Eminently social, socially sublime and simply a night of revelation, welcome to a new era of salons—brought to you by Susan MacTavish Best.
Susan MacTavish Best
In a region that has big ideas in its cultural DNA, Susan MacTavish Best stands out as one of its supreme, giddy purveyors of spreading information. She’s a connector and listener, and small gatherings of disparate souls deliver her oxygen. For two decades, MacTavish Best ran a PR agency in San Francisco and New York. “Everything was done in my home over food and drink, and by having interesting people around,” says MacTavish Best, who now splits her time between Marin County, New York and Los Angeles. “Salons just began happening naturally. I’d look around my living room in San Francisco and note that, if you have a lot of interesting and curious people in the room, a lot of deals and changes occur. Put a filmmaker next to a scientist, for example, and see what happens.”
A couple of years ago, MacTavish Best made her longtime adoration and practice of hosting salons a business by relaunching Posthoc Inc., which helps people and business leaders host engaging events. And this summer, she unveiled The Salon Host, an educational guide for people to learn about, plan and host their own salons. “The Salon Host has a mission of inspiring people around the world to discover the unsung benefits of salons—mental, influential, academic and cultural,” MacTavish Best says. We checked in with the supreme salon host to learn more about how to plan our own flings this fall and winter.
Best co-hosting a lively and thought-provoking evening.
I think about Dorothy Parker and her famous salons at the Algonquin Hotel. It was such a heady era. Why do you love salons, and what’s your mission?
First, they empower individuals by offering connection, conversation and community— that’s the alchemy of a salon. Couldn’t we all do with a bit more of that these days, especially after the past 18 months of turmoil, polarization, shouting and loneliness? People have been asking me how to host salons for years. I noticed there wasn’t a resource that was actually from this century. No wonder I wasn’t getting invited to many salons—no one knows how to throw one together! I will show the world how to host a salon, and, coming out of a pandemic, the time is ripe for education to commence and salon hosting to flourish. I am starting a salon movement.
What is it about the Bay Area that makes it prime territory for amazing salon evenings?
The Bay Area is ground zero for ideas. We love kicking around fresh, innovative ideas in San Francisco, and that’s what a salon is all about. Also, we love our artists in the Bay Area, and salons really shine a light on artists.
MacTavish Best at a salon with Natascha McElhone
What has the reaction been to the concept?
Very enthusiastic. People are so hungry to connect, to host, to stimulate meaningful conversations. And to rave a little too. We love our music and our artists at The Salon Host. It seems to be a magnet for people who’ve already been hosting their own salons—and now they’re excited to learn there’s more of us out there. Salons build community, stimulate conversations, create content and influence. Companies with whom we’ve collaborated recently include Calm, UCSF, Better, Templeton World Charity Foundation, Columbia Records and Financial Times.
What are the salon topics you’ve loved most?
We just had our first in-person salon since COVID—the energy [was amazing]. The topic was the human microbiome and, specifically, the Yanomami microbiome. I interviewed scientist and Yanomami David Good. More than $1 billion has been invested in this space by VCs over the past few years. That caught my attention.
I also loved the topic of whistleblowing with San Francisco local Mary Inman. She’s an attorney who [represents] whistleblowers. We discussed China and D.C., as well as the expansive and colorful topic of whistleblowing in general. During COVID, I hosted a weekly On the Mind salon with Zak Williams—Robin’s son—about topics concerning mental health. One very fun and early salon was with David Handler, who’s both a charming salon guest and a great salon interview; he writes handwritten thank-you notes. San Francisco native and East Bay resident and New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty discussed the housing crisis—no one has the pulse on the California economy quite like Conor.
For someone planning a salon with Posthoc, what are big tips on choosing a topic?
For an aspiring salon host in the Bay Area, ask yourself what interests you. I ask myself what I want to know more about. What are your friends talking about? Fortunately, we’ve also created a great kickoff list at The Salon Host of 21 topic ideas. I hope one resonates—they include topics like our relationship with nature, community living, why NFTs make so much sense, local unsolved mysteries, the future of food and real talk about screen time.
Is there a formula for hosts when inviting the right mix of people—and what about choosing an emcee?
For both the emcee and the guests, the most important factor is to invite people who are curious, ask questions and who listen to the answers. It’s all about guest list alchemy. The purpose of a salon has always been to bring people together from all walks of life and across generations. Can you invite a spread of friends that spans 60 years in age? Try! It’s so rare these days to meet people of different ages and backgrounds in one place. A salon is curated— that’s the art of hosting. For the emcee, don’t aim for perfection. Salons are unpredictable, and that’s why they’re so enjoyable. At my salons, a lot of people have to sit on the floor. That really sets the tone.
A salon night has the right mix of ideas and a casual, inviting vibe.
What makes for a perfect setting?
Vibe is everything. Good lighting—that is, dim lighting— and good smells. I hosted a salon up in the Arctic in Svalbard for the Crop Trust. I packed a lot of silver, 100-yearold linen napkins and candles all the way from Pacific Heights! Just because we were in the Arctic didn’t mean we needed to lose the warm vibe. A few weeks ago, I went to a fantastic music salon in SOMA inspired by The Salon Host. It was the first time for many folks to be together in a room, unmasked and basking in the joy of others up close—Sixth Street never felt so special to me until that night.
A little music at the salon? Add a favorite DJ.
What’s the right approach to food and cocktails at salons?
Plan in advance. Write out a simple menu and post it in your kitchen to keep you on track. Take stock of your own abilities and limitations. If cooking is too much for you, order in or buy some tasty premades at the market. Salons are to be enjoyed, not dreaded and anxiety-ridden. If you’re cooking, keep it simple. Guests do really well when they have fewer choices to make. But also keep the meals filling, since some people will be drinking. For cocktails, one or two premade cocktails—for example, mezcal with fresh watermelon, lemon juice, serrano peppers and cilantro—and wine will work, plus some nonalcoholic drinks.
Any parting thoughts?
It’s on every single one of us to contribute to society and be active members of our communities. I can tell you from the experience of hosting hundreds of salons they also make you very happy. Who doesn’t want more of that in their lives?
Photography by: PORTRAIT BY MARIA JOSE GOVEA; SALON PHOTO COURTESY OF POSTHOC