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Top 10 Tips for a Successful Cocktail Hour

Even if you’re a skilled cocktail party hostess, tackling the wedding cocktail hour is no easy feat. Employ these essential tips, and rest assured that you’ll have an easy-breezy cocktail hour that your guests will enjoy.

By Audra Jones

Even if you’re a skilled cocktail party hostess, tackling the wedding cocktail hour is no easy feat. For starters, there are quite a few vendors to book and guest flow to consider. Then comes the intricacies of figuring out your floor plan, deciding what to serve, and determining the feel for this portion of your wedding day.

On top of all of that, you won’t even be there for most of it (or maybe any of it) depending on your photography timeline, so you won’t be playing host(ess) the way you would any other cocktail party. But, there’s good news: with a little pre-planning and a nice arsenal of pro tips, throwing the perfect wedding cocktail hour is actually quite simple. Employ these essential points below, and rest assured that you’ll have an easy-breezy cocktail hour that your guests will enjoy.

1. Make Sure There’s Plenty of Space

The cocktail hour is a chance for wedding guests to mingle and catch up, enjoy some food and drinks, and just chill before the party kicks into full gear. Many times, this is also when the reception area is being readied, so guests are often confined to a different area. With that said, a cramped space can dampen the mood faster than you can say “I do.” One of the very first and most important tips for throwing a successful cocktail hour is to designate a space with plenty of room. Many event planners recommend five square feet of space per person, with enough room for a few high-tops and chairs—and maybe even some lounge furniture.

2. Provide Comfortable Seating and Standing Options

You need to provide seating and tables at your cocktail hour. This allows guests who aren’t able to stand for long periods of time somewhere to relax, and provides an opportunity for those who want to sit down with their drink for a chat. To really make your cocktail hour shine, provide tables of varying height (we suggest a few high-tops and a few regular-height tables with chairs) and comfortable lounge furniture. Guests will love it, and it’ll give this portion of your day a welcoming, relaxing feel.

3. Choose the Right Music

Although most people will be busy talking, sipping, and snacking during the cocktail reception, providing some mood music is really an integral part of hosting a really fabulous cocktail hour. You don’t want to play the top 40 dance hits (save that for the reception), but have either live or pre-recorded music playing softly in the background. It will help create the mood you’re going for, whatever that may be.

4. Over-Stock the Bar and Hire Plenty of Bartenders

The cocktail hour is about enjoying drinks, so your guests should be able to get their drinks quickly and without a hassle. If you don’t hire enough bartenders and don’t stock the bar, the party will fall flat pretty quickly. Just imagine waiting in a long bar line for the entire hour, and you’ll understand what we mean when we say that bad bar service almost always equals unhappy guests. To avoid this rookie mistake, be sure to hire two bartenders for every 75 guests and stock the bar with plenty of liquors, mixers, and supplies. It never hurts to have extras, and running out is pretty embarrassing.

If you’re serving bottled beer, we recommend placing individual bottles in a big tub with ice and leaving plenty of beer keys for guests to self-serve. There is no reason to wait in line for a bartender to pop open a bottle of beer. If you’re serving beer from kegs, however, leave it to the pros behind the counter.

5. Offer Signature Cocktails and Non-Alcoholic Beverages

Although having on-demand liquors behind the bar is important, be sure to also serve signature drinks and non-alcoholic beverages. We love signature cocktails for a number of reasons: they can be made beforehand so guests can simply grab and go, cutting down time in the bar line; they reduce overall costs (and help you whittle down the list of general provisions you need to purchase); and they provide a personal touch. Mocktails and other non-alcoholic options make it easy for non-drinkers to feel comfortable and enjoy the festivities along with everyone else.

Dawn-Heumann-Photography-non-alcoholic-drinks Photo Credit // Dawn Heumann Photography

6. Avoid Long Lines

As we mentioned earlier, long lines queuing up to the bar can easily turn an otherwise-fabulous cocktail hour into a bust in no time flat. Hiring plenty of bartenders is a great way to avoid this party faux pas, but here are a few other methods to guarantee this won’t happen on your big day:

  • Offer plenty of passed apps. This way guests can nosh without waiting to circulate around a stationary food table.
  • Spread out the bars and food stations. If they’re all packed in one place, it can get a little hectic and make the space seem smaller.
  • Have servers hand each guest your signature drink as they arrive at the cocktail party so everyone has a drink in hand as soon as they step into the room. This really helps cut down on how many head to the bar right away.

7. Consider the Food

No, the cocktail hour isn’t the reception, so you shouldn’t be expected to provide a full meal to guests during this time. You do, however, want to provide three or four delicious appetizers to keep your guests’ stomaches happy until dinner is served. It’s super important to make sure that all the food you serve is bite-sized; this helps avoid spills and awkward, conversation-stopping moments. Provide small plates, cocktail napkins (but no utensils—remember, finger food only!) and plenty of staff to collect discarded napkins, toothpicks, etc. (or provide a number of inconspicuously placed garbage bins). For advice about how much and what to serve, we suggest talking to your caterer about how to make your cocktail hour a hit in the food department.

Be sure to consider options for those who have special dietary needs, such as those with allergies and those who are vegan or vegetarian. Just like with non-drinkes, you want all of your invited friends and family to feel welcome and comfortable with their options.

8. Include Other Sources of Entertainment

Don’t let the name “cocktail hour” confuse you—this part of your wedding day can also include fun activities, games, and entertainment along with cocktails and apps. In fact, we wholeheartedly suggest it! Activities will gives guests something to do, and lets those who are less comfortable in social situations or don’t know anyone at the wedding have fun, too. If your cocktail hour is outside, include lawn games such as horseshoes and corn hole. If you’re having a cocktail hour indoors, you can have a photo booth or a caricature artist on hand to create hilarious portraits. Don’t be afraid to get creative in order to find something that fits your style and budget.

9. Incorporate Personalized Details

Personalize, personalize, personalize—keep this word in mind when you’re planning your wedding cocktail hour. Whether it’s monogrammed napkins, personalized koozies, or straws with DIY flags, there are tons of ways that you can really incorporate your personality or your wedding theme into the cocktail hour. Just because it’s the in-between time surrounding the two main events (the ceremony and reception) doesn’t mean that it should be generic. Plus, this is a great way to give your guests a little peek at what’s coming at the reception.

10. Make It an Hour (Max)

The cocktail hour gets its name for a reason: it’s an hour of enjoying drinks and mingling before the reception. There is absolutely no need to let this mini pre-party flow over 60 minutes. While you may be busy using this time for wedding portraits and newlywed photos, your guests will start to feel restless as soon as you exceed an hour.

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