Written by Kristen Castillo and Kelsey O’Shaughnessy-Podgorski | Photography by Carrie White Photography
Your wedding reception should be a well-timed event. From cocktail hour to dinner and dancing to cutting the cake, everything should run on a precise schedule, which means you need to know what to do and when to do it. This article will break down the reception basics and help you plan your party hour by hour.
GET STARTED EARLY.
Venue setup takes time and should be done well before the party starts. Your reception flowers and centerpieces should be in place at least an hour before the reception starts; the same goes for your wedding cake. Decorative elements like candles, chair covers and linens should be ready to go a day before the wedding. Banquet staff can arrange these elements for you. Then you and your planner can review the look and make any necessary changes the day of your wedding — or even after the rehearsal dinner if everything is in place. If you leave these details to the last minute, you’ll feel hurried and frustrated, especially if something doesn’t go as planned.
HAVE A RECEPTION GAME PLAN.
As with any event, you need to develop and write out a party plan. Make sure each person assigned to a job — from the bartender to the wait staff to the band leader — knows what’s expected of him or her. Write out the plan, review it with your vendors to foresee problems, and then test the plan with a dry run a week before the wedding or more. Part of this plan should involve having a backup in case something doesn’t go as expected.
Meet with your planner a few weeks prior to your big day, so you can map out the celebration hour by hour and area by area. You want to figure out where you and your spouse need to be at all times, plus review reception details like when dinner will be served and small nuances like which tables will get served first. If it helps you and the guests in your wedding party, type up an itinerary so everyone knows what to expect.
There’s a lot of fun to squeeze into a few hours, but that’s no reason to rush through your wedding reception. No one will have a good time if the event is too structured and everyone feels pressured to stay on schedule. Build some flexibility into your reception so you can let the good times happen naturally.
BREAK IT DOWN HOUR BY HOUR.
While you and your guests may want to boogie until the wee hours of the night, it’s not likely that your venue and catering staff feel the same. A typical wedding reception runs approximately five hours long and has a fairly structured schedule. Your band leader or DJ will serve as the master of ceremonies, or the MC, for the evening. He or she will keep your party moving along smoothly, so no one feels rushed and you don’t run into overtime fees.
Whether you’re looking at a mid- morning reception or an evening affair, here’s a general overview of how it can progress.
HOUR 1: COCKTAIL HOUR
You said, “I do,” kissed and now it’s time for your guests to make their way to the reception. There may be some downtime between, but guests will generally arrive to a cocktail hour pretty quickly after the service. If the ceremony is held at the same venue as the reception, guests may simply venture to another part of the space to continue the festivities.
While the new couple, their attendants and their families are out taking glamour shots, it’s up to the MC to keep guests entertained. Light music in the background allows for socializing without that awkward silence. The MC can also advise guests to begin taking their seats about 10 or 15 minutes before the couple is scheduled to make their grand entrance.
HOUR 2: THE NEWLYWEDS ARRIVE
After the MC guides guests to their seats, the band or DJ will change up the music to indicate that something big is about to happen. The MC will take the mic to start introducing the family and wedding party as they enter. The newlyweds will be announced last — to wild cheers from the crowd, of course. After this, the MC will request that guests take their seats.
This is a great opportunity to move right into your first dance. You have the spotlight, so you may as well use it! When the dance is over, the band or DJ will switch back to some pleasant background music to encourage chatter through dinner. Here’s your chance to start greeting your guests at each table.
A few minutes later, dinner will be served. At this point, take a break and grab a bite. You planned this meal for months! You deserve a few minutes to try it. Let the wedding party and family eat first — especially those who are making speeches. Toasts usually begin about 20 minutes after dinner is served.
Traditionally, toasts are started by the best man, followed by the maid of honor and then the parents’ speeches. If you and your new spouse would like to say a few words, this is a great time for that as well. Be sure to give your MC a list of everyone’s names so he or she can announce each person who will be speaking and their relationship to the couple. Bonus tip: Spelling the names out phonetically will drastically reduce the number of awkward pronunciations.
HOUR 3: DANCE, DANCE, DANCE
After the speeches wrap up, it’s time to hit the dance floor. If you decided not to do your first dance right after your grand entrance, now is the time. Typically, the father-daughter dance follows and then the mother-son dance. After that, your MC will invite guests to join the wedding party on the floor and the party starts.