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Cocktail vs. sit-down weddings – some things to consider

Cocktail vs. sitdown wedding

The beautiful thing about weddings today is that anything goes.

Gone are the days when meals were a strictly sit down chicken-or-fish alternate drop affair. Yes, you can of course still do this but communal feasting has topped the traditional, with big shared platters of food dumped on tables for friends and family to tuck into together. We’re loving it.

Over the past few years there’s also been a boom in cocktail-style weddings, where canapé service, picnics, gourmet BBQs and/or grazing tables feed guests, and mingling is king.

Really, there are no rules (in our book) about feeding your guests, except that there needs to be enough food to go around – in excess, preferably – and it needs to be easy to find. Because no one wants to be that vulture flocking to harass the wait staff the moment they see them (but we’ll do it if we need to). And your guests will most likely get very drunk if they don’t get fed, so that’s not ideal either – at least until towards the end of the wedding.

We asked Etc. Event Styling to share their tips and considerations to help you make the choice between cocktail and sit-down celebrations. Here are their thoughts.


Cocktail isn’t necessarily more cost-friendly

There seems to be a common belief that cocktail-styled weddings are cheaper than their counterpart, the sit-down wedding. Don’t jump to this conclusion too quickly.

It really depends on a variety of factors, for example – the venue size. If you have a cocktail wedding, you may find you need to hire substantial furniture to style and fill the space that may otherwise have had the venue’s existing tables and chairs (if available).

Also, your guest list size will affect the cost. If you have a sit-down wedding, your guest numbers will be restricted by the space you have to seat people. Doing a cocktail-style wedding will allow you to fit more guests into the space but you’ll consequently need to feel more people, so it might just equal out to be the same price.

Cater according to the time of the day

Pricing will vary depending on your caterer for canapés and finger food and you have to really consider the time your reception is during the day to predict how much your guests will eat. Think about portions – if you were to put all the canapés allocated per guest on a plate, would it be enough to make a meal? If you’re doing a cocktail-style wedding, consider serving up some substantial finger food, like slider burgers or mini pies to fill people up.

Don’t forget the ladies and the oldies – provide some seating

If you’re going for a cocktail style wedding, please remember to spare a thought for all the ladies in heels. Dancing feet need a rest occasionally.

If you have elderly guests attending, they will be looking for comfortable seating options to mingle quietly rather than standing and walking the room all evening. And you’ll be thankful you will have somewhere to rest-up too!

Determine what sort of atmosphere you’re going for

A cocktail style is brilliant for a relaxed style where your guests can move about easily and mingle throughout the evening.

For a more formal style, a sit-down wedding is perfect to serve larger portions of food to your guests and also easily allows for a smooth run throughout the evening.

Think about ways to keep your guests entertained, either way

If it’s a cocktail reception, activities like Giant Jenga or photo booths are always a hit. However during a sit-down meal it can be awkward getting up and leaving to go and snap a pic, so it could be nice to introduce some fun table games for your guests to play.

Things like quizzes about the bride and groom, or ‘chatter boxes’ or advice for the bride and groom are good ice-breakers, particularly for guests that are sitting with new friends.

Be clear on meal service

Some guests may not have attended a cocktail style wedding before, and therefore might be confused about what this means food-wise. It is always a great idea to make note of this on your invites so your guests aren’t left wondering if they should be fasting or loading up their bellies before the event.

Don’t let price be the sole seller

Go with your intuition. If you and your family/friends are used to having a sit-down dinner and mingling that way, then go for the sit down. If you’re more the type that visit beer gardens and prefer to nibble on tapas and canapés, go for cocktail style.

Still can’t decide? One last piece of advice….

If you’re really torn and hoping to gain the best of both worlds, you can!

Here’s how:

  • Opt for a wedding with drinks and small canapés served after your ceremony, giving your guests the opportunity to mingle, maybe while you’re getting photos taken with your bridal party
  • Guests can then be invited to a sit-down meal which can allow you to schedule in certain speeches, cutting of the cake and dances nicely.
  • Set up a dessert buffet and have roaming desserts. Guests can be invited to join you on the dancefloor while wait-staff bring around a selection of your favorite bite-sized sweets.

– Etc. Events


WedShed’s last words:

Seriously consider a seating plan

If you’re opting for a seated wedding, we’d probably recommend doing a seating plan. Yes, it’s a bitch of a job but it means that there’s no stress for guests that are trying to find table space together. People like being told where to go and it feels more personal (to us at least) when you arrive and there’s a nice little name placecard waiting for you. Plus it’s handy for the ladies to be able to leave bags and jackets at their seat.

Have food points scattered around your reception for guests arrival

To avoid people even thinking about where they’re going to get food (and let’s face it – it will be the first thing on most gent’s minds after the ceremony), set up multiple food stations for guests – just a charcuterie or cheese plate here and there. That way, the hungry can start pecking and everyone can relax.

Have wines ready to go for guests when they sit down to eat

If you’re doing a sit-down meal, have buckets of wine ready to be cracked and poured by guests. Yes, drinks service by catering staff is awesome and we recommend it, but it will take some time for them to get around to everyone so make it easy for people to help themselves.

Don’t worry – people are there for you and not for the food anyway

Whatever food service option or combo you choose, your guests will get their fill. So just go with whatever fulfils your vision for the day.


You can (and should) find Etc. Event Styling on their websiteFacebook and Instagram. We’ve dropped some cocktail and sit-down dining inspo below to finish off.

The Butcher, The Baker, The Stylist & Creator

Styled by The Butcher, The Baker, The Stylist & Creator (WS vendor – check out). Captured by Still Love

The Wedding & Events Creator

Styled by The Wedding and Event Creators (WS vendor – check out).

Etc. Event Stying

Styled by Etc. Event Styling (WS vendor – check out).

Garnish Catering

Catered by Garnish Creative Catering (WS vendor – check out), styled by Hoorah Events (WS vendor – check out), captured by Red Berry Photography (WS vendor – check out) at our venue Willow Farm Berry.

Daniel Ferris

Captured by Daniel Ferris (WS vendor – check out). 

The Wedding Designer

Styled by The Wedding Designer (WS vendor – check out), captured by Curly Tree Photography.

Etc. Event Stying

Styled by Etc. Event Styling (WS vendor – check out). 

Mitch Pohl

Catered by Rachael McCarthy Catering, florals by Mikarla Bauer, captured by Mitch Pohl (WS vendor – check out).

Jonathan David

Captured by Jonathan David (WS vendor – check out).

Find more advice, guidance and wedding questions debunked here

4th November, 2015

Leave a comment


  1. In my experience, guests really like the informal nature of a well-run cocktail event.
    The usual format of 3 course meal and speeches is slowly being overtaken by cocktail events.

    One of the downsides of a sit-down wedding is that guests are stuck where they are and don’t have the opportunity to circulate until the music and dancing starts, and then it’s often difficult to circulate.

    Sit down weddings, with their formality are easier to manage than cocktail events.

    When I say “manage” I mean controlling the flow of the event, getting the speeches organised and so on, so that the show is run in a smooth manner.

    If you are having a cocktail event, plan how you will manage the speeches, the bridal dance, the cutting of the cake and so on.

    Do this well before the event otherwise you may end up in chaos.

    If you are having a cocktail event, consider the needs of the older guests and give them places to set up shop, the way that they do, away from the noise levels. Older people generally complain that they can’t hear conversations in high ambient noise levels.

    A cocktail event, enables you to plan a shorter, but more energised event – an event that sends your guests home buzzing.

    They say that “last impressions last” and too many wedding receptions just peter out, and guests wish they could have gone home sooner.

    That’s a poor last impression for your wedding day. It’s a big ask to have your marriage ceremony at 3pm and expect your guests to be still on their toes at midnight – 9 hours later.

    You can start your cocktail event with your bridal dance, get the dancing started early, get your guests moving around.

    As long as you pay attention to the good advice given in WedShed’s article, a cocktail event is well worth considering.

    Martin Moroney is a marriage celebrant and MC who specialises in weddings with a big “Wow factor”.

  2. That is so beautiful!!! It took my breath away. Thanks

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