Is four hours long enough for a reception?

Guest post by Ang
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.

Photo by Jen Stewart Photography.
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.

Comments on Is four hours long enough for a reception?

  1. I think the hire a badass bit is the best advice ever! I ended up being the bad ass for my friends 4 hour reception and there was definitely alot of it that ended up needing to be done.

    • I ended up doing a bit of this at my own wedding. We had people to wrangle for group photos but I think the fancy venue and laid back atmosphere (which we totally wanted the rest of the time) took over and if we’d waited for someone to politely go around each little group and ask for the people needed in the photos, then go back and get the ones who’s wandered off again we would have spent all day on photos.

      So instead I stood in the middle of the area and used my “hearding cats…I mean children, in from the beach” voice from my gap year to make announcements like “If you are related to the bride you need to be in this photo!”

      I think a few people were suprised, but it worked.

    • Yes the basass part is the best! It’s just nice to have that friend that bosses people around without being a dick!

  2. Huh. We had a four-hour afternoon reception for 150 people, with buffet and no official people-herders, and it worked terrifically. We did go directly from ceremony to reception without pictures, which probably helped, and didn’t really do Official Wedding Events much– we had three toasts and a swordfight, on improvised scheduling for when people seemed to be slowing down a bit on food– but it wasn’t a high-stress event at all.

    Then again, we may have just gotten lucky on our chaos percentage. 😉 I could believe that. It was astonishingly seamless for a laid-back hand-wavy event.

  3. Four hours is totally long enough. My wedding reception lasted around four hours, and I don’t know if I would have wanted it to be any longer. For the record, we did NOT do a first look. Instead, we kept our formal portraits to a minimum. We also had a buffet. We had around 90 guests. While I didn’t get to speak to everybody, I did get to visit with most of our guests.

    Before the wedding, I was pretty worried that we would be rushed. However, everything worked out fine, and many of our guests told us that we had one of the best weddings they’d ever been to.

  4. I want to make sure everyone realizes that you can TOTALLY do a kick ass wedding reception in 4 hours or less. I’m not saying you can’t. I’m saying that if you’re concerned, these are things to keep in mind that can help you out.

    The great thing about weddings is everyone’s is different. Some people whip through a buffet, others meander through while guests behind them are dying of starvation. Some people are efficient movers, while others have to be dragged to the reception area because they’re still talking to people in the parking lot twenty minutes later.

    It’s all about finding your balance and priorities 🙂

    • “..because they’re still talking to people in the parking lot twenty minutes later.”

      Oh heavens, that sounds EXACTLY like my family. At every event, even just leaving after church.

  5. I think four hours is fine, especially with no cocktail hour. You can definitely do it! We had a five hour reception, which included a cocktail hour while we took pictures, plus speeches and a buffet and dancing and dessert and more dancing, for 75 guests. No problem.

  6. We’re planning a short reception so we can go rock out at Future Hubby’s band’s rock concert in our wedding garb 🙂 best part of the niiiiight!

  7. I actually think the advice is spot on, especially after having a small wedding on a tight schedule a month ago. It worked out because all of our vendors (the staff at the reception site, the photographer, the DJ) knew the schedule and helped us be on time, but it could have easily felt rushed. We were overwhelmed by the events/floating around so could not actually keep to the schedule by ourselves (hence, it is a good idea to post the schedule and have a “bad ass” that keeps everybody in check).

  8. Ours is going to be 4 hours, including the ceremony. It goes like this 11am- family portraits, 12:00 everyone starts showing up (brides already there!), 12:30- The hitchening, 1pm, ceremony over and we all walk to the building right beside the ceremony for buffet sandwich/soup lunch, toasts while people are eating, followed by board games. 4:30- get the F’ up out of here… 4 hours from start to finish. We wanted to keep it short and lovely!

  9. This is super helpful, actually! We’ve got about 5 hours for our ceremony AND reception (same location) plus an hour before for set-up. We’re doing a buffet, but this was still reassuring. Thanks!

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