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How long should your wedding reception be?

Wedding timelines can be tricky. When you’re planning the nitty-gritty of the wedding day timeline, you may have asked yourself more than once: How long should a wedding reception be, really? In this guide, we go over what’s traditionally “accepted,” as well as what you should do given your own unique circumstances.

Keep in mind that there are lots of factors to consider when making this decision. Discover what they are and how to strategically plan your wedding reception below.

So, how long should a wedding reception be?

Depending on who you ask, four hours is typically considered long enough for a cocktail hour & reception. But the truth is that it may not be up to you, and the length of time can vary due to a ton of different factors. For example, most wedding reception venues have a set amount of hours you're allowed to use the space, built into the contract.

 

Venue access times

You can expect that many reception venue access times are for a max of 12 hours, including set up & clean up time but may also be less based on other factors such as:

  • what they have booked the next day

  • how they plan their tear down & re-set for the next day's event

  • the noise ordinances for the area

When it comes to venue access start times, take these into account:

  • Getting ready: Typical getting ready time occurs from 8am & 12pm, to allow for everyone to get hair and makeup done and get dressed

  • Photography: You can expect your initial photography to take place between noon and 1 hour before the ceremony start time. This time frame can include getting ready photos, bridal portraits, First Look, wedding party photos, couple photos, details shots of your flowers/décor/invites/dress etc., and formal family photos. 

  • Set Up: Think about what time the rental company needs to deliver and set up your rentals; how long it will take your decorator to do draping, place table linens or place your décor; what time does your florist need to get in to do floral installations or place centerpieces; how long it will take your caterer to set up the buffet or food stations and set up the guest table place settings; and how long it will take your planner to place your small details like your guest book and photos. 

When it comes to clean up in order to meet venue access end times, take these into account:

  • Tables need to be bussed

  • Linens need to be removed and bagged

  • Trash needs to be taken to the dumpster

  • Leftover food, cake and alcohol need to be packaged

  • Your take home décor needs to be gathered and packed up

  • The florist needs to collect their containers, stands and remove any special floral installations

  • Tables and chairs may need to be broken down

  • Bridal and grooms suites need to be cleaned of all trash and personal items collected

  • Rental company needs to pick up the rentals

  • Caterer needs to wash and rack dishes and clean all catering areas

  • DJ or band needs to tear down and pack up equipment

Consider your guests

When you think about it, if you are technically asking your guests to arrive around 4:30 for a 5:00 ceremony, attend cocktail hour from 5:30-6:30 then attend your reception from 6:30-midnight...you may be setting your expectations too high. That's over 7 hours which is nearly the equivalent of a full work day. Can you honestly say that you would spend 7 hours at someone's wedding? Probably not!

Most guests leave the reception after the cake is served because by that time, most of the traditional events like the First Dance and dinner are done. If your venue is flexible, your wedding reception may be able to go until midnight. But before you commit to a late-night party, ask yourself whether or not the majority of your wedding guests will be interested in staying that long and if your planner will stay that long. Many planner's account for everything being over & done well before midnight but most planners leave after the cake cutting (although we don't).

Consider your Photography

Most photography contracts offer packages in blocks of hours,  usually 6 hours, 8 hours and 10 hours. More hours...more cost! So if your photographer is booked for 8 hours, think about that for a minute! Say your ceremony is scheduled for 5pm, you want getting ready photos of you and your crew, you plan to do a First Look and you want some wedding party photos or photos of you and your honey on the venue property. That means the photographer will need to arrive around noon. Now do the math. 8 hours beginning at noon means the photographers time ends at 8pm, so if you are planning a 10pm bouquet & garter toss and a big sparkler filled send-off at 11pm....you are going to get nothing but phone photos of those moments. You will also miss out on photos of you and your friends tipsily tearing up the dance floor and doing the line dances that you all claim to hate!

Here are some pros and cons to hosting a short wedding reception.

 

For starters, limiting the festivities no more than 4 hours will be cheaper to host than one that lasts longer. Less time at the venue and an event earlier in the day may also mean you can limit your reception to just cocktails and dancing rather than a formal sit-down dinner, less time can keep your bar bill lower, fewer hours have to book your vendors for and less chance guests will leave before the party is over.

Another pro is that by making it an early night, you stand a better chance of having plenty of guests participate in your grand send-off! A send-off with just a handful of guests in the photo doesn't make for a memory worthy moment.

On the other hand, shorter wedding receptions may mean that the extended fun gets cut off before some are ready to wrap up the day. No one wants to feel like they have to leave when they’re right in the middle of the fun. As an alternative for those that want to dance the night away, consider doing an after party. The best after-party locations include private homes, bars, and nightclubs. This option is also a little more enjoyable because everyone isn't quite so concerned about minding their P's & Q's in front of grandparents, parents friends, work colleagues etc. If you choose to go this route, make sure that everyone has a plan in place to get to the after-party safely and responsibly.

Shorter receptions can leave a little less time to squeeze in reception activities such as entrances, speeches, cake cutting, first dances, and wedding reception games but a seasoned wedding planner can help ensure that your timeline is created to accommodate your special moments so you don't feel like you missed out.