9 Tips That Can Make Or Break Your Wedding Reception

Back in April of 2003, I had just finished setting up my DJ equipment for a wedding reception in a luxurious downtown Omaha hotel. Right on cue, the guests started to filter in, and I started the smooth jazz cocktail hour music. I headed over to the bar for a soda. As the bartender handed me the soft drink I ordered, he promptly said, “three dollars please.” Assuming he was joking, I walked away laughing as I thanked him. With a serious expression, he quickly informed me that he wasn’t kidding and that I’d better pay up on my newly acquired debt. It was then that I saw the sign on the bar. “Drinks $5.00 – Beer $4.00 – Soft Drinks $3.00.” Overhearing some of the guest conversations around the bar, I was apparently not the only one surprised by the drink charges.

When it comes time to offer tips and advice to my customers, I have to look back on my experiences as a Wedding DJ. In this article, we’ll cover some tips that are often overlooked or seen as no big deal by brides and grooms as they plan for their wedding receptions. These tips, however, WILL make the difference between happy guests and unhappy ones at your reception. In short, the following tips will increase the chances that your guests will stick around and have a great time at your reception.

I realize that many professionals offer a host of tips and suggestions in the wedding industry, and at times it’s hard to take it all in. Clearly, many things have to come together to ensure that everything on your wedding day is a success.

After talking and interviewing thousands of brides I noticed three distinct commonalities that most of them had when laying out their expectiations for their receptions. They wanted to:

  1. Keep the events moving smoothly.
  2. Keep the guests from leaving early.
  3. Keep guests dancing and having fun.

As a DJ, I’ve had the unique advantage of being the first one to arrive at and the last to leave from hundreds of wedding receptions. For that reason, I feel comfortable and confident as I offer the advice you are about to read.

All in all I have always felt that if you want to have a successful reception, one of the single most important things you can do is to consider thing from your guests’ point of view.

TIP 1 – Never charge guests for drinks

When it comes to weddings, brides and grooms are often restricted by the limitations of their budget. There are certainly some shortcuts you can take to save a little money. But be careful! One area I strongly advise you not to skimp on is the bar. Making invited guests pay for their drinks is not a good idea, and it will stifle the atmosphere. The fact of the matter is that guests just don’t like paying for drinks. Plus, a free bar is often all it takes to keep the guests who are on the fence from leaving early.

I do not for a minute encourage binge drinking or any kind of abuse. I have just learned that the guests will loosen up, dance and have a better time when the bar is free (or, in wedding terms, “hosted”). The bottom line is that if you want guests to stick around and feel appreciated, an open bar is a must.

TIP 2 – Don’t start the reception too early

In the summer of 2007, I was the DJ for a reception that started at 2:30 in the afternoon. The event was held at a country club that had large windows all around the reception room and overlooked a beautiful golf course. For the reception, the bride and groom expected to have lots of dancing up until the 8:30 end time.

By 4:00, the dinner, toast and cake-cutting were over, and it was time to get the dancing underway. With an upbeat attitude and a desire to rock the party, I started the dance music. Despite my best efforts, I could hardly get anyone to dance and the reception was over by 5:30. Aside from the lack of dancing the afternoon went well and although I received lots of compliments the groom expressed to me his disappointment that there was very little dancing.

After hearing about the groom’s disappointment, I felt I had somehow let him down. But in reality, the circumstances were just not conducive to much dancing.

It is very difficult to get people in the mood for dancing at 4:00 in the afternoon in a sun-filled venue. Drinks don’t flow like they normally would, and people will generally leave early knowing they still have most of their evening ahead of them.

A good time to start a reception is around 6:00 P.M. in the evening. Any earlier and you risk losing the feeling of a night out for your guests.

Better yet, if you are not planning a church ceremony, you may want to consider having your ceremony at the reception venue. You won’t have to worry about transportation, and you’ll have the luxury of timing the ceremony closer to the reception.

TIP 3 – Avoid long time gaps between ceremony and reception

I recently arrived to set up my DJ gear for a reception that was supposed to start at 6:00 P.M. When I arrived at 4:30 to start setting up, there were already 50 people in the room just sitting there in silence. For a moment, I thought I was late, but I came to find out that most of the people sitting around were out-of-town guests who had been there since 3:00. The wedding had been at 1:00 at a local church, and after the ceremony these out-of-town guest had nowhere else to go, so they headed over to the reception venue. By the time the reception officially started at 6:00, these guests had been sitting around for three hours. Most of these guests just ate dinner and left.

You must consider the time gap between the end of your ceremony and the start of your reception. Ideally, your guests should go right from the ceremony to the reception. The bigger the gap in between, the harder it is on your guests.

I realize that those who have the ceremony in their church can’t just pick the time that bests suits them and must work around normal church services. Many churches will want you to have a Saturday ceremony between noon and 2:00 p.m. That’s fine, but remember that following such a ceremony directly with the reception will mean that the reception will start too early in the day. In order to compensate, some couples get married early in the afternoon and postpone the reception until later in the evening.

My advice is to have the ceremony as late in the afternoon (or early evening) as possible and schedule the reception to follow immediately. If an early ceremony is your only option, make sure your out-of-town guests realize the reception will be later, and provide them with ideas to keep them busy in between the ceremony and reception.

Ideally, you should host your ceremony at the same location as your reception. Many facilities can provide a nice area for you to have your ceremony. If it’s possible, you should look into it.

TIP 4 – Venue Lighting

There is a venue in my town that has a very basic lighting system. The lights are either all on or all off. There is no option to dim any of the lights, so all the lights are usually left on. This makes it very difficult to get people in the mood for dancing. After all, no one wants to be in the spotlight, and bright lights over the dance floor can hinder the ambiance. This tip is very straightforward: to create an atmosphere for dancing, the lights must be dimmed.

TIP 5 – Don’t stand near the exit

Keep in mind that the exit is almost always in the same place as the entrance. Once you and all the guests have arrived, try to avoid standing anywhere near the exit. Standing by the exit at any time during the reception gives off the impression that you are there to say goodbye to guests who are leaving. Before you realize it, you will have (instead of a receiving line) a departure line. To keep your party alive and moving, avoid standing near the exit. You never want to communicate to the guests that it’s time to leave unless it is!

TIP 6 – Have a fun grand entrance

Part of having a fun, dance-filled evening is starting everything off with a bang. There is no better way to begin a reception with excitement than to make a grand entrance. This doesn’t only get you in the mood for the party; it also gets the momentum rolling and puts your guests in the spirit of having fun.

As you and your wedding party arrive at the reception, have your DJ or Emcee line you and the wedding party up to be announced as you enter the reception venue. Pick a fun song to be played while everyone’s names are announced. As a DJ, I always get the audience clapping along to the beat of the music as you all enter.

It is all about setting the tone for the evening, and there is no better way to do that than to have a thrilling and exciting grand entrance with your bridal party.

TIP 7 – Avoid offensive music

From time to time, I work for brides and grooms who insist that I play music that is littered with colorful innuendos and language. This musical pursuit for your reception is highly ill-advised. The fact is that you may not know everyone on your guest list as intimately as you may think. Why take the chance of offending someone with vulgar music? I have seen guests walk out of a reception because of loud or offensive music.

TIP 8 – Dismiss tables when having a buffet-style dinner

From behind my DJ table, as I looked at the two hundred guests standing in line for the buffet at a reception, I couldn’t help but think that these people could have been sitting at their tables, enjoying conversation. Instead, they were weaving in and out of tables, waiting in a long line for food. I jokingly compare this scenario to a herd of cattle lining up for the trough.

This situation leads to awkward feelings for the guests who are already seated with their food as well as for those standing in line right next to them as they sit and eat. I have seen this happen hundreds of times throughout my career, and it is always uncomfortable.

You can choose one of two solutions for this problem. First, you could have a plated meal (or sit-down dinner) in which the staff serves the food directly to the guests while they are seated. Second, if you are having a buffet-style meal, you can have the tables released for dinner. Ask your DJ, host couple, or catering staff to dismiss each table one or two at a time. Personally, I fell this should be done by your DJ if you have one, because otherwise there is not much for the DJ to do during dinner. While releasing tables, your DJ can discover where the “fun” tables are and solicit music requests. This will allow the guests to feel like a part of the upcoming events.

TIP 9 – Use round tables

I recently DJed for a reception at a local country club in which the layout of the tables felt like I was the announcer for bingo night at the local legion hall. The room was full of 8 foot tables, and there were 6 rows of the them in the room. Each row has 5 tables lined up end to end. Guests going to and from their seats had to weave down long aisles of people, and there were times when aisles were blocked.

As crazy as it sounds, the type of tables you provide for your wedding guests will affect the social aspect of the evening. With the exception of the head table, you will want to avoid the standard 6′ or 8′ tables for the guest seating. Long, 6′ or 8′ tables are reminiscent of a mess hall or a lunch room setting and will detract from any kind of elegance. Furthermore, long tables are not conducive to conversation.

My advice is to always choose round tables for guest seating. This setup puts all the guests on an equal playing field for socializing and mingling. It also eliminates the theatre-like seating, in which you have to feel guilty about getting up and moving through a crowded isle.

In addition, round tables make it easier for the bride and groom to circulate among the guests. Finally, they provide the guests with better viewpoints of everything that is going on throughout the evening, helping to keep them engaged.

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