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There is one secret to entertaining to impress: it's all in the details. A little forward planning and attention to detail, and you cannot fail to put together an event that will be talked about for months - even years - afterwards. There are many surprisingly simple ways to impress your guests, and to have them coming back to enjoy more of your dazzling hospitality.

Detail number one - location and timing

You don't have to host a black-tie gala to impress your guests. It's just as easy to make a big splash at a more casual event, so be flexible when choosing the venue and time of day for your entertaining triumph. Think about hosting a picnic in the park, a barbeque in your back yard, or Friday night cocktails in your apartment. Once you've decided on the 'when' and 'where' of the event, it's time to get creative and add some distinctive touches which will really fire your guests' imaginations and ensure that everyone has a memorable time.

Detail number two - atmosphere

What kind of mood do you want to create? If you're entertaining to impress outdoors - at a picnic, for example, forget about using paper cups and plastic plates; bring along some proper wineglasses and plates, and table linen. Add a portable stereo, some cushions and a rug, and you will have yourself a classy al fresco dining experience. If your outdoors entertaining is to take place on home ground, you have even more opportunities to add atmosphere and a sense of occasion. Try hosting an evening barbeque or picnic, and softly illuminate the entertaining area with candles or colored lanterns. A formally laid table, with the best cutlery and china, transforms an evening barbeque into an unusual and special event.

What about if you're entertaining to impress in a more formal way? If you're having dinner or drinks, you can't go past an immaculately pressed tablecloth and candles galore. Now is the time to relocate any elaborate candlesticks that may be packed away in storage and place them prominently around the room. Don't despair if you don't have any stunning heirlooms, though; set out dozens of little tea lights in groups on matching plates. This will also have an impressive effect. Make sure that the candles are lit and the main lights off before your guests arrive, so that they walk into a flickering, softly-lit environment.

Flowers or greenery are absolutely essential when creating atmosphere. Trawl your garden for anything aromatic or colorful and don't be constrained by convention when arranging them. Experiment with different kinds of foliage and flowers - a grand statement demands some imagination and lateral thinking. Or buy two or three different bunches of cut flowers, and combine them to create one large, stunning vase. Another effective trick is to fill some dessert bowls with fresh herbs, and place them strategically around the house; they will give off a fresh and scent which will always be a talking point.

Detail number three - food and wine

This is the detail that can make or break any event, but it need not be complicated or intimidating. The outdoor picnic becomes an extravaganza when you substitute imaginative alternatives for everyday ingredients: instead of sandwiches or plain cold chicken and bread, visit your local deli and buy some exotic cheese, marinated garlic olives, poppy seed or multigrain bread, a tub of antipasto, and a good bottle of red. The same upmarket treatment can be applied to your home barbeque. Replace run-of-the-mill sausages with the gourmet type, available from most good butchers. And it only takes a couple minutes to throw some steaks into a bowl with some wine, Worcestershire sauce and garlic, but this marinade will tenderize the steak and your guests will be bowled over when it later melts in their mouths. Transform rissoles or hamburgers with generous handfuls of fresh herbs, some chopped nuts and a homemade tomato sauce.

A more formal soiree requires a different approach. If you're a great cook, now is the time to showcase your skills and dazzle your guests. However, if you're like most of us, it's a bad idea to attempt to pull off the perfect soufflé when your guests will be arriving any minute. In this case, keep the food simple and present it beautifully. This is not the occasion to try a challenging new recipe: a simple pasta dish, served with a crisp salad and fresh crusty bread can stun your guests with its elegant simplicity. Serve a great wine in perfect glasses.

As these ideas suggest, impressive entertaining does not represent an impossible challenge. Looking at an important event with a fresh perspective and a little imagination can win over even the most difficult to impress guest.