How to Plan Your Reception Timeline
By Lorna Urwin

15 November 2016

How long will your reception last? How many photography sessions will there be, and when? And how much time will be spent dancing, or on speeches? Sometimes plotting the timeline of your wedding reception can seem surprisingly complicated! Much of it will come down to personal preferencebut read on for some tips and guidelines to help you along the way…

1/ What will the reception include?

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Image by Peaches and Mint

Before breaking the event down hour-by-hour, it helps to clarify what components you’ll need to plan for. We’ve gone into detail below about traditional events such as the drinks reception, photography, arrival, speeches, dancing and cake, but you may have other things to consider, such as allotting time for movement between venues, a receiving line, a special farewell and/or tossing the bouquet and garter. While you don’t have to plan for smaller things in great detail, it’s worth having a rough idea of where they will slot in. 

2/ Drinks Reception

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Image by Lori Paladino Photography

The drinks reception/cocktail hour is a way of getting the party started, allowing guests to mingle and relax while the bride and groom are whisked away for photos. Depending on whether the ceremony and reception are held at the same venue, it may begin immediately after the ceremony or half an hour or so later (to allow travel time). 

Approx. length: 1½ hours 

Typically the length is dictated by the photography session (see below!). If you want the opportunity to join the fun after the photos are wrapped up, by all means, extend the cocktails a little, but the longer the drinks reception is, the more important it is that guests are kept entertained and fed with appetizers and perhaps live music or games.

3/ Photography

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Image by Patina Photography

Timing is particularly important for group photos, as they require a convenient time for gathering everyone together (immediately after the ceremony is often best). A useful approach is to do the larger groups first so that fewer people are waiting their turn and the majority of people are released early to enjoy the drinks reception. 
Couple portraits will be far more flexible – consider arranging a ‘first look’ shoot before the ceremony if you’d rather keep things brief afterward and free yourselves up to mingle. Don’t forget that golden hour (just before sunset) usually provides the best light for photos. You may want to squeeze a short portrait session in between courses during dinner to ensure you don’t miss out on this!

Approx. length: 1 - 1½ hours (overlaps with the drinks reception)

Consult with you photographer to better understand how long he or she will need for the specific photos you’ve requested.

4/ Seating and newlyweds’ arrival

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Image by Rachel Pearlman Photography

Guests are usually seated following the drinks reception and some transition time should be built into the schedule to allow for movement between different rooms, finding seats and for a receiving line if you plan to have one. Once all seats are found, the emcee announces both sets of parents, the bridal party and finally the newlyweds. While some couples take advantage of the spotlight to have their first dance at this point, many prefer to wait until after the meal. 
With everyone seated, there’s traditionally a very brief welcome speech given by the wedding host (whether one or both of the bride’s parents or the bride and groom). Make sure guests have been given drinks to toast with prior to the beginning of the speech!

Approx. length: 30 minutes (with a receiving line add 30 minutes)

5/ Meal and speeches

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Image by Michele Beckwith

The wedding meal and speeches often go hand in hand, but the timing and the way the two are combined will depend on the style of reception and how many speeches are planned. 
To spread out the high emotion, toasts are often staggered. For a seated dinner, typically the welcome speech takes place before the first course (see above) with the majority of the speeches (including the best man’s and the maid of honour’s) following the main course. If the groom and/or bride wish to make speeches (or further speeches, if they gave the welcome toast), this can be included after the main course too, or after the cake cutting.

Approx. length: 1½ - 2 hours

Speak with your caterer to confirm how long it the meal will last as this will greatly depend on the number of guests, style (sit down vs. buffet), the number of courses, choice of food and amount of staff. If you forgo the receiving line, you may also need to factor in time to greet guests at their tables. 
The length of time needed for speeches will depend on the number speaking, but in general, should be kept quite short, around 30-40 minutes.

6/ Dancing and cake

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Image by Ether & Smith

If you have evening guests, you may want to have some down time following the meal to allow for their arrival before the festivities begin. Once you’re ready to party, though, the happy couple should signal the start of the dancing by taking to the floor for their first dance. (Or, if the first dance took place before dinner, with the father/daughter and mother/son dances.)
Tradition has it that guests shouldn’t leave until after the cake is cut, so be sure to time this just right. Too early and the party might wrap up before you’re ready, too late and guests who prefer an early night may grow tired. Typically this should be before the dancing gets fully under way.
Beyond this, it’s time to let loose until the end of the night! The timing of the wrap-up and a final dance should be planned in advance with the DJ/band so you can round things off in style before saying your farewells.

Approx. length: 2 hours