If you're saying "I do" in virtual ceremony don't let your wedding day end after the first kiss. Instead, consider this: A virtual wedding reception to celebrate with guests following the live-streamed ceremony! This type of event is not your average wedding reception, so to help you plan a virtual party your guests will be talking about long after logging off, we’re taking a peek behind the screens with industry expert Jeff Stillwell, an event planner who has perfected the hybrid event.
Meet the Expert
Jeff Stillwell is founder and creative force behind Stillwell Events. Over 20 years prior to starting his company, he was the director of events for some of the most iconic event facilities in New York City.
Read on for a step-by-step guide on how to plan an immersive virtual reception your guests will love!
Virtual Reception Etiquette
Who Throws a Virtual Wedding Reception?
Commonly, a combination of the couple’s parents will “co-host” the virtual reception. Stillwell says that in today’s world, however, many couples decide to throw the virtual wedding and celebration themselves.
When Do You Throw a Virtual Wedding Reception?
“Even the most traditional ‘non-virtual type couples’ are realizing how some type of a digital component makes sense right now,” Stillwell says. “I feel that the future for most weddings and events will be a combination of a part live/part virtual celebration as this may also be the perfect plan for a couple who never wanted a big (and expensive) wedding.”
Who Gets Invited to a Virtual Wedding Reception?
Since virtual wedding receptions are still novel, one of the benefits of this event type is having no hard and fast rules dictated by tradition. You can literally plan this wedding however you like and invite whomever you want! Many keep the in-person guest count low, consisting of close relatives and friends, with virtual invites going to distant relatives and work friends—no feelings hurt, no budget bloated.
Do You Need to Send Formal Invitations?
Stillwell feels strongly that a virtual wedding reception should include an actual mailed invitation (not an evite), as he says it’s important to send virtual guests something tangible, especially for an event as important as a wedding.
Should You Include a Dress Code?
Having a dress code can help set the tone for this momentous occasion and create a sense of togetherness for all of the guests. Stillwell says “the more the virtual guests can be in line with the live guests, it simply makes for a better party!”
How Can You Make Virtual Guests Feel Involved?
It’s a nice gesture to mail each virtual guest a surprise package the week of the wedding. Based on your budget, this can be as simple or grand as you’re able, but think: a beautifully wrapped box with a mini wedding cake, small bottles of Champagne and a program to follow during the ceremony. You can also organize virtual toasts, although Stillwell recommends limiting this to two live and two virtual toasts, no longer than five minutes each.
Have your tech company take still shots of each guest’s screen to use as “pixels” that form a larger photo of the couple. These would make great "thank you" tokens to be sent out after the wedding.
Do You Still Need a Cocktail Hour?
If the hosting venue has two rooms equipped with projection you wouldn’t need to have a cocktail hour. This allows live guests to move directly to the dining room after the ceremony with a quick camera angle switch for virtual guests. If only one room is equipped with the necessary technology, you would likely need a cocktail hour to flip the space from the ceremony venue to the dining room. During that time, you can still imbibe with virtual guests by sending them a recipe card of your signature drink or having cocktail kits delivered to their home.
What Happens During Dinner?
If budget allows, your entire event can be conducted with both the live and virtual guests enjoying the full experience with delivered catering. For a leaner budget, the run of show may consist of the first dance, followed by a few dance songs that everyone can enjoy, speeches, cake cutting (with virtual guests enjoying their mini version at home) and then the online celebration would conclude with the couple saying goodbye to the virtual viewers.
Steps to Planning a Virtual Reception
1. Pick a Date
A virtual wedding reception date can be communicated through the invitation a few weeks less than a non-virtual wedding since guests won’t need to travel or take time off work. You may want to take more consideration into confirming the timing as many guests could be joining from different time zones.
2. Send Invitations
A virtual invite should go out 6 to 8 weeks before the wedding. If you do plan to incorporate in-person guests you’ll need two different invitations: one for the live guests, and a second for the virtual guests (don’t forget the time zone!). The dress code should be included just as it would be for an in-person wedding and you may also want to note that the event may be recorded to ensure guests dress to impress. The wedding website should be on the invitation to provide additional details and access to the wedding registry.
3. Choose a (Virtual) Venue
To execute a spectacular hybrid reception having the right venue is a must even if the majority of your guests are conferencing in. Venues such as LAVAN541 in New York or The Temple House in Miami offer high quality projection and 360 photo mapping capabilities. You can set your wedding ceremony in a cherry blossom orchard, then transport to a private sunset-lit beach in Maui for dinner. If hosting the event at your home, work closely with your planner or a hired tech team to ensure that your tech specs are up to the challenge.
4. Find Your Virtual Vendors
The pandemic has pushed industry vendors to new creative limits, experimenting with new technology and creating innovative experiences for digital events. There’s an impressive amount of wedding planners, caterers and technology companies that are beginning to add “Zoom Weddings” to their service offerings, so you’ll want to seek out vendors with experience in virtual entertainment and event technology.
5. Decide Who Is Emceeing
With a virtual reception, it’s absolutely necessary to incorporate a master of ceremony. This needs to be someone with a dynamic personality who can keep guests’ attention as they have the responsibility of narrating the event for the virtual guests. Because online guests won’t be able to see all angles, the emcee will explain what will happen over the course of the evening, walking them through every segment of the wedding, while also communicating any “behind the scenes” happenings. Without this, your virtual guests will feel disconnected.
6. Plan the Menu
Seasoned caterers have created exciting ways to involve at-home wedding guests in the dining experience so that you can plan your menu just as you would for an in-person wedding. Vendors such as Thomas Preti Events in New York have introduced a three-course “dinner in a box” concept, while Bill Hansen Catering and Event Production has created Zoom wedding menus with free delivery in Miami. These curated meals are beautifully packaged and seamlessly delivered to the virtual guests in concert with the live guests’ dinner.
Consider orchestrating Uber deliveries to guests in areas that aren't local to your caterer.
7. Set the Scene
In addition to decor and catering, with the right tech in place, a stunning scene can be created for guests in person and at home. Stillwell often works with companies like Total Entertainment that have immersive events down to a science with the ability to create custom backgrounds for online guests that match projections in the physical venue, while a three-camera filming process can give digital onlookers a sense of being right there in the room.
8. Have a Tech Rehearsal
Perhaps even more necessary than the traditional rehearsal dinner, the tech run-through is vital part to a smooth-running virtual reception. Your planner or tech team should contact every virtual guest at least a week before the event making sure everyone has the proper equipment in their home (ask if they have the capability to supply missing equipment to guests if needed). You’ll also want to schedule a quick tech rehearsal on the day of the wedding to work out any issues before the start time.
9. Capture the Celebration!
Even though your guests may not physically be able to join you in photos, there are certain times you’ll want to capture reactions of virtual guests cheering or applauding in key moments, so make sure your photographer is well-versed in doing so. And in lieu of a videographer, make sure your tech company or event planner is able to record and share the event with you at the end of the production.