Wedding receptions can be the most daunting part of planning a wedding. In comparison, the ceremony should seem nice and simple - most of what you have to do during that is dictated by your venue, officiant and legal vows.
But the reception is the time for you to really show off your party planning skills. Let’s be honest for a moment: for your guests, the reception is the real reason they came. Sure, they’re happy and excited for you, but a bar, a free meal, and lots of dancing is all any of us really want. So you need to make sure your reception is not only in keeping with your style and budget, but also keeps the guests fed and happy!
Now, if you’re feeling the pressure after reading that, worry not! We’ve put together an example timeline of what happens during a wedding reception - so you can anticipate the day and start planning ahead to make it the best party anyone’s ever seen!
What Is a Wedding Reception?
Before we discuss the timing of the event, let’s first clarify what the wedding reception actually is. There is some confusion around this term, because it can mean something slightly different at every wedding.
The word reception means the process of receiving something – in this case, receiving the bride and groom, and celebrating their new marriage. So the wedding reception always takes place after the ceremony, after the wedded couple have officially tied the knot.
Some people consider the photos, cocktail hour, and wedding breakfast to be part of the reception. Others, when they talk about the “reception”, are referring only to the evening party (with music, dancing, drinks and a buffet).
In this guide, we’ll consider everything that happens post-ceremony as part of the reception.
Photos, Cocktails and Canapés: 1-2 hours
After you’ve kissed your new spouse, your guests will celebrate as you walk back down the aisle as newlyweds. If you’re having formal photos of the wedding taken by a professional photographer, now is the time to do it.
Likely these photos will involve the wedding party, so keep everyone you need close at hand so they don’t all rush off to the reception. The entire photo session should take between 1 and 2 hours.
The cocktail hour (which, despite its name, is often longer than an hour) typically takes place alongside the wedding photos. This means that guests who can enjoy a drink, a chat, and some canapés while they wait. You may also have some entertainment at this stage, such as a string quartet.
Many couples have said that this is one of the only parts of the day that you’ll have time with just your significant other, so enjoy this as one of the first moment’s alone with your new other half!
The Wedding Breakfast: 2 – 2.5 hours
After the photos, it’s time to start seating all of your guests for the wedding breakfast, which is typically a sit-down meal. You may or may not have a receiving line, where the newlyweds greet each guest as they enter the room.
Once every guest is seated (with the help of a well-designed table plan and place cards), food is served. Wedding breakfasts usually consist of three courses: a starter, main course, and dessert or wedding cake.
Speeches and Toasts: 30 minutes – 1 hour
At some weddings, the speeches and toasts take place before the dessert course. At others, the speeches may be given while guests are eating dessert, or afterwards. It’s up to you.
Traditionally, the speeches and toasts are given by the groom, the best man, and the father of the bride. However, at modern weddings you may well wish other people to speak, such as the bride and the maid of honour. This will of course affect how long the speeches will take.
Each speech ends with a toast to the bride and groom, the wedding party, and/or the guests. Don’t forget to have the staff pour champagne before the speeches begin!
Room Turnaround: 30 minutes – 1 hour
After the wedding breakfast is over, it will usually take between 30 minutes and an hour for caterers to clean up and for the venue staff to turn the room around, ready for the evening reception. The DJ or live band will also use this time to start setting up their equipment.
During this time, guests may either:
• Go home, freshen up and change into a less formal outfit that’s easier to dance in (if they live close enough)
• Or stay on the premises, usually in the garden if the venue has one, or in the bar or another area separate to the dining room. Guests can socialise and drink while the room is being turned around.
If you have invited any evening-only wedding guests, this is when they will start to appear. At most weddings, this is usually around 6-7pm.
The Grand Entrance: 5 minutes
Once your evening guests have all arrived, and the room is ready, it’s time for the evening reception to begin. The coordinator (or usher, or MC) will make sure all the guests have taken their seats and make them aware of the bride and groom’s imminent arrival.
Traditionally, both sets of parents are introduced and walk into the reception, before the MC announces you and your partner as a married couple for the first time. Be prepared to walk into a room full of all your cheering, clapping loved ones. It’s a magical moment and definitely one to be savoured. The time that this happens will dictate the timeline for the rest of the event, so it’s important to be punctual if you want the rest of the proceedings to follow smoothly.
The Cake Cutting: 10 minutes
At some weddings, the cake cutting takes place after the wedding breakfast and before the evening reception begins. However, it’s becoming more and more commonplace at modern weddings for the cake cutting to be scheduled for the start of the evening reception.
This due to the rise in evening-only guests. As they didn’t attend the ceremony or wedding breakfast, having them there to witness the cutting of the cake helps them to feel involved in your special day. The cake cutting is a great opportunity for photographs, too.
The First Dance: 5 minutes
The first dance marks the beginning of the dancing-and-drinking part of the evening reception, and takes place when everyone has enjoyed their cake and are seated. You can choose which song you dance to, but it usually lasts between 3 and 5 minutes.
The Parent Dances: 5-10 min
This is an entirely optional step, as some people don’t like to dance, or don’t have parents they can or want to dance with. But at most weddings, there will be a father-daughter dance (the bride and her dad) and a mother-son dance (the groom and his mum).
After the parent dances, all of the other guests can get out onto the dance floor and join the party! This event signals the beginning of the ‘party’ portion of the celebration. Get your DJ or band to play some up-tempo beats in order to get everyone excited and ready to bust a move!
The Party: 3-5 hours
As this is your day, guests will generally follow your lead. So if this is the point of the reception where you want everyone to shake their stuff, you’d better lead the way! If you’ve had your parent dance, the easiest way to do this is just to stay on the dance floor and encourage others to join you.
Or you can rely on your trusty wedding party to get people out of their seats. Get your bridesmaids and groomsmen out onto the floor and other people will soon follow suit.
The bouquet and garter toss may take part during this portion of the evening. Alternatively, you can do it earlier in the day – such as during the cocktail hour.
If you’re having a buffet or other catering (such as a food truck) as part of the evening reception, this usually starts at about 8 – 9pm. The DJ or band will usually make an announcement when the food is ready, and your guests can go up and help themselves to a plate.
Sometimes this is done one table at a time and the coordinator or ushers will inform each table when it’s their turn. This prevents a big rush.
Don’t forget that you, as the bride and groom also need to remember to eat during this time. By now, you’ll likely have had a fair few drinks, and may be feeling a little worse for wear!
The Farewell: 10 - 20 minutes
Your venue will have told you in advance when you’re expected to leave – this is usually sometime between 11pm and 1am. When it’s time to start wrapping things up, your wedding coordinator, or MC, will inform everyone that the married couple are planning to leave, and everyone should join them in wishing the happy couple a long, happy life.
Often the guests will congregate outside to throw confetti, petals, blow bubbles as they see you and your partner off on your new life together. Your guests will then leave in due course, and clean-up can start to take place.