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How to Plan a Wedding Reception

Over recent years, wedding ceremonies seem to have gotten shorter and the reception that follows appears to be where the time and effort goes for many couples. But what makes a good wedding party, and how can you deliver an event that all your guests are going to enjoy and remember fondly? Our guide walks you through some of the main steps to consider.

Part 1: Planning

Set your budget

It’s important that you keep this on a separate sheet from the main ceremony, honeymoon and any other related expenses.

There are a few main items that will make a major difference between affordable and budget bursting:

  • Separate or combined venue - It’s not just the price of an extra location to factor in, but the logistics of getting yourself and your guests there too.
  • Free vs. pay bar - Providing your guests with as much as they can drink is a nice touch, but it can add up quickly.
  • Wedding planner vs. DIY - There are pros and cons to each approach, and many now split the responsibilities between themselves and a professional.

See who’s willing to help

You’ll likely receive plenty of offers of assistance as you plan your wedding, and it’s worthwhile finding specific jobs for people to do so they all feel like they’ve contributed to your big day. Be careful not to assume help is available before it’s been offered. Just because your best friend has said yes to being your maid of honor, that doesn't mean she has time to spend on a long to-do list.

Consider the flow of the day

The party is important, but it’s not the only focus of the day. The tone of the reception should flow with the main ceremony. There should be a separation between the ceremony and reception. This is partly to give everyone a breather, but also to make evening guests who didn't attend the wedding ceremony feel a part of the event, not like they’re stumbling into an event halfway through.

This is easier to achieve if you’re switching venues, but if you are staying in one place, something as simple as lighting can really change the mood. Flick a switch, turn on the string lights and suddenly it’s party time!

Get the food and drink right

After the dress and rings, the most important part of any wedding decision is around what and when to feed people. If your venue permits, try and have each of the following dishes served in different areas so your guests aren’t seeing the behind the scenes serving and cleanup.

  • Hors d’oeuvres - Keep then bitesize and mess-free. Nobody wants a drip on their shirt when the night is still young.
  • Main meal - Make sure it’s filling, but not something that will sit on the stomach for hours. Provide an attractive vegetarian option rather than something predictable.
  • Something sweet - Rather than dishing up an extra course at the table, how about a doughnut stand or popcorn cart to make it a more interactive experience?
  • Snacks - For a little top-off as the night drags on, keep it simple. Who’s ever said no to a slice of late night pizza?

Part 2: Preparation

  1. Save the date cards
    Send these at least 12 weeks in advance if possible. Make it clear whether they’re invited to the whole day or just the party, and ask for them to reply with any dietary requirements.
  2. Accommodations
    People often like to stay in the same hotel as either the bride and groom or some other wedding guests, even if they live locally. Share this information, along with any group booking discounts, once people have accepted your invite.
  3. Transportation
    If travel from the venue to the hotel is required, get a local taxi company booked up as far in advance as possible. It may even be worth upgrading to a coach if enough people are making the same journey.
  4. Music
    It’s not just the first dance that you should consider. If you’re being announced as a newly married couple, you’ll need an entrance song too. A professional DJ is far better than running a playlist from your own device, and live music is a great option, as long as they’re not doing soundchecks in the middle of the toast.
  5. Entertainment and activities
    While you may not immediately associate a wedding with a bounce house, if there are a lot of children attending your wedding it’s a great way to keep them occupied for hours. And once they’ve gone to bed, plenty of adults will want a turn too!
  6. Seating plan
    This can be an agonizing task with family feuds or ex-partners to consider. Once you’ve got it right, consider including an interesting mystery fact about someone at the table on the name cards as an icebreaker - it will get people talking, trying to guess who it is.
  7. Venue decoration
    Table centerpieces, chair covers matching the color scheme and beautiful flowers are standard at most weddings, but a balloon wall with the initials of the married couple could make a fun, unique feature.
  8. Favors
    Little thank you gifts for guests are a tradition that doesn't seem to be dying off. Modern trends seem to be veering toward handmade goodies, so think ahead about what you might offer.
  9. Weather contingencies
    A freak wind can totally ruin an outdoor event! While that may be something you can’t plan for, having heat lamps or cozy wraps in case of a sudden evening chill can turn out to be a very thoughtful touch.

Part 3: Buildup

Prepare the toasts

The average wedding speech is around 5 minutes, but with a father of the bride, groom, bride, maid of honor, and best man to get through, it can drag on much longer. These can be either the most or least enjoyable part of the reception party for guests, so prep each person and make sure nobody steals the show.

Avoid wedding specific sales

As you’ll probably have noticed, putting the word ‘wedding’ in front of anything adds a few zeros to the price tag. If there’s a while to go before your wedding, buy things as you go and don’t worry about where you get things from as long as they fit your theme.

Prep the photographer

A good photographer will look to build a shot checklist with you, marking down all the essential images you want in your album and the tone you’re going for. This will probably have the ceremony covered, but it’s worth keeping them on for at least the first section of the party too to capture people in more natural poses. Make sure they’re well fed and watered, along with the rest of the onsite service providers.

Create a timeline

Once you know how you want the party to pan out, give everyone involved a copy of the schedule. From the people delivering the cake to the live band to the catering team, if each vendor understands the snowball effect of them missing a deadline, the less likely they’ll be to do so.

Do any DIY bits in advance

Writing personalized table name cards is a nice touch that your guests will appreciate, but don’t leave yourself furiously scribbling down names on the day!

Practice your first dance

This is a chance to spend a few precious moments in the arms of your beloved partner. Even if you were born with two left feet, anyone can learn a few simple steps to help you sway along to your special song.

Part 4: On the day

  1. Don’t visit the venue in advance
    Even if you have time to do so. They may be in the middle of last-minute prep and it’ll cause them (and you) unnecessary friction.
  2. Make time for every guest
    You don’t need a formal ‘receiving line’ but you should be available to those who have taken the time out of their lives to witness your marriage.
  3. Make time for your partner
    Some couples barely see each other on their wedding day! This is the first day of the rest of your life so enjoy it together.
  4. Pace your drinking
    With the tension lifted, it’s tempting to drink champagne and whatever else is around. Stay sensible and aim for a 1:1 ratio of soft and alcoholic drinks.
  5. Place a guestbook on the gift table
    Put something out for people to leave messages, but don't be tempted to read it. Save that for a few weeks later when you're reflecting on your event.
  6. Depart in style
    While it may be hard to say goodbye to a party that’s taken so much of your attention, make sure you’re not the last one to leave!

Part 5: Once it’s over

Send a quick thank you note

You’ll want to follow up with professional photos from your event and personalized thank you notes (with mentions of any gifts). But that can wait until after your honeymoon. A note via social media or by text will be well received, and you may get some photos in response giving you an alternative perspective from those who enjoyed your event.

Arrange collection from the venue

Leftover wine, table decorations, and any lost coats or keys all need to be collected from the venue following your reception. If it’s not practical for you to do so, ask a family member to help out. However, try and do it yourself if you can. It’s a nice opportunity to personally thank the people who made your special day happen.

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