6 Critical Things To Keep In Mind When Planning Your Wedding Reception (Including The Order Of Events)

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How long is a wedding reception getty

When planning a wedding, there’s a lot of details to consider: where the wedding reception will be, the food and drinks, what to wear, the order of events, the ceremony, and how long everything will last. Of course, as each couple and wedding is unique, the wedding reception timeline and length will vary.

But there are certain boundaries to keep in mind. According to Kylie Carlson of the International Academy of Wedding & Event Planning, “Every wedding is different, but typically we see the average wedding reception lasting anywhere from 3-4 hours. This gives the couple and guests alike plenty of time to celebrate and mingle, including time for dinner, entertainment, and any activities planned."


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But since the idea of a perfect wedding really depends on the couple and the venue they choose, here are a few things to keep in mind when planning the evening.


1. Head count

Says Carlson, “A factor that not many realize will impact the length of their reception is the actual headcount of those attending. This will vary depending on who shows up versus what the original guest list accounted for, but it’s important that you plan your timeline with enough of a cushion to allow guests to go from the ceremony to the reception venue space, making sure everyone is fed, time for toasts, dancing, and so on.”

2. Budget

Budget is another factor to consider. “If you have a 4-hour reception, for example, plus a cocktail hour, you have used the standard bar package most venues provide,” says Laura Maddox, owner of Magnolia Celebrates

Adding that additional hour to the reception will mean paying for more bar time and perhaps more time for staff in all areas of the wedding. However, you may prefer this if you are having a seated/plated dinner, as this time of service generally takes about an hour. 

3. Contracts

Most bands will have a maximum play time for your contract. So, says Jacqueline HIll of Jacqueline Events, “If you don’t want to continue without them, you will need to end at their contracted period.”


RELATED: What Is The Wedding Reception Order Of Events? A Step-By-Step Guide

4. Venue

“In addition, some venues have policies on how long events may last in order to lower their liability when it comes to alcohol,” Hill adds. Remember: the longer the reception, the higher the cost. You are paying for additional staff hours, and if it isn’t in the budget, end it earlier.

5. Type of reception

“The type of service style you are having for your meal and the number of guests you have will impact the amount of time you need,” advises Oleta Collins of Flourishing Art Design Studio

For instance, a buffet service will require a shorter amount of time than a full seated dinner or family-style service.


6. Time frame

“Minimally, I would expect to plan your reception for at least three hours,” Carlson suggests. Anything less would feel a bit rushed, especially for you and your guests who would like time to decompress and enjoy themselves after an emotional day. It’s also important to make sure that your out-of-town guests have more than enough time to have fun with you and your new spouse.

After about four hours, everything will start winding down and guests will most likely be ready to leave.

“Just take into consideration that some guests may have travelled a long time to be with you on your big day, so while you want to ensure that they have a great time, understand that they’ll probably be exhausted as well,” Carlson adds. You’ll also want some time left in the night to celebrate with your new spouse.

Still a bit confused? Here are some sample orders to put things in a framework, courtesy of Mango Muse Events.


1. Catholic ceremony

3:00 PM: Ceremony starts

Family Processional: "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" (Bach)

Order: Primary sponsors, Secondary sponsors, Grandma, Uncle, Groom, Dad

Wedding Party Processional: "Canon" (Pachelbel)

Order: Wedding party in pairs, coin bearer/mom, ring bearer/mom or dad, flower girls/adults

Bridal Processional: Bride with parents, "The Prince of Denmark's March"

Welcome, readings, songs, homily vows, rings, unity candle, coin/veil/cord, communion, blessing, kiss, pronouncement

Recessional: "Hornpipe Water Music" (Handel)

4:10 PM: Family photos

4:30 PM: Cocktail hour starts at Bently — bar, apps, music

Guests start to arrive at Bently


Guest shuttle leaves church for Bently

4:45 PM: Wedding party shuttle transport to Ferry Building for photos

Clean up of chapel, out by 4:45 PM

5:00 PM: Wedding party/couple photos at Ferry Building

5:30 PM: Photobooth arrives to setup at Bently

6:00 PM: Wedding party shuttle transport to Bently

Curtains open and allow guests to find seats

6:15 PM: Wedding party arrival to Bently

6:30 PM: Emcee Welcome

6:35 PM: Intros, parents: "Hello Goodbye" by the Beatles

6:40 PM: Intros, wedding party: "1 Thing" by Amerie)

6:45 PM: Intros, couple: "Open Your Eyes" by Bobby Caldwell

6:50 PM: First dance (slow to fast dance), "The Light" by Common & "Ignition" by R. Kelly


6:55 PM: Dinner starts, first course

Downstairs bar opens

7:00 PM: Photobooth starts

7:05 PM: Toast, maid of honor

7:10 PM: Toast, best man

7:15 PM: Toast, maid of honor

7:30 PM: Second course served

Vendors eat

8:15 PM: Cake cutting, "Little Bit" by Drake & Lykke Li

8:20 PM: Toast, bride's parents

8:25 PM: Toast, groom's dad

8:30 PM: Bride and groom thank yous

8:35 PM: Bouquet toss, "Senorita" by Justin Timberlake

Dessert/coffee station opens

8:40 PM: Garter toss, "Pony" by Ginuwine

8:45 PM: Open dancing starts

9:30 PM: Photographer done

10:00 PM: Late night bites served

10:45 PM: Last call

10:55 PM: Last song, "It Was a Good Day" by Ice Cube

11:00 PM: Event completed


Strike event — lighting, music, florals, photobooth

12:00 AM: Rentals arrive to breakdown

3:00 AM: Vendors out the door

2. Hindu ceremony

5:00 PM: Ceremony starts

Priest walks out with bride’s parents

Groom, mom and brother walk to out to meet Priest and bride’s parents

Welcome and red powder (after welcome, bride’s parents walk back to bride) and Invocation

Processional: "Wonderful Tonight"

Order: Maid of honor, flower girls

Bridal Processional with Parents: "What a Wonderful World" on acoustic guitar by Michael Marc

Hindu ceremony: Jai Mala exchange, Sacred Fire, Joining of hands, Scarve knotting, Circling the Fire, 7 steps and vows, Matrimony necklace and red powder, Feeding sweets, Blessings, Declaration and prayer


Recessional: "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" by Stevie Wonder

5:30 PM: Photobooth arrives to setup

6:00 PM: Usher guests to cocktail hour and turn over ceremony space for dinner

Photos of family by big tree in front

Cocktail hour starts, passed apps and open bar

Bartender starts

Ceremony rentals breakdown and pick up items

Photobooth opens

6:45 PM: Attire change for bride and groom

7:00 PM: Emcee welcome

7:05 PM: Intro of couple, "So Good" by B.O.B.

7:10 PM: Dinner starts (family style)

7:25 PM: Toast, maid of honor

7:30 PM: Toast, best man and mother

7:35 PM: Toast, father of the bride

7:40 PM: Vendors eat

8:00 PM: Music inside gallery only

8:05 PM: Possible couple photos in second outfits


8:15 PM: Cake cutting, "The Way You Look Tonight" by Frank Sinatra

8:20 PM: Bride and groom thank yous

8:25 PM: First dance, "Dancing Cheek to Cheek"

8:30 PM: Mr. and Mrs. Wang dance, Tango song (special cut)

8:35 PM: Emcee final words

8:40 PM: Open dancing

9:00 PM: Photos of friends

10:55 PM: Last song

Alcohol service stops

11:00 PM: Event completed, music stops

Bartender, photographer, photobooth done

Strike event — music, décor, flowers, rentals

Rentals picked up

12:00 AM: Vendors out the door

RELATED: 30 Best Wedding Entrance Songs To Kick Off Your Reception Party

3. Semi-jewish wedding (not officiated by a Rabbi or taking place in a Synagogue)

4:30 PM: Ceremony starts


Officiant and groom walk in from side with Groomsmen

Wedding Party and Family Processional: Pachelbel's "Canon"

Order: Groom's parents, bridesmaids, kids

Bridal Processional with parents: "Ode to Joy"

Welcome, ring warming, their love story, seven circles, vows, group affirmation, rings, "I dos," breaking the glass, pronouncement

Recessional: "Santa Cruz"

5:00 PM: Couple has 5 minutes of alone time in Owl cabin

Signing of marriage license

Cocktail hour starts — bar open, passed apps

Background cocktail music on

5:05 PM: Extended family photos

Videographer done

5:10 PM: Guitarist moves to cocktail area

5:20 PM: Additional couple photos

6:00 PM: Guests invited to dinner


Background dinner music on

Guitarist moves to dining area

6:15 PM: Guests seated

Family style salads dropped at tables

Water and wine dropped at tables

6:20 PM: Photobooth arrives to setup

6:30 PM: Welcome, bride's parents

Band arrives to setup

6:35 PM: Dinner starts, tables invited to buffet

7:00 PM: Vendors eat

7:15 PM: Champagne prepared

7:25 PM: Champagne and cotton candy served

7:30 PM: Toast, groom's parents

Guitarist done

Second group of vendors eat

7:35 PM: Toast, best man

7:40 PM: Toast, best friend

7:45 PM: Toast, maid of honor

7:50 PM: Bride and groom thank yous

Guests invited inside for dancing and dessert

7:55 PM: Band starts

8:00 PM: Hora, "Hava Nagila"


Photobooth starts

8:05 PM: Open dancing

8:30 PM: Shuttles standing by to transport back to hotel/church parking lot as needed

8:45 PM: Band break

9:00 PM: Band starts second set

Photographer done

9:55 PM: Last band song

10:00 PM: Band done

Photobooth done

Soft music starts playing

11:00 PM: Event over

Guests leave on last shuttles

Band and Photobooth loads and leaves

Strike event — florals, rentals, décor

12:00 AM: Vendors out the door

4. Jewish wedding (with Rabbi, but not in Synagogue)

5:30 PM: Ceremony starts

Rabbi walks into silence

Processional: "Prelude to the 1st Cello Suite" by Bach

Order: Groom and mom, groomsmen, bridesmaids.

Bridal Processional with parents: "Adagio from Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor)" by Beethoven


Seven circles (song continues), welcome blessing, kiddush/erusin blessing, shehechianu, ketubah reading, ring exchange, vows, seven blessings (groups come up), moment of silence, priestly blessing, breaking of the glass, kiss

Recessional: "My Neighbor Totoro"

5:30 PM: Downstairs gets flipped — rentals, catering, lighting

6:00 PM: Couple gets 5 minutes of alone time (in green room)

Guests invited downstairs, wedding party to lead the way

DJ music playing downstairs

Cocktail hour starts

Videographer done


6:05 PM: Couple photos

Upstairs gets flipped — rentals, music, catering, lighting

Quartet takes a break and gets driven around

6:20 PM: Quartet starts playing downstairs

DJ music downstairs stops

7:10 PM: Guests invited upstairs

Elderly to be driven around

Amuse bouche out

7:20 PM: Emcee Welcome

Downstairs gets flipped — rentals, catering, lighting

Quartet done

7:25 PM: Welcome, bride's parents

7:30 PM: Dinner starts, salads

Table photos

7:50 PM: Toast, best man

7:55 PM: Toast, maid of honor

8:10 PM: Entrées served

Vendors eat round 1

8:30 PM: Vendors eat round 2

8:45 PM: Yalies photo

Friend photos

9:00 PM: Bride and groom Thank yous

Dessert taco cart arrives to setup


Food truck arrives to setup

9:05 PM: Surprise song by friends in marching band

9:10 PM: Guests follow band downstairs

Dessert/tea lounge ready

9:15 PM: Band starts first set

9:20 PM: First Dance with everyone, "Rather Be" by Clean Bandits

Strike event in Terra — catering, DJ, rentals, lighting, floral

9:30 PM: Open dancing starts

Dessert taco cart starts

Food truck starts

10:00 PM: Band break

Any remaining friend photos

10:15 PM: Band starts second set of music with Hora, "Hava Nagila"

10:30 PM: Photographer done

Florist, rentals and lighting arrive to start breaking down upstairs

11:30 PM: Last call

Photobooth done

Dessert taco cart done

Food truck done

11:40 PM: Last song, "Bright College Years"


11:45 PM: Music stops, bar closes

12:00 PM: Event completed, all guests out the door

Food truck and taco cart depart

Strike event in Mer — rentals, lighting, band, florals, photobooth, catering

1:30 AM: Vendors out the door

RELATED: 30 Best Wedding Entrance Songs To Kick Off Your Reception Party

Aly Walansky is a NY-based lifestyles writer who focuses on health, wellness, and relationships. Her work appears in dozens of digital and print publications regularly. Visit her on Twitter or email her.