How to Host a Memorable Wedding Cocktail Reception

Friends hosting a memorable wedding cocktail reception

If you have a lot of friends or a huge family, there’s a good chance you’ve been to your fair share of weddings over the years.

And let’s be brutally honest - some were “meh”. Some were over the top. And some captured the essence of the couple so well that they were beyond perfect.

We’ve attended receptions on beaches and weddings in barns. We’ve sipped champagne at lavish parties in country clubs and we’ve tossed back beers at wedding cocktail hours in backyards. We’ve danced to 30-piece bands, and we’ve fist-pumped to bass-pumping DJs.

We’ve even been to a few weddings where the only source of music was an iPhone hooked up to a speaker (and had a blast!).

Some of our favorite wedding receptions weren’t even traditional wedding receptions--they were cocktail hours. That’s probably why so many brides are doing away with the sit-down dinner and throwing a cocktail reception instead. We don’t know about you, but we LOVE the idea!

If you pull it off right, a cocktail hour can be just as fun (and beautiful) as a classic-style wedding. But it definitely takes some work. Let us show you how to host a memorable cocktail reception!


Pick a Fabulous Wedding Venue

Cocktail receptions are anything but traditional. Different types of food are set up in stations around the room. Waiters and waitresses pass hors d’oeuvres. There’s no need to wait in a buffet line or wait for your sit-down dinner to be served.

Related: Wedding Buffet Menus

At a cocktail reception, guests can help themselves as they please. And that can make your wedding feel like a festive night out.

You know what else is great about it? There’s no need to create assigned seating charts (phew!)

That means you won’t have to stress about what table to seat your boss at. You won’t have to strategically keep your cousin that no one talks to anymore three tables away from the rest of the family. And those single friends that are attending alone? They won’t have to feel like outcasts all purposefully placed together at the same table in the corner.

With fewer tables in the room, you can also fit more people into small spaces. Instead of having to rent a ballroom or catering hall, you can choose from a wide variety of non-traditional wedding venues.

Consider spaces such as art galleries, museums, and historical sites. Want to impress your guests with the location alone? Fine restaurants and luxury hotels are also great options!

Just make sure that your event feels elegant. You don’t want it to feel like a night out at the local bar.

Take it up a notch with Glam Wedding Gloves!

Provide Comfy Seating (But Leave Room for Mingling)

The very concept of the cocktail party encourages mingling among guests. Without a sit-down dinner or assigned tables, people can walk around, meet each other, and enjoy a relaxed atmosphere.

You don’t need to assign a seat for every single guest. But, you do want to have seating available – no one wants to stand the whole time. Do you think grandma and grandpa want to lean on a cocktail table all night? Probably not.

In this format, it’s easy to provide different seating options. Set up a few lounge areas with couches or comfortable chairs. You should also include high-top bar tables with stools.

Just make sure to arrange the room in a way that allows people to move about. Have enough chairs and tables for at least 75% of your guests to sit at the same time, but don’t overcrowd the space with unnecessary seating.

Speaking of hosting ... practice makes perfect! Read 7 Expert Tips for Hosting a Successful Wedding Rehearsal!

Choose an Amazing Menu

From passed hors d‘oeuvres to food stations, the cocktail-style wedding format allows you to get extra creative with your menu. Decide if you want food trays to circulate all night or only in the beginning.

Just because you’re not serving a full meal doesn’t mean your guests should go home hungry. You should still have plenty of food to feed everyone, especially if you’re having an open bar!

Whatever you decide to serve, make sure your guests can enjoy it while standing at a cocktail table. The last thing you want is for your bridesmaid to spill food on her dress!

Ask your caterer for menu suggestions, and be sure to include vegetarian or vegan options for guests who don’t eat meat. You don’t need to go crazy with gluten-free or raw options to satisfy everyone on a special diet. But meatless dishes are an absolute must!

Provide Your Guests with Activities

Without having an assigned table where they can chat with relatives all night, some of your guests might not know how to occupy themselves. (There’s always a few in every bunch!) To keep them entertained, think about setting up some activities to keep them busy.

Provide a guest book for everyone to write in. That will at least give your guests the excuse to walk across the room and spend a few moments writing a little note.

If you have an informal outdoor wedding, set up lawn games such as a ring toss, croquet or bocce ball. If your reception is indoors, think about setting up a photo booth or creating fun table games. Bride and groom trivia anyone?

And if you know that your friends and family want to dance the night away, get the music going as early as possible.

Having activities is always a good idea, just make sure they reflect the bride and groom. You want your wedding to represent your personal style!

Dancing at a wedding cocktail reception

Don't forget to get gifts for your groomsmen! Beyond the Flask: Groomsmen Gifts for 2020

Great Music is Essential for Memorable Cocktail Receptions

If you want your guests to dance and have fun, you’re going to need some music. Customize a playlist with your band or DJ beforehand, so they play the songs you love (and avoid the ones you don’t).

No room for a dance floor?

That’s okay. Even in a small space, the right music can set the tone for the entire night.

Planning a backyard reception? Check this out:
7 Backyard Wedding Ideas for an Unforgettable Night

Timing is Everything

You want your wedding to flow smoothly, so be strategic in how you schedule your reception. Make sure food is passed as soon as people start to show up and give them a little bit of time to chat before you start pumping music through the speakers.

It’s also a good idea to have a lull in food service so you have time for wedding speeches and first dances. And though it can be tempting to bring out a dessert table right away, don’t serve sweets until the night is wrapping up – you don’t want people to leave early!

Don’t forget to carve out some time for traditional elements like cake cutting and bouquet tossing. The cocktail format may be a bit more informal, but it should still feel like a wedding!

For more wedding inspiration and ideas, check out our Bridesmaids Buzz blog!


More and more couples are opting for cocktail wedding receptions over traditional dinners. They’re easy to pull off, and they can save you a big chunk of money (put it toward your honeymoon or wedding dress instead!).

Find a fabulous venue. Serve amazing food. Set up the space with comfy chairs and seating areas. A cocktail wedding party encourages mixing and mingling in a way that a traditional reception can’t.

But if you’re going to have one, there’s one thing you absolutely must do:

Let your guests know ahead of time.

Not everyone is familiar with the cocktail-style reception format. Inform your guests beforehand so they know what to expect.

You’re bound to have some people milling around looking for their place cards and table number. You’ll probably get some side-eye from your stuffy aunt or an in-law that thinks your format is totally uncouth.

But if you do it right, your friends and family will realize that they’re in for a night to remember!

You May Also Be Interested In...

11 Must-Book Nashville Wedding Venues
11 Best Nashville Wedding Venues

Whether you’re a local to Nashville or this is a destination wedding, there’s no shortage of full-service historic venues and sleek modern spots. These 11 venues are perfect for indoor or outdoor ceremonies and all

continue reading