Managing Reception Gaps

Pharris Photos & Philms

Planning a wedding is an art of timing — from the flow of the ceremony to the order of reception events, every minute counts. However, in some cases, it’s impossible to avoid logistical obstacles due to venue choices, traffic, and other factors beyond your control. 

One such challenge is a lengthy gap between the ceremony and reception. For instance, a morning church ceremony may leave several hours of unaccounted time until guests need to arrive for an afternoon reception. If you find yourself in a similar situation, it’s wise to prepare a planned activity during the reception gap to keep guests entertained.

“Once you’ve asked guests to show up, they should be entertained (or transported) continuously,” asserts Juls Sharpley of Bubbles & Bowties. “No one wants to get all dressed up and then have downtime – you lose the energy.”

While some guests may wander back to their hotel to freshen up or manage childcare, most will be eager to maintain their energy and spend time with fellow guests.

If you expect a lengthy reception gap on your wedding day, here are a few ways to kill time and help your guests stay in the celebratory moment.

Show them around the area

Offering a chance to explore is a fun way to highlight the local area and provide people with a social activity to keep them engaged. And depending on your group of guests, there are many ways to do this!

“Our favorite is creating a scavenger hunt near the ceremony or reception venue,” Sharpley suggests. “Create clue cards and have your guests find the quirkiest or most interesting locales near the venue(s).”

Or, plan to “arrange a tour with transportation,” encourages Peter Mitsaelides of Brooklake Country Club and Events. “Museums are always a good go-to.” 

It’s possible your guests may not even need to leave the venue. As Mitsaelides adds, “Are you holding your reception at a country club and having golfing guests? Arrange a tee time for a round of 9 to pass a couple of hours.”

While you may spend this time soaking in quiet time with your partner and photographer, you can still pre-arrange local activities to keep guests busy until the reception.

Julia Wade Photography

Give your guests some face time

In more condensed timelines, couples are typically whisked away by their photographer directly after the ceremony, only to return for the reception’s grand entrance. But with a larger gap, couples can be more intentional about spending quality time with the guests who came to celebrate their love.

“After the ceremony, use some of that time for a receiving line,” suggests Steven Feinberg of Bunn DJ Company – San Diego. “You can enjoy mixing and mingling during cocktail hour by greeting and thanking your guests right after the ceremony.”

Or, if you prefer a smaller group, you may invite your wedding party to join you during the gap. “You and your new spouse can enjoy quiet time together over an intimate lunch,” recommends Betsy Scott of Hudson Valley Weddings at the Hill. “Or you can expand your luncheon circle to include your wedding party and enjoy their company.”

While a reception gap might seem inefficient, guests won’t mind it if they get to spend more time with the couple of honor!

Ask your inner circle to help

If the gap is filled with photos and newlywed activities, look to your closest friends and family to stand in as hosts and hostesses. They’ll be thrilled to help you enhance your wedding’s guest experience!

“This is when those local relatives can come to your rescue,” Feinberg confirms. “Ask one or two if they might be willing to host some out-of-town guests with a light lunch.”

Just be sure to pass off a credit card or ask for the receipt so you can reimburse them for any wedding-related expenses!

Kelly Hornberger

Host an extended cocktail hour

Depending on your venue setup and timeline, it may be as simple as planning for a longer-than-usual cocktail hour, as Katie Mast of Rock Paper Coin notes.

“A long cocktail hour is not always bad if you have a well-stocked bar with a few specialty cocktails and are heavy on apps,” she assures. “Some couples also choose to do their photo booth or other types of entertainment while their guests are fresh into the night.”

If your venue is unavailable during that time, look to your hotel. “If you’ve booked a block of guest rooms at a hotel, reserve a conference room as a hospitality suite so guests can gather and catch up,” Mitsaelides offers.

Just “make sure to limit the alcohol if you do this so that your guests have more energy when they arrive at the main event!” reminds Cathy O’Connell of COJ Events.

No matter what option you choose, make sure you communicate the timeline clearly, so guests aren’t surprised by the gap. 

Nikki Golden

“If you choose a long cocktail hour option, include it on your website, in your guest’s messaging, and print a schedule on display at the bar and entrance to cocktail hour as a reminder to guests,” Mast says.

Scott agrees, suggesting to “post activity options on your wedding website so guests can enjoy area attractions. Include a list in the goody bags for your out-of-town guests, or even hand it out after the ceremony.”

Just as important as communicating, make it as easy as possible for your guests to plan for the reception gap! “This could look like hiring a transportation service to get guests back to their hotel and then to the reception, making arrangements at an additional venue for refreshments as an option for your guests, or noting to your guests that the ceremony is optional,” explains John Campbell of John Campbell Weddings

And if a long reception gap feels like too much to worry about, plan your day differently. “If you must have an early ceremony, just have an early reception and throw an after-party later in the evening!” Campbell states.

Every wedding planning challenge has a solution, but it’s up to you and your partner to decide if it’s worth the effort. When in doubt, look to your vendor team for support and advice to point you in the right direction to suit your wedding vision and ensure an enjoyable guest experience for all.

Meghan Ely is the owner of wedding PR and wedding marketing firm OFD Consulting. Ely is a sought-after speaker, adjunct professor in the field of public relations, and a self-professed royal wedding enthusiast.