For centuries, we’ve understood and welcomed a seated reception as the societal norm. And while a cocktail reception can often pose a feeling of uncertainty and question, it’s quickly becoming a favorite among guests and a staple in the wedding and events industry for its role in lavish food displays and opportune for lively entertainment and decor. Let’s explore what a cocktail reception actually entails and which classification of the reception: cocktail vs seated dinner, may be most appropriate for your event.
Before diving into the specifics, it’s imperative to know where you stand on the big items like food, beverage, entertainment, and decor – and how your guests may experience each. Traditionally, receptions are celebrated as formal experiences sitting across the table with loved ones, new and old. Tradition, is no stranger. Though, if you find yourself open to moving from one space to another and engaging in conversation with whomever you may run into, the possibilities are endless.
Add the opportunity for lively, unexpected entertainment, and a cocktail reception forges an enticing experience your guests won’t soon forget. Make no mistake, there are key elements to ensure things run smoothly if a cocktail reception is the route you so choose.
Before diving into the specifics, it’s imperative to discuss the overall vibe. Three topics that are really exciting, for me personally, during the planning and design – Entertainment, decor and fashion, and food and beverage – none of which are negotiable. Lack in one and the event just doesn’t quite live up to expectations for you or your guests.
For me, these core sensories are the beginning and the end. Everything created, every design element, every vendor approached, stems from these pillars of event production, only after we’ve determined our clients preferences. Let’s chat about the approach for cocktail vs seated receptions and how each of the core sensory experiences will leave an impact.
Cocktail receptions have become popular because of their flexibility and opportunity to provide heightened sensory experiences layered throughout the evening. A dinner reception has its place – and I personally have a deep love for riveting conversation and gathering around the table. However, when a party is the expectation, anything short just feels inadequate. A cocktail reception (or even a hybrid) – can be a really fun way to integrate unique sensory experiences for guests.
Some may debate the lack of structure, as it teeters formal expectations. As a planner – structure is never a concern. A thoughtfully planned, well executed event will have plenty of structure, and often so without guests realizing it. While less formal in traditional means of execution, we always find compelling ways to keep guests entertained and moving from one place to another through greeters, dancers, food and beverage, and decor.
The detail most become hung up on – not everyone has a seat, which is our goal. For a cocktail reception, we typically provide seating for about 70% of the guest count, give or take. Reserved tables are set aside for those who may need or prefer to rest for prolonged periods and/or your VIP guests.
Though the idea is to keep guests moving throughout the evening so that no one stations at any one particular place for a prolonged length of time. This facilitates movement, dancing, conversation, and exploration of the resort or property. Thus beckons the question – what do I do with my belongings, with my handbag, coats, etc.; for which, we provide a few options. Coat checks are still a great way to keep your belongings in a contained area and are easily accessible if or when necessary.
Our floor plans for cocktail receptions typically disperse lounge settings, small seating tables, hightop seating and standing at various points around the room. A combination of both high and low seating caters to all walks of life and preferences, and bistro tables around the dance floor allow for a quick rendition of your favorite song and a place to enjoy the entertainment while still keeping close proximity, allowing guests to leave behind their clutch for a break on the dance floor.
When I am designing a room for a cocktail reception, it’s important to provide a variety of seating options for guests that collectively add to the ambiance of the room creating depth and dimension throughout.
If you’re having a hard time deciphering between the steak or the fish – it’s a fair assumption your guests may as well. A way to really capitalize on a fantastic array: offer a myriad of selections. A rule of thumb – Stay On-Brand, but mix up the party. I like to work directly with our culinary partners to create a menu that is not only exciting for our clients, but works with the design aesthetics of the room, any cultural backgrounds, and/or dietary restrictions.
Using a celebration in the low country as an example, (picturing a Montage Palmetto Bluff event): stay true to southern cuisine. We like to use stations of low country boil spilled onto a table, fried okra, a pickled station, personal oyster shuckers or a seafood display.
There is always enough food. Our team is certain to not only provide lavish stations, but to make sure that our servers are seen walking the area with small plates. These small plates can be anything we dream up. An example we’ve used in the past are combinations of a slider and cut fries or mini lobster roll, crab cakes, Croque Madam, amongst countless others. The trick is to infuse the stations in the center of the room and not tucked away in corners.
Transitions can seem tricky, though when used properly, can also be a great opportunity to engage with guests. Using one of the aforementioned sensory experiences – entertainment, decor, and food and beverage to direct guests to the next location – whether that involves using dancers, a great band, fireworks, a show-stopping drone show or interactive food and beverage display – you’ll find these can be more widely used and appreciated in a cocktail-style setting.
While there’s no need for intro – a seated reception is the perfect route for one-on-one intimate conversations, breaking bread and gathering around the table – and it has its place in a weekend’s worth of festivities. Though a few key components are necessary to consider before making the final call.
First, it’s most important to consider the allotted time allowed to complete the your goals for seated vs cocktail. The more intricate your dinner, and the more guests invited, the longer it will take to seat guests and course out meals, which during a 4-hour reception could eat up a vast majority of the evening, leaving very little time for dancing.
The experience of being led to your table, finding your name printed on select stationery, a personalized menu, and a table setting has a way of preparing you for the excitement of what’s to come. And what’s more – the settings we’ve been able to accomplish are a major design moment for guests.
My favorite aspects of a seated dinner – the intimacy, the considerate culinary selections made, the table settings, and the pairings. Nothing beats intimate conversation – ever. The laughter, the fun and depth of reliving good memories, the warmth of candlelight – there’s something about it that just feels homey and inviting. It’s a special experience and tradition to hold on to.
For intimate dinners, I like to suggest a live solo instrumental or small jazz trio during dinner to set the tone for the evening in a way that is riveting, yet intimate. I find this to be especially so when we pair the song choices in junction with service timing and preparing guests for the next transition.
A pre-selected menu can also be a really fun way to incorporate your chosen vibe or theme. For this 60th birthday party, we worked with the culinary team and our clients to create a gastronomic Cuban experience through a five-coursed plated dinner. We ensured to include a manageable variety, gathered any allergy information, and set the table for a truly unforgettable experience.
Personally and professionally, I am a big proponent of celebrating over the course of a few days. At any time, when it is asked of guests to travel to a destination, it’s appropriate and even expected to entertain with welcome cocktails or dinner, excursions, an entertaining and exciting finalé party and perhaps even a brunch to relive some of the weekends highlights.
How does a seated reception fit into this discussion? There is something to be said for tradition, for honoring the past time of breaking bread. Though, seated reception during the rehearsal or welcome dinner instead provides that time for intimate get togethers and reliving through more in-depth conversation. The Rehearsal Dinner is also the time I advise clients reserve for speeches. It’s more appropriate and timely given the intimate setting, saving the fun aspects of a lively experience for the final reception.
Read more about what I consider a Perfect Weekend Celebration
My advice is and will always be centered around our clients’ event goals for the weekend being at the forefront of all considerations and final decisions. From there, the setting chosen and design take priority in developing the flow of the weekend and ultimately the flow of the individual parties.
If a hybrid of the two styles of reception seems most appropriate, that could work too! Sometimes, the most promising direction involves carving your own path, which if I am being honest is my most favorite option. Let’s think of something that hasn’t been done before and do that instead. I love a good challenge that keeps everyone engaged and on their toes. Nonetheless, the style preferences of service setting are important considerations prior to selecting your event venue and are always a decision made in the very beginning stages o our planning and design journey.
With collective dedication to our clients and the demand for a high-touch collaborative process, we accept select few multi-day events per calendar year.