The anatomy of the perfect Wedding reception program
Table of Contents
What things the perfect wedding reception program should include? How do you imagine an ideal wedding reception program? When it goes so well that you don’t spend a moment thinking about wedding events. Guests know where they go, things flow easily from one thing to the next.
For this, you need a detailed timeline for the wedding. Don’t write your reception program shortly, it will not be helpful — either for you or for your guests or vendors. I have seen (rarely but it does happen) very short reception timelines: just «7 o’clock reception, First dance, cutting of the cake». This reception has good chances to fail. Vendors will not know what to do, guests will not know what to expect. Write your timeline so detailed as possible, to the nearest 20 minutes.
Keep in mind that your planning is just a guideline! There is no wedding which goes exactly as planned. Take it into account that it will run a bit behind schedule — approximately about 30 minutes, from my experience. It’s a common situation. For the last three years, I had only one wedding which was on time.
Usually, the reception lasts about 4-6 hours. Armenian, Persian, Indian wedding receptions can last up to 10 hours and more. If you add to this plus an hour for the ceremony and extra time for shooting you will have your personal answer to the question how long do weddings last.
Cocktail hour is an optional thing, yet it could be useful for two things:
- to warm up the guests for the wedding meal;
- to keep them busy with appetizers and conversation while newlyweds have their family and friends photo session (plus couple sunset shots, if the wedding is in winter).
You can put the cocktail hour in your timeline if you need to have extra time before the actual reception begins. It will keep your guests in a party mood and you will have time for shooting.
Wedding Party Entrances
Once your guests will be invited to the reception area and take their seats, it’s time for bridesmaid/groomsman “couples” to enter the room. This is a perfect opportunity for the bridal and groom’s party to have some fun as for example it was done at this wedding. The DJ here did a good job and the bridal party entrance looked impressive and cheerful at the same time. In my opinion, one of the important tasks of a DJ is to manage the crowd and give it an energy boost. Further, I’ll speak about it.
These funny dances or actions will get your guests ready for the Grand Entrance of the newlyweds. Traditional wedding dance order may be changed according to your taste. Many couples choose a very simple entrance, some do their First Dance at the start of the reception.
You can decide when you will make the First Dance. As I mentioned above, it may be right at the start of your wedding reception program. One more good point to make First Dance when the meal is over. It will be your personal choice.
It can also be a bit stressful to dance in a room full of people staring at you — in this case just focus on your spouse and concentrate on the music. Some other tips that can help to work up the nerve in front of the audience:
- Don’t make an individual first dance — that’s not a rule. Ask your DJ to invite your family or bridal party to join you on the floor.
- Choose a song that means something personal to you, and yes, the track can be a lively light-hearted song. In this way, the first dance will appear to pass quicker than with a traditional slow song.
Some highlights that I always have in my mind when I am at the wedding reception dinner:
- Make a seating chart
It’s important to place guests with people they can get along with. This will lead to good conversation seamlessly. Let colleagues sit together and family with kids near to each other. They are here for you on your best day and it’ll be more fun for them to have a great time with friends then trying to make friends with strangers.
- Keep your guests comfortable
One of the most underestimated factors of a successful wedding reception program is to keep your guests comfortable. Especially if we speak about an outdoor wedding. If it’s hot, consider placing fans or any cooling gadgets. If it’s cold, make sure it will be enough heaters or blankets, particularly at tables far from the main performance. I was at many weddings where only the lack of blankets shortened the wedding. The guests got cold and when some started leaving, most of the guests just followed them.
For how long your guests will stay with you will depend on all these preparations. Just make sure your guests are cozy from the beginning of your ceremony to the end of your reception.
- Have a plan for kids
The best solution at the wedding with many children is to organize their designated area with food and entertainment. Your reception will win twice: first, kids will also enjoy your big day, second and maybe more important — their parents will be free from supervision at least for a couple of hours and pay their attention to a wedding party, not to their offsprings.
- Hand out wedding favors
Wedding Favors are a nice tradition, but not a must. It’s just a way to make your event memorable for your guests and thank them for coming. You can set small gifts at each place setting. It will be an additional decoration for the table. Take your budget into account — the favorites of wedding favors are inexpensive, yet personal things.
- Serve late-night wedding food
That’s a good option for late-night-weddings until 1-2 a.m. After the dance floor, guests could feel exhausted and it will be great to have some edible pick-me-ups. Ideal snacks are that people can eat while on the dance floor. You could also arrange a buffet-style food table near the dance floor. Plan on bringing out the late-night snacks about an hour or two before the reception ends.
Toasts & Speeches
Traditionally toasts begin about halfway through the dinner. The usual toasting order is such as:
- parents of the bride speak first;
- the turn of bridesmaids/maid of honor to speak;
- other family members (if planned);
- the best man’s speech usually goes last.
Of course, it’s your preference to decide if this toasting order will be followed. Just don’t forget to inform the speakers about it in advance.
The newlyweds also can thank their guests for coming, usually, it happens near the end of the wedding reception program.
I suggest keeping any speech for no longer than 5 minutes. Once I saw how a wedding planner had finished a long and quite boring speech. When she noted that the guests got tired after 15 minutes of the toast, she went back behind the tables and started clapping her hands. Guests picked up this applause and the speech was finished.
Just make sure that toasts will be short and sweet and your guests will not start zoning out.
Sometimes parent dances follow immediately after the first dance. Other couples schedule a father & daughter and mother & son dance during wedding receptions.
From the perspective of newlyweds, these family dances could look like a just simple formality. But from what I see, for parents, it’s the most emotional moment of the whole wedding. It is the moment when they say goodbye to their children. Awareness of this comes to parents during the dance and I didn’t see indifferent parents at this point.
In my opinion, newlyweds need a bit more understanding of it. Don’t make from the dance a mere formality. Use this great opportunity to say meaningful words to your parents. Not to mention that these true emotions could be perfectly captured in photos.
Another way to keep your guests in a mood for the dance floor is to bring out the cake. From my experience, there are two kinds of cake cutting.
The first one, when a cake is small and will be shared symbolically between guests. That’s just the sign that a dessert table will be opened now and each guest can choose what he wants. A dessert table is a great idea if you mean to make guests with any taste preferences satisfied and don’t put too much on dramatic grandiose cake cutting 😉
The second option is to bring out a traditional impressive wedding cake. Sometimes it is done about an hour before your grand exit or at the end of the wedding reception program. Guests will understand that the party is almost over. In this case, that’s the right moment to thank your guests for coming. Sometimes the cake cutting can be organized as one of the show performances before going to the dance floor. You can use your timing, for sure, depending on your wishes.
I personally advise not to follow common rules and make the Cutting of the Cake as impressive as possible. Cut it so that it will be great fun for everybody. For example, at one of the weddings where I was, the newlyweds cut the cake with an antique German sword and it was very spectacular. Remember that the cake cutting may be a highly photogenic moment and can work best for expressive photos.
Bouquet Toss & Garter Toss
You can decide if you follow this a bit outdated but still beautiful tradition. I just mention some points which you can take into account:
- It’s one more amusing kind of interaction with guests. Just add a bit of originality and make this tradition suitable for your event. For example, kids like to catch stuff that is tossed and for them, it will be great fun. You can add a bit of fun to the process of taking off the garter, depending on your own creativity. Just think from the guests’ perspective and do it out of the classic tradition.
- That’s also a good opportunity for a photographer to capture some nice shots, dynamic and emotional.
- Maybe not all people will participate and it’s normal. From my personal experience, ladies are always willing to take part in the bouquet toss. But single gentlemen can be reluctant 🙂
After the meal has been enjoyed, it’s time to start a dance party. Remember, the guests won’t start dancing and you should be prepared to set an example. Invite your bridesmaids and groomsmen to the dance floor the moment the first song starts — it will help other guests to move.
Much depends on a DJ, on his skill to interact with the crowd. A good DJ can easily read any audience, he understands what people like and plays the right tunes. The best way to find the right DJ which I know is to save his contacts at that wedding party where you were before and liked his job. In this way, you reduce the risk to choose a total vibe-killer.
One more point that can spoil the dance mood is the noise restrictions of the venue. If your venue has sound restrictions ask them for their decibel limit BEFORE the event starts.
Another opp which can make the wedding reception enjoyable is wedding activities. Not all the guests like to go directly to the dance floor after the meal. It’s a great idea to offer other entertainment. But please don’t make it far from the area of the main performance and guests’ tables. People don’t like to feel isolated.
Some activities which will not look awkward and still will be funny:
- card or table games,
- karaoke room,
- video or photo booth,
- open bar 🙂
Last Dance ends the official part of the celebration. It is a good way to signal everyone that it’s time to go (also because you don’t need that the venue will charge you overtime). A good last dance song will help everybody to remember this night as well. Slow or upbeat — the choice remains yours.
Traditionally newlyweds present their guests small farewell items to make a memorable send-off. It can be sparklers, bubbles, confetti, balloons, flower petals, or anything else. Remember that some venues have strict fire safety regulations. To give a sparkle to a tipsy guest it’s not always a great idea. Though in my opinion if the rules of a venue allow the sparkler exit, you can use this opp to make your send-off unforgettable and have every chance to take catchy photos.
Another good way to make your exit just as memorable as your entrance is a wedding getaway car. After the sparklers have fizzled out and the confetti has been thrown, hop into a vehicle that fits your wedding style. It’s convenient because you don’t need to spend much time saying goodbye to everyone and it looks spectacular in the photos.
Wedding reception disasters and how to avoid them
I hope you will never have any full-blown catastrophes but some unexpected moments could happen and it’s normal. There are many things that we can not control (like weather or other people’s behavior). Down I will describe situations which I have seen at wedding receptions and yes, they could have been avoided.
While booze can enhance the celebration, it also has the potential to wreak havoc on the event. I was at several wedding receptions where the same situation happened. The groom went through the hall and everybody gave him something to toss back in honor: the first table poured champagne, the second brandy, and so on. The groom maybe didn’t eat all day and you can imagine the result of all the shots. After an hour he needed support just to cut the wedding cake. Speaking from my experience, it usually happens once per 25 weddings, but in this rare case, it still means the wedding runs without the first dance, without the groom’s speech, without any activity where the groom has to take part. And yes, it can happen to the bride as well.
- Keeping guests waiting around
The guests hate to wait, just believe it. Keeping guests waiting around can ruin the mood and atmosphere of any reception. The bride & groom can be busy with anything they want like shooting, they can be late, missing and so on. But guests have to get their buffet and bar 🙂 Dissatisfied guests can leave earlier before the party will really start and the reception will be a big disappointment instead of cool entertainment.
- A bad DJ
One oh the worst things that could happen at the reception. As I said, the best way to avoid this disaster — choose the person who is good at his job that you’ve already seen with your own eyes and ears :). He takes your wishes for music seriously, feels the audience and does not ruin important moments with some awkward tunes. He knows his responsibilities as well — for example, of checking microphones and other audio equipment. If there is a microphone interference, toasts will not be audible or impressive, not to mention a party mood.
It’s sad, but all good things must come to an end, including your wedding. If maybe the planning of your wedding reception program was stressful, your honeymoon planning will be definitely one of the most enjoyable tasks.
I wish every wedding I’ve been, will be a long journey of happiness filled with joyful moments that can be shared with everybody around. I am glad that I captured some of these wonderful moments with my camera.