Keep a party-night checklist on an index card in your pocket. That way, you can know at a glance when it's time to bring out the warm appetizers.

Rule No. 2: Keep it simple

Ÿ Forego the formal dinner in favor of appetizers. Shop for delicious pre-made appetizers at fancy grocery stores or even warehouse stores such as Costco and Sam's Club.

Ÿ Let guests help themselves. A dinner party is more fun to throw and attend when it's buffet style. To keep bartending simple, pick a drink of the night, set out the fixings along with the recipe/directions, and let the guests play bartender.

Rule No. 3: Get Guests Talking

Ÿ Pick a theme. For a party that mixes different groups of friends, use nametags but make them fun.

One sure-fire way to get people mingling is to give them assignments, like having one person check on everybody's drink or having someone pass hors d'oeuvres.

Ÿ Keep the evening moving with party "milestones," like an informal icebreaker or a party event.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)