Part 1: What Kind of Seating Arrangement to Choose
Ah, the seating plan: that most favorite and most simple of wedding planning tasks, which truly brings the bride and groom together… not. Figuring out the list of where all of your guests will sit at your wedding reception can be one of the most logistically challenging tasks in preparing for your big day – but the good news is that there are ways to make it far, far easier.
Below are the three main ways to approach the seating plan for your wedding reception, the pros and cons of each, and how to arrange them logistically. Essentially you’ll have a trade-off between control over where / with whom everyone sits, versus the amount of time and effort involved in organizing it. Of course, if you have a “cocktail”-style reception (that is, with guests standing up and mingling for the entire event) you do not need to consider seating arrangements at all.
(Will you assign guests to particular tables and/or chairs rather than having open seating? Stay tuned for a second post on how to figure out exactly which guest to put where and with whom.)
1. Open seating
• What: This means that guests simply pick their own spots and sit anywhere at the reception, and are not assigned to particular tables or particular seats.
• Pros: The benefits of completely free seating are that the soonlyweds need to spend next to zero time and energy on the seating plan (after all, you have enough other things to prepare before the big day!), and your guests can choose who they sit with… rather than you and your fiancé trying to guess who your guests would most like to sit with or would get along best with.
• Cons: While the latter benefit works in theory, in practice not all guests may actually get to sit where or with whom they’d like. Perhaps you’d have liked your family close to the bridal table, but other guests claimed the front tables first; perhaps your heavily pregnant friend would have preferred to sit by the bathrooms but couldn’t waddle to the prime chairs in time. Also, the last ten or so guests to come in will simply have to take whatever seats are left and probably won’t be sitting with the people they want.
1. How to get around the cons? Let your guests know a little in advance that there will be free seating. Put a sign outside the reception venue (like the one above) or ask your MC to announce it at the beginning of the cocktail hour, so that guests have a little time to consider where they would like to sit and who they’d like to sit with, and maybe even arrange themselves into those groupings. Want to make sure your immediate families get tables toward the front? Simply place signs on those tables that they are reserved for family.
2. Escort cards are cards with the name of each guest, which guests usually collect outside the reception room and place in front of them at their table, so that other guests around them can easily see their name and chat more easily. Escort cards are often used to communicate to guests which table name/number they have been assigned to (see below). With open seating, you can completely skip crafting up escort cards since guests won’t use them to find an assigned table table, but you may like to have them if most guests don’t know each other by name.
2. Assigned tables only
• What: With this approach, you assign your guests to a particular table but not to a particular seat, so that guests decide where they would like to sit at their particular table. There are even two ways you can do this: assigning people by name to a particular table (specifically listing that “Angela, Jeffrey, Carol, William, Jane, Paul, Sally and Ron” are at Table 1) or by group to a particular table (broadly communicating to your guests that “Groom’s Family” are assigned to Table 1, and not going into any more detail than that).
• Pros: This approach still requires far less time and effort for the bride and groom than assigned tables and seats, and arranging by group requires less time than by name (especially if “Bride’s University Friends” or “Bride’s Family” take up two tables each, as they did at my wedding, and you’d rather not get into the nitty-gritty of who exactly in those groups sits at which of the two tables). As assigned tables means deciding where in the room that particular table is located (otherwise how would those assigned to Table 1 find out where it is?), you can ensure family are seated close to the front and your pregnant friend has her place by the bathrooms.
• Cons: Assigning a group to a table does not work very well if you have some people who do not fit into an obvious group – for example, if a table is one former roommate, three colleagues, and three guys from the football team. You could do it, but then it’s not so nice to call their table “Randoms” or “Leftovers”… so that might dictate that you need to assign all tables by name rather than by group.
1. You will need to find out from your reception venue whether they will have long tables or round/square tables, the maximum number of people that can fit at each table, and the minimum number that can sit at a table without it looking ridiculous. (For example, at the Reflective Wedding a normal table could accommodate eight people, but a larger piece of wood could be added on top to make it fit 10. The venue manager told us that the tables look silly with less than seven seated at them, so we knew all tables had to have 7-10 guests.)
2. Assign all of your guests to a particular table. If you are taking the group approach, you will need to break your guest list down and make sure everyone fits into an obvious group, and that those group sizes match the number of people you can fit at each table. If that doesn’t work, go by name.
3. Name each table (whether “Table 1” and so on, or “Jimi Hendrix” for a music theme), and then either display that name clearly on each table so guests can see it easily, or post a diagram like the one below outside the reception room showing which table is where (or both).
4. To inform guests which table they’re at, you will need either escort cards with each guest’s name and table number arranged on a table or a wall (ideally in alphabetical order by name, so guests can find their escort card easily), or – if you’re not concerned about guests having cards at the table that show their names for encouraging conversation – simply make a display outside the reception room that lists who is it at what table.
3. Assigned seats:
• What: With assigned seats, you match each and every guest by name to a particular seat at a particular table. This means prescribing those seated at the “Cinderella Table” (if you’re going for a fairytale theme) as pregnant friend Hayley in this chair closest to the bathroom, with her husband Daniel next to her, then Jennifer next to him, then Chris, then Ben, then Eleanor, etc.
• Pros: Assigned seating gives you exact control over who sits where. You can make sure your father doesn’t get stuck next to the sister who doesn’t realize she gets on his nerves (which you can’t achieve with any of the other seating plan approaches), and you can ensure your going-blind grandmother gets the seat with the best and closest view of the speeches and first dance. (Both of these were actual considerations at the Reflective Wedding). Assigned seating is also the least complicated for serving staff if you have guests with special dietary requirements for plated meals; you can give staff a diagram of your seating plan and show exactly where the vegetarian or lactose-intolerant guests are. (Then again, it’s not a huge problem with assigned tables if a waiter has to approach one table and say “I understand there was a request for a vegan meal here?” and then be pointed to the correct person.)
• Cons: This approach takes the longest amount of time and will cause you the most amount of stress to arrange.
• Logistics: The first three steps listed under the logistics for assigned tables? You’ll need to do those for assigned seats as well. However, what you’ll need to do as part of the second step is think about who would like to sit next to who, who would get along with each other, who does need a particular location in the room, and so on. More advice on that in an upcoming post!
1. For assigned seats, you definitely need to have an escort card for each guest… but instead of displaying them outside the reception room, you will need to place each card at the assigned seat at each table, to ensure the guest finds the exact seat you wanted for them. (That means no prettily displayed collection of all the escort cards, if you were keen on that photo opportunity.)
2. However, what you can get creative with is an overview list of who is seated at which table, which you will need if you want to avoid guests wandering around the reception room for quite some time looking for their escort card. Informing guests of the name or location of their table (or both) will get your guests seated much more quickly, and allow you to get the dinner and celebrations started on time.
I hope that helps you choose the seating plan approach that’s best for you and your circumstances! Which of the seating arrangements would you prefer for your big day?