When the wedding guest list is done, venue chosen and ceremony planned, one touchy task remains: assigning seats for the reception.
Don't wait until crunch time to begin, wedding planners say. And don't throw up your hands and not do it at all.
"Walking into a sea of tables without a seat assignment can feel like walking into the cafeteria on the first day of school," said Susan Graham of Signature Events in Atlanta.
"It's very important to the flow of the event," agreed Gina Cramer of Make It Happen Events in Des Moines.
So unless your reception is lounge-style grazing with food stations and no dining tables, buckle down and figure out who's going to sit where.
"Assigned seating makes for less chaos," said Maria Lindsay of Maria Lindsay Weddings and Events in Orange County, Calif. Just don't think it's going to be easy. "It can be challenging," she said.
Both the bride's and the groom's sides should work together on seating. Where a guest's table is in the room is important. Center your VIP tables (parents, grandparents, close family) in front of the head table, giving them the best view of the wedding party. Don't place older guests in front of the band or DJ. "You never want to put Grandma in front of an amplifier," Cramer said. "I've seen it done."
Make guest feel comfortable
Consider single guests: Would they like to sit with relatives or other singles the same age? Seat social groupings — co-workers, neighbors or college friends, for instance — with people they know.
"Place your guests where they're most comfortable," Cramer said.
Any strained relationships? If Uncle Dave doesn't get along with cousin Mike, separate them by a few tables. Ditto for divorced parents, although in this case be sure to keep them equally centered on the head table. "Usually guests put differences aside for that day," Cramer said. "But small things can be done to help."
Have a few extra chairs on hand. It's typical for guest lists to change the day of the wedding, with a few positive RSVPs dropping out or other guests who thought they couldn't make it suddenly able to attend. And always be ready for someone who shows up with an unexpected date.
Have a plan
When it's time to start drawing up the seating chart, know the maximum and minimum number of guests you can have at each table. Then start with a stack of blank paper, with each sheet representing one table. Write each guest's name on a single Post-it note. Start grouping the guests, moving Post-its as needed, to create harmonious tablemates.
If your guest list isn't already in a spreadsheet, this would be a good time to do that. Have columns for first name, last name, number of guests in party and special needs (such as highchair, vegan, food allergy). Add a column for table number.
Work on seat assignments as RSVPs come in. Your plan should be nearly complete a week before the wedding.
"There are countless creative ways to communicate seating assignments to guests as they enter the reception," Graham said. Consider a traditional escort card, with guest's name, table number and indication of special meal, if necessary. Spread the cards across a linen-covered table with floral arrangement. For a seaside wedding, instead of escort cards, Graham used white capiz shells displayed on sand, with guests' names and table numbers stenciled on the shells.
"Look to Pinterest and your imagination to make this a showstopping element," Graham said.
Whatever method you decide to go with, arrange the notices alphabetically by guests' last names. "Do not list Table 1, 2 and so on, followed by names of guests at that table," Cramer said. "That will take guests a very long time to find their name."
One last piece of advice from the experts: Remember to relax. It's meant to be fun.