Twenty minutes or so after opening up the dance floor, DJ Ben slowed down the pace to allow Mr. S to make his planned welcome toast. Guests dispersed to the various tables, bar, or lounges to give Mr. S and me the floor. With champagne glass in hand, Mr. S honored family members who could not be there with us, thanked those who were there for making the day so special, and thanked me for always inspiring him to be a better person.
I didn’t get a chance to grab a drink of my own, so I took a sneak sip from Mr. S’s glass when he wasn’t looking.
Mr. S’s speech also triggered the silent opening of the dinner stations. No announcements were made, and I’m not sure if the Liberty Warehouse staff alerted guests individually to the availability of food, but guests gravitated toward the stations in their own time, and eventually the majority of our guests were sitting down to eat (there were always a handful of guests out on the dance floor and more than a handful of guests lingering at the bar at any given time). For those of you tracking the timeline of our wedding, I’d venture to guess it was around 8:15 pm by this point in the evening.
Up until now in my recaps, our wedding has followed a familiar standard, but our “Progressive Cocktail Reception” (as the LW calls it) is not the norm for our circle of family and friends and food service is where we start to see the difference. The cocktail dinner reception seems to be a growing trend now, but back when we were still in the planning stages, there was very little information on how to go about executing this style of party. Actually, what I found on the Weddingbee boards seeking advice on the topic was a lot of negativity: “Your guests won’t be able to sit down! Your guests are going to starve! Your guests are going to go home early! How dare you! Just elope!”
GIF via Giphy
I assure you, no such thing happened. And if you allow me to toot my own horn for a moment, the feedback from those who were there is that our progressive cocktail wedding has set the bar quite high for future weddings in our family. (For the record, I don’t like to make comparisons between weddings, but I mean, if someone’s gotta be on top, I’m not gonna argue if it’s us. #letsbereal)
Truthfully, our progressive cocktail reception was nothing more than a disconnected buffet (all stations were attended and no guest had to serve himself). The lack of seating plan was a bit of a curve ball, but considering how holidays operate in my family, it wasn’t that far off. We have never been formal dinner people—it’s just not possible when 40-50 people gather for Christmas dinner in your home. We are grab your own plate and utensils, hope you can find a flat surface to park on, and eat off of your lap people. So what makes our Christmas dinner feel any more special than a cafeteria lunch? Well, (1) it’s Christmas, not just a random Tuesday, (2) we are all expected to come dressed in our holiday finest. I’ve always balked at friends who say they wear jeans to their aunt’s house for Christmas Day lunch, (3) we are all together—how often does that happen? Maybe only two or three times a year, and (4) sometimes there’s impromptu dancing in the living room. I remember as a kid rolling up the area rugs, sprinkling baby powder on the floor, and watching in fascination as my parents and relatives paired up to show off the dance moves of their time—a time when there were still “steps” to dancing: cha-cha, swing, boogie, hustle, etc. (What will future generations say is the characteristic dance of my time? Twerking? Ugh.) Given all those criteria, a progressive cocktail reception seemed right up our alley.
So I’d say that fact alone is a major contributor to the success of our non-traditional reception: know your audience. Our people like to dance and move around, talk loud, and laugh even louder—and there was all of that and more at our wedding reception. I think it also helped our cause that almost all 150 people in that room knew each other. Our guest list was predominantly comprised of family members, and after fourteen years together, we have more mutual friends than non-mutual friends. I didn’t recognize this detail as unusual until post-wedding when my cousin noted that it’s quite rare for both bride and groom sides to mix so seamlessly together.
In addition to knowing your audience, I’ve tried to identify other factors/tips that we kept in mind while planning that (I think) helped to make our progressive cocktail reception so well-received by our unknowing guests. (I suppose these could also apply to any kind of non-traditional set up.)
Communicate early. I think it’s safe to say that people don’t mind doing something outside of the box as long as they know what to expect. Word was spread among our guests to expect something different—open seating plan, lounge areas, stationed dinner, etc. We even published our menu on the FAQ section of our wedding website to calm fears that there might not be enough food at our wedding. (Not that anyone actually read our wedding website…)
On that note… Provide enough food. The idea that there wouldn’t be enough food was everyone’s primary concern (Mr. S and me included until we had to be rolled home after our menu tasting.) Don’t skimp on the food—people will definitely notice if there isn’t enough to eat. The only difference from our progressive cocktail reception to a buffet style dinner was in the presentation. I heard from plenty of guests that they didn’t get to try all four food stations because they were too full to keep eating. We don’t have pictures of all the food, but trust, there was plenty.
Spicy cheese encrusted corn on the cob from the Mexican station. (Not pictured: short rib tacos, mahi-mahi tacos, chicken and veggie quesadillas, and flavored margaritas.)
Grilled branzino with lemon caper sauce from the carving station—cooked to perfection according to my very discerning mother. (Not pictured: prime marinated skirt steak, whipped potatoes, and vegetable rice stir fry.)
Vegetable mix with a saffron beurre blanc also from the carving station. (Other stations / foods not pictured: Pasta station with cavatelli with tomato sauce, butternut squash ravioli, veal and pork meatballs, foccacia bread, and Caesar salad. Grilling station with sirloin sliders, shrimp rolls with mango-jicama slaw, chorizo sausage in a blanket, and french fries.)
Trust your vendors. You might recall that I went back and forth with Jeff (the LW venue coordinator) several times on our floor plan. From my extensive Googling, I found that there are two schools of thought on proper seating (i.e., at a table) when it comes to a cocktail party:
- Proper seats for 50% of your guest list supplemented with lounge furniture and cocktail tables. The idea is that guests are more likely to move around and mingle if it’s obvious that seating is meant to be shared.
- More seats than what your guests list requires, thus providing everyone with a choice of where to sit should everyone need to sit all at the same time.
I believed in the former philosophy while Jeff believed in the latter. So back and forth, back and forth with the floor plan over email. Jeff would send me a draft, I’d cross out a few tables, and on the next iteration the tables would magically appear again. Eventually I conceded, rationalizing who am I to know better than the guy who does this kind of thing for a living. We ended up having 150 proper seats plus lounges for our 150 person guest list.
Our final floor plan at the LW. The red squiggly line denotes a curtain that was put up during cocktail hour and later taken down when the reception began. What seemed like too many tables on paper was not at all overwhelming in real life.
It’s kind of ironic how it ended up since all my research told me that we could go over or we could go under, but just the right amount of seats for guests was a no-no (we should have done a seating plan in that case to avoid potential awkward situations), but in the end it all worked out. Most of our guests followed suit when the stations first opened up and took the opportunity to sit down and eat. Also, everyone had a spot to leave their personal belongings, even if they moved around from table to table. Mr. S and I took the opportunity to make the rounds while most guests were enjoying their dinner, and there was always an empty spot or two for us to sit at the table, stay and chat a while before moving onto the next table. Lesson learned: trust the pros.
Floor plan. To me, the floor plan was crucial to pulling off the kind of reception we envisioned. I figured that if guests walked into a reception room with a traditional, formal set up, they would expect a traditional, formal seating plan and a traditional, formal meal. So, I did what any irrational bride would do and threw money at the problem to make it go away—this time in the form of vintage lounge furniture.
And the stuff worked like a charm. For the entire night, those lounges were packed with guests soaking in the scene from the cushy couches and pretending to be royals for photo ops. It was undoubtedly the focal point of the room, drawing people from their seats at the tables and allowing them to linger closer to where the dancing action was.
And if I caught someone hovering on the outskirts of the dance floor, tapping his or her foot to the beat of the music, I took that as an open invitation to pull them into the dancing crowd. Which leads me to my next point…
Lead by example. This is par for the course for any host, but it’s worth reiterating. Guests will follow your lead because everyone wants to be around the bride and groom. If you are on the dance floor, your guests will be on the dance floor. If you are moving around and mingling, your guests will do the same. Our bridal party was awesome in that they took it upon themselves to be examples for our guests as well, either on the dance floor, chatting with folks at the bar, or pointing out the offerings at the different food stations.
Groom’s hands up in the air = everybody’s hands up in the air
Go with the flow / remember that everyone is an adult. When interrogating me on our non-traditional reception, my mom would question, “What happens if people want to sit together but there’s not enough room?” To which I replied, “I don’t know, they’ll figure it out.” Again, in light of how we celebrate major holidays, this notion of our friends and family being able to figure it out on their own wasn’t that farfetched. There was one instance where my family members wanted squeeze in one more person at a table for eight. They simply requested for an extra chair from the LW staff and it was promptly brought out without a problem. To me, that small act is a testament to LW’s hospitality. They could have easily said no, but instead, everyone was happy that they got to sit together and Mr. S and I were none the wiser.
Well…everyone is an adult *most* of the time.
Start the party early. This is another area where we deferred to the professionals. DJ Ben was the in-house DJ at our original venue, reBar. Non-traditional cocktail style parties were their thing, so we entrusted him and Tatiana (our DOC) with putting together the timeline for the evening. DJ Ben suggested that we open up the dance floor early in the evening, right after the first dance, to set the tone for the party atmosphere and get people on their feet. DJ Ben also did a stellar job of using the music to dictate the pace of the evening.
Anticipate your guests’ needs / spoil them in other ways. For some reason, the cocktail reception has a reputation for being the “cheap” option. (I hate the word “cheap.” I prefer to say “best value for your money.”) We chose the progressive cocktail reception because that was the kind of party we wanted to have—the fact that it cost less than having a formal sit down dinner was a lucky win. Still, we didn’t want guests to set low expectations so we made sure to provide other amenities: shuttle transportation to and from all wedding venues, premium open bar for the entirety of the evening, s’mores by the fireplace, complimentary flip flops for the ladies, etc. The flip flops were a last minute decision, but to my aunts, they were the most impressive detail. They’d come out of the bathroom in their new footwear squealing, “OMG, they’re giving away shoes in there!!” (They were inexpensive rubber flip flops—definitely nothing to squeal over. Just goes to show it’s the thought that counts.) I’m not advocating the need to spend more money to make the cocktail reception work, but rather anticipating your guests’ needs and making special accommodations where you can.
Flip flops in action!
I think that covers most of my personal observations on what made our progressive cocktail reception a smashing success. We’ve gotten nothing but glowing reviews from our guests, from the venue to the food, decor, music, and overall vibe of the night—it all came together better than I could have imagined. Truly, if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Did you have a cocktail style or non-traditional reception? Do you have any additional tips that you’d like to share? If you’re curious about any other aspects or details of the progressive cocktail reception that I didn’t address above, leave your question in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!
(All photos are credited to Clean Plate Pictures.)