Cocktail Hour Reception vs. Sit-Down Reception

Planning a wedding is a series of seemingly endless choices--the venue, the dress, the colors, the food--we could go on and on, but we don't want to cause unnecessary panic. One of the most important decisions you will have to make, and will dictate many of the other subsequent decisions, is the type of reception that will follow your ceremony. Some people know exactly what type they want from the get-go, while others may feel the need to weigh the options. And contrary to what many people may think--that it comes down to your wedding budget--it's not a cut and dry decision. 

We're going to take a close look at the pros and cons of two of the most popular wedding reception options--the cocktail hour reception and the sit-down reception--and provide you with some helpful tips for pulling off a successful reception, whichever style you choose. 

• photography credit:  hampton event hire

• photography credit: hampton event hire

Cocktail Hour Reception

The cocktail hour reception has definitely surged in popularity lately, particularly among couples who prefer a more relaxed reception. 

The Pros

  • Allows for a more social atmosphere where guests can mingle rather than limiting them to interacting primarily with those seated at their table.

  • Allows you to invite more guests, if you've chosen a smaller venue.

  • You can get a little more creative with the food and its presentation. Think food trucks. This has become such a popular and affordable option lately, that we will be dedicating a couple of separate blog posts just to this topic. Just make sure your venue has the space! You want people to be able to access the truck(s) easily, but you don't want them to take up too much precious space.

The Cons

  • Cocktail receptions are not necessarily cheaper. Depending on the style of furniture and décor, costs may be similar to a sit-down reception. And while food costs may be lower, your guests are likely to drink more than during a sit-down reception.

  • Deciding on furniture is a bit less straight-forward, as you need to decide on options that can seat 50-70% of your guests. You will also have to factor in extra items like textiles, cushions, rugs, additional seating like lounges, to fill out and style the space.

Things to Consider

  • Let people know exactly what to expect so they aren't caught unaware. Communicate any necessary information via the invitation, wedding website or any itineraries or schedules.

  • Make sure you organize enough seating for your guests, especially for elderly guests.

  • Use a mix of tall and low seating and table options. Your guests will be comfortable and it will provide the reception a more interesting and balanced look.

  • Consider ways to cut down on long lines by utilizing cocktail servers and hiring enough bartenders (we suggest about one bartender per 40 guests).

  • While food may not be the main focus of a cocktail hour reception, you still want to provide enough hors d'oeuvres and small bites to go around. It's always a good idea to provide a variety of selections and don't forget options for those with certain dietary restrictions.


Sit-Down Reception

This type of reception is the most common, but usually the most expensive option (although this depends on a variety of considerations: see our “Things to Consider” section below). While a sit-down reception may seem fancy, they can be as formal or informal as you want. 

The Pros

  • Allows you to treat your guests and say thank you to them for being there to celebrate your special day.

  • Provides a more natural flow to events that most guests will expect. It gives a much needed break and segue into the part of the reception that everyone is waiting for: the dancing!

  • Believe it or not, planning the furniture for a sit-down reception is less tricky. The number of your guests will dictate your furniture and tableware needs. [And if you need help figuring all that out, we've got an top notch guide here.]

The Cons

  • Planning the seating chart for these types of events can be littered with social minefields, and take quite a bit of time and consideration. Guests can feel hurt, slighted or disappointed if they think they should be seated somewhere else or with a different group of people. Also, couples are in charge of keeping track of and tallying dinner selections, which can become a pain if you need to track down people who have failed to RSVP on time.

  • Serving a sit-down meal with a large number of guests requires an impeccable sense of timing and coordination from staff. However, with the right caterer and event/venue staff, you won't have to worry about food being delivered cold or the meal dragging on for an extended period of time.

Things to Consider

  • Your furniture and tableware needs will depend on a few things:

  1. The style of sit-down meal (family style, plated, or a buffet)

  2. Number of courses

  3. The style of table setting (formal or informal)

  4. Beverages (will you offer white wine, red wine, sparkling wine, all three?)

  • If you are concerned about seating arrangements and having people who might not get along ending up next to each other, you may want to consider place cards. It's a bit more formal, and will require further planning, but it will help you relax knowing that you've cut down on the odds of drama complicating your night.

  • If space is limited at your venue, the waitstaff foot traffic can make it difficult for guests to get up and move during dinner. Be sure to carefully consider the space before you decide on a reception, and when planning the setup.