Image: Kate Triano

I‘ve worked more than my fair share of weddings over these past 4 years that have opted for the nontraditional dinner style of a “cocktail” reception with no formal, sit-down plated meal, and not enough seating for all guests. Lots of my couples choose this style of a wedding for a few different reasons. Some pick it for the vibe (it feels more like a casual, party) and some pick it for the price (it CAN be cheaper to do small plates & stations, than a traditional sit down meal for each guest). When my couples share that they want to have this type of reception, I am always on board (because as you know, I believe there are NO rules to a wedding and you can do whatever you really want) BUT I do tell them that in order for this to work, there are a few things they need to consider.

A caveat: ultimately one of the BIGGEST factors in succeeding with a nontraditional wedding reception is who you invite – no matter what you do or no matter how much you follow my advice below, if you invite a bunch of guests that are set in traditional ways and don’t really do well with nontraditional situations – a nontraditional reception probably won’t turn out like that fun, raucous party you imagined. However, if you have guests that like a good time, and just need some help with opening up to the less traditional reception type, then follow my advice below! Here we go!

#1. Setup


Setup of your reception space is important! Do not set your reception up like a traditional sit down dinner, because then that is what your guests will expect to find! Have LOTS of high top tables, and still have optimal seating for the majority of your guests, just not at formal, large round tables.

Think benches, seats from your ceremony, or lounge furniture.

2014-05-04_0013 12_FathomGalleryWedding-25

Images: Sweet Tea Photography

#2. Food


 Image: Kate Triano

The second most important thing to consider when opting for a cocktail style wedding reception is the food you serve! Do NOT serve food that lends itself to needing a place to sit and eat (no buffet!). If you serve up a buffet or big plates, guests WILL load their plates and then immediately look for a place to park and eat.


Instead, opt for tapas and small bites, or stations with small plates, where your guests can grab a bite and eat it instantly, or easily hold a small plate while standing at a high top table. You will also want to ensure food is served in a continual/endless type fashion so guests don’t feel the need to rush the food stations at the same time. Just like during a cocktail hour – consider having some heavy passed hors-d’oeuvres, a few stations, and AMPLE trashcans for guests to discard all the small plates/napkins/utensils.

#1. Flow

Landers-Nelson Wedding - October 25, 2014

Image: Aimee Custis Photography

This is probably the MOST crucial one on the list – creating a timeline of events and a “flow” for your reception that lends itself to your nontraditional eating format. Do NOT use a traditional timeline of events for your wedding, or your guests will then expect a more traditional food & seating setup. Do NOT usher all your guests into the reception area at one time – this will cause your guests to walk in and realize there are not enough seats for everyone, creating a non-intentional game of musical chairs, as your guests rush to “claim” a spot.

Believe me, I’ve watched this happen numerous times. The secret to the flow is to not have harsh start/stop times for your cocktail hour. In fact, the best execution of this type of reception that I’ve seen, is when there is no cocktail hour at all – after the ceremony, guests arrive and the reception begins. Think of the reception this time around as one VERY long cocktail hour.

Let your guests naturally mingle, find a seat, or stand at a high-top. Guests tend to gravitate towards food and booze , so make sure your space around both are open and free. When it comes time to execute things like your first dance or cake cutting, have the DJ/Band/MC make a simple announcement to where your guests can direct their attention. If your venue has multiple rooms/places for guests to go, consider knocking dances & toasts out at the beginning, so you don’t need to re-corral your guests every time you want them to pay attention to something.


Image: Kate Triano

At the end of the day, as I mentioned in the beginning, even with perfectly executing these tips, you know your guests and the success of having a nontraditional, cocktail-style reception mostly relies on who you invite!

Ok Romancers – did I miss anything crucial? Sound off in the comments below!



  1. We did this style of reception, and one other thing our caterers advised us to do was set expectations early for our guests. We decided to add a little blurb to our programs about how the food would be served, and what dishes they could expect. With more traditional sit-down dinners, people sometimes shy away from eating at cocktail hour so they don’t fill up before dinner. But we wanted to make sure they knew to eat all throughout the night. Adding the text to our ceremony programs helped inform them and avoid any confusion.

  2. Bree, this article was super helpful! I’m considering having a cocktail style wedding. What percentage of seating should you have? Ex: enough for 75% of guests.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *