What’s the Real Deal with Cocktail Receptions?

Two Cents: How do we entertain our guests without a seated dinner?

How To Plan A Cocktail Wedding Reception?


Q: Hi there!

We are getting married in the DC area—which is notoriously super expensive. To that end, we are considering doing a heavy hors d’oeuvres and cocktail wedding reception to try to bring cost down a bit and also do something fun and fancy. As far as food goes, I’m totally wed to this idea. The part that still gives me pause is the flow—where will people put their purses? How will they know when to listen to toasts and watch the first dance? Will they get tired of the continual movement? What if people want to sit? Do we need seats for all?

I have a hard time visualizing this. Does anyone have experience going to a cocktail—or gala-style— wedding reception and can offer some details to help me understand what it would feel like and how it would flow?


LET’S DO THIS, APW HIVEMIND! Who has planned a cocktail-only wedding reception? Did it run smoothly? Do you have any tips for keeping guests happy and fed? what about chairs?

If you want the APW community’s two cents, send it to QUESTIONS AT APRACTICALWEDDING DOT COM, and we’ll do our best to crowdsource you some answers!

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  • Sarah E

    We did a very casual drinks-and-desserts reception. We had seats available for everyone, and only seating-height tables (rather than standing-height), as that’s what our venue provided. It seemed like by the end of the night, nearly everyone wanted a seat to chat in groups, though people continued to get up and help themselves to drinks and desserts.

    People listened to my thank-you speech because I had a mic and stood on a chair, but I imagine as long as you have a microphone and start “Good evening, everyone,” or something, they’ll get the picture. And you, a friend, or a DJ can introduce the first dance in the same fashion.

  • Glenys

    I’ve been to 3 hors-d’oeuvres only receptions — 2 were small (30 or so people), morning, wedding & reception at the same location (church & state park), under 2 hours total affairs. I think the 3rd is more in line with what you’re describing: the couple had rented a historic house, and set up food stations in a couple of rooms (I think one was probably a ballroom and the other a large parlor, in late 1800’s parlance). There were bar tables with bar stools set up in those rooms, and the other open rooms had sofas or chairs in them. Not quite enough seating for everyone to sit at once, but it was manageable. The only issue I had was that the “main events” (introductions/toasts, first dance, cake cutting) were held in one of the rooms, and not everyone could fit. So I missed seeing these things.

  • SuperDaintyKate

    I expect you will get a ton of great answers here– I had a similar dilemma prior to our wedding and got lots of help at Happy Hour.

    We effectively had a cocktail reception, although we served a full dinner. We had 200 people, and didn’t have enough seating for everyone. We also had a space that had everyone spread between three rooms. I was also stressed about the same questions you have.

    Communication is key. I used our wedding website to oversell that people should wear comfortable shoes and limit what they carry because we wouldn’t have enough seats for everyone. We provided a fair bit of seating, but not a place where people could park for hours. And our venue had a few rolling racks with hangers. They were at the front. People left their coats there, I think. Or they didn’t bring them. In the end, people were pleasantly surprised that we provided more than they expected.

    RE: Cues and Flow – Music and MCs are the key for this. Turn off the music, get some MCs on stage to say “attention”, and people figure it out. This is all we did, and even with people spread between three different rooms, doing different things, people figured out to meander into the first room for speeches/the first dance/our entrance. (To be honest, I think a lot of people missed our “pinata breaking” (in lieu of a cake cutting), but I think that’s typical when you schedule it later into the the night… and the important people (the kids!) were all there.) I also think that our DOC probably played a role suggesting people to move into the other room for speeches/introducing bride and groom/etc. If you have a wedding stage manager of some sort, they should be able to help with this. In your timeline, just include a note of who is supposed to tell people to move along, and when.

    When I was planning, I was really afraid of how people would react to the informal format. In particular, I wound up on some less friendly websites that blatantly shamed people for not providing seating for all the guests. But be assured that it works. More informal, cocktail style receptions are a ton of fun. They encourage people to mix with one another, and can lead to a festive, joyful event, full of life and fun. And let’s be real- most of your guests will be grown ups, and have likely attended more cocktail parties in their lives than sit-down formal affairs. They will get the cues and sort out what’s happening for themselves, leaving you free to party.

    • Lulu

      Came here to say something very similar about communication, and to affirm that cocktail receptions are hella fun. I worried nobody read the website so tried to spread information by word of mouth too. And I asked our stage manager to pay special attention to aunts and uncles (our oldest guests) and pregnant ladies. We also alluded to key timeline moments (“join us inside for toasts at 8:00”) in our programs.

    • i think we’ve been on the same websites that “seat-shame”! =) another reason why i love APW.

  • Lori

    We had a cocktail style reception, although we served a dinner quantity of food. I was nervous going into it since I had never been to a wedding that looked like that before either, but we loved the way the evening flowed in the end! It gave the whole event an intimate feeling and allowed the mingling and greeting to happen naturally throughout the evening. We ended up providing seating at smaller tables for ~70% of guests and had a lot of high tables scattered around the venue where guests could perch while they ate. I’m sure it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but there were no major problems during the event. We did reserve two tables of seating at the front of the action for our elderly relatives and their family so that they’d have a guaranteed place to sit.

    We had our DJ/Emcee announce the toasts, first dance, cake cutting, etc, and everyone gathered around to participate. This was not an issue at all and we liked the mobility it gave our guests and the pace it created to the evening.

    I will say that I don’t think we saved a significant amount of money over a seated dinner (but that wasn’t our goal).

    • LadyTavs

      I just want to give you a gold start for reserving a table for elderly guests. That’s always been my concern, and you found a great way to make sure they were taken care of!

      • A.

        But please also try to remember that not only elderly people need seats! (Not directed to you in particular, but anyone who may read this) You never know what someone is going through and why standing for hours might not be good for them, even if they seem and look completely fine.

        As an example, my mom used to have serious knee degeneration, from age 35-40, even though she looked like the picture of health and fitness. She would have needed a seat the entire time and would have been dismayed if there had only been seats for people 65+. Invisible disabilities can be very, very difficult.

        This might be a know your people thing (though also remember that not everyone is comfortable sharing), but just something to keep in mind!

        • Brigid

          A good point! On our online RSVP, we had a line for “Please tell us about any disabilities, especially mobility-related, so that we can offer assistance.” And so people let us know about needing a wheelchair ramp, and that the kid needs a high chair, and that they’re deathly allergic to bell peppers.

    • TeaforTwo

      I think this cost piece is so important to tell people. We had a non-dinner reception (afternoon tea) and it wasn’t much cheaper than a dinner would have been. (Depending on the dinner, I guess.)

      What I hadn’t anticipated was that half of our catering bill would be rentals. So whether we were serving dinner or tea, we still needed cutlery, plates, glasses, tables, linens, and waitstaff.

      For us it wasn’t about the money, either – an afternoon wedding was just more our style – but it’s important to keep that in mind.

      • Eenie

        Tell people who are planning weddings…I hope nobody told you it was cheap to do it that way!

        • TeaforTwo

          Yes, when I said it was important to tell people, I just meant other people planning their own weddings – not the guests! (yikes!)

          Initially we thought it might be a bit cheaper, but by the time we found it wouldn’t be, we were really attached to the wedding we’d envisioned, and it felt much more like “us” than a banquet hall dinner would have.

          I think there are a few caveats:

          1. It probably did save us about $1-2K in catering costs. Which didn’t seem like much given the scale of the cost of the wedding (i.e. it was still really expensive!) but in non-wedding real life terms, it’s still a lot of money.

          2. That type of food (afternoon tea for me, but appetizers for other people) is much easier to make in advance if you are trying to self-cater your wedding, which could save even more money.

          3. One place we probably did save money was on alcohol. Obviously this may differ depending on your crowd, but because we had a daytime wedding, I think a lot of our guests drank less than they would have in a more traditional evening dinner/dancing format. We estimated one drink per drinker per hour, and had nearly half of that leftover. (This was amazing, by the way. Our venue was BYOB with no corkage fee, so we used that as an excuse to serve pretty good wine, and then we spent the rest of the year drinking champagne at the slightest provocation.)

          • ML

            Yeah! I was so surprised by this while planning our wedding. It makes sense when you think of it as setting up a full-service restaurant in the middle of the woods, but now I tell all my budget-conscious wedding-planning friends that renting out a restaurant is cheaper and less hassle than almost anything except hardcore DIY/potluck dinners. Decor, tables, chairs, linens, waitstaff, glasses, cutlery… luckily our wonderful caterer coordinated all of this, but it was a lot of moving pieces.

          • emmers

            Yes! full service venues are the best!

          • MDBethann

            We had our reception in a private room (well, floor, actually) at a microbrewery with fantastic food. Other than dropping off the favors/seating cards/centerpieces which were small potted plants for each guest, we really had NO decorating or other logistical hassles because it was a restaurant and they had EVERYTHING and it was nice and fancy. Heck, they even had candle centerpieces for us. I would use them again for a party or banquet in a heartbeat!

  • norawallis

    Like other commenters, we also had a cocktail-style reception – full dinner (fajitas, nothing that required a knife and fork) but fewer seats than guests (and a number of high-top tables to fill out the need to rest a plate on something). I heard no complaints, though that would’ve been pretty rude, and a lot of people indicated they really liked it.

    What sold me on it was how confident my caterer and venue were about the set-up – they helped me visualize it. I also asked a couple of friends to be on the lookout for older guests who didn’t have a place to sit.

  • KitBee

    I’ve never been to an hors-d’oeuvres/cocktail-only reception, but it sounds like a great idea! Appetizers are totally the best food anyway. :) As for event flow (i.e., letting people know when it’s time for toasts/first dance/etc.), I feel like all you need is someone willing to announce these events, and perhaps a microphone. I do agree with your concern about seating, though. Personally, if I’m at a wedding reception that lasts more than an hour, I’m going to want to sit at some point! But as other commenters have mentioned, you probably don’t need to have chairs for 100% of the guests…maybe just 70% or something.

  • CW

    I’ve been to weddings like this, and helped organize this type of non-wedding event. Definitely have a mic and consider having someone “emcee”- to tell people what is expected, along the lines of “can I have everyone’s attention, toasts will begin in a moment.” Also, tell your caterers about these times/moments. They can help/stop the flow of food, ensure that drinks are passed before any toasts, etc. Consider having some chair available for any elderly guests or if feet hurt. If you put in your invitation that it’s a cocktail reception, as a potential guest, I would assume that I would keep my purse with me. I might look around the space for a coat check or stash it under a chair if I wanted to dance. High-top tables are great for perching/temporarily holding purses, shawls, etc. With communication, I think it’ll be great and your guests will love it because it’s your wedding!

    • kate

      yep, seconding advice to have someone “emcee” & you could also post a schedule of sorts somewhere that just states times for the big moments like the first dance – not that anybody will likely remember/be watching for the clock to hit 7:30pm or anything, but it would help everyone know to expect announcements on those things.

      for seating, i’m sure there’s a general rule somewhere as to the proportion of guests to seats, but my experience has been you definitely don’t need enough for everyone. earlier in the night mostly older family will sit for things like speeches, but as the night wears on and people start to trickle out there are plenty of open seats for breaks from the dance floor and no one minds mingling before that. in fact, i sort of enjoy not being stuck at a table with the same people for an hour! high tops are a great in between too – easy to gather and set down your drink/bag but takes up a lot less room than more seating.

      i think it comes down to, set expectations (clearly state it’s a cocktail reception), provide basics for comfort (easy access to the booze and food, some seating, taking note if you’ve got any older/disabled guests who definitely need access to seats), and don’t overthink it – people will easily figure out how to enjoy themselves.

  • pinkjennio

    I didn’t host one, but I attended one! I think it’s a totally do-able idea (and as a fellow DC-person, I think you’re being so smart). The reception I attended did a few things that I would caution you to avoid:

    1. The invitation said “dinner and dancing to follow”. The reception was in a different location, and when we arrived, we found out it was only hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. Neither my husband or I had eaten dinner before the 5:30 ceremony, so we were pretty hungry. They also only had sushi, which seemed like a strange choice since many of the guests flat out refused to eat it, and they ran out of food completely about 1 hour in. [The couple was not Japanese, but they just really loved sushi.] Fortunately we were on a main street in town, so one of our friends snuck out and picked up Five Guys burgers for a bunch of us and we ate them very sneakily outside (I know it’s terrible but we really had no choice.) So definitely make it clear that it’s hors d’oeuvres and cocktails!

    2. They didn’t have enough seating. There were about 60-80 people at the wedding, and there were seats for about 25. I guess they assumed everyone would be dancing? Towards the end of the night, I just wanted a place to sit and rest for a minute, and to chat with other guests. I don’t think you need a seat for very single guest, but their ratio was much too low.

    As far as your other concerns, people will put purses on tables, chairs, etc. They’ll figure it out. Lots of venues also have coat racks that you can use. And as long as you have a microphone, you can easily get their attention for toasts, dances, etc.

    • Not Sarah

      “So definitely make it clear that it’s hors d’oeuvres and cocktails!”

      This is SO key!

  • carolynprobably

    Nothing of substance to add, except that I fully support calling this setup a GALA STYLE RECEPTION henceforth.

  • Amber Kindal

    I was a bridesmaid in a cocktail reception wedding. It was a nightmare for me because I didn’t get enough food as part of the bridal party. Due to photos & duties I missed out on the little food that was available, so the open-bar really took a hit. I do however think it could be done much better. Here are my tips:
    1) Have a mix of high-tops and low-tops. The wedding I attended had enough seats for everyone, which made it feel like we should grab a seat – but then people stuck at their tables and didn’t do the “cocktail mingle” that the bride had hoped for. Also, it gave the impression more food would be coming .. but it never came.
    2) Have the wedding late enough that people can reasonably get dinner beforehand. Having a 5:30 wedding says “I’m going to feed you” – a 7:30 wedding says “come fed” – — it also doesn’t hurt to over-state that you aren’t doing dinner.
    3) Mix your foods. Have some heavy foods (like mini burgers or pretzels) that can fill someone up who needs the food for soaking up alcohol purposes. A plate of hummus and celery doesn’t really help keep people under control.

  • Amy March

    I’ve been to a couple, really liked one and really did not like the other.

    What worked? Shorter timeline- if you aren’t serving a sit down meal, your reception might not need to run from 5-11. Lots of seating in different configurations. I’m not sure if there was actually room for everyone to sit down at the same time, but between regular tables, high tables, benches by the fire pit, and couches it was always possible to find a seat. Tons of bar options- lots of waiters collecting all those dirty small plates and empty glasses that tend to pile up. Coat check.

    What didn’t? Having traditional table seating for 60% of the guests in the main room and leaving everyone else to stand in overflow space. Toasts. They went on much too long. If everyone is going to be standing around for them I think they need to be kept super short and sweet. Lots of traditional elements- if you are making a big deal of cutting the cake, and first dances, and your attendants dancing, and tossing the boquet, I don’t want to be left out of that in another room.

    I basically think of them like a fancy cocktail party- the ones where I can dance, drink, and sit when I’m tired are great. If I feel like I’m being herded round a room, chasing an elusive waiter for a snack, not such a fan.

    • TeaforTwo

      This is a good point about dishes: if you are having a sit down dinner, each guest will only need one wine glass and one plate. (One plate per course, I guess.)

      If you are having a cocktail reception, people will eat the food on their tiny plate, then leave the plate somewhere while they head off to the washroom/dancing/smoking/hugging Great Aunt Matilda etc. and then will need another tiny plate for food later on. (Same for glassware.) So remember to rent lots of dishes, especially if there’s no dishwasher on site!

  • Alexandra

    You will probably not save money. We wanted to do this, and realized that adequately feeding a crowd just isn’t cheap no matter how you slice it. Appetizers are wonderful, but in many cases they actually require more work to make and serve. It does depend on how you choose to do them, but if you go with passed apps or appetizer stations, it will be the equivalent (or more) of serving a buffet or plated dinner. I would say do one or the other. People who serve heavy apps and then dinner wind up wasting a lot of food at dinner, because everybody fills up on appetizers. We just had bowls of chips and salsa on tables to tide people over while they waited for dinner.

    As for seating–doesn’t matter. Will totally work. You’ll just have a less formal feeling. In my opinion, it’s actually more fun.

    • eating words

      I came in to say some the same thing. We thought about doing this, because I loved the idea, but since we wanted the appetizers/tapas to be substantial enough to count as dinner, it turned out that it wouldn’t save us any money.

      • jspe

        we also found the same thing in DC, for our sized party.

      • Clevegal

        Same in Cleveland…which like…I know. Cleveland! But yeah, buyout of a chic, downtown restaurant for a three-course meal with wine and 4 hours of open bar was WAY cheaper than any appetizer/food station option we found. Even in flyover country ;-)

        • Alex Eichler

          What were your numbers, if you don’t mind?

    • MABie

      I really wanted to do this for our wedding, but it was WAY more expensive than a seated dinner. We were looking at the “food station” model, and food stations are expensive as hell. You have to have a chef at every station, which costs quite a bit, and then you pay more than you think you would per head for the food. We’re in Atlanta, and when we looked at doing this, it was usually 250-300/hour for the chef, plus $9-20 per person for the food…at each station. And you’d need like 4 stations to actually fill people up. I remember that it was going to cost us about twice as much to do this than it is going to cost to do a seated dinner.

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      • Jordan Kennedy

        Same! We wanted to do stations and our three course meal [with prime rib and chicken milanese] ended up being less expensive than the pasta, burger, and wings stations we originally wanted to do.

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      • I guess this depends on the venue. If you rent out a venue that doesn’t offer any services and comes with a kitchen (ie, community center, church etc) than it would be way cheaper than a seated dinner. You don’t need serving staff, the caterer or whomever just dumps the food at the 4 stations and people fend for themselves.

    • emmers

      I think it depends on when you eat as to whether or not you save money. Our wedding was not at a meal time (2pm), so that lent itself to lighter food. We still fed people, so it still costed, but it was definitely cheaper than a formal dinner.

  • TeaforTwo

    I think this is the most fun kind of wedding! Too often, sit-down dinners take venues foreeeeever to serve, and then you’re stuck at your table for the whole thing. So if there are people at the wedding you aren’t seated with, you don’t get to see them until the dancing starts, at which point it’s often too loud to have a real conversation. The cocktail hour is always my favourite part, so an all-cocktail hour wedding sounds wonderful.

    If anything, I think that serving a multicourse dinner often interrupts the flow of the wedding, rather than making it smoother. The flow here will be the same as at any other cocktail party you’ve been to. Have an MC with a good mic who can gather people and introduce speeches. Before he/she goes up to the mic, have the caterers take a break from circulating food and turn down the music. Change the lighting if you think it’s appropriate. Have your DOC/stage manager give all the key players (the people involved in the dances, the speechgivers etc.) a tap on the shoulder before the dancing or speeches start. It will be great.

  • elle

    When I was a day of coordinator I did an “apps and dancing” wedding and it didn’t go well so I hope you can learn from their mistakes and make it awesome.
    1) Folks want to sit while they eat. This wedding had 1/3 the tables/chairs than the number of guests and people were not happy about it. Keep an mind, family and older folks are likely to sit down and not get back up… so the idea of people having seats later in the evening probably isn’t going to happen.
    2) They did a buffet of apps and ran out of food. I was left scrambling/arguing with the caterer to find food ANYWHERE, as some people hadn’t had anything to eat by the time they ran out. Make sure you have enough food and/or have the festivities late enough in the evening where it is clear people should eat beforehand.
    3) People were kind of bored. It was like a cocktail hour that never ended… there was nothing really to define different parts of the wedding. By the time dancing rolled around, people were tired from standing around/fighting for food.

    • Amy March

      Yeah I distinguish in my mind between a cocktail style reception, meaning enough food to equal a full meal just served in many many little bites, and essentially a longer cocktail hour when you aren’t serving a full meals worth of food. I think either can work but it’s important to understand which option you’re selecting and plan accordingly. The amount of food, time, and chairs you need is different from 5-11 versus 4-6 etc.

    • Jess

      A good way to address #3 is if there’s a coordinator/announcing friend for cake cutting, first dances, toasts, etc.

  • Lulu

    One of my bigger fears with our cocktail reception was that food wouldn’t circulate sufficiently if we maxed out our guest count and were forced to be solely inside. Despite having lots of stationed food too, that did happen to some extent, not because of any failing of the servers or limitations of the space, but just because people were chatty, thirsty, moving targets who were having a good time. Nobody complained, but an extraordinary number of guests did admit to hangovers the next day, so give some thought to how your bar menu and your food menu might interact. If people aren’t stuck at a table, they’re free to keep hitting the bar, hard!

  • Christina McPants

    I’ve worked several weddings that had heavy apps / cocktails as reception food. You can do this in a few ways – have several heavy app stations (like an awesome one last week that had a dumpling, antipasto and grilled cheese stations) with circulated passed hors d’oerves, just the stations or just the passed apps. Another did only hors d’oeurves, but had the caterers plate and serve them to everyone as they went (so, one course with three or four good sized bites, then another, then another), which still gave the feel of a seated dinner.

    Personally, I’d recommend against only passed apps, because otherwise it turns into hoards surrounding wait staff as they exit the kitchen. And I’d say to do a mixture of cocktail table hi-tops and regular 8-10 person tables, with enough for your expected attendees. Maybe aim for enough chairs for 60% of guests to allow circulation? (So, tall and short tables for 100%, chairs for 60%) Grandma will always want to sit and your college friends are fine standing around the table.

    And yes, please make sure you tell your guests. “Cocktail reception and cake to follow” is just fine.

    • Jess

      This is exactly what I would recommend, right down to mainly stations and seating.

      I like to stand but if I’m dressed in heels, I’d probably want to sit down at some point!

  • anony-sara

    I would strongly recommend food stations in addition to (or instead of ) waiters passing hors d’oeuvres… I was at a cocktail-style reception where guests were essentially mobbing the waiters as they walked out because there was so little food being passed at once, so having a table with some cheese and crackers to fill up on would have really helped.

    Otherwise, a lot of high tables to sit your drinks on and a coat check took care of most of the guest comfort issues really well, and I think reserving some seats for older relatives is a great idea.

  • Lindsay E.

    I’m so glad to see this post! Our wedding is next weekend, and we planned to do this kind of reception as well – although we are calling it “small plates” because we want people to eat as much as if they’ve had dinner, we just didn’t want to narrow down our choices. I’d been worried about not having enough seats for everyone – we’ll have 100 guests, and there will be about 60 seats at tables inside the main room, then another 20-25 more on sofas and chairs around the main room, and then about 25 outside near the bar on the patio. Plus several high tops scattered around. Reading the comments have given me so much peace that our guests will have fun and the seating will be ok. Thanks for posting this question!!

  • ZOO

    We did an hors d’oeuvres and drinks reception, and it was great! A couple tips:
    – Plan the wedding and reception between meal times, so folks aren’t hangry when they get there or tempted to leave early to get “real food.” Having the ceremony and reception at the same venue will help. Our ceremony started at 1:00 and the reception ended at 5:00.
    – Have a nice variety of food, so everyone can find something they like.
    – State on the invitation that LIGHT refreshments will follow the ceremony. Even if you’re serving “heavy” hors d’oeuvres, this will help people plan. Better to surprise everyone with too much food than too little.
    – Hire a good DJ. Give them your schedule and tell them they’re in charge of making sure toasts and cake cutting and all that happen on time.

    – Have enough seats that 1/2 to 2/3 of your guests can be seated at any one time, depending on the ages present. More grandparents = more seats.

    And a couple perks you might not have thought of:
    – With no designated dinner time, you can wander and schmooze with people all you want! Grab a slice of cheese and a glass of wine, and go forth to socialize. Your guests will appreciate the freedom to wander instead of being trapped at a table with people they might not know, too.
    – Dinner with your new spouse! After my husband and I left our reception we checked into the hotel, flopped on the bed, and decided that the absolute best-sounding dinner was a burger and a beer. We were still tired, but not partied-till-midnight exhausted.
    – Guests with dietary restrictions can feel more comfortable being picky or not eating at all. Instead of making an entirely separate meal for your vegetarian friends, or whatever restrictions people might have, they can simply pick and choose what to eat. And because you’re serving a snack instead of a meal, they can plan ahead of time to eat a big lunch, stick it out till dinner, or sneak in their own snack.

    Your wedding sounds great! Have fun and eat good (small portioned) food.

    • Eenie

      On the guests with dietary restrictions: labeling stuff or making sure the weight staff is reasonably knowledgeable (or knows who to ask) would be a huge plus. As someone who avoids gluten, I wouldn’t eat apps unless I can clearly see they are gluten free (fruit, veggies, etc.). I may just be more aware of this because it’s my life. At weddings I tend to eat before hand anyways and pack snacks. There was one time I ordered a gluten free dominoes pizza to the reception because the RSVP had a place to check gluten free and then didn’t serve anything gluten free.

  • Elizabeth

    We had our cocktail reception at a *tiny* bar and I worried about the same thing. I shouldn’t have. Word gets around about what is happening really fast. But to be safe, I told my loud friend what we were planning on doing 2 minutes before we did it. People sort of instinctively gathered, watched, then went back about their business. It was super fun! There was plenty of seating in the bar, though. If this was happening in a totally empty space, I would set up a few tables around the perimeter of the room plus a bench or two to give people the option.

  • we’re doing this for our mid-day wedding next April! we’ve always been into the tapas-style eating, which is exactly what our venue specializes in, and we are most interested in mixing and mingling with our guests – and want them to do the same! our reception is 3 hours, and our guest list is about 65 – we’ll do about 80% seating, high-boy tables, and a lounge area. i admit that i’ve been a little nervous about it cuz lots of the wedding boards around these parts vehemently oppose anything that’s not 100% seating, but my venue manager (and many other successful wedding stories – and now this post!) have assured me otherwise.

    i did have a question about invitation wording tho. our reception will be over the lunch hour, and there will be both passed and station style tapas with beer, wine and sangria at the bar – plenty of food for a meal, i believe. we are forgoing traditional cake in lie of a tower of macarons (my favorite!) so no cake-cutting, and there will be no formal dancing. (we’ll have a live guitarist, and there is a dance floor, but if dancing happens it won’t be an official part of the afternoon. I’m sure FH and I will take to the floor for a slow number at some point at least!) i don’t know if “cocktail reception” quite captures the event, so I’ve been toying with “tapas and merriment to follow,” with a blurb about tapas on our website. Thoughts??

    • Amy March

      I think tapas and merriment is fine, or simply “reception to follow.” You don’t need to explain what tapas are or let guests know how, exactly they will be entertained. You’re inviting them to celebrate at a meal time with a meal!

    • DM

      I went to a wedding that was kind of like this (over the top stations at cocktail hour, and a different set of themed stations at dinner), and found it so hard to get sufficient quantities of vegetarian / pescetarian food. I later found out that the bride had servers prepare plates for close friends of hers who didn’t eat meat, but as the +1 for a groomsman who had been hearing about all the amazing stations they were having, it never occurred to anyone to add me to that list.

      Not my favorite wedding.

      • i’m not sure if you actually meant to respond to my post or not, but i would not characterize our reception style as “over the top” or even themed (nor did I think I indicated as much in my post). nevertheless, we will have a number of dietary restrictions among our guests – kosher, vegetarian, vegan – and we have every intention of accommodating them. we will also have a comment section for dietary restrictions when guests RSVP so they have an opportunity to confirm those needs. either way, it’s a “know your group” situation. in your case, i think it should have been ultimately up to your date/groomsman to communicate that on his own RSVP or otherwise to the couple. how else could anyone have known?

        • DM

          Sorry, I did not mean to respond directly. That said, I’ll clarify my comments. This was the only wedding I have had issues with accommodations. A straightforward plated meal or buffet gives everyone the direct catering staff attention to make sure they’re provided for. Stations and passed apps leave guests to fend for themselves and have to track down staff for their special options (which is what the 2 of 300 or so people with special meals had to).

          I attend a good number of fundraisers for work, and I’d say there is a similar dynamic.

          The way to get out of serving a full meal at a wedding is to have ir at a non-meal time, which you are doing! Enough sleepy posting for the night

          • Eenie

            Except I’ve been to a plated dinner that had zero options for gluten free guests even though the RSVP had that as an option. I ordered food out, vs at a small plates /apps event I probably could have scrounged up enough to keep me full until the after party.

    • Brigid

      “tapas and merriment” sounds so appealing! It lets me know to eat a little beforehand, but also that there will be food. Very clear, very charming.

  • jspe

    I’ve been to two of these in DC! At the one I remember more vividly: There were some tables and some high tops with stools. I would say that it was mostly fine in that I had a good time, and we just stood a lot. It was less fine in that my friends and I commandeered two of the high tops and would rotate through the stools so that you could sit and eat, since it was heavy appetizers that needed a fork.

    I remember wishing for a chair. On the other hand – I’m a grownup, I took off my shoes at one point, I left my purse on the floor, and I remember that their food was delicious. And it was a great wedding and we all cried way more than we expected. basically, grownups do what grownups need to do.

    Lastly: we were warned in advance, and I was glad of that.

    For the second one, though, people got rip roaringly drunk. It all started earlier in the day (like 4? 5?) but we didn’t have any food until probably closer to 7:30, and so there wasn’t time to pre-snack. Again, though: we have some funny memories of that night. It was a great wedding. the food was delicious. But I was definitely hungry and drunk by 6pm.

  • Serafina

    I’m getting married in DC as well and was interested in a cocktail reception with heavy hors d’ouveres and unfortunately, it’s not any cheaper than a buffet or a seated dinner. In order to make sure everyone is fed, you will end up ordering more food, and it requires more staff to serve.

    Might I suggest taking a look at different kinds of venues — Stay away from hotels, look for places that let you BYOB (i.e. you supply the alcohol to the caterer — saves thousands upon thousands if you want an open bar.)

    Some friends of mine saved a ton of money on their wedding catering costs by going with a venue that supplied tables, chairs, and other things caterers typically supply with the rental fee. (some ideas of places that do this are the Whitmore House and the Josephine Butler Parks Center.)

    I have been to a wedding with a cocktail style reception that worked well, but in addition to traditional seating, they had couches and chairs set up for people to flop and lounge on when they got footsore from standing/dancing. Without that as an option, I can’t see it working as well.

    • Christina McPants

      JBPC is a great venue! The only concern is that there’s isn’t any elevator, so it’s not particularly accessible.

  • Emily Layman Perkins

    We did this for our wedding in a formal garden in Savannah a few years ago and it absolutely saved us money, and frankly resulted in a much higher quality of food since the caterer wasn’t trying to plate and serve 75 identical plates at the same time and deliver them to tables still hot. People really appreciated the variety of food they had to choose from as well. We had more than enough food for everyone to fill up.

    Probably the biggest cost savings was in the rentals and decor- we didn’t rent big tables or place settings and didn’t have to figure out big center pieces. We used really nice, Eco friendly disposable plates/cups and birch utensils. It was safer since we were outside on cobblestone anyway. We put one green calla lily and a couple of peacock feathers in an Eiffel Tower case on each high top table, along with a few votives. The food and dessert tables had standard white linens from the caterer with a table runner on each that I made and a few votives.

    We set up a few food stations in one area of the venue that continued to serve until 8pm, and had a buffet style dessert table that was open until the wedding ended at 10pm. The ceremony and reception were in the same place so after the ceremony while we were taking family pictures (for only 20 minutes or so), some friends moved the chairs from rows to scattered around the venue. We had probably 50 chairs with about 75 people in attendance. We rented high top tables for people to stand at that we also spread around. After pictures, we came in and did our first dance, then the band started playing and the food tables opened. The only time we interrupted the party was a bit later for cake cutting and a couple of toasts- the band just stopped playing and asked everyone to gather near the cake.

    We had a blast and a ton of our guests said it was the best wedding they’d ever attended. Four years later I still get the random compliment.

  • kingdomphyla

    So, this might not be the right path for everyone, but my (very introverted) husband and I did a mid-afternoon drinks and hors d’oeuvres reception immediately following a 2 pm church ceremony. I tend to think of it as old-fashioned “cake and punch” turned up a notch. This included wine, beer, lemonade, water, coffee, and 4 or 5 Italian hors d’oeuvres served buffet-style. We had a fairly small budget for an expensive area (southern California), and wanted a short, low-key reception. There was no dancing, but we had toasts and cut cake and played the shoe game. Because the reception lasted about 2.5 hours, we made sure we had enough seating, either with small cocktail tables (3-4 people) or large (8-10 people) for everybody. After the reception finished, new husband and I went out for a nice dinner together, and it ended up being a really great way to unwind and gush about all the wonderful parts of the day.

    For us, the mid-afternoon timing was key. Meg probably discussed it in the APW book, but the important part seems to be: (1) Making sure people know what to expect, and (2) Whatever you feed people, make the serving size appropriate for whatever meal typically occurs during your wedding time. People aren’t expecting a full meal at 3 pm in summer. I think we also worded the invitations with something like “Light refreshments immediately following,” so people would know exactly what to expect.

  • chrissyc

    We did an afternoon cocktail reception. We had a mixture of regular tables and cocktail tables, with seating for about 70% of our guests within the ballroom, and more seating outside the ballroom for overflow (this wasn’t ever used, to my knowledge, but I thought it would be nice for people to have the option in case available chairs became an issue).

    Our coordinator had a sweetheart table for my husband and me, but it was unnecessary–we were on our feet for the entire reception. (On that note, I would recommend putting somebody in charge of bringing food to you and your spouse–we never had the chance to go to the food stations!)

    We skipped a lot of traditional elements (cake cutting, bouquet tossing, a DJ–we just used an iPod). Speeches were our only “event”, and so we didn’t need to interrupt people for most of the afternoon. We had speeches immediately after my husband and I arrived to the reception, about 20 minutes after everybody else (which gave us time for more pictures and gave our guests time to settle in and get food and booze before the speeches.) Since we didn’t have a DJ, my dad just grabbed the mic, welcomed everybody, and then started his speech. We kept them short and sweet, and then after that–party time!

    About an hour before the reception ended, the hot appetizers were replaced by fruit, veggies, and cheese. We certainly didn’t want people to be hungry, but we want to provide cues that things were starting to wrap up. Plus, we were getting close to the dinner hour and didn’t want people to settle in for a meal just when the reception was suppose to end.

    Like others have said, communication is really important. We explicitly said “Light refreshments to follow” on our invitations and on the wedding website (and we told key family members and friends to spread the word). Our ceremony started at 12:30 and the reception ended at 5:00 to avoid traditional meal times. We also listed several local restaurants on our wedding website.

    I’m not sure we saved a ton of money doing appetizers instead of a full meal; the projected cost of the full meal came out to be about the same as the appetizers. But I loved how it turned out. As an unexpected bonus, we didn’t have to stress over RSVPs as much (the amount of appetizers for 230 people isn’t that different from the amount for 240 people). It was a relaxed setting (although I have no doubt this style could also be formal, depending on how you do it) and allowed for a lot of mingling. My husband and I weren’t “locked” to our chairs and got to see a lot of people over a short amount of time.

    • ItsyBit

      +1 re: not having to worry about RSVPs as much. That was a huge help for us as well.

  • KJ

    Here was our experience hosting a cocktail style evening reception: We had a small family only (still 30 people) ceremony at 4 pm in my parents’ living room followed immediately by mingling and heavy hors d’oeuvres (cheese platters, deli meats, french bread, crudites, and fruit) in the dining room. We then moved to a nearby hotel/conference centre for our “big reception” (approx 150 people), starting at 630 pm. The invite for the reception asked guests to “join us for cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and dancing” and we spread the word widely beforehand that dinner would not be served. The reception was set up so that there were passed hors d’oeuvres for the first 90 minutes or so, and the main food station/buffet opened around 7 pm and remained open through speeches etc. We had an MC who kept the schedule moving nicely, and the reception was held in a large event room so everyone was able to hear/see what was going on if they liked. There was also a small lounge area adjacent to the bar for those who wanted some space though. We had enough seating (a combo of regular and high top tables) for every person attending, mainly because we knew the reception would be fairly long and we had a large number of elderly family friends. We were particularly thankful for this when our open mic went way longer than expected – we were a little overwhelmed with how many of our family and friends wanted to bless us with their words; so awesome. Dessert (an assortment of cake, squares, fruit etc) was served during the dancing and remained out for the rest of the evening. We were pretty much wrapped up by 10 pm and the last stragglers left around 11. We had a great time and loved being able to walk about and chat and dance with as many guests as possible. Still didn’t get to talk with everyone though! Also, pro tip: It is especially important with a cocktail reception to make sure someone is responsible for making sure the two of you get fed, whether that’s bringing a constant stream of food to your table or packing something up for you to take with you at the end of the night. Because we were so mobile amongst our guests, we missed most of the passed hors d’oeuvres and didn’t even get close to the buffet. Thankfully our DOC had packed up a container of food for us. We still each ate a huge breakfast in the morning though!

  • Meredith

    DC bride here – we are doing our whe thing at Tabard Inn where there’s a very reasonable food/beverage minimum and they do cocktail only receptions. They’ve been VERY easy to work with and we have found them affordable compared to a lot of DC options. Plus the food is amazing!

    • jubeee

      I went to Tabard in March, next to my hotel and a local’s suggestion. We went for Sunday brunch and there was a wedding at the same time! I thought the Sunday brunch wedding was such a cool idea!

    • Christina McPants

      I’ve done a Tabard Inn wedding – their staff is wonderful to work with and their desserts are SO GOOD.

  • Ali

    I’ve been to a few cocktail receptions and they can be lots of fun! I would definitely recommend having a mix of seating – you definitely don’t need seats for everyone, but it would be good to have some seats and/or couches around so that older guests can be seated most of the time, and that others have a chance to sit for short spells.

    With where to put coats and purses – one cocktail reception had a cloak room which worked well, or depending on the size and layout of the venue, there may be a small room were you could set up some tables and/or hanging storage for guests to leave their belongings.

    Most of these receptions I’ve been to had waiters coming around with trays of finger foods, but one just had big tables with lots of food but with few vegetarian options and not much for people with different food intolerances. I would definitely recommend either asking guests for their dietary requirements, or at least ensure there’s more vegetarian/vegan (depending on your guests) food ordered than you think you need. I also would recommend having waiters coming around with food, as at the reception where this didn’t happen, many guests didn’t eat enough and ended up getting really tipsy and hungry.

    With timing, you could still have an MC, or if you’ve got a band, you could get them to make a brief announcement before the speeches and before the first dance.

    Have fun and best wishes!

  • Kari

    Having a cocktail reception can absolutely save you money but I’d consider the following:

    1) maybe set up some kind of cloakroom where guests can check their bags. Of course depending on the venue this may already be built in for you.

    2) PLEASE have enough seating, by which I mean at least 75%. It can be a mix of high and low tables and couches and hay bales and whatever, but please have seats a plenty.

    3) I’d suggest getting a canapé package that includes something like 2 substantial items, 7 other bits and 2 dessert canapés per person. This is roughly the equivalent of a plated meal, maybe a little less.

    4) if you’re having speeches and have to herd everyone into one part of the space then definitely keep the speeches short and sweet, as has been suggested elsewhere.

    Good luck!

  • Penny7b

    We did a cocktail style reception for our 50 person wedding
    (in Canberra, Australia, so some things might vary for you) and loved it.

    I disagree strongly with the people who say it won’t be any
    cheaper. We found it to be significantly cheaper than a sit down dinner in the
    same venue. I suspect the difference in price might not be very much if you
    live in an area where catering is cheap and venue hire and rentals make up most
    of your costs. But if you live in a place where catering is expensive (like
    Canberra), and generally comes with venue hire and equipment included, it could
    be a lot cheaper. The other thing to remember is to compare apples to apples. A
    fancy cocktail reception in a swish hotel is still going to be more expensive
    than a buffet dinner in a community hall. But it’ll probably be cheaper than a
    fancy sit-down dinner in the same swish hotel.

    As for how we did it:

    We did passed canapés, about 10 pieces per person, with
    three of those a bit more substantial than a regular bite-sized canapé.

    We had a small sweets table and a large cheese table
    (instead of cake) with cheese, crackers and fruit later in the evening.

    We had chairs for around 50-75% of our guests set up around
    the edges of the room. Some weren’t strictly chairs, but couches and ottomans.

    We had 4-5 tall tables (for 50 people) that people could
    rest drinks or plates on. That seemed to reduce people’s tendency to want to
    sit down with food. It’s not always about needing somewhere to sit, as much as
    needing somewhere to put things down.

    We still had an MC who got everyone’s attention for
    speeches, toasts and the start of dancing at various points throughout the
    night, and we had a small lectern at one end of the room to act as a focus
    point for those speeches.

    • Kari

      I agree with this, cocktail receptions are generally cheaper.

  • Kara Davies

    It’s a wedding reception. How would you normally announce toasts, dances, cake cutting?

  • Allie Moore

    You can definitely do this and save money! But you have to think outside of the food-station box.

    I think our non-meal wedding went pretty successfully — we got married at 7PM on a Friday and the invitation said “drinks and desserts to follow.” Our hope was that a 7PM wedding at least let people get an early dinner. I never asked if people had eaten dinner or not, but heard no complaints. Then we had a potluck dessert bar, which opened right when the ceremony ended at 7:30. We also had a Pizza truck that was supposed to be a late night snack. The truck opened around 8 and I think everyone ate at least one enormous slice of pizza, so it ended up being more like a meal than a snack, but we had over 200 wedding guests (!) and the pizza truck still came in at just $1000 total (Fat Sully’s, if you’re in Denver, highly recommended!)

    We also decided we just couldn’t afford to have everyone in our community there and also have a sit-down meal. It was really important to me that guests were well-fed to avoid some of the unfortunate hangry-guest situations that others have described. Plus, hospitality to me is mostly making sure people have enough food and that they have good food. But having it at a non-meal time meant I felt no guilt about serving pizza and cookies, with no sides to speak of.

    We definitely didn’t have enough seats for every guest, but we probably had enough seats for 100-150 and some high-tops as well as a few benches/couches that encouraged more fluid seating.

    As far as flow — my husband and I gave a brief toast about 30 minutes after the ceremony, then we had our first dance and announced that pizza was served, and that was the only formal event of the evening. I think having it late-night helped because it seemed natural that it was really a dancing/drinking affair and not a late afternoon full-blown formal wedding. Overall, the whole thing just felt like a casual party, which was great for us.

    • Rachelle

      Ugh, Fat Sully’s is so good! What a perfect late night snack!

      • Rebecca Van Jaeckel

        I’m so glad I found your post Allie Moore. I just got engaged and have been searching the internet to see if my ideas of a later night “drinks and dessert” event was even a thing! I love the idea of a food truck too. Thanks for making me feel like I’m not crazy for wanting something different!

    • Rebecca Van Jaeckel

      I’m so glad I found your post Allie Moore. I just got engaged and have been searching the internet to see if my ideas of a later night “drinks and dessert” event was even a thing! I love the idea of a food truck too. Thanks for making me feel like I’m not crazy for wanting something different!!

      • Allie Moore

        Oh so glad it was helpful! Best wishes in wedding planning!

  • Kayjayoh

    Man, Discus has been letting a lot of comment spam through lately. :(

    • Jess

      I keep trying to flag them, but they just keep coming.

  • Jordan Kennedy

    I didn’t plan my [upcoming] wedding this way but I did
    attend a wedding very recently that was a cocktail/hors d’oeuvres style. My
    best advice is if you’re going to plan this type is to let your guests know
    that dinner will not be served. All of us [guests] traveled to South Carolina
    from a decently far distance for this wedding and a heads up would have been
    nice. We all left hungry and grumpy and that’s no way to leave such a happy
    occasion. Consider hiring a local up and coming caterer or cut your guest list
    a bit. I’m not saying you have to have a 5 course meal but consider that your
    guests are traveling and spending quite a bit of their money to celebrate with
    you, the least you can do is feed them. Best of luck!!!

  • anonbride

    I got married just over a year ago, we had a cocktail reception and it was great! The first thing to remember is that this is not dinner. We had LOTS of food, a couple of stations as well as passed hors d’oeuvres, but by no means did we think we needed to feed guests a dinner sized portion.Our ceremony was at 6:30pm and our invitations stated cocktail reception, giving guests the time (and hint) to eat dinner beforehand. This saved us a considerable amount of money versus a seated dinner.

    We had seating for about 50% of guests at regular tables as well as a few high cocktail tables for mingling, and a loveseat and armchair lounge area. People sat if/when they wanted to, but most people would be up mingling/dancing anyway. Our DJ served as MC and announced the dances, speeches, etc. Everything went well (except for a 20minute partial power outage that most people didn’t notice), and everyone seemed to have fun (see: no one noticing the DJ and half the room without power for 20 mins)

    • ItsyBit

      I second the “this is not dinner” thing. As long as you’re clear on the invitation that it’ll be hors d’oeuvres people won’t be expecting a whole meal. We ended having ~4 pieces per person plus a station of veggies/dips and then cake, and folks seemed fine with that.

    • Kaitlyn OConnor

      How long was your reception? We are throwing a cocktail reception and I’m SO anxious that it will flop.

  • Sara

    I went to a friend’s wedding like this a couple of years ago and it was awesome! I think key to making it work was having lots of waiters constantly circulating with their signature cocktail and hors d’oeurves. (There was also a bar where you could get beer and wine + non-alcoholic beverages.) There was some seating outside the venue on a little deck, which was nice – if you needed to get away from the noise/crowd for a bit, you could step out. Also a few folding chairs inside for older relatives, but these didn’t seem to get used as much. Definitely not seating for everyone.

    For purses, coats, etc. they had a coat check at the entrance.

    The one thing I think they didn’t think through was where people would set their cups/plates while drinking/eating. There were tables that were clearly for the “finished” stuff, which were cleared regularly, but sometimes you want to set your plate down just for a minute or need the space if you’ve got a drink + an hors d’oeurve. This was held in an art gallery, and what people ended up doing was setting stuff on the pedastals around sculptures…probably not what the gallery would have preferred!! (Although I don’t think they got in trouble!). Anyway, point being that you might think about having some standing-height tables scattered around the space for this purpose. :)

    Finally, they did have a sound system set up for music, which included a microphone set-up for announcing different things. They did a little mini ceremony since the actual wedding was a private civil ceremony. They also announced the cake, had a few toasts, etc.

  • ItsyBit

    My husband and I did this last year and LOVED it. For us it did end up being a lot less expensive than a full meal, in part because it was mid-day and not dinner, and also because our venue was smaller than tradition says it should be for our guest list size (every fit just fine with most standing, but no way in hell could there have been tables with seats for everyone). Our venue was also really great in working with us re: food choices. They helped us pick was would be most filling and was within our budget (mostly passed apps with one or two stations of veggies & dips) and they let us bring in outside desserts. Since we weren’t interested in the cake cutting tradition, we brought in a few different cakes from a bakery in the city which were cut and served to people if/when they decided they wanted some.

    We had some seating areas for people to take breaks from standing which seemed to work out really well. I don’t remember the exact ratio but it was probably only 1/3; less than what many folks suggest, but my people, at least, are very used to big gatherings with very few chairs (big family, small houses, yearly holiday parties). We ended up not having dancing due to a mix-up with our music, but in the end I think it was actually better to style it as a cocktail party and let people mingle. This also allowed us to wander around and chat with our guests more than we may have otherwise.

    Anyway. While I always enjoy a good dancing reception, I’m a HUGE fan of cocktail parties and the gala-style (love this term) reception ended up being one of the best decisions we made. I hope it works for you!

  • emmers

    We did a cocktail reception, and it was awesome! At our venue, it was cheaper than if we had gone with a full meal. Probably not hugely cheaper, but some.

    *started the wedding at 2pm; the ceremony was about 45 minutes, so our reception was not at a meal time.
    *had light passed appetizers immediately following the ceremony (while we took a few photos)
    *had our first dance
    *opened up a small buffet of appetizers (think bruschetta, mashed potato bar, meatballs, pinwheels, chicken skewers, roasted veggies + dip, that kind of thing)
    *ate with folks (we had seating for everyone). Our venue had a bunch of different rooms, with seating throughout, dance floor, high tops, and bar downstairs
    *went back downstairs, cut the cake, and danced.

    It worked beautifully! I think because it wasn’t a meal time, it was fine that we didn’t serve a traditional entree. People still ate. The setup of our venue probably helped.

  • Rebecca

    I went to a wedding like this in late March, and it worked well from my perspective as a guest, so I’ll try to answer the questions you’ve posed. Background: It was held at a winery in two adjoining rooms that also opened onto nice outdoor areas (but it was autumn, so as the evening wore on people stayed inside more). One room had the bar and an open floor (for dancing), and the other room had small tables around the edges. There were about 70 guests. Arrival at 3 for 3.30 ceremony, to finish up around 9.30pm.

    They had a mix of roving waiters (with hot food) and food stations (for cheese, dips, crackers etc). This was good, because everyone got fed over the course of the evening, but if you suddenly became ravenous the food stations were available. The bride and groom were nervous people would get hungry, so they actually had roving waiters from 3pm with little cold things (oysters, mini brie scones etc), and then a gap during the ceremony, and then food served throughout the rest of the evening. Drinks were served over the bar – you just went up when you wanted one.

    There were not enough chairs for everyone. As a 27 year old who’d worn low heels knowing that the ceremony was on grass, this was completely fine – when I desperately needed to sit near the end of the night I could find a chair. But I did stand for most of the night, and if you had elderly people this might become a problem. I know that the groom’s family (big, traditional family from overseas, lots of older aunts and uncles) complained later about there not being enough seating, even though all of them were, in fact, sitting for most of the reception. I just held my bag, but I did see some on the floor around the edges of the room, and there were jackets over the backs of chairs and so on. It felt very relaxed.

    There was also a charismatic MC, which was a great idea – whenever something was happening (cake-cutting, speeches, first dance), he’d grab the microphone (speakers had been set up), get everyone’s attention with that and then direct us to the right room for whatever the event was. There was also a roving photographer who I think managed to get everyone at least once.

    In terms of movement, I found that people mostly just stood around chatting to people they knew, but the bridesmaid (1) and groomsmen (5), as well as the bride and groom themselves, did make a point of introducing people at every opportunity, so movement usually came from being caught by one of them on the way to the bar and introduced to somebody new. This worked really well.

    How did it feel? It felt like a big cocktail party full of people who were excited to be celebrating the love of two wonderful people. We weren’t disconnected from the bride and groom, because we got to wander past them and say hello to them, or watch them laughing, all the time, instead of sitting at a table across the room. I met the bridesmaid’s partner, the groom’s friends, and had a chat to the bride’s mum and dad. People wandered in and out when they wanted, to get drinks, look at the sunset or make out on the grass. I don’t think it was necessarily cheaper than a sit-down dinner (particularly with the open bar), but it was wonderful.

  • Meredith

    I attended a small, short cocktails-and-heavy-hors-d’oeuvres wedding earlier this summer. The reception was an hour long and started around 2:30 in the afternoon – it was the perfect length of time to grab a snack and a drink, listen to the best man’s and matron of honor’s speeches, and gab a little with the bride and groom before packing up and heading home.

    As far as the food went: the hors d’oeuvres were a mixture of passed (the fancier/more-substantial/expensiver ones, like lamb sliders and bacon-wrapped scallops) and stationary (cheeses, fruits, crackers and dips, etc). There was also a variety of little single-serving desserts. The food’s quality was outstanding, and the quantity was also more than adequate for the number of people – no one left hungry. There was also a red and a white wine, a few beer choices, and a limited selection of liquors (a whiskey, a vodka, a rum, etc).

    Seating was a little more challenging, but because the reception was in the same space that the ceremony had been, it was easy to grab one of the stacked chairs and unstack it if someone needed a seat and the ones at the low-top tables were occupied.

    I liked the format because I’m not particularly social, especially amongst strangers, so it was always easy to excuse myself (I wasn’t chained to my table). I also liked the variety of foods, and not being limited to chicken/fish/veggie.

    My friend did save a considerable amount of money versus even a luncheon, and the budget was a primary concern. I can’t recommend it highly enough (I’m in Baltimore and so was the evnt; the caterer was Laurrapin, a restaurant in Havre de Grace).

  • AJ

    This is what we will be doing and I’m so excited about it! Our reception will already be non-traditional because it will be held at my MIL’s large church. With the large church, came the large guest list (250+) and the question of how to feed them all! I’m a morning person so I hate feeling obliged to stay at a wedding long after the hype has died so the cocktail (mocktail) reception idea sounded great. I also like the idea that with a cocktail reception, my decor can be a little more over the top and glitzy than I would probably do for a sit down reception anyway, because it gives more of that party vibe. Getting married next April so I hope it goes well!

    Someone else also mentioned not worrying about RSVPs. Since this is my MIL’s church, I have spent considerable time concerning myself with uninvited guests. This idea does help alleviate that concern.

  • J.J.

    We had a cocktail reception! We did stationary displays with fruit, crudites, salads, cheeses, bruschetta, and an assortment of fancy protein-heavy small plates, then craft beer, wine, water, tea, and a champagne/gin punch for drinks.
    Overall, we only spent slightly less than what we would have on a buffet, but we saved a TON on rentals (we didn’t rent dishes, flatware, or linens – we just used the disposables that look like china – since there weren’t place settings I don’t think anyone even noticed). What we did spend went directly into the quality of the food. It was AMAZING. People raved about it – we got a lot of comments that it was the best food they had eaten at a wedding. There were plenty of places to sit for those who wanted/needed to, and everyone milled about and talked.
    Anyway, I’d recommend this approach to anyone – it was a blast. You might save money, you might not. It will probably depend on your venue and caterer (ours was really awesome and laid-back – we saved because they didn’t insist that we rent dishes, napkins, etc.) Cocktail parties are the BEST parties. Cocktail weddings need to be a thing!

    • Kaitlyn OConnor

      What time was your reception and how long did it last for?

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  • Haley

    Planning to do this at my wedding next March! Mainly because our venue isn’t quite set up to seat the amount of people we have for dinner & have a dance floor at the same time.
    We avoided a super-high catering cost & are still feeding our 100 guests a full meal by using a local restaurant that offers catering portions & setting up a ‘serve yourself’ buffet (no personnel cost). We’re doing mexican food, so we’ll have a build-your-own-taco/burrito table w/ 2 meats, beans & rice, & another table with salad, chips & salsa/guac, and taquitos to hopefully avoid a horde around just one area.
    We’ll have cocktail tables + some seated tables outside, and plenty more ‘open’ seating inside the actual reception space. Was thinking of reserving 1-2 tables for older family & friends.

    As far as how the flow of the rest of the evening will go, I’m hoping to find some suggestions below!

  • Erica G

    We are doing a Cocktail Reception at our wedding this July. Its in a concert hall/bar venue which has excellent catering (which they can do buffet style) and a full service bar. Ultimately this is going to save us some money, but we are also doing a Sunday afternoon wedding with an after party in a neighborhood frequented by food trucks. It is definitely a bit non-traditional, but it seems like a lot more fun to me.

    Currently my plan is to set up 8-10 Cocktail Tables with a few stools and bar benches along the outer edge of the reception space, plus there are these sort of riser/bench seats in a few places. It’s definitely a unique venue, but the fact that its a concert space means it has some built in seating other venues wouldn’t have. Hopefully the few older guests will be comfortable. I am also making sure I tell everyone to wear comfy shoes because we are basically going to party all day!

  • Pingback: 10 Tips To Consider Before Planning A Cocktail Wedding Reception | Jasmins Edition()

  • Gary

    As a caterer, can tell first hand that if you’re considering a cocktail only reception because you want a less formal affair and are bucking tradition a bit, then you’re good to go. However if the driving motive is trying to save money thinking that serving hors d’oeuvres will be cheaper, then you may be very disappointed to find that it’s not.

  • Kerrimarie113

    We are having a cocktail style reception in Atlantic City. We are inviting 100 people and are expecting around 75 including my fiancé and I. We want to make sure we have enough food and seating, and that the space will flow and be conducive to mingling and dancing.

    The ceremony will be from 5-6pm followed by a cocktail hour from 6-7pm and reception from 7-10pm.

    During the cocktail hour we will be serving 8 butler passed hors d’oeuvres and there will be 3 food stations (crudite, cheese, and pasta). For the reception there will be 3 small butler passed dishes and 2 food stations (salad and pasta). After that there will be a sweets table for our cupcakes in lieu of a cake and 3 butler passed desserts. There will be open bar all night including a signature drink.

    We were thinking of adding an additional food station during the reception portion. Either a carving station or something with a protein. Do you think this will be too much or not enough?

    There is seating for 80 people; a mixture of 6 small cocktail tables (4 seats each), 2 large tables (8 seats each), 8 bar top tables (4 with 4 stools each and 4 without stools), 2 couches (7 seats each), 1 large couch (8 seats). There is also a sweetheart table next to the bar for my fiancé and I. I was considering adding more bar tables or possibly removing one of the couches and adding more cocktail tables. Any thoughts on this?

    I would love any input, advice, criticism, suggestion. Thanks!!