How Do I Create A Cocktail Wedding Reception? – Ask The Wedding Expert Answer

Question from Leah:

Hi!  I recently decided to do a cocktail style reception for my wedding.  We have too many guests for a sitdown dinner at our venue and don’t want to cut our guest list.  I was wondering if you have some ideas on how to keep the reception “wedding like?”  We want the elegance of a sitdown dinner and want to incorporate some of the traditional components to a reception (ie. announcement of the wedding party, toasts/speeches, cutting of the cake, etc) I would like to have a head table still but don’t know how to do that because we are unable to have enough tables and chairs for all our guests. Do you have ideas on how to keep the ‘wow factor’ and have guests talking about the reception when most of them want the traditional sit down dinner?  What are some unique ideas for the coctail reception?

Answer from Wedding Expert Angela:

Hi Leah, and congratulations on your upcoming wedding.  A cocktail style wedding reception is by its nature less formal than a sit-down dinner.  A cocktail reception does not have a meal, although hors d’ouevres are typical.  At a cocktail reception, everyone will be standing, and as a result, will not stay as long as at a reception where people can sit.  In addition, you need to make accommodation for anyone elderly who does need to have to sit down.  Cocktail receptions usually do not have a head table. 

Most cocktail receptions are held at art galleries, museums, formal gardens or the like.  Beverages and hor d’ouevres are served while people walk around and visit with each other, but the focus is on the location.  Walking through a gallery, or a formal garden will give your guests something to do since they can’t sit down.  Whenever I have attended a cocktail reception in a single room without chairs, it has never lasted more than one and a half hours.  You will need to consider that in your plans.  People expect to be able to sit down, get tired when they can’t, and leave.  We are a sedentary society.

As the “host” of the party, the comfort of your guests is your number one consideration.  Would YOU be comfortable standing an entire evening while eating, drinking and dancing?  Have you spoken to your reception venue?  They are the experts in receptions, and they may have some alternatives for you.  Groupings of arm chairs and sofas to create conversation areas throughout the reception room might be nice way to allow people to sit.  Your reception site might have this available to you.  I would speak to them about your plans, and get their input.  They know their business, and can best advise you as to what seating they have available to you.

I have attended many cocktail receptions, and the biggest WOW factor occurred at a formal garden.  They had the entire garden lit with torches, and path-lights.  There were “wine stations” throughout the garden along the paths, and two groups of musicians playing different styles of music at different ends of the garden.  There were waiters and waitresses walking around bringing hors d’ouevres and wine to the guests.  At the centre of the garden was beautiful patio seating where the older guests sat.  Along the paths were benches, so people could sit a bit before moving on.  Everyone mingled, talked about the gardens, and total strangers spoke with each other about the gardens and how beautiful everything was.  People stayed the entire evening.  The people I attended the event with still talk about how beautiful and magical that reception was. 

So what made it so successful?  There was always something new to see and do.  Guests could sit for a bit before moving on to something new again.  There was seating and a clear dance area around each group of musicians.  The waiters and waitresses were personable, and informed about the hors d’ouevres and the gardens and added to the conversation.  There was a bit of a ceremony at one point in the reception, which gathered  the group together at the centre of the garden.  After the official part of the reception, about 1/4 of the guests left, but the rest remained and continue to enjoy themselves.  By this time, there was a place for almost everyone to sit. 

Somehow you need to find a way to get seating into the room.  You can get away with not having tables, but you need seating of some kind.  The best solution is groupings of furniture strategically placed throughout the room.  Speak to your reception venue to see what is available to you for your number of guests. 

If you are just in a single room for your reception, you need to keep people engaged and interested in the proceedings.  A good DJ can do this through special dances, and other activities.  I have seen magicians at a wedding reception wandering the room, entertaining people.  There are many things that can be done, but first you need to get the venue seating resolved before anything else can be decided. 

Good luck.  I am interesed in how you finalize your plans, and would welcome an email from you again.

Angela Fiebelkorn, Ask The Wedding Expert


  1. Great articles!

  2. Antoinette says:

    hi,i m antoinette.i m planing to have a cocktail wedding.i will to from what time we have to start and when to stop.i will have 50 to 100 guest .it will something new for my guest and i don t wante them to be will like to have ideas from you.thanks

  3. Unqie Receptions says:

    While you pose an interesting point, I think cocktail receptions are unique and if you have a single room there is always room for a few leather couches, lounge style seating. I don’t see a wedding lasting an hour and a half because of standing. That’s a bit of a harsh scenario.

  4. You do have a point. But wedding receptions are predominantly family and as a result are older than the couple getting married, and standing for long periods of time for them is more difficult than for younger people. That is why I made that point. Imagine your aunts, uncles, and grandparents standing for hours.

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