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St. Simons Wedding Planner :: Island Destination Weddings | How to Have an Awesome Cocktail Style Reception
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do you need to seat everyone for your wedding? Cocktail wedding reception event party
Feb 26 2013

How to Have an Awesome Cocktail Style Reception



I’ve been talking to a few colleagues about this growing trend of brides wanting to do a cocktail style reception, yet having very heavy “buffets” that could be classified as a full meal instead of great hors d’oeuvres known as small plates.  We all came to the agreement that some couples unknowingly do their guests a disservice and  “if they have feet, they need a seat

Cocktail Style Reception ideas Photo by Harwell Photography

Photo by Harwell Photography

While I know there are differing opinions on this, but let’s consider the following:

•  If your food requires heavy dinner plates, it’s not necessarily a cocktail style reception, and a table should be offered to accommodate your guests.

•  It is absolutely horrid for guests to arrive at a reception without a seating chart or enough seating.  From someone who sees this a lot– they are very confused and at times frustrated.  From guests who want to sit together may find a table that lacks enough chairs to accommodate their party to being stuck  in an undesirable area that is far away from all the action.  Confusion grows deeper as it is not clearly communicated as to exactly whom is entitled to have one of the coveted tables. People get up and lose their seats which can be even more frustrating.

•  A lot of brides say, “We don’t need seating for every one because… my friends are young” or “they’ll be too busy dancing!” or “I don’t want it to be too formal”.  No one stands the entire time while drinking and dancing at some of the hottest clubs in Hollywood.  Why would you expect them to at your wedding, where they are expected to be treated as guests.  Expecting guests to stand for four hours is unrealistic.

•  It is extremely hard for some guests to juggle a plate of food, drinks, purse and whatever else they are trying to carry and enjoy themselves.  If most of the seated tables and cocktail tables are full, you have guests standing in open spaces trying to find a respite.  With non-wedding cocktail parties, this can work to an advantage, because not everyone is eating at the same time. People may be mingling, dancing, or participating in some other activity. With a wedding, most of your guests will be doing the same thing at the same time.  Be prepared for some guests to leave early.

Wedding Planning Advice Tips Ideas

To be clear, I’m not against cocktail receptions– I think they’re gorgeous, fun and allow for more mingling.  Most cocktail receptions, while lacking formal seating, does offer rest/lounge areas for their guests.  Brides believe that if their venue is small and they overinvite, they can switch to this style seating, under the premise of “not everyone needs a seat”.  A formal seat, no– not necessarily.  Somewhere to sit, absolutely. Here’s how to make it fabulous, but still with the vibrant cocktail party type atmosphere you want:

• You should have tables for at least 75% of your guest list.  You are not just limited full five and six foot tables. Incorporate a mix of different table sizes like cocktail tables, bistro tables  and even a banquet table or two to mix it up.  Offer a few with chairs and stools to give those a break if they need it.

Cocktail Style Reception Ideas

Cocktail Style Reception Seating Ideas

• If you don’t offer seating for everyone, then offer a lounge area where people can still relax, regroup and enjoy a cocktail and food.  Rent lounge furniture or incorporate furniture from your venue.  Make it your own by bringing in your own cushions and centerpieces to complement their furniture.

Wedding Lounge for Cocktail Style Reception

Wedding Lounge for Cocktail Style Reception

Outdoor Wedding Lounge for Cocktail Style Reception Ideas

• Don’t let this become a money issue.  Your guests would probably enjoy being comfortable more than a welcome bag or favor.  When we ask most of our couples what is most important to them on their wedding day, they say, “good food, good music and for everyone to have a good time”.  It can be hard to enjoy the good food from the five star caterer you hired or enjoy the smooth crooning of your 10 piece band if your guests are uncomfortable and frustrated.

•  Have a cocktail style reception because you want to. Not because you have to.  If your space dictates that only a certain amount of people can fit in your venue, be prepared to make the sacrifice.  With cocktail receptions, space and food are major issues.  You need enough room for people to flow in and out of the space comfortably, not spilling out and displaced.  You may have to sacrifice on the full dinner you wanted or cut your guest list down.  If you make the sacrifice, you still have many hearty options available to serve to your guests without them going away hungry.

Mini Burger Mini Grilled Cheese Mini Beer for Cocktail Hour Reception

Mini Fried Chicken and Coke Hors D'oeuvres Cocktail Hour Reception Corn and Crab Salad Hors D'oeuvres Cocktail Hour Reception

• Be sure there is something to do to keep people active and happy.  Naturally, you have your dance floor and your bar.  Some sort of table or seat will keep them busy and give them a place to keep their belongings, but get them to be interactive with games, a photo or video booth, a dessert or popcorn bar  or even a tour of your venue.  The more people have to do, the less they are standing in one spot.

Custom Cornhole for Weddings

Photo by Anna Pociask Photography

Chocolate Dessert Bar for Wedding

Photobooth for Weddings

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  • Great advice! I’m pondering this type of reception and your post provided food for thought. Thanks!

    December 24, 2013 at 9:43 pm
  • Maggie


    I am having a cocktail reception and I’m very concerned about the seating. It is being held on a private yacht…but it is very large, capacity for 400 people. It has 3 levels, we will have about 260 guests attending. After attending my tour and walking around the ship for a while, I decided to have seating at tables for everyone- PLUS the lounge level of the ship has couches and arm chairs and high-top cocktail tables. Do you think I should have a seating arrangement for the main deck that has all the tables?

    February 10, 2014 at 9:32 am
  • Jennifer Norris


    i live in a very large apartment with a living room and dining room that are adjacent to one another. The square footage of the two combined is 745 sq. feet.The reception is rather casual and everyone knows we are working on a budget. Is it necessary to remove all of furniture and just have tables and chairs or can I just add them to the decor (tastefully of course)?

    December 11, 2016 at 10:32 pm
    • Hi Jennifer!

      If the goal is not to incur any additional expense, I would leave large portions of the furniture in the room, but rearrange them. This may entail moving some coffee tables into an inaccessible bedroom, pushing a dining room table against the wall to serve as a buffet or bar, moving the sofa / chair combinations into lounge settings, etc. While you want the intimacy and personality of your space, you also want it to be (for lack of a better term) “a functional function”. If you can incorporate cocktail tables and linens (even if only two), definitely go for it. Spring for great accent lighting through candles and containers with some throw pillows that suit your tastes for a styled touch. Pair with your favorite cocktail and Spotify play list, and you my friend, have a party 🙂

      December 14, 2016 at 8:49 pm
  • Kerri


    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!!

    August 2, 2017 at 10:35 pm
  • Katie


    Hi there… fiancé and I are getting married St. Patrick’s Day 2018. We are having a cocktail reception at 2:00pm in a banquet room at an Irish Pub at the beach. The room fit 140 comfortably with seating, we are inviting about 125, but I’m not sure if I should still do assign seating or forgo some tables and have more pub too tables without seats. The oldest person at the reception will be in their late 60’s so I’m just torn on what to do.

    Also, I man perplexed on how to schedule events at a cocktail reception. The ceremony is at a church down the street at 1:15pm, with a couple pictures to follow. We are doing a light cocktail hour from 2:00-3:00, then being introduced and going to heavier appetizers and the rest of the reception 3:00-6:00. I still want to do the first dance, and parent dances, but not sure when to do them.

    Please help!!!

    October 11, 2017 at 1:47 pm
    • cocktailsdetails


      Hi Katie!

      Congrats to you and your fiancé!

      Your reception sounds like it is going to be an amazing time! I think you should definitely embrace your venue space– the timing and location seemingly precludes anything terribly formal.

      Definitely have some of the Pub’s rounds with seating for the older guests. They will tend to gravitate towards these immediately anyway. Ask the pub if they have any stools for the highboys (most do, even if they don’t bring them out in regular rotation for the restaurant). A mix of the tables will help your guests move around a bit more freely as well as keep with the mingling atmosphere.

      Since your guests will have had a few bites to whet their appetites, you could easily go into your dances immediately after your introductions. You can cut the cake around 4:30 and have your toasts, then continue partying.

      I hope this helps you!

      October 16, 2017 at 11:33 pm
  • Any Vincent


    Hi, I’m so glad to get more information about this! I wasn’t sure if I was being unreasonable. For our reception, we are doing a restaurant buy out with 3-4 food stations. There is seating for 180, we are expecting 170 or so. Should I do a seating chart for this? There are different types of tables (long banquet, bar tables, booths, lounge couches/areas). I don’t want people to be unsure where to go or what to do. I’m hoping everyone will just mingle and have a good time!

    Thanks for everything!

    December 9, 2017 at 6:22 pm
  • Shantay Washington


    This was so helpful! I am planning a cocktail style reception, because I love the concept. It is extremely important my guests are comfortable. Thank you for this reminder!

    May 19, 2018 at 6:46 pm
    • cocktailsdetails


      Our pleasure! So glad that it was helpful. If you need anything just reach out!

      May 22, 2018 at 11:19 pm
  • Pauline



    I stumbled across this thread and I too am in love with the idea of a cocktail style reception!

    My fiance and I are not traditional people. We wanted our wedding day to be adventurous and about us two, so we’re doing the craziest thing we’ve ever done – we’re flying to Iceland in September and are having a small/private ceremony there – either at a private waterfall or at the cliffs of Dyrholaey. Iceland has always been at the top of our bucket list, and it’s the perfect backdrop -exchanging vows there is much more romantic to us than getting married in front of 100+ people. Our immediate families have been very supportive of our idea, so we’re having a big celebration a few months later.

    A formal sit-down dinner isn’t our style either so we’re opting to have a cocktail reception, starting at 7pm. Our venue is a large warehouse which has been converted and remodeled as an urban/industrial loft space, and is approximately 7000 square feet. Our venue is one large, open space and can accommodate up to 400 guests. We’re inviting roughly 250 guests but are expecting a large decline rate since we’re having the party on a Friday evening, the week after new years, so people might be travelling. We’re looking to maybe having 170 guests attend. We plan to have a large dance floor put in, about 5 – 6 furniture lounge sets, as well as a mix of large round tables, high-top tables and small cocktail tables. We plan to have 3 different food items during the 1st hour of tray passed appetizers, and then a succession of food stations (a total of 3), and then a taco truck later in the evening for late-night bites. We’re also having an open bar and desserts. All in all, we’re trying to go for a casual, cocktail attire vibe. I plan on wearing my wedding dress but plan on having it altered to be more party-friendly.

    The thing that I’m really concerned about is how the guests are going to spend time. The whole reason we are doing this type of reception is so that our guests can mingle around versus spending 2+ hours confined to your seat during dinner. It’s also just our style as a couple to have this kind of format. 🙂 I know that my fiance and I will be busy talking to everyone, but I don’t want it to seem like an endless cocktail hour for the rest of our guests. With that being said, we’re going to incorporate some traditional elements into the reception. As our guests are arriving, we might be inside the venue already and mingling with a few people, and at 8pm, our DJ/emcee will formally introduce us as newlyweds as our grand entrance and that’ll segue into our first dance. Shortly after our first dance, the first 2 food stations will open, and light music will be playing (we’re trying to go for a casual, lounge-y vibe). I think maybe 2 hours into the reception, we’ll do first toasts and father-daughter and mother-son dances, and after that, we’ll have the final food station open. At this point, it’ll be around 10pm so I’m hoping everyone will be in a dancing mood by then. Sometime later in the evening, my fiance and I will do a “thank you” speech, perhaps right before the taco trunk comes.

    For activities, we have a few things in mind. We were thinking of buying a bunch of Icelandic postcards and having that as a sort of guest book, where people can write their well wishes. We will also have a photo booth out all night, and are contemplating having a projector set up as a station off to the side, which will play a slideshow of our elopement in Iceland. It’ll be playing on a loop so people can come and go as they please. I read that guests will appreciate seeing photos and it’s a way to include them but I don’t want to have it come off as improper since we didn’t invite people to our elopement. If you have any thoughts or suggestions to our timeline and activities, that would be awesome! I don’t want people feeling bored. It’s a challenge too since a lot of people have never been to an event like this, so I’m definitely nervous on what the reaction will be!

    August 16, 2018 at 7:00 pm
  • Ging


    Any suggestions regarding activities for an upscale adult birthday party reception for 90 people?

    February 5, 2019 at 12:43 pm
  • Sarah


    Hi! My fiancee and I are having our reception in a local science museum that we love. We rented out the whole museum including the outside section from 6 – 10PM. This does include our ceremony, so the reception will really be from about 6:40-10. We were originally planning on doing a sit down dinner in the aquarium part of the museum but decided against that – we’d much rather have that space open for people to walk around and enjoy. So we’ve been thinking about a cocktail reception. However, I know that I still need to provide seating which is just really making me second guess what we should do. There are couple of picnic tables outside as well as a theater room with plenty of seating. But I feel like that may be too far away from all the other guests. Which leads me back to having to put tables throughout the space, but the only area that really allows for that is the aquarium which is exactly what we didn’t want to do. We only have about 55 people coming so not too many. Should I count the picnic tables and the theater room seats in my number of available seating? Or just suck it up and arrange the tables in the aquarium as best I can so people can still walk around there?

    February 16, 2019 at 12:58 pm
    • cocktailsdetails


      Hi Sarah!

      I love, love, love this concept! I think you can keep the picnic tables outside for those who need an escape– there are some guests who honestly, get sensory overload and need a place of respite. For inside, I would use the high cocktail tables some low bistros that are 3 ft rounds. Maybe even some lounge furniture if the budget will allow it.

      I think with the picnic ables and the theatre seating, guests will be too far removed from the event, making it more of a field trip than this wonderful experience with the aquarium as the backdrop.

      I don’t think you’ll need a lot of tables, and certainly not large ones to seat everyone. I think your concept is beautiful!

      February 18, 2019 at 8:06 pm

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