9 Tips for Creating Your Perfect Seating Plan
— By Lorna Urwin
25 October 2016
Guests spend the majority of their time at a reception sitting at their tables, eating and chatting. This makes seating arrangements one of the most pivotal elements in guests’ overall experience. Depending on the dynamics at play, organising this seating can be an organic and rewarding process, or more complex and challenging. Read on for our top tips to help create your perfect seating chart.
1/ Why assign guests to tables?
Image by Jose Villa Photography
It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on why you might want a seating chart in the first place. Note that assigning specific seats isn’t usually necessary, though may be beneficial if you are having plated meals, if you have particularly large tables or if you’d like to exert more control over the social dynamics.
Assigning tables on the other hand, is usually considered mandatory for formal receptions – whether a sit-down dinner or a formal buffet. Even if your event is a more casual affair, there are several good reasons to plan your tables:
If you have pre-booked plated meals, it is far easier for waiting staff to distribute the various dishes if they know in advance who will be at each table.
Unassigned tables risk splitting up families and couples - those late to take their seats may find that tables containing their friends or family are full up. This can lead to the discomfort of sitting with complete strangers.
Unassigned seating can lead to a confused, even chaotic environment. Instead of simply finding their table number and heading straight there, guests will have to spend more time deliberating who to sit with, trying to find a table in their preferred location or perhaps even moving chairs or place settings to better accommodate themselves.
Guests like to feel taken care of. It can cause stress and discomfort to approach people you don’t know and ask if you can sit with them. Conversely, taking your place among at least some familiar faces will make meeting and conversing with new people a lot easier.
Of course, there are several notable exceptions. For intimate events with fewer than 50 people, you may want to arrange seating for the bridal party but allow other guests the freedom to seat themselves. Similarly, if your event is a cocktail-style reception where the aim is fluidity and mingling, a seating chart will be unnecessary (though you may wish to reserve tables for the bridal party, older guests or anyone who would benefit from having a place to rest their legs).
2/ Who will be involved?
Image by Avodah Photography
Creating an effective seating chart requires familiarity with the guests. As such, the task unfortunately cannot be delegated to a wedding planner. The majority of the planning falls to the bride and groom, whether they work together on the entire chart or each take their own groups of family or friends. If you have invited lots of your parents’ friends to the wedding, you might like to ask your parents to weigh in when designating seating to those people.
While you can consult with certain guests about their seating preferences (for instance, a guest with a physical disability) this should be the exception rather than the rule. Involving too many people will only confuse the planning process.
3/ When to start planning
Image by Fineline Photography
As seating is dependent on a list of confirmed guests, you won’t be able to get very far until your RSVP deadline. Before that time, get organised by making sure you’ve obtained the floor plan for your venue and planned out how many tables you’ll have, how many guests at each, and where the tables will be situated. Make note of any features that might affect your guests – obstructions that would block their view, speakers that might be too loud, the locations of bathrooms etc.
Ideally you should set your RSVP deadline about 4 weeks before the wedding date to allow plenty of organisation time (bear this in mind when preparing your invitations!). If you are still waiting for some replies at this point, follow up with a call to ensure your list is as complete as it can be. Aim to have a finalised seating plan in place a week before the wedding. Some minor adjustments at the last minute are unavoidable. For this reason, you might want to put off committing to the chart you’ll present on the day until only a day or two beforehand.
4/ How to visualise the chart
Images by Laura Ivanova Photography and Kay English Photography
Making seating decisions can require a lot of rearranging while you test different configurations. Your planning method should reflect this and enable you to easily move names around. Tech-savvy brides may be happiest with a spreadsheet or digital floor plan, but one of the most popular approaches is a little more old school – using sticky notes with confirmed guests’ names and applying them to paper plates (for round tables!) or an enlarged version of the floor plan.
5/ Start with your own seating
Image by The Grovers
The makeup and size of your head table will have knock-on consequences for the rest of your seating chart, so it’s best to sort this out first. Will you follow tradition and opt for sitting with the bridal party (and their partners) on a long rectangular table facing your guests? Or would you rather plan a ‘sweetheart’ table for the two of you alone? (This is generally more easily set up than a long table and gives the bride and groom the opportunity to share some undisturbed quality time together.) Maybe you’d rather have a small reserved table but also set empty places at every other table and mingle with other guests over the course of the meal?
6/ Then seat the bridal party and your parents
Image by Eileen Liu Photography
Based on your decision above, you’ll have a clear idea of whether or not the bridal party and their partners will be seated at the head table. If some or all are not to be placed there, then you’ll usually want to assign one or more tables just for the bridal party. Given their importance, you should ensure that these tables are very close the head table. Younger members (such as flower girls or young ring bearers) will usually be best seated with their parents.
When it comes to the bride’s and groom’s parents, etiquette suggests having separate tables (one table for the bride’s parents, grandparents, siblings and close friends and another for the groom’s). It is equally fine to put the two pairs together, but with larger families the numbers involved may make doing so unwieldy.
When your or your partner’s parents are divorced, however, the need to accommodate extended family and friends of each means it can be easier to go for separate tables hosted by each parent. Naturally, this is all flexible depending on your unique family dynamics and how amicable relations are. Follow your instincts and, if in doubt, discuss with the parents before making your decision. No matter the configuration, the parents’ tables (as with the bridal party) should always be situated close to the head table.
7/ Seating your other guests
Image by Sarah McEvoy Photography
The main objective for seating is to generate good conversation and congenial company. How you approach this goal will be personal to your wedding, its size and the groups in attendance, but a successful and oft-used approach is to ‘mix and match’ guests.
Start by sorting guests into their most natural groups, usually how you know them (childhood friends, work friends, cousins). At this stage, the size of the group isn’t important as they may be split over multiple tables. You might also want to reflect on the opposite - any sensitive situations and individuals who should be kept apart to avoid discomfort or conflict.
Next, take your groupings and begin to assign some members from each to tables together. Mixing and matching is all about striking a balance. Keep couples together and match them with at least some of their friends or acquaintances to keep things relaxed and comfortable and avoid anyone sitting with complete strangers. To encourage interesting interactions, you should then mix in some new faces to round out the table. Blend groups together according to similar personalities, interests or backgrounds.
8/ Additional tips
Image by Riverland Studios
Allow guests who don’t know anyone else to bring a plus one so that they won’t ever feel isolated. Avoid seating these guests at a table where the rest of the group are close friends – this can make it difficult for an ‘outsider’ to join in conversations.
Be considerate of guests’ age and any disabilities, particularly when it comes to the location of the table. Older guests or those with vision/hearing impairment may need to be seated close to the bridal table to better see and hear speeches. Conversely, their tables should be located away from loud areas like the dance floor or children’s table. Guests with disabilities will require special consideration - they may require a table close to the entrance or bathroom. In these cases it is often useful to consult with the guest to best cater for their specific needs.
To avoid embarrassment, be tactful about guests’ feelings. It’s a bad idea to draw attention to singles by gathering them at a singles table, but equally to have them as the only single at a table full of couples.
When it comes to kids, younger children (under 10) are usually seated with their parents while older children are often grouped together separately (assuming they know some of the other children and there are enough to form their own table).
9/ Don’t let seating get stressful
Images by Lori Paladino Photography and Jose Villa Photography
It’s worth remembering that there is rarely one perfect arrangement that will equally suit every guest. What’s more, after the meal guests will have hours to mingle with whomever they like. If you’ve prioritized your guests’ comfort and approached tricky decisions with consideration and tact then you’ve done the job well! In the final days before the wedding, avoid second-guessing your decisions and devote your attention elsewhere (after all, there will be plenty of other things on your plate!).