1. Avoid playing boring piano music during the cocktail hour. Choose a genre you love that people can’t bust a move to, like experimental jazz, bluegrass fiddling, or emo-rock like Radiohead and their sound-alikes. Alternately, showcase a type of music native to your or your fiancé’s heritage—think strolling mariachis, Caribbean steel drums, or a flamenco guitar-and-mandolin duo.
2. Supplement the often-ignored wedding cake with passed desserts. For one recent reception, planner Xochitl Gonzalez of Always a Bridesmaid worked with caterer The Raging Skillet and How Sweet It Is to dress up the bride’s favorite junk food. Mini devil dogs, mini Rice Krispie treats, and mini peanut-butter cups were served on silver platters at the end of the night.
3. Transport your guests in style. A shuttle bus can be such an eyesore; why not rent a few vintage cars to chauffeur guests instead? Brooklyn’s Film Cars has a diverse collection, including Model Ts, Jaguars, and checkered cabs (from $425 to $1,350 for three hours). Other fun options include San Francisco–style trolleys and the usually obnoxious red double-decker tour buses, which, in this context, feel inventive and humorous.
4. Even if you don’t normally, think like a foodie for one night. Andrea Correale of Elegant Affairs Catering recommends chef-tended stations for the cocktail hour. “Basically, think three horseshoe-shaped bars around the room, with stools around them, and behind each one is a chef cooking up little plates right there in front of everyone.” Each is like a tiny open kitchen with its own specialty: Asian, French, American, Cuban, etc. “For guests not seated at the bars, set up little furniture clusters nearby, to which wait staff can bring food.” For the reception, include menus at each place setting. For one wedding, event designer Preston Bailey made edible menus out of chocolate ($25 each).
5. Rent a photo booth. Get one that produces double film strips. Have an attendant cut each down the middle—guests keep one strip, and the other can be pasted into your guest book.
6. Get creative with your tabletop décor—if not to flaunt originality, then to be a little more eco-friendly. Instead of the usual floral centerpieces, consider something different, like feathers in glass vases, plants under bell jars, glass sculptures, or even arrangements made of paper flowers. For one reception, Bill Kocis of Bill Kocis Important Flowers built tables of clear Plexiglas. Each was itself a vessel, filled with water, polished black river stones, and Koi and goldfish. For another wedding, Preston Bailey contracted a glassblower to make tall, Dr. Seussian sculptures for each table.
7. Serve quirky late-night snacks as guests exit your reception. Sure, a hungry guest’s impromptu order for takeout pizza is always clutch, but having your caterer think of what to serve for midnight munchies will reap a more memorable result. Think a Nuts 4 Nuts cart for a winter wedding, and an Italian-ice cart or even a Mr. Softee ice-cream truck in summer. Alternately, have a candy station. Providing jars of sweets with scoops and little plastic bags may be an overdone trend, but it’s overdone for a reason. It works.
9. Take a design risk and seat your guests at a few really long tables.
10. Make your guests the center of attention.“For one wedding’s response cards, we sent blank square cards that read, ‘The favor of a creative response is requested,’ ” says Jung Lee of Fete. “Guests sent back wonderful replies. We displayed them like artwork at the reception so the guests could see one another’s interpretations.”
11. Get married at an unusual location. Not another wedding at the Tribeca Rooftop! Sure, the space is amazing, but its popularity is turning it into a bit of a factory. Instead, look into some more unexpected places: For starters, there’s BAM in Fort Greene, the Coney Island Aquarium, the Hudson Theatre in Times Square, the old Loew’s Theatre in Jersey City, or the Central Park Zoo. One New York City couple got married in rowboats bobbing atop the lake in Central Park! (see photo below)
12. If you’re giving favors, select gifts that won’t be immediately discarded. Will anyone really use that silver frame engraved with your names? Realistically, probably not. Give a favor that is much more personal (FYI, stamping your moniker on something does not make it personal). Give something that’s functional: If the weather forecast predicts rain, why not give everyone an umbrella? For a wedding in the late fall, planner Alison Hotchkiss of Alison Events rolled up colorful fleece blankets and piled them on a table for guests to take as they walked to the outdoor reception area. If you’re marrying in summer, near a pool or beach (with some potential for communal late-night dipping), give beach towels.
13. Make boozing an elegant activity. Hire expert sommeliers or place individual vodka-and-Malossol-caviar stations carved out of ice on each table.
14. Showcase what you’re passionate about as part of the entertainment. If you’re a cheese connoisseur, have staff roll cheese carts to each table during the first course, or before dessert. If it’s dessert wine you love, create a little self-serve station after the cake-cutting. If it’s cigars, erect a special station to hand-roll them.
15. Get your favorite takeout place to cater your wedding.
16. If you can afford extravagances, do something that will elicit an emotional response. Planner Francesca Abbracciamento recommends skywriting. Yes, skywriting! “One father-of-the-bride chartered an old-time White Baron plane to fly over the reception, streaking the sky with puffy white hearts around the bride and groom’s initials.” For something over-the-top at night, commission a fireworks display. “No one is better than the Grucci family,” says Karen Bussen, author of Simple Stunning Weddings. If a big-budget show isn’t in the cards, late-night sparklers, while not as awe-inspiring, are just as—if not more—fun.
17. Display seating assignments in a unique way. Stationer Rebecca Schmidt-Ruebensaal likes to hang them from a tree with different-colored ribbons. Event designer David Stark did an escort-card table that wasn’t really a table “as much as it was a wall of sunflowers where each place card was pinned to the center of the flower.” Also, for table numbers, nothing says “corporate event” like sterile laminated cards on stands. Do something prettier. At one barbecue-and-bluegrass vineyard reception, planner Alison Hotchkiss wreathed vintage numbers (found at a local antique shop by the bride) with a eucalyptus branch.
18. Take your cue from Truman Capote and host a themed reception. Communicate your theme through your invitations, décor, and cocktails, but don’t impose it on the dress code, unless it’s something easy, like black and white.
19. Make a cool video of the party. Or, rent a video booth. It’s a private, more comfortable (though potentially more incriminating) way for guests to leave fun messages on camera. The mechanism works much like a photo booth; guests tap the touch-screen to start a two-minute recording—long enough to say something nice or funny; brief enough to avoid getting into too much trouble.
20. Plan for after-hours action. Seek out different locations or, stay put. Turning your reception into an after-party spot can be a costly endeavor, but the perk is that guests don’t drunkenly straggle to the wrong location.
(photos by Shawn Connel, Holger Thoss and Jeni Holder)