Time to get the party started! There’s no better way to set the fun vibes into motion than a wedding cocktail hour. It’s the perfect segue from ceremony to reception while you run off and capture those omg-we-just-got-married photos. The cocktail hour gives your guests something to do, loosens the atmosphere, and builds anticipation for the reception to come.
And what if you’re going straight from the ceremony to reception? You can plan a pre-ceremony cocktail hour for guests who arrive a little early. This is especially fun for an outdoor wedding! Greet guests with a glass of champagne as they find their seats or maybe a hot toddy if it’s chilly out. TBH, why not just plan for both pre and post. The more bubbles the merrier!
We chatted with professionals in wedding design and catering to get their inside tips when it comes to planning your wedding cocktail hour. They shared the dos and the don’ts for creating your atmosphere and design, serving appetizers, and passing out drinks. Basically, everything you never knew you needed to know. Let’s dive in!
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Cocktail Hour Atmosphere + Design Tips
DO try to bring your wedding cocktail hour outside.
“Everyone loves an alfresco moment! Especially if your ceremony and reception are both indoors, guests will love a chance to grab some fresh air and mingle outside – and you will too! Work with your venue to see what options you might have. A garden space, lawn, poolside with some hightop tables, an upper-level balcony…the options might just be endless.” — AJ Williams, Founder & Creative Director, AJ Events
DO use high bistro tables.
“Have plenty of high bistro tables scattered through the cocktail area so guests can place their drinks down and congregate to catch up with each other.” — Melissa Wilmot, Founder & CEO, WedBrilliant
DON’T forget seating!
“While you don’t necessarily have to provide an individual seat for every guest during cocktail hour, you’ll want to ensure there are at least a few seating options. Incorporate a few lounge vignettes into the space, with one vignette set up as a fully floral-decorated lounge, branded with your wedding logo so it’s Instagram ready!” — AJ Williams, Founder & Creative Director, AJ Events
DO include some type of activity.
“During this time, include something interactive for your guests to do. Think lawn games, a photo booth, an entertainer like a custom mixologist or a floral crown artist, or even just making sure your guestbook is out and available to sign! Keep in mind though, if your guest count is intimate and under 40 people, keep it to 45 minutes – especially if wedding party photos were shot pre-ceremony.” — AJ Williams, Founder & Creative Director, AJ Events
DON’T forget to create a spacious layout.
“Design your cocktail area thoughtfully with flow and elbow room! No one likes to be crammed or bottlenecked into an area. Place the bar on one side of the space and the food stations on the other to keep your guests moving and to avoid flow blockages in one tight area.” — Jessica Carrillo, Owner & Lead Planner, Art & Soul Events
DO create a beautiful bar setup.
“Also, having a gorgeous bar setup is nice for guests who like to indulge a little. Why not doll up the bars since they are a big player in the “fun” of your cocktail hour and reception.” — Karen Collins, Principal Planner & Designer, KMC Weddings and Events
GWS Tip: We also love a cute mobile bar! Here are some of our favorites: The 16 Cutest Mobile Bars for Your Wedding
DO include entertainment and photo ops.
“Do take photos before your wedding festivities begin! We would hate for you to miss cocktail hour with all of your guests that you haven’t seen during the pandemic! Make sure to add a photo opp area so you can capture these fun moments with your loved ones. Order heavy appetizers so your guests aren’t hangry after the ceremony. Hire a roaming live musician that can interact with your guests while performing for them.” — Lizzy Liz Chan, Lizzy Liz Events
DO incorporate live music.
“Entertainment-wise, cocktail hour is a great time to introduce your guests to your live band with a jazz or acoustic set. If you’re not having live entertainment, work with your DJ to curate a playlist that is more subtle than what will have everyone on the dance floor later. We don’t want that vibe to peak too soon.” — Ashley Lachney, Owner of Alston Mayger Events
DO display your seating chart.
“Remember to display your seating chart for dinner at cocktail hour so guests have time to find their seats throughout the hour instead of creating a bottleneck into the reception space.” — Kari Dirksen, CEO + Lead Planner, Feathered Arrow Events
All About Cocktail Hour Food
DO include signature appetizers.
“Appetizers should be both an extension of the flavors guests will experience later on in dinner service AND a fun nod to your favorite foods as a couple. Always do waffles on Sundays? Let’s find a way to create a small, two-bite waffle that guests can enjoy on the go.” — Ashley Lachney, Owner of Alston Mayger Events
DON’T be afraid to think outside the box with food!
“Even if you’re serving more traditional courses for your reception meal, embrace the opportunity to be creative and fun during your wedding cocktail hour and serve a variety of cuisines! While everyone will be eating during dinner, guests can choose to pass on appetizers during cocktail hour that aren’t up to their own tastes – but it also provides a quick one-bite opportunity to try something new! Opt for choices that represent trips abroad you’ve shared together as a couple, foods that have a special meaning in your family or your culture, or even something representative of a special date night meal!” — AJ Williams, Founder & Creative Director, AJ Events
DON’T have food stations if you have a large guest count.
“With a larger guest count, you’re pretty much guaranteeing long lines if you set up food stations for your guests during cocktail hour. If you’re wanting to provide substantial items but avoid the lines, a great compromise is to offer heavier passed hors d’oeuvres to still ensure your guests are feeling satisfied! Some of our favorites include brisket brioche sliders, individual charcuterie plates, mini shrimp scampi served atop a linguine nest, mini Margherita pizza flatbreads, and mini sushi boats. All are satisfying options that go beyond a fruit and cheese display while still keeping things moving along!” — Michelle’s Catering
Cheers! Cocktail Hour Drink Tips
DO pass out drinks when guests arrive.
“One of the best things we see at a cocktail hour is having servers pass out signature cocktails or beer and wine as the guests start to arrive. This helps get a drink in their hands and lessens long waits at the bar especially if the ceremony is on the same site as reception. Guests will be so happy to get a drink sooner so they can start celebrating with you.” – Karen Collins, Principal Planner & Designer, KMC Weddings and Events
DO plan on having additional bar support staff.
“The bar must be ready to jump into immediate action the second the ceremony ends. I like to add additional bar support staff and make sure we have a few extra servers dedicated to tray passing drinks. This helps take some of the initial pressure off of the bar line rush to keep things moving.” – Jessica Carrillo, Owner & Lead Planner, Art & Soul Events
DO have a self-serve water station.
“Keep your guest hydrated without holding up the bar line. Create a self-serve water station (separate from the main bar) where guests can help themselves to water, iced tea, or lemonade, whenever they are thirsty.” – Jessica Carrillo, Owner & Lead Planner, Art & Soul Events
And one final tip: DON’T make the wedding cocktail hour too long.
“A big ‘don’t’ when it comes to cocktail hours, is planning on too much time. After about 45 minutes or so, guests begin to get restless and are ready for a transition. You can combat that with interactive activities (chef-manned oyster station, or caricature artist) as at times more time is needed. Definitely in the case of a room flip or if the couple is attempting to fit in quite a few photos.” — Nora Sheils, Founder Bridal Bliss + Co-Founder Rock Paper Coin, Bridal Bliss