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Wedding Reception Ideas to Wow Your Guests

Andrea planned her own wedding during the pandemic, which was an incredibly stressful time. She learned a few tricks along the way.

Receptions take a great deal of planning. You want to think ahead about how you can make the event engaging, fun, memorable, and authentic.

Receptions take a great deal of planning. You want to think ahead about how you can make the event engaging, fun, memorable, and authentic.

Reception Planning

Every reception is unique. Your main goal is to celebrate your union with your partner. The reception should be a fun event that caters to the needs of your guests.

You may have a lot of time to fill for your reception, so I want to give you some ideas that are fun and will last for hours.

I'll discuss:

  • Food
  • Photo Booths
  • Games
  • Flow for the night
  • Party Favors

Weddings come with drinks, dancing, and gifts. It's a reunion for your friends and family. It's a time to dress-up and look like a magazine cover model.

The number one rule: do what makes you happy and that you think will be fun. You and your partner shouldn't do any activities you don't like, so skip the garter toss, drop the traditional stuff, wear a black dress.

Receptions Are for Celebration

The ceremony is meant to be elegant. It's the more serious part of your event. You share your vows, you may have some rituals, people stand, people pray, and everything needs to look pretty and on fleek.

The reception is where you get to cut loose. It's when you get to see all your guests interacting with each other and getting into nonsense.

You want the reception to be:

  • Engaging
  • Lively
  • Spacious
  • Memorable
  • Authentic
The Cocktail hour is about mixing and mingling. You want your guests to feel comfortable. There should be plenty of talking points.

The Cocktail hour is about mixing and mingling. You want your guests to feel comfortable. There should be plenty of talking points.

The Cocktail Hour

Drinks Now

A great way to start off the reception is to open up the bar. Guests will trickle into the venue of their own accord. You'll have guests who'll arrive way too early and others who'll arrive so late that no one was really sure if they were there.

My suggestion: let people ease into the reception. They can grab a drink if they please. Offer some appetizers. The cocktail hour is all about mixing and mingling. It sets the first tone for the reception. It should be the most relaxed part of your reception.

It may be your interim between the ceremony and reception.

What You Want from the Hour

  • You want people to feel comfortable walking around and talking to other guests.
  • Music should be light and carefree. This is a good time for classical music, or something gentle. Pop or dance music doesn't really fit.
  • Cocktail hours often start in the afternoon or evening. Think about how you feel during those times.
  • Appetizers to keep people from getting too hungry.
  • Enough space, so people don't feel cramped.

Setup Games for People to Play

This is especially welcome if the reception is outside. Put out the large lawn dice, dedicate a space to croquet, and bring out some cornhole boards.

People like to play. They want to interact with others. They need talking points. A lot of your reception design is about talking points.

Assigned Seating

I recommend assigning seats. This will help you to control the flow of your party. Setting up where people sit can prevent unwelcome confrontations, like with your liberal cousin and your conservative uncle.

Assigned seating also makes people feel important. They like knowing you've placed them in a particular spot. It makes them feel included. They like seeing their name on a card.

It's a good idea to have a couple of spare tables for those who may not have sent in their RSVP. You will likely have aloof guests.

Name Your Tables

Reception table names can add to the experience. You could name each table after your favorite cities, animals, dinosaurs, or Game of Thrones characters.

The Guestbook

The guestbook table is a lovely spot where people gather. There are creative guestbooks out there that can boost the overall experience. For my own wedding, I ordered a wooden box with wooden hearts. The box had our names engraved on it. The guests wrote their well-wishes on the hearts.

The box made the experience more interactive than the typical guestbook. It also made for less germs since people weren't all touching the same guestbook.

Other guestbook ideas:

  • Get a coffee table looking book.
  • If you had your ceremony on an earlier date then you could get a book made of your wedding pictures.
  • Shop around at hobby stores and look for large objects that would be easy for people to sign.
  • Have a fishbowl with postcards in it. The guests can write on the postcards.
  • Explore Etsy. There are millions of great ideas there. Etsy is a great place for almost all your wedding needs.

Photo Spot

When people dress up and go on fancy dates, they love to take pictures. It's wise to setup a spot where people can take pictures with their friends, family, or date.

  • You may want a box of props.
  • Your photo spot can be kitschy or elegant.
  • Your photo spot might be a good place for guests to meet and greet you.
  • Expect that the line of people wanting to take pictures will be endless.
  • There are companies that will setup photo booths for you.
Need something to break the ice and the flow of your reception? Consider adding a performer. A belly dancer can make for a memorable event.

Need something to break the ice and the flow of your reception? Consider adding a performer. A belly dancer can make for a memorable event.

Hire Performers

A performance can help take the edge off you. Put the spotlight on someone else. Your guests will be delightfully surprised by a performance.

Consider hiring:

  • A belly dancer
  • A fire dancer
  • A jazz band
  • A singer
  • A pottery artist
  • A martial artist

Live Art

Have someone live paint your ceremony or reception. This can be expensive, but the payoff can be huge.

A professional artist could capture the feel and excitement of your big day. People will be excited to see the end result. You will also have a piece of artwork that will stay in your home for decades.

Put up meaningful artwork and pictures. If you have large photos from your engagement, put them on easels and tables for people to enjoy. If your ceremony was months ago, get those pictures printed, framed, and on display.

You may have art in your home that's meaningful, original, or whimsical. Turn part of your venue into an art gallery, so people have something enjoyable to view.

Arrivals

The newlyweds often make a grand entrance. People get excited and cheer for them. You can kick things off with a dance. I've been to some receptions where a drumline introduces the couple.

You don't have to have a big entrance if you don't want one. Maybe your reception is a lot later than your ceremony — as in months or a whole year. Maybe you'd like to mingle with people during the cocktail hour.

  • I recommend a dance to give some focal point for the reception and to help transition things to the dinner.
  • You could start a train during the cocktail hour for people to get pictures with the couple.
  • Have a grand entrance with trumpets, flags, confetti.
Your guests will be happy if you feed them. Hot food is a must. Offer both meat and vegetarian dishes.

Your guests will be happy if you feed them. Hot food is a must. Offer both meat and vegetarian dishes.

Dinner

Many of your guests are likely attending because they want food. They love you, but there is nothing quite like a fancy meal that's free. You want to get them to the food as quick as possible, and while it's hot.

Don't delay the food with toasts, speeches, and other formalities. You can skip the speeches. No one wants to hear your great aunt babble on about your childhood. Skip, please.

  • If you can have food served directly to tables that is ideal.
  • If you are doing the wedding buffet style, you may want to consider how to best handle traffic.
  • Bring out cake and the like later.

People like to know what's before them. A menu card can help people to weigh their expectations. List exactly what will be your appetizers, your dinner, and your dessert.

You could also give people a timeline of what to expect for the night.

Not everyone should have a toast at your wedding. Only select people who get the rules: be concise, be funny, don't embarrass the couple, don't go on about childhood.

Not everyone should have a toast at your wedding. Only select people who get the rules: be concise, be funny, don't embarrass the couple, don't go on about childhood.

Toasts

If you have people who have mastered the art of speaking, by all means let them have a toast. It needs to be concise, engaging, and not too embarrassing.

Don't require anyone to speak who doesn't want to speak. This could put strain on your friendship.

  • Toasts should be short, not 20 minute long diatribes.
  • Avoid having too many people speak.
  • If someone says they're bad at speaking, accept it. Don't force them to speak.
  • People who get emotional really easily or who might go through your entire friendship history before an audience are people you shouldn't let speak. These speakers, although well-intended, will be grating for your guests.
The first dance is romantic. It adds entertainment to the wedding. It also prepares your guests for more dancing.

The first dance is romantic. It adds entertainment to the wedding. It also prepares your guests for more dancing.

First Dance

My first suggestion would be to get dance lessons in advance, so you can nail this part of your reception. A great dance can be memorable and lovely for your guests.

I recommend doing a classical dance like the waltz, foxtrot, or swing.

The first dance after dinner should be used to help segue into more dancing. You are leading people into the dance floor. The guests won't start dancing until you do.

Take Song Requests

Asking people for their song requests ahead of the party can make them feel more engaged. You can veto song ideas without telling your guests. You don't have to play Kid Rock's greatest hits just because your third cousin has posters of him in his garage.

Song requests can also be helpful if you're struggling to come up with ideas or if you're wanting to suggest songs to your DJ. Your DJ will be happy if you give them direction.

The bouquet toss is one of people's favorite parts of weddings. You can reinvent it by tossing something else into the crowd.

The bouquet toss is one of people's favorite parts of weddings. You can reinvent it by tossing something else into the crowd.

Bouquet and Garter Toss

Personally, I would skip the garter toss because it's kind of weird. For some people the garter toss is creepy.

You could put a spin on the bouquet toss and opt to throw a stuffed animal or something else. If you throw a bouquet, you might only bring out the single ladies to the floor. If you throw another object, like a stuffed animal, anyone and everyone can vie for it.

One of the biggest crowd pleasers: cake. Don't go small on your cake. Get something with excellent flavor. A single sheet cake is boring and, let's be honest, terrible.

One of the biggest crowd pleasers: cake. Don't go small on your cake. Get something with excellent flavor. A single sheet cake is boring and, let's be honest, terrible.

Cake Cutting and Snacks

Cakes

About an hour before the end of the reception, the couple will cut the cake or bring out the cupcakes. The extra rush of sugar brings joy to people.

I recommend a cake that has universally loved flavors. Chocolate and vanilla are crowd pleasers. Strawberry, raspberry, and lemon make for great fruit filling.

It's wise to get a professional to cut the cake and have the couple just cut the first slice. Cupcakes are a great choice for a reception because they're easy to grab, manageable, and you can order them in different flavors.

Cake Topper

A stylish cake topper from Etsy can make your cake look all the more memorable. You can put some of your identity into the cake. Maybe you and your partner both like dinosaurs and wouldn't mind showcasing your mutual interest.

If you're using a cake topper you need to communicate that with your baker. Also, don't bake your own cake. The more tasks you can assign to professionals, the better.

Setup a Tasting Bar

If you're a beer or tequila aficionado, setup a tasting bar where people can try different varieties.

Maybe you're not into alcohol but like tea. Try setting up a bar where people can try different teas. All you need are cups, hot water, and tea bags or loose leaf tea.

Biodegradable cups are probably the way to go. As cute as your grandma's tea set might be, it might get ruined by clumsy guests.

Snacks

Some people don't have a sugar tooth and don't like cake. Other late night snacks might be preferred. It's a good idea to have appetizer foods. Think wings, mini-pizzas, chicken fingers, macaroni & cheese, and fish sticks.

Snacks are great if you've been dancing all night and need a little more food in your belly. Dancing and talking all night can make you really hungry.

Fresh Fruit

Bowls of fruit are a good idea. Even though people might have the munchies and want junk food, they'll be thankful that you gave them nutritious food.

Fresh fruit can be refreshing and not make your breath as bad.

Pies

I went to one wedding where all the guests brought their own homemade pies. There were plenty of pies to try, and all the different pie displays acted as decorations.

It's important to give your guests a variety of food. You'll have picky eaters. The best way to combat this: have a variety of food.

It's important to give your guests a variety of food. You'll have picky eaters. The best way to combat this: have a variety of food.

Party Favors

This is one area you can skip. People usually don't remember party favors. Make it something simple, like a snack for the road or a shot glass.

People won't mind if you donate to a charity in lieu of favors. Leave an explanatory card on each dinner table.

Final Farewell

When the couple leaves, it's time for sparklers, bubbles, rose petals, or some other type of festive visual that makes a goodbye all the more powerful.

You want to start your reception on the right note and end it on the right note. A final farewell can make your reception more memorable, and it can make for some exciting pictures.

Try to think of a farewell that's environmentally friendly. The farewells to weddings are often some of the most hazardous to the environment.

Throwing rice makes birds sick, fireworks are not great for the air and just turn into waste in landfills, and floating lanterns can be dangerous.

Think carefully about what you do in the end, so you can set the right tone, and also let your guests know you're environmentally conscious.

© 2021 Andrea Lawrence

Comments

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on July 05, 2021:

Wise ideas. You are right about speeches. Toasts are better.

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