The Cocktail Wedding Reception

Cocktail Wedding Reception |


I will preface this wedding-related blog post as I have been as of late by saying that what I am writing here is my personal opinion of wedding receptions. In no way am I judging any other couple who choose to do their wedding in a different manner. I am simply writing from my own personal experiences from photographing weddings for the past twelve years, attending weddings of friends and planning our own wedding. Whatever type of reception that you choose for your wedding will be perfect because you chose it to fit yourselves and that is awesome.

Right from the beginning of the planning for our wedding we knew that we would have a cocktail reception. While we love hosting dinner parties and one of my most favourite things to do is to sit down and have a proper meal with people that I love, the idea of doing this in a room of 120 people just did not appeal to us. In fact, I don’t think that we ever considered having a traditional sit-down wedding reception. From the get-go it was all about a cocktail one.

When I am photographing a wedding, one of my most favourite times to capture great candids is during the cocktail hour. I love this time between the ceremony and reception when guests are mingling. They’re talking & listening, they’re excited and they are moving around. You can see guests being introduced to other guests. Old friends seeing one another for the first time in years. The bride and groom being hugged by everyone. It’s pretty wonderful. At a formal sit-down reception, once this cocktail hour is up, guests sit at their assigned seat at some table and then they basically stay there, seated, for the majority of the evening. Sure, they can talk to the other guests at their table or get up to grab a drink at the bar (if said bar is open during dinner) but otherwise, that assigned seat is their home-base for the night. We did not like this idea. We want our friends and family to be up and moving around for the entirety of the evening. We want them to talk to some people and then move onto the next. We want them to dance and drink and eat as they please. We simply want more flow and movement throughout the evening. So how do you pull off a successful cocktail reception?!

Cocktail Wedding Reception |

Prepare Your Guests
When hosting a cocktail wedding reception, make sure that your guests know ahead of time. They need to know if it’s going to be a usual formal evening or not. If they know that it is a cocktail reception, they can mentally prepare for it. The ladies may choose to not wear those 3″ platforms knowing that they may not have a designated seat, they may bring a purse that has a strap as opposed to that stylish clutch since there won’t be a designated table to rest it on, etc. Let your guests know ahead of time what the evening will be all about. On our invitations we worded it like this “Cocktail Reception. You will be well fed!”

Feed the People
I bet that you have been to a cocktail wedding reception before that was maybe not the greatest evening of your life. The biggest complaint that I have heard from guests who have attended them is this: they left hungry. A cocktail reception does not mean that you do not feed your guests or that you feed them any less than what you would at a standard sit-down wedding reception. You need to feed your guests and you need to feed them well. Even if your reception starts after a normal dinner time, you still need to have plenty of food available for your guests (especially when you are planning on feeding them alcohol!). Treat it like a normal dinner meal. A few passed h’or doerves and a cheese table will not suffice. Without giving away all of the surprises that we are planning for our wedding, I will say that we are going to have five official food stations plus a couple of bonus items. The food stations will have chefs working behind them and all food items will be available throughout the entire wedding reception (along with the bar!). The idea is that if you are hungry, you can grab some food and eat but there is no rush to do so. I like the idea that it is available whenever you choose to take advantage so you are not waiting on anyone (or rushing a server to get that last slider that he is passing around!).

Cocktail Wedding Reception |

Another pet peeve about cocktail receptions is not having enough seating. If your guests have been prepped to know that it is a cocktail reception, they should understand ahead of time that they will not have an assigned seat. However, you do need to provide enough tables and chairs for a sufficient number of guests to be seated at any number of time. Trying to balance that plate of delicious food while holding a cocktail and standing in heels is just not a pretty sight. Our wedding planner recommended that we have seating for 75% of the wedding guests. This would allow for tables for people to sit and eat or take a break from standing but also allows everyone to understand that those chairs are for sharing so take a breather for a bit and then get on up and move around so the next crew can rest and eat. We will be reserving two tables for our immediate family since having a seat for my grandmother is important, as is having one for my sister who will be traveling from Mexico with her six month old and five year old daughters.

Water the People
When you have a cocktail wedding reception and you are serving alcohol, you need to be responsible for your guests by also having water and non-alcoholic beverages available. Technically the safe way to play is one glass of water should be had for every alcoholic drink consumed. When at a sit-down reception, there is usually always water easily accessible on the tables. When at a cocktail reception, this is not the case. Do not make your guests line up for the bar to ask for a glass of water. Instead, have some available that they can serve themselves. This will encourage them to be responsible and will also ease some of the busyness from your bartenders. At our wedding we will have a separate table with glasses, straws and pour-your-own water and something non-alcoholic (I’m thinking pink lemonade!).

Cocktail Wedding Reception |

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