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Guest Seating - Assign or not?

The seat assignment dilemma…

Your RSVP’s are all returned (a small miracle these days…), you have a final headcount and a vision for centerpieces and decor at each table, now… should you assign seats, assign tables or let everyone sit where they like?

Your options are:

  1. no seating assignments at all

  2. table assignments only

  3. seat assignments

If considering option 1, you may want to at least put a reserved sign on a table or two for your closest family members. Often they are busy with you during cocktail hour with photos and when it is time for everyone to take their seats, other guests may have snagged the choice spot closest to you and your new spouse. (Well, actually, even more minimal - reserve your spot! I once had a couple want to sit at a table identical to all the others and, since there was no clear “bride and groom” spot, their preferred seats had been taken, resulting in an awkward shuffling of guests who had already eaten hors d’oeuvres at the sweetheart’s place!). Even if you do not assign tables, you should at least number or label each table anyway - this will allow your MC to call tables one by one up to the buffet to avoid long lines!

Number or label tables so your MC can call groups to the buffet

Think about the convenience of seating for certain guests - older folks would appreciate not having dance floor speakers blaring into their ears and, for some, closer proximity to a bathroom might be a good idea; parents would feel better about their little ones being further away from the bar or a water hazard - maybe near an open space where kids can run around. Another consideration - if your headcount matches the number of seats available, “seat yourself” can result in some couples not being able to sit together. If you want to avoid dictating seating even with this in mind, you may want to consider having your venue add another table or two and a few more chairs to give guests more options. This means another centerpiece, etc, so more cost.

If you envision a cocktail hour with guests are mingling, perhaps playing lawn games and nibbling from an appetizer table while enjoying a drink, know that folks will quickly figure out that there is not assigned seating and will bee-line to the reception area to claim their spot.

If you go with option 2, assigning guests to a table, you need to do a little work before your big day and sort your guests into groups that match the number of seats at each table. Unfortunately, these days, folks aren’t so good about the RSVP thing and the result is a task that you probably won’t be about to cross off your to-do-list a month in advance - last minute changes in people’s plans mean last minute changes for your lists, but there are a few benefits to assigning tables. First of all, many of my clients have felt the need to avoid awkward moments between guests who have nothing in common or, worse, don’t like each other. Conversely, you may want to sit groups together who haven’t seen each other for a while and would enjoy catching up or, maybe you think certain friends who have never met are likely to hit it off if you put them at the same table.

Practically speaking, table assignments help to avoid the pitfalls of option number 1. You can have a display somewhere easy for guests to see on their way to dinner with their names on lists, or, have a favor or escort card with each person’s name and table number. (If you are having an outdoor event, be sure to make these decisions with the possibility of wind in mind - a table filled with escort cards can quickly become a lawn dotted with escort cards…)

Escort cards with table assignments on rustic doors at Agua Linda Farm

Table assignments on a list mounted on a board at Agua Linda Farm

Option 3 is the most work for you and is best suited for more formal events and for those when your caterer is working with menu options that guests have pre-selected. Sometimes guests find their name on a list to locate their table, then, at that table, their name is waiting for them at their seat on a card or a wedding favor. If the caterer is serving pre-selected options, you may provide them a map of each table or there could be a code at each spot that indicates what the guest had ordered - Bob Jones, with a picture of a fish, for example on Bob’s escort card - this works best if the card is already at the table, placed by you or your coordinator. Folks tend to pocket their escort card or set it down somewhere and things won’t go quite as smoothly at dinner service.

Recently, we hosted a wedding of 340 guests at our venue and my husband and I came up with an idea while watching guests struggle to find their escort cards. The caterer was serving three pre-selected menu options. With such a large group, it was taking a long time for people to find their names on the huge display and many ended up asking for help. The coordinator’s assistants had electronic devices and were able to quickly look up names and send people on their way. Our idea? For large weddings, how about skipping the lists and having a “concierge service”!? Set up a table or counter and assign staff to look up names quickly on their device and, if needed, hand the appropriate menu code card to each guest after telling them their table assignment. Swanky, huh?

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