Plan a Wedding Reception without Losing Your Mind
You know the feeling you get when your boss asks you to learn something new at the same time you’re already working overtime to get a major project done? Part of you wants to tell her off while the other half of you celebrates her recognizing your talent.
Well, that’s how many wedding couples feel when faced with adding reception planning to their already busy lives. Of course, they’re excited about getting married but overwhelmed with all the new learning, planning and decision making.
Wedding receptions are often one of the most memorable parts of the wedding day and are the first social event hosted by the couple. The reception sets the tone of the celebration and says a lot about who the couple is. No pressure!
It helps to have an understanding of locations, reception styles, catering, reception flow, ceremonial events and table terms.
Here’s a guide to help you begin planning a memorable wedding reception without losing your mind.
The location depends on the number of invited guests, budget, and formality of event. The site sets the tone of the wedding reception and most communities have plenty of locations to choose from including private clubs and halls, hotel ballrooms, church hall, historical locations and outdoor venues. Before booking get answers to these questions:
- How many people does the location hold according to the Fire Marshall Code?
- Will there be other events here at the same time as our reception?
- Do I have to use your catering service? If so, if there a price difference between a sit-down dinner and buffet? What is the cost per person/per plate? Do you provide the banquet servers and bartenders? When must I have my menu selections chosen? When is the final count due and when are payments made? What is the cancellation policy?
- If not, will you allow any caterer to work here or do I have to use one from your preferred vendor list?
- Am I permitted to use my own decorations?
- Do you provide the band or DJ and dance floor?
- How early, and when, can we get into the location to decorate? Is there a charge for this?
- Will I be able to set up the location according to my wishes or do I have to use your layout?
- Are there tables for the guest registry, cake, and gifts?
- Is there adequate parking?
- Are the tables, chairs, linens and centerpieces provided?
- Does the price include China, stemware and flatware?
- Are there adequate outlets?
- Is there air conditioning?
- What time must we be out of the location? Can we collect our personal items the next day? Is there a charge for this?
- Are there overtime charges?
- Are guests permitted to blow bubbles, throw rose petals, rice or birdseed when we leave the reception?
- What measures are taken for liquor liability?
- Will I need to pay for security?
- Is the space handicapped accessible?
Hire the Right Caterer
A wedding reception consumes about 1/2 of a wedding budget. Food and beverage are typically the highest priced line items in the reception budget; therefore, it’s important to select a caterer who not only makes great tasting food with visual appeal but also one who listens to your ideas and gives you a feeling of confidence and trust. Interview at least 3 caterers and, before placing a deposit, ask for a food tasting.
1. How do you handle attention to detail? You want to hear they use checklists, timetables and flow sheets and assign certain staff to specific areas and functions. Organization for proper timing is critical.
2. Is your staff regular or contracted and what is the guest to staff ratio?
3. May I have contact information for your last 3 wedding reception clients? Contact them.
4. What is the best way to reduce my catering bill? Don’t be surprised if you’re told to reduce your guest list. No good caterer will suggest you skimp on food quality or service.
5. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the various service styles like sit-down dinner, buffet style and passed hors d’ oeuvres? Follow up this question by talking about which style they use most and is best fit for your reception.
Once you’ve interviewed caterers, selected one, signed a contract and left a deposit, decide on reception type and style, menu choices, bar service, reception flow and creative food service.
- Seated Dinner-Appropriate for formal event. Typically five hours. There is a set menu, often with a choice of entrees. A different wine may be served with each course. The first dance and ceremonial dances may take place between courses.
- Cocktail Reception-Usually three hours. Hors d’ oeuvres are passed butler style (waiters carrying trays) to keep guests moving. A limited number of seats are available. Eight different offerings are typically served and 12-15 pieces per guest are prepared. Either background music or dance music is appropriate.
- Buffet Reception-Normally four to five hours. Food is placed in decorative containers on serpentine (S-shaped) or rectangular tables and guests serve themselves. Or food stations are placed throughout the room and guests wander from station to station enjoying the offerings. Action-oriented stations are popular. At these, a chef prepares food for the guests: Omelet, fajita, pasta, mashed potato bar, tapas, sushi or steak. Seating if provided for all. Dancing is encouraged.
- Tea Reception-Held between 2-5pm. Guests are offered finger sandwiches, a selection of fruits, nuts chocolates and cake along with a variety of hot and cold teas. Background music is provided. Guest seating is typically not assigned.
- Breakfast or Brunch Reception-Begins around 10 or 11 am and lasts two to three hours. Guests are served a variety of brunch style foods including eggs, breads, fruit, meats, potatoes, juices and specialty coffees and teas. Champagne is often offered. Background music is provided and seating is not typically assigned.
Assigned seating for dinner allows a reception to flow more smoothly. Escort cards, another name for table cards, are used to let guests know which table they are assigned to. Historically, these cards were placed on a table right inside the reception hall entrance for guests to pick up and take to their assigned table. Today these escort cards have become quite creatively customized and carry the wedding theme. Consider letting your guests know where they are seated using one of these:
- Old-fashioned chalkboard on easel-write guest name and number. Great for teachers and lecturers.
- Color code escort cards to match table linen. Instead of using numbers on tables, guests go to the table that has the linen color of their escort card.
- Hang snowflakes or origami cranes, a symbol of happiness, with guest names and table numbers near the reception entrance. These double as party favors.
If guests do not know one another, it’s fun to place a directory on each table of names and how they know the couple. Or, list each guest name and an interesting hobby or fun fact about each person. This starts conversation quickly and helps guests get to know one another.
Head Table-designated for honored guests and bridal couple. This table is usually raised up on a platform with the bride and groom in the center and bridal party on either side of them. Parents can also be seated at this table. If a raised platform is not available, the caterer can designate another table for honored guests. If the bridal party is small, spouses or significant others of bridal party attendants may also be invited to sit at this reserved table. This table is served first.
Parents’ Table-If parents are not seated at the head table, they can host their own table with other honored guests. If the parents are divorced, each hosts their own table.
Place cards-Unless you’re having a very formal evening wedding where every place setting has a place card, these are usually used on the head and parent tables. These cards designate an assigned seat. Escort cards designate an assigned table.
Ceremonial Events at Wedding Reception
- Introduction of bridal party and couple-Provide the DJ or band leader a list in advance so all names can be properly pronounced. Sometimes parents and Godparents are included in group introductions. Include something personal in each introduction.
- Couple’s First Dance-Pre-select this meaningful song and practice or even choreograph it. Remember all eyes are on you, so keep it tasteful. Special lighting can add to this dance. Guests do not dance before your first dance.
- Ceremonial Dances-These spotlight dances include bridal party dance, father-daughter dance, mother-son dance and parent’s dance. The songs for these dances need to be selected in advance.
- Toasts-The best man, maid of honor, bride’s father and groom typically offer a toast. Limit each person to three minutes or less. Make sure your toasting goblets are full and that the photographer is present for the toasts.
- Cake Cutting-ask the Master of Ceremonies, usually the band leader or DJ, to announce this. Cut the first slice of cake together. The groom offers the first bite to the bride and then she offers him one. After the photograph, step aside so the caterers can serve the remainder of the cake.
- Bouquet Toss-Consider your guest list before deciding to do this. Will single females of marrying age be present? If not, give your bouquet to the longest married couple.
- Garter Toss-Are single males attending the reception? If so, play special music to set this up.
- Couple’s Last Dance-When it’s announced that this is your last dance, guests are signaled that you will be leaving soon. Some couples do private last dance. As guests line up outside for their departure, they dance in the hall alone.
- Couple’s Departure-Usually guests shower you with rose petals, confetti or bird seed or wave sparklers or ring bells as you leave.
Flow of Events
You picked a reception style, menu, the music and decorations, cake, napkins, toasting goblets, cake knife and server, guest book and even the place cards. Now it’s time to plan the reception flow of events and think about what you do upon entering the reception as husband and wife. Look to your hired professionals for suggestions and pre-arrange who will move these events along so the reception ends on time, unless you are willing to pay overtime charges. If your budget allows, hire a bridal consultant or wedding director. If not, ask your DJ or band leader or a friend to be in charge. And, of course, the photographer will want to capture all of these special moments too.
Questions to Answer About the Flow of the Reception
- What is happening in the event location when the 1st guest arrives? Will beverages be passed or will guests go to a bar? Will hors d’ oeuvres be passed? What type? How many? Will music be playing?
- Is there a separate room or area guests will be directed to for the cocktail hour or will guests be seated immediately for dinner?
- How will guests transition from the cocktail reception area into the area for the buffet or seated dinner?
- How will it be announced that dinner is being served?
- How will guests know where to sit?
- Where does the person saying grace before the meal stand? Will a microphone be provided?
- What happens between courses?
- When are toasts made?
- When do the couple’s first dance and other specialty dances take place?
- When is the cake cut and served?
- When does the bouquet and garter toss happen?
- Will there be a last dance played for the couple before they leave the reception?
- What form of transportation is the couple leaving the reception in?
- Where is the couple spending the night or are they immediately leaving for their honeymoon after the reception?
- Will the couple be changing before leaving the reception?
- Will the caterer be preparing a food basket for the couple to take when leaving? If so, who places this in the go-away vehicle?
Planning a wedding reception for you and your guests to celebrate your marriage should be a fun. These definitions, tips and guides should help. Remember, the reception doesn’t need to be flawless or perfect. Chill out! If you’re both relaxed and enjoying the moment, so will everyone who’s there to congratulate you and wish you well.
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Linda Leier Thomason is a former CEO who writes freelance business and travel stories, along with feature articles. Her work experiences include a Fortune 500 corporation, federal government, entrepreneurship and small business. Find out more about Linda by clicking the “Meet Linda” tab above. Interested in working together? Complete this form below.
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©Copyright. February 2016. Linda Leier Thomason
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