The Top 20 Reception Ideas

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

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;

A tray of passed miniature desserts. Photo: Courtesy of Brian Dorsey

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;

An edible menu made of dark chocolate. Photo: Courtesy of Preston Bailey Designs

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; 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. Photo: John Labbe/Courtesy of Preston Bailey

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; 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.”

A rowboat wedding in Wagner Cove in Central Park.Photo: Courtesy of Jeni Holder
Guests' response cards on display at a Fête-designed reception. Photo: Shawn Connell for Christian Orth/Courtesy of Fete

10. Make your guests the center of attention.
“For one wedding’s response cards, we sent blank square cards that read, ‘The favor of a creative response is requested,’ ” says Jung Lee. “Guests sent back wonderful replies. We displayed them like artwork at the reception so the guests could see one another’s interpretations.” At a different wedding, Lee printed all the guests’ names on individual thank-you cards that everyone received at the reception.

More memorable than monogrammed napkins: a personalized marquee at the Loew's Theatre in Jersey City. Photo: Peter Freed/Courtesy of Stevie Remsberg

11. Get married at an unusual location.
Not another wedding at the Tribeca Rooftop! Sure, the space is amazing, but its popularity is turning it into a bit of a factory. Instead, look into some more unexpected places: For starters, there’s BAM in Fort Greene, the Coney Island Aquarium, the Hudson Theatre in Times Square, the old Loew’s Theatre in Jersey City, or the Central Park Zoo. One New York City couple got married in rowboats bobbing atop the lake in Central Park. “We chose a corner called Wagner Cove because there was a gazebo close by from which more guests could see the ceremony,” says Addie Juell, whose other guests were in rowboats themselves (see below).

12. If you’re giving favors, select gifts that won’t be immediately discarded.
Will anyone really use that silver frame engraved with your names? Realistically, probably not. Give a favor that is much more personal (FYI, stamping your moniker on something does not make it personal). For example, for a winter wedding, florist Matthew Robbins of Artfool supplied a couple with hundreds of evergreen saplings, each wrapped in twine, with cards attached saying that a donation was made in the guest’s name to the Central Park Conservancy. Alternately, just give something that’s functional: If the weather forecast predicts rain, why not give everyone an umbrella? For a wedding in the late fall, planner Alison Hotchkiss of Alison Events rolled up colorful fleece blankets and piled them on a table for guests to take as they walked to the outdoor reception area. If you’re marrying in summer, near a pool or beach (with some potential for communal late-night dipping), give beach towels. For one wedding, Liz Seccuro of Dolce Parties ordered striped towels for all 300 guests. “We knew they’d end up in the pool at 4 a.m.”

A chilled, self-serve vodka-and-caviar station.Photo: Christian Oth/Courtesy of Lindsey Hamilton Events

13. Make boozing an elegant activity.
For oenophile clients, planner Francesca Abbracciamento stations wine stewards on the dining-room floor and at the bar, each pouring from beautiful decanters into custom handblown stemware (for expert sommeliers, call Joshua Wesson of Best Cellars, from $2,000; 212-426-4200). At a black-tie reception at Capitale, planner Lyndsey Hamilton and the design team at Artfool placed individual vodka-and-Malossol-caviar stations (see left) carved out of ice on each table (from $185 for each ice station; 212-842-0630;

14. Showcase what you’re passionate about as part of the entertainment.
If you’re a cheese connoisseur, have staff roll cheese carts to each table during the first course, or before dessert. If it’s dessert wine you love, create a little self-serve station after the cake-cutting. If it’s cigars, hire La Casa Grande (718-364-4657; to hand-roll them.

15. Get your favorite takeout place to cater your wedding.
Since opening her hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant, Lassi, Heather Carlucci-Rodriguez ventured into weddings almost by accident, and found it a mutually beneficial arrangement: “Smaller businesses really appreciate a big event like a wedding, and we can cost a lot less than a big catering company.”

A wreathed vintage table number.Photo: Jen Siska/Courtesy of Alison Events

16. If you can afford extravagances, do something that will elicit an emotional response.
Planner Francesca Abbracciamento recommends skywriting. Yes, skywriting! (Go to “One father-of-the-bride chartered an old-time White Baron plane to fly over the reception, streaking the sky with puffy white hearts around the bride and groom’s initials.” For something over-the-top at night, commission a fireworks display. “No one is better than the Grucci family,” says Karen Bussen, author of Simple Stunning Weddings (Fireworks by Grucci; 631-286-0088; If a big-budget show isn’t in the cards, late-night sparklers, while not as awe-inspiring, are just as—if not more—fun.

Cocktail hour at the Central Park Zoo.Photo: Courtesy of Casey Kelbaugh
Guest's escort cards hanging from branches. Photo: Courtsy of Brian Dorsey

17. Display seating assignments in a unique way.
Stationer Rebecca Schmidt-Ruebensaal likes to hang them from a tree with different-colored ribbons. “Have a pair of antique scissors on hand for guests to cut off their cards” (see right). Event designer David Stark did an escort-card table that wasn’t really a table “as much as it was a wall of sunflowers where each place card was pinned to the center of the flower.” For a truly innovative alternative, Jung Lee took all the guests’ names at one wedding, asked the bride and groom to come up with a funny, inside-joke phrase with which to describe each guest (e.g. “Debate Team Leader,” “Pickpocket,” “Man who was Late,” “Swedish Movie Star,” etc.), and after compiling them, ran their names, nicknames, and respective seating assignments like film credits on TV screens as guests entered the reception area. Also, for table numbers, nothing says “corporate event” like sterile laminated cards on stands. Do something prettier. At one barbecue-and-bluegrass vineyard reception, planner Alison Hotchkiss wreathed vintage numbers (found at a local antique shop by the bride) with a eucalyptus branch.

18. Take your cue from Truman Capote and host a themed reception.
“Certain time periods work well—like a twenties-style wedding with a speakeasy-inspired bar and jazzy music,” says Xochitl Gonzalez. “Ethnic-based themes—Havana, Cuba; Russian winter—are never cheesy, as long as it’s not arbitrary.” Communicate your theme through your invitations, décor, and cocktails, but don’t impose it on the dress code, unless it’s something easy, like black and white.

19. Make a cool video of the party.
Super-8: It’s the home-movie look we associate with our earliest memories, or The Wonder Years. Jessica Lysons of Worker Bee Designs films in Super-8 and finishes with state-of-the-art editing software (from $3,000; 917-318-7858; Alternately, rent a video booth. It’s a private, more comfortable (though potentially more incriminating) way for guests to leave fun messages on camera. The mechanism works much like a photo booth; guests tap the touch-screen to start a two-minute recording—long enough to say something nice or funny; brief enough to avoid getting into too much trouble (try

20. Plan for after-hours action.
For places to visit around the city, turn to page 118. Or stay put. Turning your reception into an after-party spot can be a costly endeavor, but the perk is that guests don’t drunkenly straggle to the wrong location. Planner Harriette Rose Katz transformed a room at the Pierre into an all-white retro South Beach lounge. “We served sliders and gooey grilled cheeses on white-leather beds and sofas. It was unforgettable.”

Four Flops to Avoid

1. Flame throwers, sword dancers, trapeze artists, and even tribal drummers all send a similar message: You’re trying too hard (and your strain for fun is expensive). There’s a fine line between creative and campy, so tread lightly. A choreographed first dance? Okay. Belly dancers? Only if they’re your relatives and your heritage demands it.

2. Nothing says the party’s over like a roaring fire. Use bottom-heavy containers for candles, and run a fire check beforehand to remove rogue branches, paper products (such as menus), or other items that may ignite. Keep candles out of unattended bathrooms and away from the aisle, lest your gown get speckled in hot wax—or go up in a blaze.

3. An outdoor reception can be stunning, but forgetting to do proper critter diligence can spell disaster. Bees can drill holes into fondant icing; raccoons and sundry less-cute rodents can ruin décor. Mosquitoes and horseflies are the most common—and the worst. Don’t forget to place unscented bug spray in the bathrooms.

4. Fight the temptation to treat the wait staff at your reception like another element to shoehorn into your party’s “theme.” Putting them in costumes pushes your reception into the scary territory of a Disney cruise. No lederhosen, no powdered wigs, no cigarette girls. And above all, no animal disguises.

SEE ALSO: What Not to Do

The Top 20 Reception Ideas