Is four hours long enough for a reception?

Guestpost by Ang on Aug. 17th

Photo by Offbeat Bride Tribe member Heverus

I have just a quick question:

The venue we're looking at allows us to be there for four hours.

Is this long enough for a reception?

We're not doing a cocktail hour but we'll have dinner and an open bar.


Short answer:

Yes, if you've got someone who's great at herding cats in your midst, minimal fanfare, and a smallish guest list. (Ha ha, that rhymed.)

Long answer goes like this:

The less time you have, the more likely it is that something is going to happen to screw up your time. (Human/Drama Element + Time Constraints) x Number of People = Chaos Percentage. Now, there are ways that you can minimize chaos percentage, which I'll give you in handy dandy list form.

Keep your guest list small. People herding is one of my best skills, and honestly, I wouldn't feel comfortable getting in and out of a venue for a full reception of four hours with anything more than fifty people max. Look at it this way: you're going to want to eat, to dance, talk to people, etc. If your guest list is fifty people, and you do nothing but go guest to guest — don't eat, don't pee, don't dance, don't drink, don't do anything except have people rotate in front of you — there's only time for 4.8 minutes of conversation with each of them. That's not including getting people into and out of the building which is going to take another fifteen to twenty minutes.

Don't do a buffet. I LOVE buffets, I had a buffet for my wedding, but the very nature of a buffet means that people are sitting there doing nothing, or pondering, "Do I want the smoked sausage or the spiced sausage?" while everyone else is shifting around with plates in hand. Instead, have servers with heavy appetizers or do something seated. Family style is a great option because then you don't have to worry about who gets what. It's like a seated buffet with no lines and no waiting.

Make your schedule public. Most weddings run with a schedule, but only the behind the scenes people are aware of it. A sign at the entryway with a "Schedule of Events" is a great way to bring attention to "Come 9pm our asses have got to be out of here, regardless of if you've gotten to do your version of 'Put a Ring on It' or not." List times and events, and about fifteen minutes before you have to be out of the venue put "[Name] and [Name's] send off!" If you want to continue the party somewhere else, that's fine, but the old adage of "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here" applies.

Keep it simple. When you've got a limited time frame, any variables are dangerous. That means things like trivia games, choreographed dances, videos, slideshows, skits, toasts, etc. might have to be cut short or dropped entirely in order to make it work.

Have a first look. Usually, if the couple doesn't do a first look, the time for pictures is between the ceremony and reception. This can severely cut into your party time, especially if you're trying to finagle large group shots. Doing portraits before the ceremony can free up time in the middle to get straight into celebration mode. If you don't want to do a first look, talk to your photographer to see what your options are. Maybe there's a location nearby that you can utilize while it's still light, or they could bring extra night equipment to make it work.

Talk with your vendors. Vendors usually have a pre-set idea of how much time they have to do things and arrange their own schedules that way. If you have a limited time at the venue, let them know as soon as possible so they can work with it. Last thing you need is your DJ assuming he has an hour between ceremony and reception to set up and not having any music til halfway through because he wasn't prepared.

Hire a Bad Ass. You love your friends and family but some of them can't take a hint, or they're reluctant to leave an open bar. So have a person who's responsible for getting guests in the reception as soon as possible, and out when everyone needs to be out. They don't have to be a dick (so stay away from "drunk with power" types), but should be "endearingly forceful" when the situation calls for it. Friends usually pull this off much better than family, or if you have a coordinator this is a perfect way to utilize their skills.

Here's a general list of time frames that need to be taken into consideration when planning an event:

  • Arrival times: Travel time plus 5-15 minutes per 50 people without a receiving line.
  • Eating: Seated, plan on 45-60 minutes (not including dessert). For a buffet, add to that two seconds for every foot of food per guest. (So a 10 foot buffet x 100 guests = 2,000 seconds or 33 minutes for everyone to get through the line.)
  • Toasts: Toasts should be about 2-5 minutes in length per toaster.

Of course there are a ton of variables, but these are good logistic rules to use. So yes, you can totally do a reception in four hours or less — you just might have to make a few sacrifices.

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About Ang

A graphic designer by day, chat mod by night, wedding planner on the weekends, she loves nothing more than digging through piles of junk to turn it into something amazing, and solving the world's problems (or at least the interesting ones). She lives in the preppy wilderness of New England, with her musician husband of umpteen months, and her three hairy drooling dogs, where her free time is spent being adorable.