Each wedding reception is as unique as the individuals getting married, but they all have at least one thing in common: a structured timeline. While it may not sound romantic, a detailed “run of show” is a logistical necessity for a happily ever after on your wedding day.
The standard wedding reception is composed of a one-hour cocktail party and a four-hour reception usually centered around a meal. That said, there’s still plenty of flexibility to make it your own–the couple, the cultures, the venue, and the wedding size all play a role in how the night unfolds. The key is to customize a timeline that makes sense within those parameters. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all schedule for weddings, we surveyed planners from all over the country to weigh in on a basic framework that works for just about any couple.
Here, experts share an hour-by-hour rundown of the ultimate wedding reception timeline.
With getting ready photos, first look, wedding party photos, and family photos completed before the ceremony, you get to enjoy conversations, drinks and hors d’oeuvres during your cocktail hour, says Lizzy Liz Chan, wedding planner, and designer at Lizzy Liz Events.
In most Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Chinese weddings, Chan says welcome photos are common at this point in the evening. This is where the couple greets their guests and takes photos with each couple or family as guests arrive.
For evening weddings, Chan recommends the couple try to sneak away during cocktail hour and enjoy a quick and intimate dinner together. This way you can also pop out of the reception for sunset photos without missing your meal.
Reception Hour 1
For the reception, Chan advises getting all the formalities done in the beginning so you can get to the partying portion as soon as possible. Additionally, It’s important to get the main events done as early as you can if you have a time limit with your photographer or videographer.
At the beginning of the reception, the parents, bridal party, and the couple are introduced. In traditional American weddings, this process might take five to 10 minutes depending on the size of the party. According to Lola Akingbade of MasterPlan Events, depending on traditions the couple wants to include you may have to shift things a bit. “In a Nigerian wedding, this process takes much longer; anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes, as they are dancing in and when they get to the dance floor, ‘money spraying’ also takes place.”
After the couple is introduced into the room, they usually have their first dance. “This allows the couple to have ‘something to do’ once they have been introduced,” says Camille Ross, wedding planner and owner of Elsie Event Co. “But save the parent dances for later as a way to organically kick up the dance floor post-dinner.”
Welcome Speech/Meal Blessing
Ross says the emcee will likely usher the parents up right after the first dance for a quick welcome speech which may be followed by prayer or blessing before dinner. “The officiant prayer is a way to keep guests at their seats, and the [catering] team can use it as a cue to begin service,” Ross shares. “It's also very common in any wedding where the couple and their families are religious.”
Start Meal Service
This is when the caterers should drop the first course. The cocktail hour should hold hungry guests over through the welcome formalities, but it's best to get the main meal started soon after so guests are occupied prior to the dance floor opening.
Reception Hour 2
Change of Outfit
It’s quite common for modern brides to switch up their look for the reception. Slipping into something more comfortable just before dinner ends makes for a smooth transition for dancing the night away.
Depending on the couple, the outfit change may also include a switch into cultural clothing. In Nigerian weddings, Akingbade notes that right before the dance floor is opened up, couples may change from their wedding dress and suit into traditional attire.
Many Asian couples will change into their traditional attire during this portion of the night as well. Depending on how intricate the ensemble is, Chan says you may have to factor in time for outfit changes as well. “Keep in mind, some Brides will have their MUAH [makeup and hair] artist onsite to do different hair changes and makeup touch-ups, so factor in glam time too!”
Wrap-up Meal Service
To keep the momentum going (and so that the dining does not drag on for too long), Akingbade recommends swiftly moving on to the next item on the program once the last plate has been served. This should be the toasts or family dances; this way, the majority of guests have eaten, and the remaining guests can finish up.
It’s wise to include buffers at this point in the evening–10 to 15 minutes of padding should be sufficient in case any speakers are long-winded. Giving a time limit to anyone who will give toasts is a good idea that will also help them from going on too long.
Family Dances/Open Dance Floor
Family dances, such as the mother/son dance or father/daughter dance, are a great way to transition into the open dance floor since the couple is already on or near the floor. “Keep in mind, wherever the couple goes, people go,” Chan says. “So if you want to have your guests dance all night, then you need to be on the dance floor dancing ALL night too!”
From the experience of Renae Ouellette, director of catering and events for Conrad Washington, DC, most large cultural weddings feature traditional dances or musical pieces that are done at every wedding. “Be sure to be deliberate about scheduling these within the reception time frame,” she says. “Ideally this would be before cake cutting so that the photographer is still present to capture the moment, but it ultimately depends on the couple and the tradition.”
In Jewish weddings, the hora is typically done once all the formal photography and other traditions are completed, “It’s typically best after dinner as a way to get everyone on the dance floor,” says Maureen Stella, director of sales and marketing at The Opus, Westchester. “The bride doesn’t need to worry about their hair and makeup, and the groomsmen can take off their tuxedo jackets as things tend to get very hot and sweaty during this fun tradition.”
Akingbade mentions that if the bride and/or groom are a part of a historically Black fraternity or a sorority, there usually has to be time allocated for the members of the organization to do a special “stroll” performance that should be factored into the event flow too.
Keep in mind traditional etiquette dictates that it’s acceptable to leave a wedding once the cake has been cut, so this formality is best placed after all the other key moments of the evening.
Reception Hour 3
This is the part of the night where the garter and bouquet toss would take place; many couples are including other reception games and activities throughout the event as well.
Latin wedding receptions tend to go into the wee morning hours, so many moments are peppered in to keep the night going, according to Claudia G. De Velasco, lead planner of A Day To Remember. For example, La Hora Loca or “The Crazy Hour” is a party within a party featuring varying cultural themes that may include Brazilian dancers, stilt walkers, or confetti bombs for the guests. It’s usually performed later in the night when the party needs new energy.
Reception Hour 4
De Velasco says that in Mexican celebrations, a second round of food is served to keep the guests from passing out, so a recalentado or “reheat” is served. Late-night bites are now a common occurrence in many American weddings as well, where another round of small snacks is passed or a food truck may make an appearance during the last hour.
At almost any bar or event, the last call is the universal signal that things are winding down. You don't have to make it official, but if your venue has a sharp end time, it’ll help people prepare to start wrapping up.
Last Dance and Grand Exit
If you’re planning a dramatic departure, Ross says the last ten minutes of the evening is a good time to announce the exit plan. While the couple shares a private last dance, the guests should begin filing out in preparation for the grand exit.
The After Party
From ceremony to reception, most wedding guests are tapped out around six hours of event time, but there are always a few folks ready to keep the party going. The easiest way to flow into the after-hours is to simply pick a bar nearby ahead of time, spread the word, and let whoever wants to, show up finish the night strong.