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Wedding Reception

How much time should I plan for my wedding reception?

What is the best duration or length of time for the wedding reception: the time between the end of the ceremony and the wedding breakfast?

Published 18 Oct 2017

I have seen a lot of varieties of wedding receptions, ranging from 20 minutes to two-and-a-half hours. Many couples plan their wedding day and look at the time schedule provided by the venue, and they should know what is right, correct?

In some cases, the venue will suggest a timetable which is just the best for you - the couple, but before you sign up to their schedule, you might consider the following information.

What’s the “normal” schedule for a wedding day?

The following table compares two scenarios: The bride (and/or groom) is getting ready at home or in a hotel that is different to the wedding ceremony venue, compared to the couple getting ready at the ceremony venue.

Getting ready away from the ceremony venue
Getting ready at the ceremony venue

Make-up and hair professionals arrive

8 AM

9 AM

Guys getting ready

10:30 AM

11:30 AM

Guys leaving

12:00 PM

1:15 PM

Putting dress on

12:30 PM

1:15 PM - 1:30 PM

Leave for ceremony

1-1:30 PM (wedding transport or taxi)

1:55 PM

Ceremony

2 PM

End of ceremony / Start of reception

2:40 PM

Call for dinner

4 PM

Start of speeches

4:20-4:30 PM

Start of food being served

4:30 - 5 PM
(depending on the length of the speeches)

Evening guests arrive

7:30 PM

Cutting of the cake

8:15 PM
(this is mostly planned for much earlier, but in all the weddings I photographed I have only seen this a couple of times on time)

First dance

8:20 PM

As you can see, the actual time of the reception in this scenario is only 1 hour and 25 minutes which is not very long at all.

How long does the wedding ceremony take?

Element of the ceremony
Civil Ceremony
Humanist / Interfaith
Religious

10 minutes

35 minutes

45 minutes

2 readings

+5

+5

+5

Celtic hand-fasting

+5

+5

Drinking from the quaich

+5

+5

The shortest civil ceremony I photographed was only seven minutes. The longest ceremony I photographed was a humanist ceremony which took just over 70 minutes and included ring warming, two readings, a personal piece of music, the Celtic hand-fasting and drinking from the quaich.

The two things to ask your venue:

  • When is the call for dinner?
  • When do you plan to serve dinner?

The difference between these two things is important. The "call for dinner" is the time when the venue staff are asking the guests to make their way to the room where the wedding breakfast will be served. 

If you have approximately 80 guests at your wedding, it takes about 15 minutes for everyone to be seated. The staff will then take the drink orders from the guests, and/or the food orders if you offer different choices.

After that, the top table and you - the couple - will be announced into the room, and the speeches can start.

Hence, if you ask your venue "when is dinner" and they say 5 PM, the "call for dinner" might be 4 PM, as they need this time for ushering people in, taking drinks orders, welcoming the couple, and the speeches, before they serve dinner.

Why does it matter to have a longer reception time?

Many couples worry that their guests are getting bored during reception, or while you have your photographs taken. You might even consider hiring some sort of wedding entertainment, such as a magician, or a caricaturist. 

They will have travelled to the venue, then they sat down during the ceremony, and now they can actually look and see who is at the wedding and start having a chat with people. Please don't worry to keep everyone “busy”, just allow your guests to have a drink, enjoy the canapés and have a chat without being ushered from one corner of the venue to the next within 30 minutes of leaving the ceremony.

Traditionally, a certain part of the time between the end of your wedding ceremony and the start of your dinner is used for wedding photography. This consists of two things: the bridal portraits, i.e. the romantic photos of the couple on their own away from the guests, and the formal family group photographs.

Speak to your photographer beforehand how much time they normally spend with the couple so you can plan for this. Also, think about your family group photographs. Even though this is a traditional part of the wedding photography, every couple I have photographed requested a handful of family group photographs. Check out this article about the standard family photographs people ask for.

They do not need to be stiff and boring, but most importantly they need to be organised well in advance. Otherwise you run the risk of the group photography taking over the wedding reception and group photographs are being made up on the spot - by the couple as well as family members, and before you know it you are standing there for an hour, with every family combination under the sun. 

Also read this article about How much time to plan for group photographs at your wedding.

I spend no more than 25 mins with the couple away from the ceremony. My group photography takes no longer than 15 minutes. But this is well organised in advance and discussed with the couple, so there are no surprises on the day.

What if my venue only suggests 45 minutes for the reception?

Your wedding venue will suggest what works for them, their staff and their kitchen or catering. They have had the experience of many weddings, so they will recommend what fits in with their schedule.

However:

Please discuss together how you want your day to run without your venue wedding coordinator being present. Do not agree to a timetable by a venue just because they have always done it this way. Discuss together how much time you want to allocate for everything, then present this to your venue. Request that they confirm this plan in writing to you, so that they do not change this on the day. 

Unfortunately, I have only seen this a few times: The couple was told in advance that the call for dinner was planned for 4:30, and then on the day the goal posts changed to 4 pm. Which meant everything had to be crammed into less than an hour, and the wedding reception then becomes a stressful time to the couple. That’s the last thing you want.

Ask your celebrant how long the ceremony is likely to take. Then take it from there. The most chilled-out weddings, full of fun and laughter, with the couple having the chance to speak to many guests during the reception had a gap of two hours from the end of the ceremony until the call for dinner. Two hours of a nice time together with your closest family and friends. 

This time then allows the photographer to produce amazing photographs - without being rushed, complete the family group photographs without the wedding coordinator standing and waiting behind you and asking you when you are finally finished with this stuff (been there...) so they can get on with their plan. 

And with a two-hour gap you - the couple - will have the chance to actually speak to your guests too. You could choose to nip to your room and get freshened up and join the reception and still have time for a good chat with a lot of people.

Here’s what happens in a 45-minute reception

  • The photographer needs to take the couple away for romantic photographs straight after the ceremony. 
  • The photographer needs to then somehow magically get the required people in the same spot for the family group photos. As soon as that’s finished the guests are already ushered into the wedding breakfast room.
  • The photographer has no chance to take these nice relaxed photographs of people just laughing, having fun, chatting.
  • The photographer has no chance to take photos of the table decorations and the setup of the room, the cake etc.
  • Everything feels rushed.

Should you have the speeches before or after dinner?

I would definitely recommend the speeches before dinner. Here’s why:

  • Should one of the speakers be nervous, they just want this over and done with. Otherwise, they will not be able to enjoy the food, as all they can think about is the speech. Once it’s out of the way, they can relax.
  • The tables still look pristine and tidy. No dirty plates in the photographs.
  • At the start of the dinner, everybody is seated, and everybody is expecting a formal part of the wedding day - the speeches, or a welcome toast, or the couple being announced in by the master of ceremonies. Everybody stands up and welcomes the couple into the room.

If the speeches are between the courses, or after the meal, a lot of guests will have gotten up and started mingling, or they might be at the bar.

So the best bit of advice I can give you is to chat together what kind of day you would like. Draw up a plan with different time options and agree what's best for you. Then that's what you present to the venue.

There is also no law that the ceremony needs to be at 2 pm. It can be earlier, or later.

If you feel the need to hire wedding entertainment for your wedding reception, here are a few ideas:

  • magician
  • caricaturist
  • a funny mentalist - spoon bending etc. (check out Drew McAdam's website)
  • garden games for the children
  • photo booth
  • guest book
  • hire a band / string quartet
  • dancers
  • hire a singer
  • flash mob choir (I have seen this a couple of times, very cool!)
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Who is Nadin Dunnigan - Wedding Photographer in Edinburgh

Hey, I am Nadin! (same as "Nadine" - just without the "e"). I am a wedding photographer in Edinburgh, Scotland, specialising in big family weddings in Edinburgh, Scotland, and internationally. I have photographed so many weddings, and it is my mission to help future brides with planning their dream wedding. Any questions I come across repeatedly - either in person or online, I will pop in here and provide more insight.

I hope you will find them useful :)

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