50 Tips for the Perfect Reception

Martha Stewart Weddings, Fall 2007

The exchange of vows may be at the heart of your nuptials, but if you're like many brides-to-be, you've already started to focus much of your energy on the celebration afterward. It's no wonder. Not only does the postceremony party take up the most amount of time on the wedding day (typically five hours), it also tends to eat up the biggest portion of your overall budget -- about 40 percent to 50 percent. To make matters more stressful, a reception requires you to consider a seemingly endless array of details and logistics. There's the menu to draw up, the space to dress up, and a slew of other choices to make, from favors and flavors of icing to when to send your save-the-dates. A few ideas on how to save some money here and there wouldn't hurt either. Take a deep breath. The job may be big, but it doesn't have to be tough. The key is to think like a professional. Here are dozens of tricks designed to make your planning easier and ensure that you pull off an affair to remember. So without further ado, let's get this party started.

1. Take Stock of Your Location
Do a walk-through of your venue as soon as you're able, noting features to highlight -- a grand staircase or a grove of trees, perhaps -- and areas that need to be spruced up or downplayed. Above, photographed at Oheka Castle Hotel and Estate in Huntington, New York. Floral arrangements by Livia Cetti for the Green Vase; tent from Sperry Tents. Tables, chairs, table linens, and place settings from Water Mill Party.

2. Get Glowing
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.

3. Dress Up Your Entryway
Beautiful front-door decorations, which can be as low-key as swags of greenery, 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. Below, garland, topiary, and centerpieces by Livia Cetti for the Green Vase. Tent from Sperry Tents. Tables, chairs, table linens, and place settings from Water Mill Party.

4. Work with What You Have
An all-white theme won't do in a hotel ballroom papered in red and gold, nor does it make sense to try to transform a rustic lodge into the Crystal Palace.

5. Choose a Theme
Whether it's a monogram, a color pairing, or a food or flower that evokes a favorite place, a repeated element helps to both personalize and unify your event.

6. Don't Overlook Small Details
A few well-placed touches, such as monogrammed cocktail napkins or an interesting charger, can go a long way toward making your party look extra-special.

7. Think Outside the Box
A silver bowl of sugared 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.

8. Size Up Your Centerpieces
Keep floral arrangements and other table decor under 14 or over 20 inches high, so guests can view and converse with each other across the table.


Planning and Logistics
9. Build in Flexibility
Look for ways that allow you to change things easily at the last minute. The seating cards below keep names and table numbers separate, so you can shift guests' assignments without having to rewrite the cards. Left, calligraphy by Gail Brill.

10. Tackle Big Tasks First
Your immediate "to do" list: Book the venue, hire a caterer, decide on basic decor. With these major tasks done, you'll be ready to focus on the smaller details.

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

12. Send Save-the-Dates
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.

13. Invite Carefully
Be prepared: Up to 80 to 90 percent 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. Get It in Writing
Make sure you have signed contracts from all your vendors and that you've read the fine print and resolved any questions.

15. Map Out Your Space
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).

16. Arrange for a Backup
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.

17. 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.

18. Don't Let the Seams Show
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 decor before the crowd arrives.


19. Whip Up Affordable Favors
Stylish tokens needn't be expensive. These biodegradable bowls (left and below) look sumptuous when wrapped with gauzy fabric and labeled with paper strips that are laser printed in a pretty font. Fill with mini meringues, an economical treat; either make them yourself or ask your caterer to provide them.

Espresso Swiss Meringues

20. 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.

21. Narrow Your Tables
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. Reuse Your Blooms
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. Play with Time
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.

24. Consider a Full-Service Deal
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. Stay in One Place
Have your wedding and reception in the same location. You'll spend less on decor as well as on transportation costs for you and your wedding attendants.

26. Rethink Humble Decorations
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. Put Big Smiles on Little Faces
Young guests will enjoy goody bags that are all theirs. Fill a toteable container like ours with treats that aren't messy, such as age-appropriate toys, or animal crackers and Smarties. Add paper and washable crayons, and kids might even create one-of-a-kind cards for the bride and groom. Left, photographed on location at Oheka Castle Hotel and Estate in Huntington, New York. Flower-girl dresses by Bella Bliss. Satin slippers by Rachel Riley. Hyacinth hair wreaths by Livia Cetti for the Green Vase.

28. Eschew the Receiving Line
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.

29. Tame the Toasts
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.

30. Break the Ice
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've never met.

31. Set a Time Limit
Your guests have already spent hours, if not days, at prewedding 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.

32. Add Thoughtful Extras
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 hair spray in the restrooms. At an outdoor fete, stock sunscreen, bug repellent, paper fans, and perhaps even a few cozy wraps for the women in case of a sudden evening chill.

33. Restrain Yourselves
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. Keep Your Helpers Happy
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. Offer Small Amusements
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.


Food and Drink
36. Have Fun with Finger Food
Hors d'oeuvres are best when they are easy to serve and eat. You're offering a choice, so go ahead and pick something exotic; plan on about six options and six pieces per person. Vegetable spring rolls (left) by Callahan Catering.

37. Show Off a Beautiful Cake
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 with ribbon and fresh flowers. Be sure the flowers you use are food safe and pesticide free. Wedding cake (below) by Cheryl Kleinman.

38. Be Seated
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.

39. Set Up a "Nonalcoholic" Bar
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. Streamline the Bar
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 (like the "mintinis") are plenty, and they're economical to boot. Below, photographed on location at Oheka Castle Hotel and Estate in Huntington, New York. Bar design and drinks by Callahan Catering. Floral garlands by Livia Cetti for the Green Vase.

41. Stick with One Entree
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. Limit Your Courses
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. Serve a Mini Meal
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. Have It Both Ways
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.

45. Build the Best Band
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. Offer Guidelines
If there are specific songs you must hear, make a list beforehand for your band or DJ. Are there tunes you absolutely don't want? Draw up a do-not-play list as well.

47. Keep Mealtime Tunes Soft
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. Ask What They'll 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.


Wrapping It Up
49. Depart in Style
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. Left, photographed on location at Oheka Castle Hotel and Estate in Huntington, New York. Gown by Redux Charles Chang-Lima for Mark Ingram. Veil by Kleinfeld. Bride's shoes by Valentino. Groom's suit by J.Crew.

50. Show Appreciation
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.

Cocktail hour starts.
The bride and groom enter the reception, are formally announced, and usually have their first dance.
If the reception is a sit-down meal, the first course is served. The host's welcome and best man's toast kick things off.
The main course is served.
The bride and groom dance with their parents, and guests join in.
The cake is cut.
Cake and dessert are served.
The bouquet is tossed.
The bride and groom depart.


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