50 Tips for Planning Your Wedding Reception

wedding reception tent
Photo: Meg Smith

You might think that after planning your ceremony, preparing for your reception will be a piece of wedding cake. In actuality, organizing the party portion of your event can be a piece of work. Receptions require a lot of collaboration and preparation, and need to be timed just right. There are vendors and spaces to book, menu and décor ideas to choose from, seating arrangements to be made, and a whole lot more.

When you start to feel overwhelmed, turn to our ultimate checklist for your wedding reception, put together by our experienced team. We walk you through what to buy, who to talk to, and when to do everything, so that you can budget, coordinate, and follow a timeline expertly and efficiently.

01 of 50

Pick a Venue

Emilia Jane Photography

Once you've got an approximate wedding date, start scouting venues. Know your budget and have a rough guest count in mind, as well as the reception style you prefer—formal seated, buffet, cocktail party, or food stations.

02 of 50

Create a Timeline

Bryan Gardner

After you figure out what you'll do when, write it all on a timeline and give it to your photographer and reception site manager, so everyone stays on the same clock. Also let the manager know when to expect vendor deliveries (cake, flowers, rentals).

03 of 50

Take Stock of Your Location

outdoor ceremony set up in courtyard with floral altar and violinist
Lauren Galloway Photography

Do a walk-through of your venue as soon as you're able, noting features to highlight—a grand staircase, beautiful chandeliers, or a grove of trees, perhaps—and areas that need to be spruced up or downplayed.

04 of 50

Tackle Big Tasks First

cocktail hour appetizers on platter
Rebecca Yale

Your immediate "to do" list: Book the venue, hire a caterer, decide on basic décor. Caterers often have several sample menus at different price points to choose from. Be sure to have variety so that the menu appeals to many different tastes. This isn't the time to serve all vegan foods if your guests are largely carnivores. With these major tasks done, you'll be ready to focus on the smaller details.

Get everything in writing: Make sure you have signed contracts from all your vendors and that you've read the fine print and resolved any questions.

05 of 50

Day-Of Paper Goods

dinner menu with table setting and place card
Ashley Ludaescher

Be sure to order the reception stationery. This includes table (escort) cards, place cards, menus, table numbers, and favor tags. Plan to write out table and place cards after all the RSVPs come in.

06 of 50

Get Glowing

wedding reception table set up in grass with string lights above
Janine Licare Photography

Lighting can make or break an event, but to create the right ambience, you don't necessarily need to hire professionals to cast patterns on the dance floor. You can set the mood simply by flanking an outdoor walkway with dozens of luminaria or setting dining tables with elegant candelabra or clusters of small candles; you might also replace harsh white bulbs in fixtures with more flattering amber ones.

07 of 50

Dress Up Your Entryway

bride and groom with dog graphic welcome sign
Jennie Raff Photography

Elegant front-door decorations, which can be as low-key as swags of greenery or lanterns leading toward your venue, serve as a visual welcome whether adorning a building or a tent and ensure that everyone's first glimpse of the party is from its best vantage point.

08 of 50

Don't Overlook Small Details

specialty cocktail with corgi monogrammed drink stir
Lisa Ziesing for Abby Jiu

A few well-placed touches, such as monogrammed cocktail napkins or a palette-friendly favor at each table setting, can go a long way toward making your party look extra-special. Also, be sure to assemble all the reception goods ahead of time including favors, a guest book, cake knife, toasting flutes, and signs.

09 of 50

Think Outside the Box

table arrangement with seating card and candles
Jenny for Kristen Marie Parker

A vessel of fresh fruit makes a stunning and unexpected alternative to a traditional floral centerpiece, and one long banquet table may fit a sleekly modern space better than several round ones do.

10 of 50

Make a Seating Chart

Liz Banfield

This is the stuff nightmares are made of, but it doesn't have to be if you start the chart as soon as RSVPs begin arriving. Look for ways that allow you to change things easily at the last minute. These seating cards keep names and table numbers separate, so you can shift guests' assignments without having to rewrite the cards.

11 of 50

Know Your Timeline

Wedding decor with cascade of greenery with flowers and candles
Kelsea Holder Photography

You'll need to choose your florist at least six months ahead of time and reserve your party rentals two months after that.

12 of 50

Send Save-the-Dates

wedding invite stationary save the dates torn edges
Lisa Ziesing for Abby Jiu Photography

Especially if you are planning a destination wedding or marrying on a holiday, ask guests to mark their calendars. Ideally, mail out these announcements at least four months before the wedding to ensure the guests you really want to attend the celebration will be able to attend.

13 of 50

Invite Carefully


Be prepared: Up to 80 to 90% of those invited may attend. (The smaller the list, the more yeses you should expect percentage-wise, because you will likely be asking only those closest to you.)

14 of 50

Map Out Your Space

outdoor reception table with colorful floral display with gold accents
Rachel Havel

Be sure you have ample room for tables (figure 10 to 15 square feet per person, assuming that the tables are round and seat six to 10 guests); also check that the dance floor is big enough (four to five square feet per guest is about right).

15 of 50

Arrange for a Backup

wedding reception tent with floral accented entrance and welcome sign
Lisa Ziesing for Abby Jiu

Planning an outdoor reception? You can't count on sunshine, so either reserve a tent or opt for a location with an indoor alternative in the event of inclement weather.

16 of 50

Enlist Help


Even if you've decided against an overall wedding planner, you'll want a cool-headed pro on hand to ask guests to be seated for dinner, help organize toasts, and handle any problems. Ask if your venue can provide this service; if not, some independent planners will work for a single day.

17 of 50

The Portrait Session

Bridal party posing in greenery
Donna Lam Photography

Figure out when to do bridal party and family photos. There's nothing worse than missing your entire cocktail hour because you're taking photos. Talk to your photographer about timing.

18 of 50

Don't Let the Seams Show

greenery wall with champagne filled glasses
Rachel Solomon Photography

If possible, designate a separate cocktail area and close the reception space to early arrivals. To create a sense of drama, neither you nor your guests should see the behind-the-scenes machinations and last-minute setup gaffes. Keeping the doors closed will also let your photographer take unhurried shots of the reception décor before the crowd arrives. Also, think about when to open the dance floor. Will it be after dessert is served or between courses? Plan on allowing time for any special dances, too, like the first dance and the father-daughter dance

19 of 50

Whip Up Affordable Favors

Joe Goger

Stylish tokens needn't be expensive. This bride's stepmother made rose-petal jelly for the favors by filling small canning jars with the treat and then dressing up with floral fabric and twine to keep with the shabby-chic style of the celebration. A kraft paper tag read, "Spread the love," in the shape of Texas, where the wedding took place.

20 of 50

Go for Daytime Drama


Many venues charge more for after-dark affairs. With an outdoor reception, if you opt for a luncheon event, you'll also cut back on or eliminate costs associated with lighting, such as setup and generators. These over-sized paper pom poms make just as big a statement as twinkling lights.

21 of 50

Narrow Your Tables

Evonne & Darren Wong

By seating diners family-style at long tables no wider than 36 inches, you'll shrink the amount of empty space to decorate, cutting down on centerpiece costs. Guests will still have plenty of room and will find conversation easier as well.

22 of 50

Figure Out Your Centerpieces

floral bouquet centerpieces with white and navy place settings
Kerry Jeanne Photography

Locally available flowers will be most affordable, as are simple arrangements. And, there's no reason why ceremony flowers can't come to the reception. Ask for altar arrangements that will also complement the party site. Alternatively, your florist may be able to refashion them into small gift bouquets for your bridal party.

23 of 50

Play With Time

Lang Thomas Photography

You'll save on liquor, food, and possibly vendors' fees if you shave 30 minutes or an hour off the party. So it doesn't feel rushed, cut a little from everything (make the cocktail hour a "cocktail 45 minutes") instead of eliminating events. And set a time limit for the reception.

Your guests have already spent hours, if not days, at pre-wedding events and at the ceremony itself; they're likely to be tired. Though you may wish the reception would never end, it should last no more than five hours. Also, make it clear that any after-parties you schedule are entirely optional.

24 of 50

Consider a Full-Service Deal

evelyn sam wedding reception dinner
Kerry Jeanne Photography

If you're filling an empty space, you'll need things like chairs, tables, linens, and dishes; borrow as much as you can from the venue. Also order a photo booth, if that's in the plans. A site with a fee that includes necessities such as linens and furniture may at first appear more expensive than an a la carte venue, but once you factor in rental fees, you may ultimately keep costs down.

25 of 50

Stay in One Place

bride and groom share first dance smiling on stone floor
Abby Jiu

Have your wedding and reception in the same location. You'll spend less on décor, as well as on transportation costs for you and your wedding attendants.

26 of 50

Rethink Humble Decorations

Acqua Photo

Balloons have long been used to fill party spaces at low cost. For a sophisticated feel, opt for a few large balloons instead of masses of birthday-party-style ones. Those with a diameter of 36 inches have an elegant globe shape.

27 of 50

Put Big Smiles on Little Faces

Johnny Miller

Young guests will enjoy goodies that are all theirs. Give budding brainiacs a potted succulent pet (they're resilient enough for youngsters to care for) and magnifying glasses to inspect their new green friends. Spark creativity by offering coloring books, crayons, and colored pencils.

28 of 50

Decide If You Want Your Arrival to Be Announced

KT Merry

If you love the tradition of following your bridal party into the reception to an upbeat song like "Happy" or "Best Day of My Life," work out the details with your DJ or bandleader.

29 of 50

Eschew the Receiving Line

bride and groom walking into wedding reception tent embellished with draped lights and greenery
Rachel Havel

If you will be hosting more than 50 people, the traditional meet-and-greet can take an hour or more. For groups of this size, it's more gracious of the newlyweds to thank guests by visiting every table.

30 of 50

Plan the Toasts

bride and groom champagne toast
Paige Vaughn Photo

An unplanned ramble can interrupt the flow of a party and make everyone uncomfortable. Encourage spur-of-the-moment speeches at the rehearsal dinner so the reception includes only words from the host, the newlyweds, and the best man and maid of honor. If you're concerned that your speakers may overindulge, schedule toasts to take place early in the festivities.

31 of 50

Break the Ice

guests laughing
Elizabeth Messina Photography

At a less formal reception, a short written quiz about you and your new husband, with questions about where you met and how he proposed, can get conversation started between guests who don't know one another.

32 of 50

Add Thoughtful Extras

purple tufted wedding chairs with gold legs and fan on the seats
Jessica Mangia

A few small comfort items are always appreciated. Consider stashing a basket of inexpensive slippers near the dance floor for women who are tired of their high heels. Have hand lotion, tissues, or hairspray in the restrooms. At an outdoor fête, stock sunscreen, bug repellent, paper fans, and perhaps even a few cozy wraps for the women in case of a sudden evening chill.

33 of 50

Restrain Yourselves

sparklers lit on a wedding night
Bo Shim Photography

Less is more when it comes to a wedding reception, so consider ditching the 30-minute video montage or the fireworks display for something less elaborate. Even a gesture as simple as distributing sparklers at night's end can charm guests and keep them from feeling overloaded.

34 of 50

Keep Your Helpers Happy

Aaron Delesie

Your hospitality should extend to photographers, videographers, waiters, and musicians, as well as any other vendors working at your reception. Make sure they have water, scheduled breaks, and, most important, a meal. It need not be the same one that you're serving to guests, but it should be nourishing and delicious.

35 of 50

Offer Small Amusements

Dana Fernandez

Unexpected entertainment is wonderful when your guests tire of dancing. A portrait station of do-it-yourself Polaroids, a cigar roller, or a strolling palm reader can offer a touch of surprise and whimsy.

36 of 50

Have Fun with Finger Food

wedding cocktail hour appetizers on wooden serving tray
Jennie Raff Photography

Hors d'oeuvres are best when they are easy to serve and eat. And since you're offering a choice, go ahead and pick something exotic; plan on about six options and six pieces per person.

37 of 50

Show Off a Beautiful Cake

Jessica Claire

You may be able to afford a premium baker even on a tight budget. Skip labor-intensive iced decorations and ask for a simpler style, then dress it up fresh flowers or ribbon. Be sure the flowers you use are food safe and pesticide-free. You'll also need to figure out when to cut the cake. Usually it's served right after it's cut as dessert or after dessert.

38 of 50

Be Seated

wedding menu and meal
Blaine Siesser

If your budget allows, pamper guests with a plated meal instead of a buffet—it's an especially nice gesture. If you'd prefer a buffet, be sure to have enough serving stations to prevent long lines, and ask your caterer to prepare and serve plates of food for any elderly guests in attendance. Don't forget to give your caterer the guest count about two weeks before the wedding day, after the last of the RSVPs have arrived.

39 of 50

Set Up a Nonalcoholic Bar

six different wedding mocktails
This Modern Romance

For an event that includes many children or abstaining adults, consider having a separate table with sparkling and flat water, as well as a spirit-free version of your signature drink if you're serving one.

40 of 50

Streamline the Bar

Heather Waraksa

There's no need at many weddings to stock your bar with a full selection of liquor. A red and a white wine, a sparkling wine, and a signature cocktail are plenty, and they're economical to boot. You can also create a signature drink that's festive and personal to you and the groom.

41 of 50

Stick With One Entree

Elizabeth Messina Photography

It's perfectly acceptable (and more budget-friendly) to offer a single entree instead of letting guests choose from among a few. Arrange to have a "silent" vegetarian option on hand in case people ask for it.

42 of 50

Limit Your Courses

wedding food on white plate with pastel blue tablecloth
Anya Kernes

Unless the meal will be the focus of the evening, as with an intimate party at a five-star restaurant, your menu can consist of an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert (the last could even be the wedding cake).

43 of 50

Serve a Mini Meal

in-n-out burgers on white tray at wedding reception
Matoli Keely

If you choose to have an after-party, you'll need to provide refreshments, such as a light buffet of snacks or breakfast treats. Plan on enough for about one-quarter to one-third of your total original invitees.

44 of 50

Have It Both Ways

bride grabbing mic from reception dj
Masson Liang

Can't decide—or can't agree—on whether to have live entertainment or a DJ? Split the difference and hire musicians for cocktails and a disc jockey for dancing. You should also ask them what they're going to wear. Most DJs or bands will don tuxedos or suits, but it's best to clarify attire with them to avoid surprises. For a casual event, such as a beach reception, you may want them in something less formal.

45 of 50

Build the Best Band

wedding band on the stage
Shannon Moffit Photography

If you're hiring a cover band, a good one requires at least seven pieces. A male and a female vocalist, plus guitar, bass, keyboard, trumpet or sax, and drums generally make the most versatile combination.

46 of 50

Offer Music Guidelines

grooms first dance on the dance floor wearing matching white jackets
Rebecca Theresa Photography

If there are specific songs you must hear, make a list beforehand for your band or deejay. Are there tunes you absolutely don't want? Draw up a do-not-play list, as well. Also, check that the venue has enough power and outlets for the musicians. You don't want an electrical outage to stop the music!

47 of 50

Keep Mealtime Tunes Soft

La Vie Photography

If your entertainers aren't taking a break during this time, they should be considerate of diners by turning down the mike and avoiding any energetic selections.

48 of 50

Toss and Throw

bride during bouquet toss
Kurt Boomer

Decide if you'll do a garter toss and bouquet throw.

49 of 50

Depart in Style

couple exiting while guests hold ribbons
Stetten Wilson

Ask your site manager beforehand whether rice, rose petals, sparklers, and the like are allowed. When it comes time to leave, have someone round up guests and pass out props, then say a heartfelt goodbye.

50 of 50

Show Appreciation

thank you card and envelope

Make sure you've designated someone, such as the best man, to distribute gratuity envelopes you've prepared at party's end. You'll need to tip all service providers, including the catering and reception staff (unless gratuity is added to the total bill), cleanup crew, and limousine drivers.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles