Written by Stephanie Seija | Photography by Photography by Lauryn
Your reception should be the pinnacle of your perfect day! Whether you’re hosting an intimate affair or a massive celebration, the reception is where your guests get to let loose and enjoy themselves. There are multiple ways to make your party unique — try one of our suggestions or come up with something that fits even better with your soirée. Mixing it up will leave your guests with extra-special memories of their time celebrating you and your big day.
START WITH A BANG
Have you ever arrived at a wedding reception and felt a bit awkward at first? Maybe you weren’t quite sure where to hang out, where to put your purse or what you were supposed to be doing. This is not the time to get a slow start on the fun — this is your chance to make sure your guests immediately feel welcomed, engaged and ready to party!
One way to make a good first impression for your guests is to ensure the music is scheduled to start before anyone arrives and that bar service is up and running from the get- go. You want everyone to feel like they have arrived at the peak of the party even though it’s just started. Also provide clear markers or signs to let people know what they have the opportunity to do. For instance, you could kick off the evening with a sip and sample of local brews or you could bring in a special musical guest for your cocktail hour entertainment. Set up any interactive elements so that people can jump right in and aren’t afraid to go for it when they arrive.
GET CREATIVE WITH YOUR TABLE ARRANGEMENTS
Who said you had to go with the traditional round tables? A lot of venues now offer rectangle or square tables, and this opens up so many possibilities for how to arrange your space! Set rectangular tables up end- to-end for long banquet or “feasting” tables, or put two tables together by their long side to form a big square. An alternative table arrangement can even help you create seating pods for family groups to encourage social distancing in a creative way.
Do you want everyone to feel like they’re close to the action? Set all of your tables along the edge of the dance floor by making L-shapes or a U-shape so that nobody has to be relegated to the back corner of the room. Rectangular table arrangements also allow for unique centerpieces and décor, like long table runners or statement candles spanning the whole length of the table. Or you can even talk to your florist about featuring hanging florals or swagging fabric above the tables for a whimsical effect.
Don’t let your imagination stop with the tables. You can even re-think the typical banquet chairs as well. Check with your venue or rental company about different options — depending on your aesthetic, you may like wooden chiavari chairs, modern acrylic chairs or vintage metal chairs. Although they’re often overlooked, chairs are certain to be visible in any reception photos and will be in the background while people dance. A little attention to these details really pays off!
CREATE A LOUNGE SPACE
Sometimes your guests may want to take a break from the excitement and noise of the dance floor for a more intimate conversation. Perhaps there’s a little down-time between your ceremony and reception, and guests have a few minutes to themselves before the festivities really ramp up. Or maybe your grandma just doesn’t want to stand for the entire cocktail hour. Whatever the reason, creating a lounge area for your guests is a really nice touch. You want people to feel comfortable, and sometimes that means giving them a place to take a breather.
But where can you create this chill space? Scout your venue for tucked- away corners or small side rooms. Create your own VIP lounge by roping off a quiet corner with fabric or folding screens. Does your venue already have a couch or two you can use? Ask which items can be moved to your location of choice, or check with your rental company for additional seating options.
Going for something unexpected? If the climate allows, host your lounge area outside! Encourage your guests to spread out and enjoy the fresh air by creating a comfy space on the lawn, in a courtyard or at any outdoor space your venue has to offer. An open-air lounge is a great place to include a cigar bar, so that your man has something special to check off his wedding wish list. Or maybe you’re going for a rustic farm feel, and you can offer fire pits and lawn games in your outdoor space. The sky’s the limit!
PROVIDE PHOTO OPS
Everyone loves taking photos at weddings — they are dressed to the nines and they’re having the time of their lives with some of their favorite people! Photo booths have been a staple at weddings for a while, and the trend isn’t going away anytime soon. Take your photo booth props to the next level and think about ways to make them personal. Create signs featuring your wedding hashtag or life- size cardboard cut-outs of you two or your pets. The laughs will be worth it!
Another swoon-worthy photo moment could come from a statement backdrop, like a dramatic flower wall, a custom neon sign or hanging paper elements like origami cranes. Does your venue offer a gorgeous view? Help people take advantage of it by providing a wooden arch to frame the picturesque scenery behind it (you could even repurpose your ceremony arch). Help people look their best by providing photo-ready lighting at any particularly pretty spot, like setting up an iPad with a ring light attached to the stand for picture-perfect group selfies.
CRAFT CULINARY DELIGHTS
Think outside the box when it comes to food. Late-night snacks are a fun surprise for your guests, who are bound to be hungry after a night of dancing. Celebrate Chicago (and delight your out-of-town guests!) by offering snacks like Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza, tins of Garrett’s Popcorn or mini Chicago hot dogs. Or remind people of your love story by offering cuisine that recalls special moments in your relationship, like the dish you shared on your first date or the dessert you enjoyed from your favorite restaurant the night your partner popped the question.
Presentation is key when it comes to culinary elements. Why serve treats on a table when you can serve them from a food truck? Trucks aren’t reserved for street food anymore — go wild and serve s’mores, champagne or cake pops from a truck. You can even keep your impressive food element a surprise for a big wow moment when you finally unveil it!
Do you want your reception to be one- of-a-kind? There’s no better way than to have some personalized elements for people to enjoy and take with them when the night is over. Whether that looks like favors featuring custom engraving or a monogrammed dance floor, these little touches add a personal element that will not go unnoticed. You could also mix up some custom cocktails with a personal backstory based on you and your partner’s favorite tastes or memories as a couple. Be sure to give your custom cocktails creative names and display an inviting sign for the “drink specials” of the night.
MUSIC SETS THE MOOD
Music sets the tone for your entire evening. Hiring a live band can be an elegant option for those hosting a glam celebration. You’re not only treating your guests to a nice meal, but you’re also inviting them to an incredible concert! People are guaranteed to dance when live music is playing.
If you choose a DJ, make sure you find a really good fit. A DJ is so much more than someone pressing “play” — a good DJ will help control the flow of your whole celebration, act as an emcee for announcements and react to what’s happening to set the pace for a perfect party. Choose music everyone will enjoy, no matter their age. If you really want to bump and grind, save that for the later part of the night when many older guests have already called it quits. Or you can even ask for guests’ song requests on their RSVP cards so that they’re sure to get really fired up when you play “their” song.
GET YOUR GAME ON
Is your family really not the dancing type? Or maybe you want to entertain your guests while encouraging social distancing and a dance floor would attract too large a crowd? No matter the size or scope of your wedding, you can find unique ways to keep your guests busy with activities or a live performance. You could feature alternative entertainment like a stand-up comedian, an illusionist act or a group of aerialists. If keeping people happily (and safely) in their seats is the goal, you have plenty of opportunities to delight your loved ones from afar. Would you like to give your guests ways to engage and play a part in your celebration? Scatter interactive elements throughout your venue to offer fun activities everyone will want to take part in. Display a “Words of Wisdom” box and ask your loved ones to write down marriage advice or date ideas. Set up a scavenger hunt with clues to various items or information that guests need to collect before the night is over. You could even turn it into a photo scavenger hunt and encourage people to post their pics to social media with your wedding hashtag.
For fun-loving couples who want the games to take center stage, try hosting a trivia or bingo tournament. Your DJ could ask trivia questions about you and your honey and invite guests to call out their answers. Who knows the couple best? Or set up a few rounds of wedding bingo with personalized boards. Up the ante and make it a drinking game — whenever guests hear a certain phrase during speeches, they take a swig! Think of some good prizes to offer the winners. They don’t need to be big or elaborate. They could simply be a special dance with the couple, a shout-out from the DJ or a deluxe version of your wedding favors.
GO ALTERNATIVE WITH YOUR GUEST BOOK
Gone are the days when couples ask guests to simply write their names in a book. When will you ever look at that again? Instead, give your party- goers the opportunity to help create a keepsake or piece of home decor that you will actually cherish! You could instruct your guests to sign a piece of fabric that you plan to later turn into an heirloom quilt. Or have them write a note on a painted wooden wall sign that commemorates your wedding date or your new last name.
Take your guest book idea to the next level by incorporating photos and video. Ask your friends to leave a video message on an iPad that you have set up by a picturesque background. Place a few Polaroid cameras around your venue — they’re not only fun to use but they also leave you with beautiful memories of the day that you couldn’t have captured on your own. You can even make a scrapbook or other display with them afterward! Make sure you instruct your guests to write a little note on the back so you’ll always remember who captured the special moments.
INCORPORATE SPECIAL DANCES
In addition to the traditional parent- child dances and your first dance as a couple, there are other ways to create memorable dance moments. See who’s been in love the longest by asking everyone to get on the dance floor. Then instruct your DJ to shout out anniversary years (“if you’ve been married more than five years, stay on the dance floor”) and keep going up and up until the longest-married couple is still standing! This is a cute way to celebrate the couples in your lives who have walked this road before you and are still just as in love as ever.
Some religious and cultural traditions include special dance events as well. With the “Money Dance,” guests will shower the couple with cash (sometimes even pinning bills to their outfits!) in order to dance with the newlyweds. In the Jewish tradition, guests celebrate the couple by dancing the “hora” around them while lifting the new spouses up on chairs. The “Sangeet” is an Indian tradition which entails an entire pre-wedding celebration revolving around a dance- off between the couple’s families. Pump up your party and elevate the dancing!
KEEP THE PARTY GOING
Who said the party has to stop when the reception is over? When guests have traveled long distances to attend, they don’t just want to go back to their hotel room when they still have energy to party. Many couples set up an official after-party following the formal reception. The best part is that you can duck out whenever you feel like it! Catching an early plane for your honeymoon the next morning? Show up to say hello, then head back to your room for some much-deserved R&R while your guests enjoy themselves into the wee hours of the night.
Where is the best place to plan an after-party? If you’ve organized a wedding block, the hotel where most of your guests are staying is an obvious choice. That means people won’t have to drive once they’ve had a few drinks, and it also allows people to sneak back to their rooms to freshen up. Most hotels with guest accommodations can convert their ballrooms into a space for a late-night party. If you’re looking to help your guests loosen up a bit and really have fun, hotel parties are among the safest and easiest options.
A bar or club can also be a perfect location for after-party festivities. Maybe there’s a pub where you always hang out as a couple. If you’re regulars somewhere, they’d probably be happy to host your after-party — they may even offer you drink specials or wrist- band service. It’s even better if they have bar grub for late-night munchies. Just make sure your favorite joint can comfortably accommodate a large group, or cap the guest list and make it an exclusive invite-only event.
OFFER VIRTUAL FESTIVITIES
Will you have some guests who are not attending your celebration in person? Bring the reception to them so every special guest feels included! Send a customized mini bottle of champagne so they can raise a glass and make a toast, or mail a party package filled with individually-wrapped versions of your wedding dessert. You could even have your florist ship them a bouquet that matches yours so that your guests can set up a beautiful remote “reception.” Or send a cardboard cut-out of you and your honey so that they can still take pictures with the happy couple! Any way you can make your far-away family members feel close is a priceless gesture they’ll never forget.
REFLECTING YOUR STYLE IS MOST IMPORTANT
Your wedding is all about inviting your closest loved ones and friends to join you in celebrating your most important day. Incorporating unique elements will just elevate the vibe you’ve chosen! When you plan a soirée that reflects your personality as a couple, your guests are sure to have a night to remember.