Reception Timeline: How to Make It All Go Smoothly

by Kristin Hull | March 14, 2012

dallas wedding, dallas bridal, bridal dallas, wedding in dallas, dallas wedding planners, dfw events by alexThanks to Alex Stein, Owner/Certified Wedding Planner of DFW Events by Alex for answering today’s reader question:

How should I schedule and organize my reception? Is there an order to plan the first dance, father-daughter and/or mother-son dances, cake cutting, toasts, bouquet toss, and garter toss?

These days many couples are steering away from traditional conventions and adding more individuality to their reception plans, especially if the couple is not accepting any financial assistance from parents or other family members. While there is flexibility as to how a reception can be organized and ordered, it’s important to be practical. When creating your reception timeline, consider the following:

1. Do you want to have a receiving line, or allot time to greet guests throughout the reception? If you’re not going to have a receiving line, make sure you plan time to visit and greet guests during the reception.

2. When should you have the first dance? At the start of the reception, the bridal party and/or the couples’ parents, along with the bride and groom can be introduced. After they announce the new Mr. and Mrs., the two of you can flow directly into the first dance or wait until after dinner. This decision should be largely dependent on your reception timeframe and length, as well as the type of dinner service you’re offering. If you’re having a late evening or short cocktail reception, you may want the first dance to happen earlier. If you’re having a served, three-course meal, holding off until after dinner makes the most sense.

3. When should you plan for toasts? Traditionally, if you’re having a seated dinner, champagne (or an alternative beverage) is served as guests are seated, before the appetizer course. An attendant (Best Man) or the bride or groom’s parent(s) may give a welcome speech as guests are seated or as the buffet opens. This is an opportune time for the best man to begin toasts; or you may choose to hold off until guests are finishing up the first course. The maid or matron of honor may deliver a toast directly after the best man. Otherwise, the groom toasts his parents, his new in-laws, and his bride; however, couples may toast together, if they’d like. Lastly, one, or both, of the couples’ parents may want to give a short toast to the newlyweds. Keep in mind that toasts can really eat into your reception time. To avoid any surprisingly lengthy ones, discuss your wishes beforehand with those involved.

4. Decide if you want to have short dance breaks in between courses, or if you’d prefer for the “real party” to start after the formalities. An example of dance interludes between the evening’s events could go as follows: first dance after introducing the bride and groom, appetizer served, father-daughter and/or mother-son dance, guests join in, main course served, dance break, cake cutting, etc. If you’d prefer to start the dancing portion of your reception after dinner, begin with the first dance, move into the father-daughter dance and/or mother-son dance (some couples like to combine the two dances into a single “parents’ dance” to one song, as opposed to having two separate songs for each) Then, invite guests to join in, and let the fun begin!

5. When do you cut the cake? For a seated dinner, the cake cutting takes place before dessert is served. For a buffet, the cake cutting usually takes place near the end of the reception, after some dancing, but before the majority of guests leave.

6. Though customary, the bouquet and garter tosses are optional. If you decide to do one or both, it’s best to plan them at the end of the reception, but while there are still plenty of guests in attendance. Your pre-determined time for the bouquet and/or garter tosses should be a fair estimation, but use your best judgment to determine the actual time on the day of. If you see that the crowd is dwindling, move up the timing. If your timeframe allows, and guests are staying later than you expected, move back the timing. There is not a specific order in which they must occur. It’s up to each couple to decide. About five minutes before you plan on doing either of the tosses, double check that the actual, or “toss” bouquet is in place and that you’re wearing your garter. After the tosses, if you both plan to change into traveling clothes, now would be the time to go to your respective dressing areas to change.

7. The bride and groom’s send-off is the “grand finale,” and it should be the last event that takes place, while there are still a good number of guests in attendance. Again, use your discretion; don’t be afraid to divert from the plan, if necessary. One of the biggest mistakes a couple can make is trying to push their exit to the very last minutes of their reception, especially if it’s a late night reception or a Sunday evening reception. If they wait too long, they may not have as grand a departure as they’d hoped, and their photos will reflect their disappointment. It’s perfectly understandable that the bride and groom want to enjoy every last moment of the dancing and festivities that they and their families have put so much time, money, and effort into over the past months, but consider the following when deciding on a reasonable time for your grand exit:

  • Does your venue contract require all guests and vendors to vacate the premises by a certain time? Many venues specify a “closing time”, usually around midnight. Give your vendors at least an hour to cleanup and clear out to ensure that you don’t exceed your venue rental period and to avoid expensive overtime fees
  • Even after the bride and groom’s departure, guests mingle and may take thirty to forty minutes to gather up their belongings and leave. Older guests may need assistance with transportation. There may be a few guests who’ve had too much to drink and will need to have transportation arrangements made for them, as well. Anticipate these things in advance (such as planning for additional transportation on-site, or designating attendants to assist guests as they’re leaving).
  • For a standard four-hour, evening reception beginning at 7:30 PM, guests start to leave around 9:15 PM. Look at your guest list. Do family members make up the majority, or is it mostly comprised of close friends? Are your guests bringing children? Are these the “stay until the DJ has packed up,” partying type? You know the crowd you’re inviting better than anyone else! It’s better to underestimate your crowd’s willingness to stick around and be surprised, rather than overestimate their intentions and be disappointed.
  • Think about your wedding photos. Although the big send-off lasts only a couple of minutes, it remains one of the most memorable and thrilling events of a wedding. Your photos will serve as everlasting reminders of those final, fleeting moments that sum up the excitement and exhilaration of the entire wedding day experience. When it comes time for the big send-off, if there are only a few people left at the reception, you may be gravely disappointed.

Especially if you are self-coordinating your wedding reception, one of the most important things to remember when scheduling your reception timeline is overestimating is always better than underestimating. Allow enough time in between your scheduled activities for the unexpected; also, don’t forget that you want to be able to enjoy yourself! Leave ample time for mishaps, but also for your own relaxation and enjoyment.