Photo: Gerber + Scarpelli Weddings
No matter how many weddings we attend, we’re always amazed at how creative brides and grooms are at making theirs their own.
We’ve attended receptions on beaches with reggae bands and in barns with country singers.
We’ve sipped champagne at lavish parties in country clubs and tossed back beers at backyard wedding cocktail hours.
We’ve danced to 30-piece bands and fist-pumped to bass-pumping DJs Jersey Shore style.
Whatever type of wedding reception you decide to throw, you’ll need to serve your guests some food. You can go the traditional route of hosting a cocktail hour followed by a sit-down dinner reception. You can put out a massive buffet with endless options to choose from.
Or, you can choose a more unconventional route and throw a wedding cocktail reception instead.
If you pull it off right, a cocktail hour reception can be as beautiful and even more fun than a classic-style wedding. It’s also super easy to do!
Here’s how to turn a classic cocktail hour into a memorable cocktail reception that lasts all night!
Pick a Fabulous Venue
Cocktail receptions are a cool, modern way to feed your family and friends yet create a party-like atmosphere from beginning to end.
Your guests can mix and mingle with a combo of food stations set up around the room and wait staff passing trays of hors d’oeuvres. And they can do that without ever having to wait in a buffet line or wait for their sit-down dinner to be served.
At a cocktail reception, guests can help themselves to food as they please, making your wedding feel like a festive night out.
With cocktail tables instead of big round dinner tables, you can also fit more people into small spaces. Instead of a ballroom or catering hall rental, you can choose from a wide variety of non-traditional wedding venues.
It doesn’t make a difference whether you’re hiring a wedding planner or doing the wedding planning yourself. You should still consider spaces such as art galleries, museums, and historical sites.
Want to impress your guests with the location alone?
Fine restaurants, luxury hotels, and boats on the water are also great options!
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 create an assigned seating chart. Yet, you do want enough seating available so everyone on your guest list can sit comfortably when they need or want to.
In a cocktail reception format, it’s easy to provide different seating options. Set up a few lounge areas with couches or comfortable chairs. Set up a few high-top round tables with stools. Stage seating areas throughout the space to allow guests to mingle yet still sit and relax in between dining and dancing.
Just be 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.
Still considering dress codes for your big day? Learn more about what black tie wedding attire is (& what it means for your guests’ outfits)!
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.
You don’t have to serve a full meal in one sitting. Instead, you can provide your guests with lots of tasty bite options to enjoy throughout the celebration. You can offer bite-sized appetizers, fancy sliders, mini tacos, sushi, charcuterie, a raw bar filled with seafood ... the options are endless!
Are you planning on having an open bar? If so, consider adding a few extra options or an extra station so your guests can fill their tummies before your bartenders start serving copious amounts of beer, wine, and signature cocktails!
Not sure what to put on the menu?
Ask your caterer for menu suggestions!
They’ll happily provide you with options you may not even have considered. That includes vegetarian or vegan options for guests who don’t eat meat and raw or gluten-free dishes for those on a restricted diet.
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 throughout your reception. To keep them entertained, think about setting up some activities to keep them busy.
Provide a guest book for everyone to write in. That’ll give your guests the excuse to walk across the room and spend a few moments writing you a little note (at the very least!).
If you have an informal outdoor wedding, set up lawn games such as a ring toss, croquet, or bocce ball. Think about setting up a photo booth or creating fun table games if your reception is indoors.
You'll need music if your guests want to dance and have fun! Feel free to customize a playlist with your band or DJ beforehand. That way, they play the songs you love (and avoid the ones you don’t).
No room for a dance floor?
That’s okay, too! Even in a small space where your guests don’t have much room to dance, playing music in the background can set the tone for the entire night.
Related: The Ultimate Wedding Music Guide
Timing is Everything
You want your wedding to flow smoothly, so be strategic in how you schedule your reception.
Have the wait staff begin passing food as soon as people start to show up. Don’t forget to give them some time to chat before you start pumping music through the speakers.
It’s also a good idea to have a lull in food service to create time for speeches, toasts, first dances, and wedding cake cutting.
And though it can be tempting to bring out a dessert table immediately, don’t serve sweets until the night is wrapping up.
Dessert signals the end of the party, so serving it too early could make guests think it’s time to leave, even if there’s still time to celebrate.
More and more couples are opting for cocktail wedding receptions over traditional dinners. They’re easy to pull off, and they encourage mixing and mingling in a way that a traditional reception just can’t.
So find a fabulous venue. Serve amazing food. Set up the space with comfy chairs and seating areas. Play your favorite tunes, and schedule time for traditional wedding elements such as cake cutting and speeches.
Remember that not everyone is familiar with the cocktail-style wedding reception format. So if you decide to throw one, inform your wedding guests beforehand so they know what to expect. Otherwise, you could have guests milling around looking for place cards and table numbers that don’t exist…
A cocktail reception is just one of many options you have when planning for the big day. Pull it off, and it’ll be a wedding experience that your friends and family will remember forever!