15 Standout Reception Ideas

A New York bride, groom, and their guests transported by pedicabs to the reception.Photo: Lily Kesselman

1. As soon as the ceremony wraps, let the entertainment begin.
If there is an unavoidable time lag between the ceremony and reception, organize a tour of the city for your guests on a double-decker bus ($850, two-hour minimum; Gray Line New York Sightseeing; 800-669-0051). If most of them are New Yorkers—and trolling the city on a double-decker is the last thing they want to do—set up a harbor sunset tour (see below). Says event designer Susan Holland, “It’s more yacht-glamour than party-cruise” and it’ll likely be a novelty (from $950 per hour, two-hour minimum; Classic Harbor Line; 212-627-1825).

2. Make a grand entrance.
The traditional limo is fine but … yawn. For one wedding, Eyal Tessler of In Any Event arranged for the couple and wedding party to arrive at the reception in pedicabs, ($60 per hour for one; Manhattan Pedicab, Inc.; 212-586-9486). If that feels like a liability, travel in a quaint, Victorian-style trolley (three-hour minimum for $1,495; Golden Carriage, Ltd.; 973-770-1433). Here’s something unique just for the two of you: Planner Nicky Reinhard of David Reinhard Events suggests renting a vintage Checker cab ($500, two-hour minimum; Checker Cab; 718-351-1939). Less an ecostatement than a “look-at-how-cute-we-are” statement would be to arrive on a tandem two-seater bike with your bouquet in the basket ($59 per day; Bike and Roll; 212-260-0400).

3. Give a shout-out to your hometown.
For a wedding at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, New York groom David Potter wanted to incorporate his home state of Kentucky, so he ordered mini-bottles of Baker’s Bourbon and placed them in small burlap sacks for each guest to take home. At another wedding, Nicky Reinhard of David Reinhard Events designed a three-course menu of typical grub from the couple’s respective hometowns and the city in which they met; she timed the serving of each dish to the relevant city-associated background music. Lox and cream cheese with “New York, New York” in the background? A little much, but it’s clever!

Notebooks conveniently placed for guests' well-wishes.Photo: Christian Oth Photography

4. Celebrate your heritage through food …
For a Chinese bride and Lebanese groom, caterer Olivier Cheng combined cuisines for the cocktail hour: He created a Middle Eastern grill station and a dim sum station, and passed wonton cups with shiitake, ginger, and scallion, as well as pumpkin kibbe with chickpeas, spinach, and tamarind dipping sauce. Something we love for a Jewish wedding? Mini matzo-ball-soup shooters! Planner Ann David integrated Indian and Jamaican flavors into signature cocktails to pay homage. For this, call on mixologist Herb Westphalen, 212-684-6521; or a specialty caterer like Death & Co., 917-595-9717; Cuffs & Buttons, 212-625-2090; or Contemporary Cocktails, 646-652-6879.

Individual paper cranes at a Korean wedding.Photo: Christian Oth Photography

5. … Or through décor and entertainment.
To incorporate her culture into her wedding, New York bride Jane Shin folded a paper crane for each guest using origami paper. “Cranes are Korean symbols of longevity, patience, and care,” she says. At a Lebanese wedding, planner Leslie Price hired belly dancers to perform. “The bride did a belly dance of her own. She had been taking lessons for months” (from $1,200 for dancers; Nadia Moussa Dance Company; 212-677-8173). At a wedding at the Foundry, Mexican bride Olivia Lua hired a mariachi band: “It was explosive; they had the trumpets blaring. Our guests couldn’t stop talking about it.”

6. Solicit keepsakes from your guests.
Send a blank response card with your invitation instead of a check-off RSVP, and (hopefully) you’ll receive a creative response from each guest. Keep the responses in an album for years to come, or display them at the reception. At one wedding, Jung Lee of Fête set out old-school notebooks and pencils for each guest to jot down notes to the couple. For something more elegant, leave an oversize glass-blown jar in a central location and set small, blank cards on a silver tray alongside an engraving pen, with a sign asking for well-wishes. Planner Eyal Tessler did something much more elaborate for one wedding: “We included a piece of fabric in the invitation and asked guests to personalize it with photos and drawings and send it back with the reply. Each piece was sewn into a quilt which we used as the chuppah cover.”

Vintage wedding photos on display.Photo: Francesco Mastalia

7. Include your entire family without crowding the aisle.
Ask your family members for pictures from their own weddings and display them; include vintage photos of those who have passed on. Or, incorporate a famous family recipe into your menu. One New York bride included recipes from both grandmothers: “I had one grandmother’s pierogies at the cocktail hour, and my other grandma’s garlic pasta, served late at night.”

An autumnal place-card holder.Photo: Shawn Connell/Christian Oth Photography

8. Let the season inspire the details.
For one fall wedding, planner Loulie Walker placed escort cards atop mini albino pumpkins, and for a holiday-themed reception, she created Christmas tree-like centerpieces from oversize gumdrops and carnations. Hire a choir to sing or carol as guests arrive to the reception. Josh Brooks of Fête recommends the Boys Choir of Harlem ($15,000; 212-201-1303; boyschoirofharlem.org). For an over-the-top “Winter Wonderland”-themed wedding, Preeti D. Shah of Spotlight Style rented an ice machine to sprinkle snow over guests, and a faux ground cover of non-evaporating snow so it looked as though they were walking on clouds (from $250 for machine rental; Snowmasters; 256-229-5551).

9. Let guests take their own portraits.
One New York couple set out a Polaroid camera so guests could take their mugs and place them on a magnetic board for everyone’s viewing. (Sadly, Polaroid instant film is being discontinued—start your eBay searches now!). If you want a filmstrip-producing vintage photo booth, rent one from NYC Photo Booth (from $1,795 for four hours; 800-531-3727; nycphotobooth.com). Or, ask your photographer about providing a self-automated portrait set-up (usually from $350 an hour, widely available). Mark Van S. studio’s Digital Photobooth comes with a 3,000-lumens projector, so you can literally project photos as they’re being taken (from $3,900; 718-852-7399; markvans.com). Planners Josh Brooks and Jung Lee, along with their colleague David Sugar, take the rowdiness a step further with a video confessional booth (from $1,900; 917-549-2715).

Post-reception cigars and cordials.Photo: Brian Dorsey Studios

10. Have an ecosensitive wedding.
Use caterers that support organic and local farmers and dairy producers, like Cleaver Co. (212-741-9174); Great Performances (212-727-2424); and Blue Hill (212-539-1776). At one wedding, planner Ann David put together ecofriendly favors: pine seedlings in brown paper bags stamped PLANT ME. Consider calling on Special E, a company that collects leftover food and delivers it to shelters and soup kitchens around the city; they also convert leftovers into organic, rich compost. “The Flower Power Foundation redistributes flowers to the sick and elderly,” says planner Karen Bussen.

11. Showcase something you love.
For one wedding, planners Josh Brooks and Jung Lee tracked down a Methuselah of the groom’s favorite rare dessert wine, and paired it with complementary cheeses and fruit tarts (go to wine-searcher.com for ideas). One cigar-aficionado groom hired cigar rollers. After dinner, guests smoked and drank cordials selected to complement the cigars (from $800; La Casa Grande; 718-364-4657). One coffee-worshipping New York couple ordered half-pound bags as favors, each stamped with a label reading VICTORIA AND ADAM’S SPECIAL BLEND (from $6 per bag; orensdailyroast.com). Says planner Ann David: “We had a groom who was famous for only ever ordering dirty martinis at bars. It was his drink. So that was their signature cocktail.”

12. Keep kids amused but under control.
Planner Shira Citron recommends setting aside a kids’ table with bags of quiet toys and candy: kaleidoscopes, bubbles, and oversize lollipops. Or hire someone to baby-sit them in a room right outside the main reception space. One New York bride went so far as to hire a professional magician to entertain and face-paint through Party Poopers (from $500 per hour; 212-274-9955). (NB: Negotiate to have kids’ meals cost 50 percent less).

Tiers of iced cupcakes, each with miniature bride-and-groom picks.Photo: Brian Dorsey Studios

13. Make dessert as important a course as the rest.
Pass mini-desserts on trays during late-night dance sets, or have a mini sweets buffet. Caterer Abigail Kirsch does one with pistachio French meringues, lemon raspberry tarts, carrot-cake towers, layered parfaits, hand-dipped chocolate strawberries, and custom-colored cotton candy (from $15 per head; 212-696-4076). In other news, the cupcake-tower trend is not going anywhere soon. Decorate each cupcake with mini bride-and-groom picks (from sugarcraft.com). One way to personalize the typical tiered wedding cake? Custom-design your cake topper. Says one New York bride: “We sent this company, Patch NYC, a picture of us and my dress, and it turned out fantastic. We keep it under a glass cloche at home” (from $500; 212-807-1042).

14. Don’t let guests go home hungry.
The caterer might have done a great job, but if you have an awesome band, there’s a good chance your guests are going to be famished by night’s end. Offer late-night snacks as they exit: Set up a scoop-and-serve candy station, or a custom cookie bar by One Girl Cookies (from $1,200; 212-675-4996). Some prepackaged options that double as favors include caramel apples (from caramelapplegifts.com) or New York-themed cookies from Eleni’s or Zaro’s New York Bakery in takeout boxes. Or, rent a street-food cart for pretzels or hot dogs (from $995: National Food Cart Rentals; 800-891-0223). As a last resort, there’s nothing wrong with putting on a show for Saturday night revelers and stopping into your favorite 24/7 takeout fully gowned and tuxedoed.

15. Have an after-hours plan.
Transform the area you used for cocktail hour into a nightclub with dramatic lighting, lounge furniture, and a D.J. Or, roll to a new venue. Planner Karen Bussen recommends the Hotel on Rivington’s 105 Riv Bar, a snug, sexy, 50-person lounge, or an elegant party room at the St. Regis Hotel.

15 Standout Reception Ideas