No matter where you’re having your wedding reception, whether at an art gallery, a country club, or a tent on your parents’ lawn, you’ll need to figure out a floor plan for your wedding reception setup. Deciding how to place the dance floor, tables, stage, and bar(s) will have a major impact on the flow of the evening and it is important to ensure that you organize the space in a way that adequately utilizes and showcases the venue. "Strategic layout is essential to the success and flow of your event," explains wedding expert Layne Povey. "Ensuring that you have enough space between tables for both guest comfort and service is extremely important, but making sure that you are still creating an intimate space that doesn’t feel like a banquet is how your event comes to life."
Meet the Expert
Layne Povey is an event designer and producer with a decade of experience in the industry. She is the principal planner and designer of The Lynden Lane Co., a full-service event planning company she runs with her mother and sister.
You will need to take into consideration multiple factors and orchestrate the best strategy for not only optimizing the event space but also ensuring guests will interact with each other and participate in the festivities. Movement, visibility, and accessibility are the major elements to be mindful of. The layout and seating arrangement that you decide should allow guests to move about freely and have a good view (and photo angle!) of the major events scheduled. "Even with large guest counts you want to make sure that your event feels like an intimate dinner space," adds Povey. "No one wants to feel like they are eating in a dining hall." Also take into consideration if any of your guests have additional needs in terms of accessing certain points and see to addressing these in the floor plan.
We know how daunting this may seem so we delved deep into the situation and, with some expert guidance, discovered a few tips for where to start.
Reception Layout Tips
The ideal reception layout accounts for guests being able to move about freely. It creates enough space for unobstructed traffic flow to essential areas like bathrooms, exists, bars, the dance floor, or a buffet if there is one—no one wants to ever have to weave through a maze (especially after a few drinks). Visibility of main attractions such as the newlywed and bridal party entrances, the first dance, and toasts is also key. These should be visible by everyone. Consider elevated seating if necessary and don't forget the kid's table if need be. Also, be mindful of your décor choices. "Keeping continuity in your décor decisions is so important when working with unique table arrangements," says Povey. "If you have too much going on the guests won’t know where to stop their eye to enjoy your design and it can feel hectic. Harmonious design helps to connect a unique layout."
Place the Dance Floor and Stage First
With the dimensions of the room on hand, decide where you’ll put the dance floor. But how big of a dance floor do you need? "Typically you take the number of guests and divide that in half, which is usually the amount of people you will have on the dance floor at any one time," explains Povey. "You take that number and multiply by 4.5 and that tells you how many square feet of dance floor you need." She goes on to mention that this is a very scientific approach and is best used as a guide for establishing the minimum size. "If you know you have a lot of dancers, make that dance floor as big as you can," she adds.
"Don’t miss the opportunity to use the dance floor as a design element," advises Povey. "We always pick a custom color or pattern to emphasize our designs."
An established venue (think, hotel ballroom) will often have good layout suggestions, but if you’re working with a venue that doesn’t host many weddings, you may have to come up with your own ideas. The two most popular options for a rectangular room are to either center the dance floor lengthwise, with the dance floor and stage for the band or DJ against one of the room’s long walls (this is usually directly across from the entrance), or to place the dance floor at one end of the room, centered and backed up against one of the room’s short walls. The most important factor is to ensure that the dance floor or stage doesn't create a hurdle for guest mobility as you want to encourage them to move around the space and interact with one another.
Before you fill in the floor plan, decide what shape and size you want for your tables. Will you and your partner be at a sweetheart table, or will you be joining your wedding party at a long king’s table? Either way, make sure the two of you are in a central location that most of the guests can see—and with a great view of the band (if you choose to have one). Then decide if your guests will be at round, square, or rectangular tables, and determine how many guests can fit at each table (which will help you figure out your total table count). "When we are choosing a table size we think about guest count, space, the tabletop décor that needs to fit, and the type of food service," says Povey. "Guest experience is always the most important factor. We always want your table to be stunning, but the level of service will be affected when the appropriate room for glassware, chairs, and plates isn’t accounted for."
"Trusting your creative or strategic team is essential," says Povey. "If a table is meant to fit eight people, don’t think of this as your family dinner table and try to fit 10 people. Your planning team has hopefully seen it all and they know how an incorrectly placed table can cause issues."
Arrange the Tables
Now that you know what kind of tables you’ll be using, lay them out. Put yourselves in the best seats in the house, whether that means giving the head table the greatest view or setting the sweetheart table immediately opposite the dance floor from the band. The newlyweds should always be positioned so that they are facing their guests. From here, try to arrange your tables as symmetrically as possible. The tables will either form a u-shape around a dance floor, be centered along a long wall, or will fill one end of the space if the dance floor is at the far end. "Always take into consideration any specialty items that might factor into your space such as photo booths, additional bars, or food service," adds Povey. "Anything specialty that might need room needs to be considered even more in a space that is limited." And don't forget the wedding cake placement if you want it to be on display throughout the evening!
Pick the VIP Seats
"We always start with the head table and immediate family members and then build around those," explains Povey. "We want the newlyweds to be able to see the dance floor perfectly and will often times not sit anyone directly across from the couple, so that photo and video can get great shots of them enjoying speeches. Typically we will try to put the head table closer to the dance floor and with ample room around." Reserve the tables closest to the two of you for your immediate families, and set aside tables that are farther from the band for older guests. The less desirable seats should be saved for your friends—they’ll be spending more time on the dance floor than at their tables, anyway.
Leave Room for the Bar
A good rule of thumb is to have one bar with two bartenders for every 100 guests. So if you’re expecting 150 people, you should have two bars and at least three bartenders for the evening. Spread them out to avoid congestion, and try to keep them away from the entrance to the space so guests walk all the way into the reception before looking for a drink. For a two-bar wedding, place one bar near the dance floor to keep the party satiated and another a little removed from the dance floor (and far away from the catering entrance).
Remember Cocktail Hour
If you are having cocktail hour in the same space as the reception, leave room around the bars so you can set up cocktail tables for mingling. Consider setting a few cocktail tables out along the edge of the dance floor so guests have room to spread out, then either remove them once everyone is seated for dinner or leave them set up so guests can put down their drinks when their favorite songs come on.
Seating Chart Ideas
"Our goal is to always make the seating or table arrangements feel like an amazing dinner party," says Povey. "We might even add restaurant style booths instead of chairs or mix in benches." When it comes down to execution, create a mathematically sound foundation before sprucing up the layout to reflect your personal taste and style. Povey advises that all tables should be no less than five feet apart, but notes that a good six to seven feet is often ideal to create enough room for guests and servers without giving too much space. In terms of seats, aim for 24 inches of dining space per guest. "If you have a very small guest count consider using less of the space and transforming with décor elements in order to make the space feel intentional and full," adds Povey.
The circular shape naturally lends itself to smaller clusters of guests. "If you need to use them for space purposes, we suggest using them on the perimeter of the room or down the center," suggests Povey. "If space only allows for rounds, change up your table décor from the standard super-tall, single arrangement and create visual difference by with something slightly height-adjusted on every other table." She adds that using different heights and candlelight can add more balance. "The most important thing is proportion, making sure that nothing is overpowering the size of the table or, on the flip-side, looks like it doesn’t fill the space."
Mixing long and round tables adds visual interest and depth while maximizing space. This layout works best if you have one head table for the newlyweds. "Just make sure there is always continuity," adds Povey. "Don't leave a lone round table in the center or on the side. If you are intentional with your table choices it will have an amazing effect on the ambience."
This setup is created by banquet tables arranged in a u-shape with one central table and two others placed perpendicularly, running parallel from the other. This gives the head table a view of all the guests, but is best suited for smaller guest lists as multiple u-shaped tables can look a bit strange. "We love u-shaped tables, just make sure to note that you will lose a seat or two in the inner corners," notes Povey. "Use design elements and your dance floor to break up the front of the tables if you don't have any guests on the inner part of the u-shape."
If organized symmetry excites you, look no further: The rectangular shape naturally lends itself to perfect parallels. Also known as king's tables or banquet tables depending on size, this seating is perfect for a family-style reception. "Our ideal table is eight feet by 48 inches or a 'king’s table' because it allows for breathing room for both décor and food service," says Povey. If space is a concern, these tables can optimally be arranged in rows and placed on an angle. Or, they can be placed end to end to create a curving, banquet-style table to fit an undulating landscape or curve around a visual focal point. "We love a rectangular table, but make sure you don't connect so many of them that the walk for your guests or servers is a mile long," advises Povey. "Break up some of the lines by doing some standard eight-foot tables mixed with 16-foot or 24-foot tables." In terms of décor, Povey suggests three floral arrangements and between six and eight candles for an eight-foot table. "This is just a standard rule of thumb, but the sky is the limit on the combinations you can do," she adds.
"We think the square is coming back and even bistro seating where you have four people or less at a table," says Povey. "Dining out is so much a part of our lives now and we see couples gravitating towards that style of event." For anyone partial to clean lines, she believes a square or rectangle shape is probably your best bet. And don't play it safe when it comes to deciding who sits where. "Don't put all your dancers in one section and your quiet guests in another," advises Povey. "Mix the tables, it helps to create a balanced event and, often times, Aunt Sue really wants to be on the dance floor—even if she pretends she doesn’t! The outgoing guests will help get the introverts more excited to dance and have a great time."