Cocktail hour is often thought of as an in between time, transient time between the ceremony and reception. I think viewing it as a stand alone portion of your event allows for more details and thought to be put into the planning for it. Here are my tips on making it run smoothly and keeping guests entertained.
Keep it Simple
Don't overthink it, guests are looking for three main things:
- Entertainment & Activities
So long as those three are covered guests will overall have a fine time!
Keep them Comfortable:
Guests who are comfortable and happy will stick around longer into the evening and be less antsy to move into the reception. Make sure seating is available for at least a 1/3 of your guests during cocktail hour for older guests and those who cannot comfortably be standing for long periods.
Keep these things in mind when planning your cocktail hour:
No one likes being too hot or too cold. If your cocktail hour is outdoors in the Summer, ensure guests will have adequate shade, cold water & drinks.
Shade - If you are renting a tent great, so long as it's not clear, which will create a greenhouse making it hotter. Umbrellas and sun sails are amazing for providing shade where needed and can be easily moved & set up. Sun sails diffuse the light which can still allow for brightness in the area, without the heat and harm of direct sunlight.
You might consider placing sunscreen in the bathrooms or on a table for guests if they will be out in the sun for hours.
Warmth - If your cocktail hour is outside during cooler months having portable heaters & blankets available will keep guests warm and comfortable so they are less eager to get into the reception.
Cold Beverages - Have a bucket of cold water available as guests head into the ceremony & cocktail hour to avoid dehydration. Offering a flavoured/fruit infused water entices guests to drink more water and stay hydrated.
Keeping the cocktail hour 45-90 minutes will stop guests from getting antsy, overheated and hungry.
Hungry people look for food. If there isn't any during cocktail hour they are likely to be asking about when they can enter the reception, how long till dinner etc.
A small food offering such as a charcuterie board can give guests just a little to nibble on while they mingle. If you are doing a longer cocktail hour over 90 min, offer horderves to keep them satiated until dinner.
The bar! The main focus of cocktail hour at most weddings. Guests are ready to celebrate your ceremony and the energy is high. Having good bar flow is essential to for keeping that energy going - I recommend one bartender per 30-50 guests. If you are doing cocktails stay closer to 1:30, if your bar is beer & wine 1:50 is fine.
If having more staff isn't an option try having the bartenders prepare glasses of champagne/wine or your signature cocktails to get that first drink into guests hands quickly and prevent long lines at the bar.
This is when guests are going to drink the fastest throughout the event because there isn't much else to do. Having some food & activities can slow this down and prevent guests from getting too drunk.
If your ceremony is outside in cooler months consider offering spiked hot cocoa or warm cider to warm guests up.
Cocktail hour foods are light, finger foods guests can nibble on while they mingle.
Depending on the staff you've hired, the formality of the event, and guest experience activities choose from the following service options:
Buffet - food is on one or more tables and guests will serve themselves onto small plates. Requires the least staff, and labels can be placed to notify guests about allergens. Guests may over serve themselves and leaves plates of food around the venue.
Passed - Servers walk around the venue with trays of appetizers. This is a more upscale service option and requires the most amount of servers. Great guest experience as they are free to roam around and will still get food without waiting in a line.
Action Station - Guests participate in the preparation of their appetizer through a station - mashed potato, taco, slider bar. The most fun for guests and they get to customize their food. Will take longer for all guests to get food due to time of activity. You may want to combine this with another service option to ensure all guests get food, such as charcuterie boards.
For your appetizer options, 3-5 choices usually means there's something for everyone. Plan for each guest to have 3-5 appetizers during your cocktail hour (roughly 1 of each appy per person). If your cocktail hour is over 90 min, plan for each guest to have closer to 5-8.
Aim to have 2 options hot, and 2 options cold with at least 1-2 options that meet the dietary restrictions of your guests (vegan, gluten free, dairy free, vegetarian etc).
**If you know ahead of time what options will meet certain guests needs, let them know! Often guests who are celiac, allergic to nuts etc will ask my team what they can eat.**
Entertainment & Activities:
Give guests something to focus on during cocktail hour and it will pull their attention from the time. Make sure your guest book is in a high traffic spot to ensure all your guests sign it!
Music - If you have the budget for live music a band, pianist or walking violinist creates an amazing and relaxed ambiance for guests to enjoy and awe at. If your DJ is moving equipment from the ceremony site to the reception ask if they can have a speaker playing some music so there is at least some music to fill the sound at cocktail hour. You may need to bring a bluetooth speaker and connect a phone for a short period of time while they move equipment.
Food & Drink - You can use your food and drink as an opportunity for entertainment and activity through the action stations or cocktail bartenders doing flair work.
Games - Lawn games are popular during cocktail hour, you can also use large crosswords, word searches and games revolving around the couple.
Photo opportunities - This is when guests Love to take photos! It's still bright out, they aren't drunk, and there isn't other activities going on they need to pay attention to. Having a photo wall/ space set up or a dedicated photo booth from a vendor means you can get some awesome photos with your decor and guests may feel more comfortable to be themselves than in front of your photographers.
Moving Guests to the Reception:
About 10 min before grand entrance start moving guests into the reception area. This can be done by an announcement from the DJ. If they are already set up in the reception area have your Planner or Go to person on the day walk around and let groups know to head inside. You can have the wedding party do this too, just make sure they don't head into the reception if you need them for the grand entrance.