Wedding receptions are constantly changing. What once was a post-ceremony gathering with finger foods and punch, transformed into a four-hour dinner party, and is still evolving as a response to COVID-19. Receptions may look different, but that doesn’t mean that you and your partner can’t celebrate your love in a spectacular way.
After you choose your vendors, get your dress or tux altered, and send out wedding invites, one of the last things on your list should be finalizing your schedule. Whether you are planning for your dream wedding in the future, or are trying to figure out how to pivot to a distanced wedding now, these wedding reception timelines will help inspire you to plan out the perfect order of events for your big day.
Keep reading or jump to one of our reception timelines below:
Though every couple’s wedding reception will look a little different depending on preferences and circumstances, the timeline below is a tried and true flow of events that will help you make time for everything and keep your guests engaged. The average wedding reception time is four hours, but this format also works for three and five-hour receptions. To adjust the time, just add or subtract from dancing and dinner slots.
Have your MC or wedding coordinator invite your guests to a cocktail or social hour for a seamless transition from ceremony to reception. This hour also gives you and your wedding party time to snap some pictures, and you can serve cocktails, coffee, and tea, or hors d'oeuvres for your guests as they mingle.
Once cocktail hour comes to a close and the bulk of the wedding photos have been taken, make your grand entrance into the reception area. Have your MC or coordinator announce your wedding party, followed by you and your partner. Don’t be afraid to let your personality show during this time. If you and your new spouse are romantics at heart, enter the venue to a sweet song and twirl each other across the dance floor. If you are the life of the party, come into a good beat and raise the roof with the love of your life.
The best placement for the first dance is up for debate, but one of our favorite ways to transition to this sweet moment is to jump in after the grand entrance. Once you and your partner reach the dance floor, your entrance music can fade and your first dance song can begin. Use these few minutes to soak in everything that you have experienced throughout the day, from getting ready to exchanging vows.
To kick off the meal, have a parent or family member that helped host the wedding thank the guests, and invite everyone to enjoy the food. If you have any instructions for serving, (i.e. one table at a time or stay in your seats) this is a good time to announce those details.
Decide when you will eat and who is responsible for bringing you food before the wedding. After you’ve eaten, use the rest of this time to thank individual guests for coming. Depending on the size of your wedding this could take a while, so give yourself a time limit for each table. If you don’t, you might get stuck listening to Aunt Kathy or cousin Joey all night.
Once guests are served, your designated friends and family can begin their speeches. The order of speeches is up to you, but traditionally the maid of honor will go first, the best man follows, and then the father of the bride will give the last speech. Encourage speakers to keep their speeches under five minutes to keep everyone engaged, but allow some extra time in case they go over.
If you would like to dance with your parents, transition from the father of the bride speech into the father-daughter dance or mother-son dance. Instruct your DJ to transition to an upbeat song once the parent dances are over to get everyone on the dance floor.
Every crowd is different. Some can party on the dancefloor all night and others would rather mingle. You know your friends and family best, so adjust this time accordingly. If you didn’t have time to speak to everyone during dinner, this is a good opportunity to catch up.
Once guests have eaten and danced the night away, make an announcement that you and your partner will be cutting the cake. Be aware that many guests use the cake cutting as a sign that it is okay to leave, so push it back a little further if you want guests to stay longer. Once the cake is cut, allow guests to grab a piece and enjoy with wine or coffee!
Traditionally near the end of the event, brides will gather all the single women in the room and toss the bouquet and grooms will invite all the single men to catch the garter for good luck. This tradition is slowly becoming less popular, so you don’t have to do this if it’s not your style. If you’re all about it, play some music and toss away!
As the night comes to a close, finish strong with one last song for everyone to dance to before the night wraps up. This can be a sentimental song, your alma mater, or just one last jam to get everyone on the dance floor.
Instruct your DJ or coordinator to invite everyone outside after the final song for the send-off. As your guests pick up their wedding favors and make their way outside, steal away for a few moments for a private dance with your love. Use these last few minutes of the event to take in the day and focus on the reason for celebration.
While you’re wrapping up your private dance, have your coordinator pass out any materials needed for the send-off of your dreams. Some of our favorite send-off ideas are sparklers, artificial snow, or streamers. Once you exit, make sure to walk slowly and take a second to kiss your new spouse so your photographer can snap the last few photos before you make your exit.
Due to the global pandemic in 2020, big weddings have paused and couples have opted for elopements, micro weddings, and minimonies. If you and your love are planning a wedding during the pandemic, there are a few ways that you can adjust your schedule so all of your loved ones can witness your wedding day virtually.
To host your virtual reception, set up tablets or cameras to capture the proceedings. Once guests are signed into the live stream, welcome them to the event and thank them for joining on the happy day.
Capture the full ceremony on the cameras so your guests can experience the two of you walking down the aisle, exchanging vows, and having your first kiss as a married couple.
To help the evening run smoothly, schedule any special moments you want your virtual guest to experience at the beginning of the event. After the ceremony is over, instruct your speakers to have their speeches prepared. Once they are finished, cut the cake and celebrate!
Receptions will look different in a socially distant wedding, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have the time of your life. Take your partner’s hand and have your first dance as a married couple. Let everything else fall away in this moment and enjoy being in each other’s arms.
At this point, thank your guests for joining, and end the live stream. Use whatever time you have left in the evening to sit down and enjoy dinner with the family members and friends that were able to be there to celebrate the love between you and your partner.
To avoid your wedding party and family asking “what’s next?” all day, consider using these printable wedding reception timeline templates to keep everyone on track. Fill in your date and times and print them out for anyone who might want one.
Once you get responses from your wedding invitations, use these timeline examples as a guide to plan for the best order of events to celebrate the love between you and your partner. No matter what, your wedding timeline should reflect you and your love. If you would rather skip the traditions and just eat and dance, feel free to make changes.