10 Tips To Consider Before Planning A Cocktail Wedding Reception

The surprising pros and cons of passing on a seated dinner

Lots of wine in a bucket with overturned wine glasses and the text "10 tips for a cocktail wedding reception"

When you’re planning a huge event for the first time (like, say, a wedding), it’s tempting to throw the rule book out for the sake of ease. Why have a big shindig when you can elope?! Why do a sit down dinner when you can have a cocktail wedding reception?! The only trouble with throwing the rule book out? You’re also throwing out all the hard-earned knowledge and experience that comes with the rule book, and instead learning by the seat of your pants. More and more couples are turning to cocktail wedding receptions each year as an alternative to the traditional sit down reception dinner—for both financial and logistical reasons. But are cocktail wedding receptions really cheaper and easier than a traditional sit down dinner? Well, a few weeks ago we opened up the APW floor to discuss just that. And today we’re compiling all of the most important things you guys have learned (which was a lot). So without further ado, here are ten things to keep in mind when you’re considering hosting a cool laid-back cocktail reception for your wedding:

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What To Know About Cocktail Wedding Receptions

1.tell your guests what to expect

This one is first because it’s simultaneously the least and most obvious (and definitely very important) aspect of planning a cocktail reception: your guests need to know. This can be as simple as stating “cocktail reception and cake to follow” on your invites, but if you know a lot of people prone to getting hangry, you may want to gently remind them that they won’t be getting dinner at your reception. As someone who is definitely prone to getting hangry, I thank you.

2. app stations are a good idea

So maybe it sounds like having servers carry around trays of delicious food is a good idea, but if the trays of food are the ONLY food at your party, then it… might not work out. Basically whenever a tray is presented the server will probably be immediately besieged by guests who are looking for food, and most of your appetizers will never make it much further than the kitchen door. Setting up app stations allows guests to get food as they please.

3. mix up your seating options

You’ll want to have a mixture of hi-top cocktail style tables and regular tables and chairs. Generally speaking, grandparents will almost always want to sit and your friends will pretty much always be cool with standing, but you never know for sure (also: heels). But it’s important to consider mobility issues/comfort requirements beyond those of your elderly guests (which can be accomplished by including a line on the RSVP requesting exactly that information). In any case, make sure there is enough seating for guests to rotate through. Even twenty-somethings get tired feet.

4. realize you might not actually save money

Adequately feeding a crowd is never cheap, and this is across the board. As a handful of APW readers revealed, it turns out that heavy apps could cost twice as much as a seated dinner, depending on where and when you’re getting married. One big price point? You’ll probably have to supply everything the caterers would usually bring—think linens, napkins, and so on—and that can add up quickly.

5. consider a non-traditional start time

A 2pm reception will tell people that they should plan to have lunch before arriving, eat a few snacks while there, and that they’ll be out in plenty of time for dinner. Hosting your reception at 7pm gives people the option to have a light dinner ahead of time without stuffing themselves, since they can count on appetizers and cake at the party. Anytime between 4 and 6 enters the fuzzy area: some people really do eat dinner at 5pm (I’m one of them), and not offering dinner during that time span will probably ruffle feathers.

6. Make sure you have a back-up plan

Apps go super, super quickly, especially when they’re mega delicious. It might be a good idea to have a back-up plan (tip: pizza is almost always a crowd pleaser). You may not end up needing to activate your backup plan, but if you know someone who is willing to spring for some slices (or if you yourself are), it’ll be good to have that information ahead of time for your own sanity.

7. Your guests might get bored

The biggest danger with a cocktail reception is that it’s really easy for it to feel like a cocktail hour that just… never ends. This doesn’t mean you need to have event after event after event to keep everyone happy, but it might be a good idea to have the reception schedule clearly displayed so people can see it and refer back if they forget when something is about to happen. A great DJ will also be on top of this.

8. Pro: your reception will be super intimate

If you’re into actually being able to speak to most of your wedding guests for more than a few minutes, a cocktail reception is ideal. Your guests won’t be spread out around a huge room waiting for their dinner—it’s very likely you’ll all be milling around the same space, hanging at app stations, and generally getting a lot of time to catch up with friends you haven’t seen in decades and hug the family members you really want to squeeze.

9. your booze costs will probably be low

This is another schedule dependent point, but super relevant. If you’re hosting a mid-afternoon cocktail reception, people are less likely to be drinking as much as they would for as long as they would at a full-day event or a late evening party.

10. make sure you get to eat 

Appetizers tend to fly, and you might be surprised to find that after you’ve greeted everyone who wants to speak with you and taken photos with your photographer that there’s not a whole lot left for you to choose from… if anything. Make sure there’s a coordinator/planner/stage manager or a friend who can put aside plates for the two of you. And speaking from experience: bonus points will be handed out if someone makes sure there’s a plate for the photographer too (because they go wherever you go, which means that they miss out on whatever food offerings you miss out on).

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