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Cocktail Reception, The Missing Elements

Not long ago, I wrote a post that depicted the normal flow and timeline for a NJ style wedding reception. I promised discussion about some other styles, the first being the cocktail reception. Although I am not 100% certain, I believe the cocktail reception is a format more common to the south and southeastern parts of the US. Each year, couples are trying to tie in elements of a cocktail reception, which is fantastic. With the change in traditions, though, it’s important to expect different results and in order to achieve certain results, it is important to include certain elements.

what is a cocktail reception?

Two words that come to mind when I think of a cocktail reception are elegant and casual. These words probably shouldn’t be used together… unless they are describing different parts of the reception, which here they are. The word elegant is completely a subjective description of the cocktail reception. Honestly, a backyard BBQ, by some standards, qualifies as a cocktail reception. One obvious difference is elegance.

Secondly, casual characterizes the itinerary or flow of the reception. According to The Webster’s Dictionary, casual means relaxed. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a plan or expect to have certain highlights of the celebration. Rather, you should not expect these highlights (ie, a first dance, cake cutting, speeches, etc) to happen at too particular of a time. Let the feeling of the reception move at it’s own pace. Use the music/entertainment to influence without instructing.

Keeping these two ideas in mind, I’d like to bring your attention to a few elements to keep in mind when planning a true cocktail reception. First, keep your guests informed. Any invitation specialist agrees that the invitation is a telling piece. It can relay a feeling, specify attire, describe the event (either literally or more subtly). Email makes communicating with your guests especially easy. Who says you can’t send your guests an email telling them how excited you are about the celebration? Inform them about the setting and style of the reception.

The second element seems to be the characteristic of a cocktail reception that many couples overlook. Assigned seating, or the lack there of. There should be no assigned seating to entice guests to move around, find a place to sit for a bit while encouraging guests to mingle and meet each other.  I believe this is the single most important element of a cocktail reception, yet it’s the characteristic that is most often neglected.  Mainly, don’t tell your guests where they are to be or sit… give them the freedom to do as they please. While you will not need enough seating for everyone (to sit at one time), you need to make sure their are places for guests to relax. 

You also want to make sure there are plenty of places for guests to place a glass or plate.  Tall cocktail round tables can be an excellent inclusion because they encourage people to stand while providing them with a place for their food and/or drink. Another substitute to traditional round tables are short tables such as end or coffee tables. These types of tables compliment lounge seating very well, which is the preferred type of seating for some cocktail receptions.  Incorporating some unique table arrangements and seating patterns can go a long way.

Eye candy! There should be plenty for your guest to do and/or look at. Unique decorations, pictures, video/photo montages, scenery (such as beaches, gardens, pools, ponds, or facility decor), lighting, the list goes on. The more there is for guests to see, do and talk about, the more successful this style of reception will be.

The food served should be a combination of cocktail type foods and some more substantial cuisine. For example, have some hors d’oeuvres passed throughout the first portion of the reception and have a carving station open up after a while. Perhaps in another area or 20 minutes later, have another station open. Have mini entrees served. Mini would be a good word to keep in mind when planning the food for a cocktail reception.


Lastly, the music. The music for a cocktail reception should reflect the style of the bride and groom while complimenting the atmosphere of the location you have chosen. The music should be chosen to accompany the natural flow of the evening and to stimulate guests senses when appropriate. When it feels like the evening should move to dancing for example, your entertainment shouldn’t slam on some dance music. It’s likely the music will need to build to get people in the mood. Should you be having a cocktail reception, more than any other type, it is important to hire an experienced DJ or band that knows how to read a crowd. Try finding entertainment that focuses on music and programming more so than interaction and involvement.

So, what is a cocktail reception? A cocktail reception is a relaxed gathering of your closest friends and family. There should be lots of small (mini) food throughout the reception. There should be music to accompany the atmosphere and that will influence guests to mingle and dance when appropriate. Without assigned seating, the guest should have a free flowing feeling that encourages mingling and strolling around while enjoying the music, decor, and design of the reception.





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