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The Top 20 Reception Ideas

Event planners’ greatest hits. Plus: a handful of flops.


Guests having fun in one of Barnaby Draper's self-directed photo booths.   

1. Avoid playing boring piano music during the cocktail hour.
Choose a genre you love that people can’t bust a move to, like experimental jazz, bluegrass fiddling, or emo-rock like Radiohead and their sound-alikes. Alternately, showcase a type of music native to your or your fiancé’s heritage—think strolling mariachis, Caribbean steel drums, or a flamenco guitar-and-mandolin duo. For a range of options, try John Ragusa Music (from $1,000 per musician; 212-706-7227; johnragusamusic.com.)


A tray of passed miniature desserts.   

2. Supplement the often-ignored wedding cake with passed desserts.
For one recent reception, planner Xochitl Gonzalez of Always a Bridesmaid worked with caterer The Raging Skillet and How Sweet It Is to dress up the bride’s favorite junk food. Mini devil dogs, mini Rice Krispie treats, and mini peanut-butter cups were served on silver platters at the end of the night (from $7 per head). “It got people talking,” says Gonzalez. Plus, more food coming out of the kitchen creates the illusion that the party’s nowhere near ending.

3. Transport your guests in style.
A shuttle bus can be such an eyesore; why not rent a few vintage cars to chauffeur guests instead? (We know cost probably has something to do with it; but if you can, go for it.) Brooklyn’s Film Cars has a diverse collection, including Model Ts, Jaguars, and checkered cabs (from $425 to $1,350 for three hours; 718-748-6707). Other fun options include San Francisco–style trolleys and the usually obnoxious red double-decker tour buses, which, in this context, feel inventive and humorous (both available from Gray Line New York, from $692; 212-445-0848; coachusa.com.)


An edible menu made of dark chocolate.   

4. Even if you don’t normally, think like a foodie for one night.
Andrea Correale of Elegant Affairs Catering recommends chef-tended stations for the cocktail hour. “Basically, think three horseshoe-shaped bars around the room, with stools around them, and behind each one is a chef cooking up little plates right there in front of everyone.” Each is like a tiny open kitchen with its own specialty: Asian, French, American, Cuban, etc. “For guests not seated at the bars, set up little furniture clusters nearby, to which wait staff can bring food.” For the reception, include menus at each place setting. For one wedding, event designer Preston Bailey made edible menus out of chocolate ($25 each).

5. Rent a photo booth.
Get one that produces double film strips (NYC photo booth, from $1,500; 212-537-6213; nycphotobooth.com). Have an attendant cut each down the middle—guests keep one strip, and the other can be pasted into your guest book. “Have each guest write a message to go with it,” says Andrea Most Gottschall of A Most Creative Affair. Photographer Barnaby Draper sets up a mini-studio at the reception, building walls to enclose an unmanned camera standing on a tripod. Guests stand on the X and pull a shutter release to take their self-portraits ($1,500).


Glass sculptures replace floral centerpieces at a Preston Bailey-designed wedding.   

6. Get creative with your tabletop décor—if not to flaunt originality, then to be a little more eco-friendly.
Instead of the usual floral centerpieces, consider something different, like feathers in glass vases, plants under bell jars, glass sculptures, or even arrangements made of paper flowers (event designer David Stark is a master of the latter). For one reception, Bill Kocis of Bill Kocis Important Flowers built tables of clear Plexiglas. Each was itself a vessel, filled with water, polished black river stones, and Koi and goldfish. For another wedding, Preston Bailey contracted a glassblower to make tall, Dr. Seussian sculptures for each table (from $500 each; see below).

7. Serve quirky late-night snacks as guests exit your reception.
Sure, a hungry guest’s impromptu order for takeout pizza is always clutch, but having your caterer think of what to serve for midnight munchies will reap a more memorable result. “Rent a street-food cart and park it right outside,” says Xochitl Gonzalez. Think a Nuts 4 Nuts cart for a winter wedding, and an Italian-ice cart or even a Mr. Softee ice-cream truck in summer (from $250 an hour; mistersoftee.com). Alternately, have a candy station. Providing jars of sweets with scoops and little plastic bags may be an overdone trend, but it’s overdone for a reason. It works.

8. Plan a good coat-check strategy to avoid long queues blocking the entrance and dampening first impressions.
At one wedding, planner Jung Lee of Fête asked the waiters for the reception to work the coat check first. The men, dressed impeccably in white tails, stood in two rows, facing one another, and as guests arrived, individual “butlers” whisked their coats away. The effect was dazzling and efficient, “but it takes a lot of manpower, approximately 20 per 250 guests.” Afterwards, the servers changed clothing, from tails into white dinner jackets.

9. Take a design risk and seat your guests at a few really long tables.
“As counterintuitive as it may seem, it’s actually more intimate because the table isn’t as wide. You can talk to the people across from you, as well as to the people to your left and right and to those sitting beside them,” says Jung Lee, who did one long table for 300 guests at the New York Public Library’s Astor Hall. “We gave them coded directions to their seats, by east and west, and people found their places like they would at the opera.”

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