Keys to a Successful Wedding Reception Layout
Wedding Receptions are some of the most extravagant and exciting parties. They’re filled with elaborate décor, elegant lighting, delicious food and drinks, socializing, and dancing to great music! Planning events of this kind require careful considerations. The first of these is determining if your chosen venue will support the size of your party. Keeping a reception layout in mind will provide the guidelines for making a multitude of other planning decisions, including venue selection.
A practical wedding reception layout helps maximize both indoor and outdoor space at a venue while providing plenty of room for all of your desired activities and special effects. Making early decisions on how to place the dance floor, photo booth, bar(s), display tables, and the overall seating plan will have a major impact on the flow of the evening. The ultimate goal is to optimize the event space while ensuring guests will be comfortable interacting with each other and participating in the festivities. The most important elements to remain mindful of are movement, visibility, audibility, and accessibility. Seating should be placed in such a way that allows guests to move about freely while maintaining prime views of the reception’s action. Essentially, every guest should have an unobstructed flow to essential areas such as restrooms, exits, bars, the dance floor, or a buffet. Meanwhile, visibility of the events such as the grand entrance, toasts, first dances, cake cutting, and games should be clear and without a need for binoculars.
Everything Centers around the Dance Floor & Head Table
A Wedding Reception is exactly what its name describes. Family and friends have gathered to receive the newlywed couple, finally joined as one family. This emphasis points directly to the importance of maintaining the center of attention on the couple and their party. The head table (regardless of size or style) is where the couple is seated, and the dance floor is where nearly everything they do will happen. Placing both of these locations within the best view and accessibility of each other lays a solid foundation for the rest of the space.
How large is the dance floor and where does it go? – Typically, half the total guest count multiplied by 4.5 will provide a reasonable, minimum square-footage. In many established venues the dance floor is already present and may or may not be able to move. Thus, it is important to consider its size and location in choosing the best venue for your unique vision. Given an opportunity to choose the location, the best option is to center the dance floor lengthwise with the dance floor and DJ booth against one of the room’s long walls. This layout provides equally distanced views from all angles.
How large is the head table and where does it go? – The size of a head table is highly dependent on the couple’s wedding vision and bridal party size. We have seen it all from long, to short, to none at all. Those that seemed to work best were elevated on a stage. One elevated just the newlyweds at a sweetheart’s table centered between their bridal parties at longer head tables at ground level to either side. Another was just the couple with bridesmaids and groomsmen seated at round tables with their families. The possibilities are endless, and the only important factor is location. The newlyweds should be able to see the dance floor perfectly and be simultaneously unobstructed from guest view. If placed against a wall an even more elegant look can be achieved with a Head Table Backdrop!
Next, a place for the DJ/MC and Activities
The DJ/MC is responsible for setting the tone, maintaining the timeline, announcing festivities, and controlling the music all while transferring the spotlight back to the couple. The very nature of this role has them “on-stage” at all times and often consistently moving throughout the space. In addition, their equipment requires power and appropriate placement. In considering placement of the DJ booth choose a location at least 12’x12’, that is near the dance floor, against a wall, with room to travel to/from regularly. This might look best directly across the dance floor from the head table but also works when placed in a corner next to the head table. Placement of speakers can be easily adjusted to adequately balance sound throughout the room. However, nobody wants to be seated directly in front of a speaker and remember to consider how cords will be run, minimizing the crossing of travel paths.
Activities, such as a Photo Booth, also require space to enjoy. Open-Air Photo Booths generally include a 10’-wide section of pipe & drape as a backdrop with room to stand in front of the camera and extra space for prop tables, the printer, and a scrapbooking table. At one venue we arrived to find the photo booth’s location had not been set aside in the layout. Squeezing the space even tighter the ceremony was now taking place through the room’s central corridor under a beautiful DIY arch against a sheer, fairy-lit drape. The plan here was saved with some last-minute creativity. Our photo booth’s backdrop was also a fairy-lit white and sheer drape. We replaced the smaller sheer curtain with the backdrop enhancing the beauty of the DIY arch. After the ceremony, the arch was pushed back to the wall as originally planned simultaneously becoming part of the photo booth’s backdrop. This setting became a huge success as guests enjoyed taking photos under the same arch the couple had just been married. As we see with most weddings the post-dinner guest flow was a clear triangle between the dance floor, the bar, and the photo booth. Ultimately, it is good planning to consider the placement of your photo booth somewhere between the dance floor and the bar in at least 12’x12’ worth of space. Similar guidelines may be considered for any activity you wish guests to engage in between dancing and refills.
Where do Guests get their Food and Drinks?
The location of your food and drink will vary depending on the type of service provided throughout the event. Still, in most cases they will be located away from a main entrance while remaining convenient to guests and operationally sound for your vendors. The number of bars is best determined by the size of the gathering. This is true with or without alcohol as guests will be thirsty for something either way. In an effort to avoid long waits a rule of thumb is one bar with two bartenders per 100 guests. Spread multiple bars out to avoid congestion and keep them away from the entrance so guests can soak in the atmosphere before seeking a drink. If there are only two be sure to place one near the dance floor to keep the party satiated, preventing unnecessarily long breaks.
If guests will enjoy a cocktail hour in the same space as the reception, account for extra space in front for mingling around cocktail tables. Placing cocktail tables around the edges of the dance floor would also suffice and double as a place to set drinks while dancing later in the evening. If you have a fair amount of extra space to work with you might consider creating different atmospheres. Creating a lounge area for laidback seating would also suffice a variety of age groups and personalities that may prefer to avoid the dance floor. Cluster furniture in groups of three or four to encourage socializing outside of assigned tables.
Regardless of where everything fits best always be mindful of accessibility. Lines for the bar, buffet, photo booth, and the dance floor entrance require an appropriate amount of space to avoid congestion. It is also a good rule of thumb to leave a minimum of two feet between these open spaces and tables with their chairs. Continue to consider flow throughout this portion of your layout. Generally speaking, people do not like their food and drink near the restrooms but may be returning from the restroom on their way to their next drink. Create distinct paths connecting them to each main point of interest including the head table, dance floor, photo booth, and the bar.
An established wedding venue will likely have these details already handled or offer a few options. However, if you’re working with a blank canvas style event space you will want to consult your vendors. The staff needs of your caterer or bartenders is incredibly important in determining appropriate placement within the layout. Include space for trash disposal, dish and glass staging, and cleaning supplies. Account for additional space behind buffets and bars for storage and preparation. In some cases, it might also be beneficial to assign a staff-only area for taking breaks away from guest view.
Specialty Tables Wedding Receptions often feature one or more specialty tables each requiring their own special considerations. The most common will be listed but similar strategies may be applied to just about any special table featured at your event.
Guest Book & Welcome Signage – These are naturally placed nearest an entrance or combined with a Gift Table. The primary consideration is that it does not go unnoticed and can be visited by every guest. Offering a seating chart at this table is helpful. In the case a cocktail hour will take place in a separated space from dinner, it is helpful for guests to review this chart ahead of searching for their seats.
Gift Table / Party Favors – It is a good idea to collect gifts nearest the entrance or nearest the ceremony, if hosted at the same venue. The location should allow guests to relinquish the burden of carrying gifts as soon as possible. The opposite is true for party favors, allowing guests to pick them up on their way out. That is unless favors will fit amongst table placings, especially if it’s something usable during the event itself.
The Cake Table - Generally placed on display until the cake cutting and sometimes moved immediately after. We have seen cakes displayed on the center of the dance floor, next to a head table, or just about anywhere in the path of formalities. Ultimately it should be brightly highlighted, easy to see, and potentially easy to move when the time comes, but away from a buffet to avoid early dessert tasters!
Dessert Table – Differing from the cake table this is a place where guests may select their own bite sized post-dinner sweets. Especially beneficial to place this somewhere within the triangle of travel between the Photo Booth, Dance Floor, and Bar.
Remembrance Table – This is a great way to honor and remember those who have passed. Decorated with photos, stories, memorabilia, and prized possessions their presence and support will be felt by all who visit the table. Ensure this table is part of the reception space itself and highlighted in a way that draws people toward its presence.
All remaining space may now be applied to guest tables with continuing respect to movement, visibility, audibility, and accessibility. First, make decisions on the shapes and sizes of tables which may be uniform or varied by the seating chart. In this process remember to include table space for décor, glassware, silverware, and applicable favors. Start nearest the head table setting tables for the immediate family members followed by close relatives. Grandparents and their own siblings would likely prefer to sit away from the speakers while maintaining a front-row seat of the action. It is okay to seat friends and co-workers in less desirable locations as they’ll likely spend far less time seated after dinner. If possible, attempt to provide 20%-30% worth of alternative seating throughout the venue as many guests will abandon their table as soon as that party atmosphere begins. Undoubtedly, any table beyond those immediately surrounding the dance floor are bound to become empty flat spaces once dinner concludes.