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7 ways to master a cocktail wedding reception

Cocktail wedding reception
We're here to let you in on a little secret: you don't need to have a sit-down reception for your wedding. Whether it's to avoid a budget blowout or simply to give you more time on the d-floor, a cocktail reception might be more your style.
Here's the thing though, a cocktail reception is a totally different ballgame to a seated dinner. Instead of dealing with course timings and seating plans, you'll need to contend with roving platters and guests with sore feet. Don't let that put you off, however, because a cocktail do can be a seriously chic affair. It's elegant, contemporary and will set your day apart. So what do you need to know? For starters, food is key (no one wants to leave their guests so hungry they're forced to make a McDonald's pit stop on the way home). Also, just because you're serving canapés doesn't mean you can do away with tables and chairs completely. To make sure you're up to speed on all things cocktail reception, here are seven must-know tips. Happy planning!

1. Tell your guests what to expect

It might seem like a no brainer, but giving your guests the heads up that it's a cocktail reception is essential. All it takes is a single line on your invitations. Firstly: for the sake of their shoe choice. We've all experienced how quickly one tiny blister can ruin a good night, so it's helpful to let your guests know they’ll be spending a lot of time on their feet (especially if they're not used to trotting around in high heels). Telling your guests your reception is a cocktail do also flags that you won’t be serving a full meal so they don't come with an empty stomach expecting to leave stuffed to the gills. 

2. Guarantee there’s plenty of seating 

Cocktail wedding reception
You may not be having a seated dinner, but that doesn’t mean not giving your guests somewhere to sit. A loose guideline is to provide seats for half of your guests, but that number could be tweaked depending on your venue or guest list (read: older guests absolutely need somewhere to park themselves). It’s also a good idea to provide different kinds of seating. Bar tables and stools are perfect for guests who want to put drinks down, nibble on canapés that need two hands or let their feet have a quick rest. This set-up also won’t squash your relaxed cocktail feels. Having a rustic do? Think about using upturned wine barrels as your tables. 

Another popular option is to create a beautiful lounge area for guests. Use daybeds, chaises and plush sofas to make a super comfortable lounge where guests can hang out or take a break from dancing. To guarantee zero of your guests will have sore tootsies, you could also consider providing bespoke flip-flops for everyone. Your friends and family could arrive in their best kicks but swap into more comfortable (and dance-friendly) footwear when it's time to hit the d-floor.

3. Think about logistics 

You already know that a cocktail reception isn’t like its seated counterpart, and that goes for the logistics too. You won’t have courses to break up the evening so you’ll have to decide when (and how) to do speeches, your first dance, the cutting of the cake and any other formalities. A great MC will work wonders at keeping the pace up – especially if you give them a run sheet. Your MC needs to be able to hold a crowd’s attention and have a knack for giving directions when needed. You’ll also need to think about timings. When is your reception going to start? If it all kicks off in the late afternoon, ask yourself if your guests will expect more substantial fare come dinner time. Usually cocktail receptions are catered for on a pieces-per-head basis, meaning that each guest is allocated a certain number of canapés. To make sure nobody misses out on their share, it’s wise to have a clear idea of exactly how many people you’re expecting. Sure, allow for last-minute cancellations or unexpected circumstances, but try to avoid under-catering. Other logistics to consider include having a back-up venue and organising a coatroom. 

4. Have something for guests to do 

Cocktail wedding reception
We’ll be blunt: standing around chatting for hours can sometimes get a bit tedious, so banish boredom by organising lawn games or other activities for your guests. Having something for your friends and family to do will not only go down a treat with guests who tire of small talk, but also up the fun factor of your reception. It’s a win-win! Your chosen activities will ultimately depend on your venue and style of wedding. Couples getting hitched somewhere with plenty of lawn might hire sets of giant Jenga, oversized chessboards or croquet sets. Having an indoor do? Think photo booths or, one of our favourite new trends, a gif booth. You don’t need much space for either of these, and most can just be set up in a corner. Just make sure you leave space for props and dress-ups!

5. Set the mood with music 

Another ingredient in mastering the cocktail reception is your soundtrack  music is the ultimate mood-setter. It lifts the room and gets the dance floor started, so a DJ or live band will help set the tone for the evening. They'll also be able to play tunes that match up with whatever is happening  speeches, cutting of the cake, etc. One thing to remember is the volume of your soundtrack. After all, your guests' conversations will be the loudest part of your celebration, and you don't want your nearest and dearest having to shout to be heard. Start off with some upbeat favourites to get everyone ready to party, mix it up with some feel-good beats and then move into the tracks that are guaranteed to have your guests busting a move.

6. Make sure there is enough food 

Cocktail wedding reception
This. Is. Important. Cocktail receptions have a reputation for leaving guests hungry. One way to prevent hangry friends and family is by having more than one style of food service. You might have a selection of roving canapés  this guarantees that everyone, not just guests closest to the kitchen, are fed – and some food stations. Your food stations can cover everything from desserts and charcuterie to fresh seafood and cheese. Matt Steele from Cornelius Cheese says cheese is particularly perfect for cocktail weddings. “Cheese is easy, it’s delicious and matches well with lots of wines and beers,” he explains. “Guests can just pop a bit of cheese into their mouth with no mess and no plates. Cheese looks spectacular laid out on a table… An abundance of well-presented food really makes a statement and creates a welcoming vibe at a wedding.”

Your stations can be tailored to your own tastes and could include anything you like as a couple. Matt says he’s even set up make-your-own-toastie bars before. Having someone man your stations will also take them up a notch. “Guests love having an engaging and knowledgeable cheesemonger at the event to help them choose and share a quick anecdote about the particular cheese. I always love hearing stories of the first time a guest tried an iconic cheese while travelling through Europe – it’s a great conversation starter.” 

7. Don’t assume it’s a more budget-friendly option

It's easy to fall into the trap of assuming that not having a plated or multi-course reception will reduce your overall spend. Sometimes it can help cut costs but, much like other aspects of your day, how much you ultimately fork out will depend on a handful of variables. How many canapés are you going to provide per person? Will you opt for a premium beverage package or cut the open bar off at a certain amount? Guests tend to drink more when they're not eating, so while you may save on food costs, your bar tab could skyrocket. Likewise, because venues can naturally accommodate more guests with a cocktail event than with a seated dinner, you may be tempted to increase your guest list. Cue more mouths to feed and more drinks to provide.  

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