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Intimate weddings, from cocktail hour to after parties

Features | June 1, 2018 | By:

A sunken dance floor and live music helped A Day in May Event Planning & Design create a nightclub-like ambiance under a clear-top 18-meter Losberger tent. Photo by Jen Kroll Photography.

The dinner reception may be the high point of a tented wedding. But the cocktail hour sets the tone and the after party offers final, memorable flourishes.

With its big cake and heartfelt toasts and the first dance, the wedding reception is often second only to the ceremony itself in terms of its significance to a couple tying the knot.

But two other stages of the day—the pre-reception cocktail hour and the post-reception after party—are increasingly sharing the spotlight. These bookends offer great opportunities for upping the wedding “wow” factor and creating more personal, memorable events. Although both have been on the wedding landscape for several years, particularly the cocktail hour, the contributions they make to tented celebrations are receiving greater acknowledgment and attention.

Strategic furniture arrangement helps to create intimacy at cocktail parties. Après Event Décor & Tent Rental used CAD and floor plans designed to scale to achieve optimal furniture placement within this clearspan structure. Photo by Photogen Inc.
Act 1

“Cocktail parties or the cocktail hour have changed in that people are more interested in entertainment and interesting ways to display or tray-pass food,” says Sonia Sharma, creative director of Sonia Sharma Events & Design, Los Angeles, Calif. “People really want to impress their guests, starting at the beginning of the event, not just when they open the doors to the dinner reception.”

For this reason, Sharma says she always tries to incorporate one or two unexpected elements during the cocktail portion, such as using live peacocks, acrobats, costumed actors, ice sculptures or interactive food stations. “The sky is the limit when it comes to creative ways to impress guests,” she says.

The cocktail party is meant to be an icebreaker—especially if many of the guests don’t know each other—and should encourage strolling, interaction and engagement, says Alicia Caldecott, owner of A Day in May Event Planning & Design LLC, based in Traverse City, Mich. It’s become so essential that Caldecott says every one of her events has some sort of pre-dinner gathering or cocktail hour.

Shereé Bochenek, creative director for Après Event Décor & Tent Rental, Minnetonka, Minn., says for most of her company’s tented weddings, the cocktail hour takes place in an area outside of the tent—“This is always preferred, if the site and weather allows”—because often the tent is being used for the reception.

Ligonier, Pennsylvania wedding by Andy A variety of seating options during the cocktail hour offers guests a comfortable way to mingle and sets the mood for the festivities to come. Tie-back sashes on this tent installed by Windswept Entertainment and Events helped to make the outdoors part of the experience for this party produced by The Event Group. Linens by Mosaic Inc. Furniture vignettes by The Prop Shop. Floral by Hens and Chicks. Photo by Andy Shepard Photography.

“A single tent is more budget-friendly,” Bochenek says, adding that clearspans with clear tops are the most popular tent style. “Separate tents might require a marquee walkway to attach the tents, if the weather is inclement.”

Caldecott also likes to take advantage of natural settings whenever possible, recalling a wedding that took place in Palm Beach, Fla. The tents were set up on a polo field, with the cocktail hour taking place outside of the tent on the lawn. Soft seating areas and umbrellas created a space that was organized but flexible, she says.

JoAnn Gregoli, owner and event designer/producer of Elegant Occasions by JoAnn Gregoli, with offices in New York, California and Rome, Italy, says she is seeing more interactive cocktail stations, such as suspended pretzel bars where guests create their own flavor of pretzel dressing. Other interactive food elements she’s used include a make-your-own guacamole station and mac and cheese bars.

“We also hire food trucks to participate in the cocktail hour,” she says. “We’re using these more and more, some with drinks. We’ve had a Prosecco truck pull up and serve Prosecco and nitro drinks using dry ice during the cocktail hour.”

Couples are also paying more attention to branding as a way to personalize their wedding, adding signature visual elements, says Sheila Weiner, president and founder of The Event Group, a Pittsburgh, Pa.-based special event management company. These can include things such as monograms on the bar fronts or wedding hashtags or fun facts about the couple printed on the cocktail napkins or menu cards—the opportunities for branding through “colors, monograms and messages are limitless,” she says.

The curtain call

Loath to end the evening, many wedding guests—especially the younger set—have traditionally kept the party going by heading out to a nearby bar where they could celebrate well into the night. And although this is still common, a planned after party is an increasingly popular option.

“After parties are more important to the couple, because they allow the party to continue, especially because sometimes the couple has missed the cocktail hour because they were taking photos,” Gregoli says. “So, they want to have a more fun and memorable after party.”

This after-hours party featured the wedding couple’s favorite late-night snack—Whataburger—in a tent that was draped off and later revealed to the bride and groom. Wedding planner/designer: Refined Social Event Design & Production. Event rental company: All Occasions Event Rental.
Photo by Switzerfilm.

The financial commitment couples make on their wedding day also inspires them to extend the event so they can spend as much time as possible with friends and family, especially those who have traveled to the wedding, says Robin Denny, director of sales for CORT Party Rental, a Seattle, Wash.-based full-service rental company.

“We see couples looking for more nontraditional places to hold their events where they aren’t locked into strict venue timing so these parties can go on until the wee hours of the morning,” she says. “In many cases, they’re looking to tent an area and host these after-party events at a private residence or farther out from the city where noise violations won’t be an issue.”

For after parties, the vibe is along the lines of a nightclub or private club, says Sharma, explaining the intent is to “transport guests to another place” through the use of lounge furniture, colorful and dramatic lighting and music, generally provided by DJs.

“One trend for after parties is bottle service and servers,” she says. “I produced an after party that had bottles at the tables and one server per table, so the guests truly felt they were in a club.”

Food should also match the feel, says Caldecott, mentioning that typical after-party fare includes sliders, pizzas, tacos and other casual noshes. Bringing in food trucks is another strategy.

Late-night noise can be a concern. One option planners have found is to throw a “silent disco party,” says Weiner. This is a relatively new trend, she explains, involving the use of headsets that guests wear. They can hear the music/DJ through these headsets and continue the dancing and partying, while not creating a disturbance.

The lounge segment of this 12-meter Losberger tent had a clear top while the rest of the structure had a solid canvas top. Produced by A Day in May Event Planning & Design, the lounge overlooked Lake Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Bay. Photo by Harwell Photography.

Caldecott’s company plans a lot of lakeside events where noise tends to carry, so she has also deployed these headsets. Also called “silent DJs,” the headsets allow users to listen to multiple tracks with a color indicator on the headset changing depending on what track the person is listening to, enabling others to know and get on the same track if desired.

Setting the scene

Establishing the right tone and creating a memorable event depends in no small measure on furnishings and accessories. Lounge furniture is a popular choice for cocktail and after parties. In fact, Gregoli considers this a must-have for after parties in particular. She also favors using mini pop-up tents, placing them around the property and stationing entertainment, such as tarot card readers, within them, as well as photo booths.

Photo booths and confetti cannons are add-ons Caldecott likes for after parties. For cocktail parties she picks a few statement pieces or unique elements of interest, such as a great furniture grouping, large welcome table or statement bar, while at the same time allotting open space for people to move about easily.

These cabanas were part of the cocktail hour for a wedding produced by Sonia Sharma Events and held at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, Calif. The frames were a rustic wood with added chiffon and floral tie-backs. Comfy lounge furniture and chandeliers completed the elegant setting. Photo by John Solano Photography.

Some of Sharma’s favorite rental items for cocktail or after parties are edgy lighting and chandeliers and unusual or custom art. Weiner advises making guests comfortable during the cocktail hour with couches, high-top tables and communal tables.

A primary question planners and clients must answer is if everything is going to take place under one tent or if several will be involved. The ideal is at least two tents, especially because most clients realize that transforming the same space from one setting to another can interfere with the flow, Denny says. However, if budgets don’t allow for renting more than one tent, with some strategizing it can work.

Depending on the space, the demarcation between the reception and the after party can be established by changing the lighting and bringing in a DJ, Caldecott says. But utilizing at least two tents does make things easier and less harried. One strategy she has used is having a ceremony tent and a cocktail/reception tent. During the reception, the ceremony tent can be flipped into the after-party tent.

To achieve an unimpeded view of the rural Washington State countryside while still providing a covered area for a wedding’s cocktail hour, CORT Party Rental installed
a 40-by-40-foot Jumbotrac® hip end tent
with a custom eyebrow gable to provide a finished appearance to the gable end. Planner: Sinclair & Moore Events. Photo by Michèle M. Waite Photography.

Kristen Hinton, senior event consultant for All Occasions Event Rental, Cincinnati, Ohio, says her company has had several clients take this approach.
“This works out really well and is an economical option for the client, rather than renting three tents for cocktails, reception and after party,” Hinton says. “We’ve most commonly seen this done in structure tents, due to their hanging weight capability, open interior, flexible hang points and climate control superiority.”

Weiner says it’s more usual for the cocktail and after parties to take place in the same tent, while the reception and dinner is held elsewhere. Gregoli endorses this approach, explaining that the main tent isn’t as “cozy” as a smaller one, making it harder to create the nightclub atmosphere important to after parties.

Because couples tend to marry outdoors in California, Sharma is often able to section off a portion of the main tent for the dinner reception and the after party.

“But sometimes it’s easier to rent two tents and then create a tunnel between them with a narrow canopy,” she adds. “Either way, tents are a key element in creating a custom-designed experience. My best work is always done in a custom tent.”

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.

What percentage of a client’s budget is allocated to the cocktail hour and the after party?

Cocktail hour

Priorities, preferences and budget will factor into how much of the overall wedding budget is applied to the cocktail hour. Sonia Sharma, creative director of Sonia Sharma Events & Design, says clients generally spend a smaller portion of their total budget for the cocktail hour, as it only lasts from 60 to 90 minutes. JoAnn Gregoli of Elegant Occasions by JoAnn Gregoli says her clients typically devote 25 percent of their overall budget to the cocktail hour.

After party

This budget depends in part on how many guests are expected to stay on. Sharma says to anticipate that most will want to attend, advising that clients take their guest count and subtract 10 percent of the adults. Because after parties are more elaborate, involving entertainment, musicians, lounge furniture and comfort food, the budget for this component is generally a little more than that allocated for the cocktail hour, Sharma says.

Sheila Weiner, president and founder of The Event Group, says most guests will want to check out the after party; she typically plans for 80 percent of the guests participating.

Gregoli usually plans on half of the guests attending and suggests setting aside 25 percent of the total wedding budget for the after party, the same amount she advises earmarking for the cocktail party.

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