The Wedding Reception Timeline – a “How To” Guide
You have taken your vows, received blessings and been announced as the newly married couple. You are on “cloud nine” and you are enjoying good wishes and hugs from family and friends. It is time for the celebratory events to commence. What happens next? And who ensures that it happens? One of the essential tools of wedding planning is the timeline. The timeline answers the questions: “What is supposed to happen and when?” It has been my experience that some brides find the task of crafting this detailed timeline daunting. My clients welcome the timeline as a tool that gives them the opportunity to schedule and plan for traditional wedding reception activities. In this post, I have compiled a timeline, based on a traditional cocktail hour and four-hour reception, to help begin this important planning task.
Pre-Reception – Transportation from Ceremony Location to Reception Venue
For a wedding in which the ceremony and reception take place in different venues – perhaps the ceremony takes place in a church or temple, park or garden, and the reception takes place in a hotel, country club, museum or conservatory, guests must move from one location to another. This transportation is part of the timeline, and may include allowing guests time to drive from one location to the other, or noting the time required for guests to be assembled to board the transit that has been arranged by the wedding hosts.
0:00 – Extra Time Between the Ceremony and Reception – What To Do?
Pittsburgh, like many cities, has a few very popular locations for wedding ceremonies,: an example of such a venue is Heinz Chapel, a beautiful, non-denominational chapel on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. This venue hosts multiple wedding ceremonies each weekend, therefore brides sometimes find that to be married at this lovely venue, they must do so earlier in the afternoon on the day of their wedding, e.g. at 1:00 p.m. or 3:00 p.m. rather than at a more traditional early-evening time. In this case, there may be some time between the end of the ceremony and the beginning of the reception. During this time between the ceremony and reception –a gracious wedding host will plan a gathering or activity for their invited guests. For example, for a recent wedding in late December, for which the ceremony took place at 3:00 p.m. and the reception began at 6:00 p.m. – the family of the bride invited their guests to meet in the lobby of the hotel at which the out-of-town guests were staying between events. The family of the bride also provided transportation from the ceremony venue to the hotel lobby and additional transportation from that hotel to the reception venue. A professional planner can be of great help when addressing this gap in the schedule between ceremony and reception.
01:00 – Cocktail Hour
As the guests arrive at the reception location, they will be greeted warmly and begin mingling with one another during the first hour of the reception – aptly known as the Cocktail Hour. While the wedding guests enjoy pre-dinner refreshments and small appetizers, the newlywed bride and groom, with the wedding photographer in tow, may take this opportunity to be photographed at landmarks in the City. Typically the couple will take the traditional, post-ceremonial formal photos with the bridal party and close family at the ceremony venue, as soon as the ceremony ends. The bride and groom should return to the reception area, no more than an hour later, ready to join family and guests and begin their reception.
02:00 – Guest Seating
As guests enter the reception venue, they encounter what is known as the “Escort Table”. On this table, are, traditionally, small envelopes which are addressed in calligraphy with the name of each couple or single guest that are expected to be in attendance. Everyone that responds to the wedding invitation is included on the guest list and provide with an escort card. Inside each escort card is a small card that identifies the table at which the guest is to be seated for dinner. When the guests arrive at their assigned table, they may or may not find that they have been assigned a seat; seats are assigned using place-cards. Some hosts assign their guest to a table and allow them to select their seats at the table; other hosts may choose to assign both tables and individual seats. The purpose of assigning seats is to make guests feel comfortable, welcome and anticipated. Having to locate a seat without this planning, can make guests feel uncomfortable and insecure, particularly if they do not know many of their fellow guests.
The purpose of the reception is not only to celebrate the new marriage of the bride and groom, but to provide an opportunity for the families and close friends of the bride and groom to become acquainted. Planned reception seating provides the opportunity to seat together family members and friends of the bride and groom who may not yet be acquainted. To make the most of this opportunity, care can be taken to determine which guests might enjoy being seated together. Place-cards in this case are useful and appropriate.
02:15 – The Introduction of the Bridal Party
Here is the moment when you will make your grand entrance as a married couple for the first time. Your wedding planner should be actively guiding guests to be seated for dinner. Once everyone has found their seat, the introductions of both sets of parents and the wedding party will begin. Directly following the introduction of the members of the bridal party, the bride and groom will be announced. The newly married couple enters the reception to as guests stand in their honor.
02:20 – Cheers and Toasts
Following the grand entrance, traditionally, the father of the bride, representing the bride’s family, welcomes everyone to the wedding reception and thanks the guests for taking part in this special day. Once the bride and groom have been seated at the head table or at a “sweetheart” table for two, it is customary for the officiant, or if the officiant is not attending the reception, a member of the bride’s family, to step forward and say a blessing. Next the best man and, if she prefers to do so, the maid of honor will give toasts to the bride and groom. It is important that these toasts be brief, since the wedding guests are waiting to begin the wedding dinner until the speeches have concluded.
02:30 – Time to Eat!
During this period of the reception, the much-anticipated meal will be served. If you and your groom chose a buffet dinner, your wedding planner will coordinate the dismissing of tables in groups to avoid a long wait for guests at the buffet. Guests who are young or elderly should be served their dinner even when a buffet or food station format is elected.
04:00 – Cake Cutting
Guests enjoy watching the bride and groom make the first cut into the wedding cake. Also, the catering staff appreciates having this cake-cutting ceremony earlier in the dinner hour, since the cake is often served for dessert and cannot be served until the bride and groom enjoy the first slice.
04:15 – First Dance, Father and Daughter Dance, Mother and Son Dance
If the couple has chosen to wait for their first dance, now is the time in the evening in which they should take the dance floor. After the bride and groom have finished their romantic first dance, it is typical that the bride and her father engage in their special dance. In my reception timeline, I always allow for both the father of the bride and the mother of the groom to have their own dance separate from one another. You must be mindful of the importance of such a dance to each parent, and respect his and her time in the spotlight.
04:30 – Time to Party!
Congratulations! You have officially made it through the emotionally draining portion of the evening. Now, it is time for your guests to engage in the night’s activities. Remember, the guests will follow your lead as the bride and groom. Once the dinner has been completed and the dishes cleared, you should lead the migration to the dance floor so that guests understand it is time to party. Your wedding planner will occasionally instruct that the music be paused in order to conduct traditional activities such as the bouquet toss and any other activities that you have planned.
05:00 – Cake, Coffee and Desserts
As the dancing and evening celebration begins, the food and beverage staff should prepare the dining for dessert and coffee service. Guests should have time to enjoy their wedding cake and coffee before the most energetic dancing commences. The music during the reception will become louder and of a faster tempo after the dessert and coffee service.
05:15 – DJ, Play That Music
Once the cake has been cut and served, the band leader or DJ should immediately engage the guests in dancing to enhance the party atmosphere.
06:00 – Bouquet Toss and Bride and Groom’s Exit
After a night filled with laughs, and the occasional tears, it is time to bid farewell to your guests. The wedding planner should prompt guests to head towards the foyer or exit for the sendoff. Traditionally, the bride tosses her bouquet just before she and her new husband exit the reception. The bouquet toss is the symbolic “hand-off” of the bridal bouquet to the woman who is to become the next bride, hence this is done as the evening comes to a conclusion, and only single women participate in this tradition.
The bride and groom exit the reception ahead of their guests. Before the bride and groom exit, they say their final goodbyes to their parents privately. As they do so, the planner encourages the guest to form a passage for the bride and groom to walk though as they exit the reception. The guests form lines between which the bride and groom will walk, and they are given paper flower petals or confetti with which to shower the bride and groom as they take their leave.
President, Prima Eventi Event Planning and Production, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania