So, you’ve got a wedding to plan! How exciting! Congratulations! You’ve got so much to think about… your venue, your dress and formal wear, photos, video, hair, makeup, attendants, guest list, perhaps hiring a wedding planner or day-of coordinator, transportation, food and beverages, the cake, the entertainment, maybe a photobooth or special lighting, your honeymoon, and much more! Whew! That’s a lot to think about! You know the time is going to go so fast—your big day will be here before you know it.
Thank you for letting me offer ten helpful tips concerning one very important aspect of your wedding… your reception. Specifically, how to make it the best reception your guests have ever been to! I am proud to have personally served as DJ for over 1,800 weddings for over 40 years. My goal with this article is to help you have an awesome reception that you will be able to look back on with the fondest of memories.
I have compiled what I believe are the ten most important tips that you should try to plan for in order to make your reception a romantic and fun-filled event! You can have a great party without everything being absolutely perfect, but I honestly believe if you can address most of these items you’ll have a fantastic wedding reception.
How do YOU define a reception that is ‘awesome’? What’s important is what you care about. You may envision something very different from another bride or groom. You may want an elegant affair with great conversation, no dancing, and a string quartet. Very nice. Then again, you may want a wild and crazy outdoor pig roast with everyone rockin’ out to Sweet Home Alabama. Perhaps you want a fun party with a variety of dancing music, with your dance floor full of guests dancing to Bruno Mars or Justin Timberlake. Or maybe you’d like something different. Totally up to you of course.
For the purposes of this article, here’s how I’ll define ‘awesome’: everyone’s happy and smiling, all of your guests are comfortable and enjoying themselves, the flow of your reception is smooth and stress-free, you get to visit (at least for a few minutes) with all of your friends and family, many people of all ages are on the dance floor having a wonderful time, the music isn’t too loud or too soft, the cost of the entire affair is not too outrageous, and only a very few of your guests leave soon after the meal or cake-cutting. Unfortunately some will ‘eat and run’. Party poopers! By the way, here’s a pet peeve of mine– I hate it when the bride and groom are dancing to a very special love song… and people who are leaving interrupt them to say goodbye! Uggh!
Anyway… here are my ten tips, in no particular order, that will help make your wedding reception very successful, romantic, memorable, and fun— simply awesome!
1. Invite lots of people… the more the merrier!
If you have less than 75 guests… unless you’ve got an especially active group of people that like to dance and have fun… it’s going to be harder for the entertainment to get people to have a great time. And how do most people define ‘a great time’ at a wedding! If they did some dancing! Why does a good size crowd help? Because lots of folks unfortunately “follow the leader”. Here’s what happens… let’s say your DJ is playing all the right music, has a bunch of people on the dance floor, a song ends, and he or she starts another song. He or she has picked a great song, makes a good technical transition from one song to the next, it’s a song that everyone usually loves to dance to—but if even just two couples leave the dance floor… sometimes there everyone goes also! The whole crowd follows! It’s pitiful! It’s unbelievable! It’s actually kind of sad and strange how this happens. And if your DJ has just a smaller group of guests to work with, you end up with an empty dance floor. So invite lots of people and make it a party! I know, if budget is an issue this can be difficult… again, I’m just suggesting what makes a great reception.
2. Invite very few young children
Believe me, I love kids. I really do. I have two little grandsons that I am crazy about. However, little ones don’t make for a great wedding reception. If you’ve got a few little ones there, they’ll be running around on the dance floor right after they’re done eating (which will take about two seconds!) It’s so much fun to watch them on the dance floor! They’ll certainly be out there enjoying the music. Unfortunately it seems most of us develop inhibitions as we grow up, and I think it’s just our adult nature for many to be a little hesitant about getting out on a dance floor. But the kids have none of these inhibitions yet and you’ll see them dancing and spinning and running and standing on their heads in front of everyone on that big, fun dance floor! But you might guess what your guests will be doing. They’ll be sitting there watching the kids. This gives many of your guests an excuse to just sit there, and believe me, they will. Some will even pull up a chair alongside the dance floor and stay there seated the whole time, just smiling and staring at the kids. Not dancing. Bummer.
3. Plan for your reception to be held in the evening
I’ve performed as DJ for many successful and fun parties on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, but the reality is, it’s best for the success of your party to not have the actual dance music for your guests start before about 8:30 p.m. Start your background music for your cocktail/social hour at 6, then dinner music begins at 7. Have your special dedication dances, and perhaps an ‘icebreaker’ for your guests or the cake-cutting at about 8. Then at about 8:30 get your DJ to take it up a notch!
4. Put considerable importance on your entertainment
There is one aspect of your wedding reception that should act as the “glue” that keeps everything together. Your entertainment. I realize it’s a matter of opinion as to how important the entertainment is, but I think many would agree it’s essential to the success of most events at which people want guests to have fun. I think most agree with the old adage, your DJ makes or breaks your party, and I think it’s really true. According to a survey in Bride’s magazine, before her wedding most brides ranked entertainment 9th in importance compared to other wedding goods and services. However, after the wedding 72% of brides said they should have spent more time choosing their entertainment. 70% said they should have spent more money on entertainment. I’m honestly NOT trying to get you to spend more money. You can find high-quality DJs that are very reasonably priced, and you can find poor-quality DJs that charge much more than what they are worth! I’ve seen some companies charge a very reasonable rate and provide excellent service, and I’ve seen some companies charge exorbitant amounts– and provide terrible service. I think the more important point is this… isn’t it sad that only about 30% of brides were completely happy with their entertainment according to this survey? You want to be sure to hire professional, competent, and caring vendors who work well with each other, respect your wishes, and understand the vital role that your entertainment plays at your reception. These vendors especially include your venue staff, the caterer, the photographer, the videographer, and the wedding planner or coordinator. Each must work together professionally and they must value the impact of your entertainment, so that your special day turns out exactly the way you want it. Long after your big day, you and your guests are not really going to remember your venue, your food and beverages, your cake, your dress, your hair and makeup… and that’s unfortunate because so much money was spent on those items, right!? What will they remember? If it was a fun time! What can make it fun? What can make sure that “a good time was had by all” as they say? Of course, your entertainment. And ironically, you’ll probably spend much less on your entertainment than on most other items for your wedding celebration.
5. Make your entertainment a professional and talented DJ
Choose a DJ from a company that you feel is reputable, represented by people that truly seem to care about you, and from a company that specializes in weddings. I have provided literally thousands of DJs for weddings, but I don’t mind saying that I love to see a good band. I honestly do. But here’s the deal… you typically have to pay thousands to get a good band. And of course you don’t want a bad band with a singer that doesn’t even sound like the popular songs. Furthermore, you don’t even want a mediocre band—your guests can easily tell the difference and it’s just too special a day for you! A great DJ is often far less expensive than a good band. Moreover, a great DJ will have the songs that people want to dance to. The original artists. It’s the sound that your guests are familiar with, that they know and love… which makes a huge difference and will get them on the dance floor. A great DJ also does not take breaks. A great DJ knows how to professionally act as master of ceremony for your reception, both on and off the microphone, professionally announcing your special wedding events. A great DJ knows what songs to play and when to play them. A great DJ knows how to “read a room” to try to make sure that all of your guests are happy. You might also allow your guests to request songs… and a great DJ will know how to professionally handle those requests. He or she might not play every request, but he or she will definitely play some of them. This will help your guests have a great time and help you have a grand celebration. You might not know this, but most of the requests we get as DJs are always the same songs over and over, and often they are songs that a great DJ would have played anyway, so it’s fairly easy for a DJ to play those requested songs. A great DJ will also be able to entertain and motivate your crowd with special dances and fun events, of course, with your permission. A great DJ arrives earlier than he or she needs to having planned extra time for travel or equipment issues, has back up equipment with him or her, and has spent considerable time in the planning process with you before your wedding. He or she has paid attention to the important details that you care about. I started this section by suggesting that you hire a ‘company’ that can provide you with a DJ. This company should have at least a few professional and talented DJs on their talent roster, and should be able to have someone as a back-up on call. This is too important a day to take the chance that your DJ may become sick or get in an auto accident right before your wedding. A great DJ will work professionally with your planner or coordinator, if you have one. Your DJ will make sure everything happens exactly the way you planned it, precisely according to your wishes. By the way, you do not necessarily need an ‘experienced’ DJ. I know, this is going to be difficult for some of you to get your head around, but I’m just being honest. Event companies love to throw the word ‘experienced’ around. It’s what most folks think they need, so everyone in the business has to make sure they say they are ‘experienced’. However, in all my years of performing as a DJ on the air at several radio stations throughout the Northeast U.S., performing as a DJ at honestly over 1,800 weddings, and after teaching hundreds of talented people how to be a professional wedding DJ, I can tell you that experience is NOT necessarily what makes a great DJ. I know, that’s a strange and scary concept. Please consider this… I’ve seen really talented, smart, dedicated and caring DJs that had excellent training and just a few months of experience, that brides and grooms absolutely loved. Then again, I’ve heard of many less than professional DJs that had 10, 20, 30 years of experience, that brides and grooms felt they should get a refund from because of poor customer service and limited ability. It’s not just about experience… it’s about talent and training. It’s about enthusiasm. It’s about commitment and attitude and reliability. It’s about your DJ loving what he or she does! It’s about your DJ truly and sincerely caring about you. It’s not just about he or she doing a good job answering your questions before you hire him or her– it’s about the questions he or she asked you before you hired him or her! Did he or she get to know you? Did he or she learn what you cared about for your reception? Did her or she ask how you envisioned your celebration and what mattered most to you about your wedding day? Did you get a feeling from your DJ that all he or she cared about was putting on a show– or did you get a feeling that you, the bride and groom, are the stars of the show? It’s your day, and you should have a DJ that understands that. I’m reminded of the concept of ‘tenure’ in our education system. Does tenure (experience) always make a great teacher for our children? Unfortunately not always. I know of ‘experienced’ DJs that charge exorbitant amounts because they just don’t care anymore and don’t want to work very much. I surely wouldn’t want a DJ like that for my wedding.
6. You, the bride and groom, get out on the dance floor a few times
If you get on the dance floor you and your DJ will be able to sort-of “tag-team” your party and it will make your reception even more successful. Your guests will tend to follow you at your reception. If you’re having fun and dancing, your guests are more likely to get up and join the fun. A great DJ will be able to get most crowds moving and grooving without your participation on the dance floor, but it will be even better if you like to dance. If you and your bride or groom have some fun on the dance floor, chances are it’s going to be a great party for everyone!
7. The physical set up of your function room or tented area
It’s ideal to locate the DJ area and dance floor somewhere around the middle of your reception space. So that guests are seated on at least two sides of the dance floor, and your DJ is directly on a third side of the dance floor… rather than the DJ and dance floor way at one end of the space, or the DJ on one end of the space and the dance floor some distance away, or the DJ stuck in a corner somewhere. It really makes a difference both in sound quality and entertainment value. Also, you DO NOT need a large dance floor. Many venue managers unfortunately don’t seem to understand or care about the importance of how to set up a space for maximum entertainment value, nor do they understand the importance of the size of the dance floor. They know their business for sure, but they are generally not in the entertainment business. Pick the size dance floor that you think you need, and cut it in half if you can! I’m very serious. People are less inclined to get up and dance when they will be the only ones out on a big, giant, frightening dance floor, all by themselves, with everyone looking at them. When the dance floor is packed, it’s more fun for everyone! Trust me.
8. Another important point about the physical set up of your room or area
I think this subject deserves two spots on this list. No guest tables should be between the DJ and the dance floor… at least during the dancing portion of your party. This allows for easier interaction between a good DJ and your guests on the dance floor, and your DJ can more easily direct sound and lighting toward the dance floor without having to shoot it over tables right in front of the speakers. Also, seat your older guests away from where your DJ will be set up. A good DJ will control the volume of music and announcements with elevated speakers on stands, however, when playing quiet dinner music it can be challenging for a DJ to keep the volume low enough for guests seated right in front of the speakers, while making sure guests on the other side of a large room can even hear the background music.
9. Special dedication or ‘spotlight dance’ songs should be played right after the meal
Except for the bride and groom’s first dance song, which most like to have played right after your wedding party ‘grand entrance’ introductions, this generally works out perfectly. Waiting until after the meal to play your special parents dances lets hungry guests enjoy the meal a few minutes sooner. More importantly, these songs will also flow nicely from one to the other after the meal to signal to your guests that it’s time for dancing. Also, a good DJ will suggest that a wedding party dedication dance be the final song in your list of special ‘spotlight’ songs after your meal. In my companies, we suggested that we make your wedding party dedication song a faster, popular dance song that everyone will love. Then we invite your guests to join the wedding party after about 30 seconds into the song. This is a trick to get your party started and fill up your dance floor on the first song for general dancing!
10. Some form of open bar
Or at least beer and wine included at no charge… at least for a while. Along with this, it’s important to offer overnight accommodations for your guests at special rates if you can, or taxi/shuttle/bus service for those guests that might have had a bit too much to drink. The fact is a little ‘liquid courage’ really helps a party. If you want a great party, then you will want people to have a couple drinks if they like, loosen up, and of course be safe when they leave. I know, this can be expensive. Just do what your budget allows. I’m just telling you what helps make a great party based on what I’ve seen over the years. By the way, make sure your bar is actually in the room or tent with the DJ and the dance floor. This is very important since you don’t want your guests gathering too far from the dance floor. If your bar is in another room or area, your guests will certainly not dance as much.
If it’s not possible for you to do everything I’ve suggested here, don’t sweat it. Even if you don’t agree with some of these tips, a great DJ will abide by your wishes, he or she will politely suggest alternatives, and will help to make it a really great event for you whatever the circumstances. Best wishes and congratulations! I hope you have an awesome wedding celebration!
Article written by Ted Bilodeau, who owned and managed several event services companies from 1976 to 2019, most recently Complete Weddings and Events based in the Raleigh/Durham area of North Carolina, providing photography, DJ entertainment, video, photobooths, and lighting for weddings and events of all types. Ted has also performed as a DJ for thousands of weddings and other events throughout New England, upstate New York, and North Carolina. He also worked on the air on several radio stations for about 30 years throughout New England and upstate New York. He owns Partyhound Media with its flagship website www.partyhound.com. The “Hound” is an online directory of vendors, products, services, ideas, and information for anyone presenting any sort of party, wedding, or event.