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You're ready to plan your wedding reception and if there's one aspect of your special day that makes your heart beat faster it's this big party. Your reception is where all the magic will happen, the celebration, the lights, the music, the decorations. You'll cut cake, feast, toast, and dance the night away.

You want your wedding to be a celebration of the love you and your fiancé share, a reflection of your style and party preferences. It's also one of the rare times when all of your friends and family will come together to celebrate YOU, so you want everyone happy, entertained and enjoying their time at your wedding reception.

How do you plan the perfect wedding reception? Although there are many moving parts to a wedding reception, don't feel overwhelmed! By taking the time to organize and learn proper planning, you’ll take the stress and much of the unpredictability out of the day. You can achieve the fun and fabulous wedding reception you always imagined for yourself and we’re here to show you how.

Ten Steps to an Amazing Wedding Reception

Below is a quick overview of many of the key elements that go into planning a great wedding reception. If you’re looking for more guidance, be sure to sign up for the Dream Wedding Checklist. Here you’ll get video guidance from acclaimed wedding planner Giselle, who will guide you through the entire planning process. Each recorded video details the insider secrets to make planning easier and ensure you have the wedding of your dreams. You’ll also gain access to quick reference guides in each chapter and a comprehensive printable checklist. This checklist will become your guide to making certain you don’t forget a single thing.

Now let’s get to planning your beautiful, one-of-a-kind wedding reception.

1. Reception Venue

The first step to planning any wedding reception is to select the venue. There are many questions to decide on when narrowing down your venues. To make the process easier, first begin by answering these questions:

What is your wedding reception budget? Don’t forget to factor in the costs of other aspects of your wedding beyond your reception, such as ceremony costs, attire and invitations. Your venue will typically take up the biggest portion of your budget however.

How many guests will you invite? Just get an approximate idea at this point so you can narrow down the venues you’re considering.

Do you want an indoor or outdoor reception? If you’ll be having an outdoor reception, what is your bad weather contingency plan?

Finding the perfect venue that suits your vision and also is available on the date of your choice can be tricky. Being flexible on your date may be a way to get the venue of your dreams.

DO consider venues that offer all-inclusive packages versus a space-only venue rental. A venue that can provide seating, catering and decor will make planning much easier compared to a location where you will need to outsource every element of your reception. And an all-inclusive package is often a better value and removes some of the stress of finding and selecting multiple vendors.

DO think about holding your wedding ceremony at the same location as your wedding reception. This is a great way to downsize expenses and stress with only one location to focus on.

2. Schedule of Activities

Take some time to think about how your wedding reception will look. What are the must-have parts and what are the “would-be-nice” elements? Begin with an overview of how the day or night will progress. This will help you know what types of wedding professionals you’ll need. Typically a wedding reception will run between four to five hours. Guests will appreciate your efforts to keep things moving. Be sure to factor in enough time for activities not to feel rushed.

Sample wedding schedule:

This is a general layout of the activities that typically happen during the reception. Include only the activities you want, in the order that suits you both:

  • Ceremony (30 minutes)
  • Cocktail Hour (45 minutes - 1 hour)
  • Wedding Party and Your Grand Entrance (15 minutes)
  • First Dances (10-15 minutes)
  • Dinner (1 hour)
  • Toasts/Speeches (15 minutes) 
  • Bouquet Toss (15 minutes)
  • Dancing (1.5 -2 hours)
  • Cutting the Wedding Cake (15 minutes)
  • Memorable Exit (10-15 minutes) Bring on the sparklers! 

DO keep things moving on schedule. Although the day is about you, you want to always be mindful of the guest experience.

DO keep cocktail time to an hour. Guests start to get antsy when it is longer than this. Cocktail hour will be the time when your photographer will be taking the family/bridal party pictures and then focusing on you both as a couple.

DON’T overschedule. Although video montages can feel emotional for you, how many home movies do your guests want to see? If you’re stressing about fitting everything you want to do into the reception, try to compromise. Think about shortening rather than cutting out elements.

DO consider hiring a day-of planner or venue coordinator if you are not working with a wedding planner. This expert will be essential in the month leading up to your wedding to reconfirm/coordinate vendors and run everything on the day off. A day-of planner will help to keep your reception on schedule, taking much of the stress off of your shoulders.

3. Decor

Here’s the fun stuff! What style do you want your wedding reception to have? There’s so many gorgeous options, but trust your gut on the style that feels right to you. Take into consideration the look and feel of your venue when considering decor. Some elements you’ll want to plan out to create a breathtaking look include:

  • Flowers 
  • Lighting
  • Furniture
  • Linens 

DO think about the entryway where guests will enter. This is the perfect opportunity to set a magical mood for guests right from the start. 

DON’T break your budget on decor. Although imported flowers and high-end crystals are nice, they may go unappreciated by many guests compared to a great band/DJ or delicious dinner. Look into budget-friendly options that create a striking display without a high ticket price.

4. Seating

 First look to your venue to see what is already included and what they have in house before you consider rentals. Also, your venue will be able to tell you what works well in their space. We strongly suggest doing assigned seating as this ensures a smooth seating process when guests go up to the reception area. It also is less stressful for guests than open seating.

DO take into account the type of meal you will be serving. If guests have had to select the entree they prefer you will need place cards to notate this for the serving staff.

DON’T make a random guest table. Instead, sprinkle guests amongst tables they may have something in common with. No one wants to realize they’ve been placed at the rando table.

DO let place cards do double duty by adding conversation starters on one side.

5. Reception Entertainment 

You want your friends and family to have an unforgettable time at your wedding. Keeping everyone entertained is a big concern for most couples. The good news however is that there are more options today than ever before. If you want a photo booth, what type will best fit your theme? Your wedding reception is a chance to get creative and give everyone a memorable time. Today couples are getting innovative with creating experiences for their guests. Here’s just a few suggestions that are gaining in popularity:

  • Caricature artist
  • Lawn games
  • Palm readers and psychics
  • Cigar rollers
  • Outdoor fireplace w’ smores
  • Whisky bar
  • Ice cream cart

DON'T overextend the celebration. Keep things contained to one area so all your guests can experience the energy of the party. If you spread things out too much to different rooms and spaces, many parts of the reception may feel scattered and confusing to guests.

6. Music

Music is an integral part of any wedding reception. It’s what will fuel your guests’ party energy and set the mood for different activities. You can opt to vary the music, from quiet harps or violins for the dinner hour to a boisterous DJ for dancing. Will your venue have a dance floor? Will you have a DJ, live music or both? It’s important to give your DJ a must-play and do-not-play list of songs as well as the schedule for your reception. This way they will know what you want included and when announcements need to be made.

DO choose a DJ who is experienced with weddings. Not only will they play music, but they’ll help guests who are making speeches with the microphone and give announcements throughout the night. Because of this, you’ll want to choose a DJ who understands your style and the feel you’re going for in your reception.

DO play a variety of music for all generations. Your older guests will love hearing songs from the 70s and 80s. Do you have guests that will love a good organized line dance? It’s only a few minutes, but throwing one in might just be the thing that kicks the party energy into high gear

7. Photographer/Video

Choosing a photographer that suits your personal style is important. Meeting with the photographer and seeing their individual wedding portfolio is essential. You’ll want to feel a connection to your photographer. This also goes for your videographer. Share your reception schedule with your photographer. You will want to make sure that they will be photographing all the important events of your reception.

DON’T be shy about telling your pros that you don’t want to pose for pictures. You want to fully be present and candid shots of you dancing and beaming with happiness are some of the best photos from the reception you’ll probably cherish.

DO set aside some time during the height of your reception for some one-of-a-kind sneak away photos with just the two of you. Not only can these make for breathtaking couple-only photos, but they can give you both a breather and some much needed one-on-one time.

8. Food & Drink

A big part of your reception will be all about living it up, feasting on delicious foods and imbibing in drinks. It’s easy for food and drink to quickly break a budget, so it’s a good idea to keep things conservative. Remember, people are there to celebrate you, not feast for a marathon. Everyone is in their finest attire, so they aren’t looking to consume thousands of calories. Focus on keeping things simple by fulfilling the three basic food needs:

  • Appetizers 
  • Entree
  • Dessert 

DON’T make guests pay for drinks. Rather than having a cash bar, consider limiting selection and times when the bar is open.

DO consider finger food options for later in the night. They are fun, unexpected and great if your party is going well into the night.

DON’T forget to include a non-alcoholic option of a special drink if you are planning a signature cocktail

DON’T feel pressured to stock the finest top-shelf liquor and array of drinks. Beer, white and red wine and a signature cocktail are more than enough to keep guests happy.

9. Make the Guest Experience Amazing

Entertain: Make sure whatever entertainment you choose it’s optional for guests to partake or enjoy from the sidelines. Although you may want your party to go on for days not hours, your guests will probably want to have a definite end time. Promise a surprise toward the end of the night to reignite any feelings of waning energy. Serve coffee with dessert so the party can keep going. But then, know when to call it a night. It’s better to leave your guests wanting more rather than let the night peter out to just a few hardcore partiers.

Instruct: Guests will appreciate great communication. That means easy to use place cards, menus, and easy to see table numbers. Signs that show where to go and which way to the bathroom will keep guests happy. Have fun with signage and make it a unique part of your decor. Utilize your DJ or band to make announcements that let guests know when big events like the first dance or cake cutting are taking place. 

Greet: Receiving Lines are the traditional way for couples to greet and thank each guest individually. These can sometimes feel stiff and tedious for guests, especially if there is a long guest list to greet. They also can take a lot of time and take away from photography. Another option is for the couple to go around to each table before the dancing begins. It’s a more casual option. But whatever you do, just make sure you get the chance to greet and thank each guest individually

Gift: The sky's the limit to how elaborate you want to be with your guest favors. Popular items today are succulent plants, seeds, and small bottles of wine or champagne. This is a great opportunity to reinforce your theme. Couples are focusing more these days on useful items rather than decorative keepsakes that might not have much function.

10. Don’t overlook Small Reception Details

 Your wedding checklist and your schedule will help you remember all of the little details that make a wedding reception special. Sometimes the little things can cause big stress, so be sure to take care of purchasing and having someone manage these little details. Just a few of the items you’ll want to consider:

  • Guest Book 
  • Cake Knife
  • Toasting Flutes
  • Custom Signage
  • Monogrammed Napkins.

Stay in the Moment 

Remember, your wedding reception is the culmination of your wedding day. It should represent you and the things you want to do. Don’t feel pressured by tradition or a vendor saying something like “that’s what most brides do.” If you really want to smash cake in each other’s faces, go for it. If the thought of hearing a DJ give you a big elaborate couple introduction makes you cringe, ditch it. You can let tradition be a guide, but you’re allowed to create a festive time that feels right for you.

Your wedding reception will be an unforgettable celebration. During the party, don’t forget to take the time to breathe deeply and take it all in. Take moments out every hour to look around, appreciate the moments and truly be present. These fleeting seconds can go a long way to etching in your memory the special moments of your wedding day. They’ll also help you to slow down and enjoy yourself more.

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Take the Stress Out of Planning & Achieve the Wedding of Your Dreams