No matter how large or small the wedding, every couple finds themselves asking how best to puzzle in all their guests into groups for dining. Table plans and escort cards are your accomplices, beautifully and creatively guiding your loved ones to the table or seat you’ve carefully chosen for them (by strategising post-its on your living room rug). I love this element of weddings because this is the moment you welcome your guests to the table, sharing food and anecdotes, lifting glasses to belly-laugh-inducing speeches, and dabbing your teary eyes as the couple tell each other, and every guest, just how special this moment is. Vows have been said, hats have been hung, and now this is the night that will turn to morning – these are the friends that will turn into family.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when planning your tables:
- Give yourself plenty of time – remove some of the stress of working out seating by starting to work on it as soon as you have the RSVPs in. Take it lightly, and, if you can, turn into a little bit of a game. Try not to overthink it, give yourself breaks from it so you can see it with fresh eyes, and leave it alone once you’ve found a set up you’re happy with.There are always last minute changes to the guestlist, so try not to worry yourself about that.
- Remember that you can do whatever you want – you can have round tables, long tables, a tiny two-person top table, or no top table at all. The choice is yours.
- Give as much guidance as you want. You don’t have to assign seats (particularly for intimate weddings) – if you don’t mind a more informal approach, you can just assign tables, and let guests choose who to sit next to during the reception. This encourages mingling, as people feel less afraid to swap seats half way through. You can also not have a plan and have free seating, but keep in mind that people generally prefer to have some guidance (so for example you might find guests are afraid to claim seats too close to the bride and groom in case they’re not meant to).
- Design the room from a guest’s perspective, by thinking about their journey – how will they walk from the entrance of the room to their table? How will they get to the dance floor? Other useful tips on this note are to avoid centerpieces that are impossible to talk around (go asymmetric low or tall-and-thin high), to place a comfortable number of people around the table size you’ve chosen (ask your decor hire company or planner for advice on this), and to keep lights low to encourage relaxation and mingling (real candlelight is the best).
- The custom of top tables is much more relaxed now. In fact, you can even have more than one, if you’re not keen on the attention, or maybe family politics are a little complicated. You can host one table of friends, and let your parents host their own table of close family members. As a general rule, placing your parents first can be very helpful during the process of narrowing down seat options.
- Handle awkward social situations fairly. On the note of family politics – if there are divorced parents in the room, think about surrounding them with family at equal distance away from the couple, on opposite sides of the room. Similarly for any friend group breakups: split them up but make sure to give them allies and, if you can, keep them out of each other’s line of sight. Whenever possible, try to keep plus-ones together with their partners so they don’t feel left out.
- Use natural social circles. It can be useful to start by categorising your guests into groups or circles of friends – you might find they fit neatly into table-size groups, and if they don’t, at least you have starting point. Spreadsheets can be great for this stage: create a column where you give each guest a “type” (work, friend, family, parents’ friends, etc) and start breaking them down logically.
- Mix and match. Mixing groups/generations/languages is totally fine, especially if you’ve thought about what kinds of things people might have in common that will help them get along – though if possible, do them a kindness by making sure there’s at least one person they know on the table. Try to think about grouping by personality: louder personalities will feed off each other, while more reserved guests will appreciate their tablemates’ shared restraint. If you think you might be splitting up groups, think about placing some games or icebreakers on the tables to encourage people to chat with one other.
- Enlist help. Your parents are a great source of knowledge when it comes to seating family members you may not be very close to, so do ask them for their thoughts. They might know of family dynamics you haven’t had a chance to be aware of yet…
- Keep the floor plan in mind when placing guests – make sure they can all see and hear speeches and are a sensible distance away from the band or the speakers (anyone elderly closer to the front for example).
- Don’t force singles together if possible. Match-making is VERY fun, don’t get me wrong – but do think about being sensitive to your guests’ feelings. Try not to make an obvious “singles table”, and, viceversa, not to place a single unmarried guest on a table of married couples. As cute as it is in rom-coms, matchmaking in an obvious way at weddings is more likely to embarass than anything else.
- Give the kids their own space. If you only have a few children present, it’s always helpful to seat them with their parents – but if you have a larger group of little ones, do consider having a separate kids table so they can keep each other entertained. Consider placing some games, activities or crafts on the table, or even hiring in a nanny to make sure they’re all happy and safe.
- Tech-up. Excel will be your friend during the stage of recording RSVPs and noting down who’s who. There are also a number of great websites and apps available now to help you avoid the aforemention post-it shenaningans! Check out WeddingWire, AllSeated, and TopTablePlanner.
- Make the seating stage as smooth as possible. When it comes to the physical table plan itself, make sure it’s placed somewhere easily accessible and visible, and if possible have two so that everyone has a chance to check their seat or table before it’s time to shift over to the dining room (particularly with large guest numbers). Placing guests’ names in alphabetical order alongside their table number is a great way of speeding things up – and do make sure there’s a planner or coordinator with that printed list in hand so they can assist guests in finding seats. If you think there may be many last minute changes, think about creating a table plan where changes are easy to make (rather than one that needs to be entirely re-done) – or opt for escort cards instead: you can display cards inscribed with guests’ names laid out alphabetically where each card has the table number/name on it, and even make a beautiful feature out of it in a way that echoes your style or theme.
Remember that it’s all about making the experience the most wonderful it can be, for yourself and your loved ones, and that will mean different things to different people. You’re unlikely to make decisions that will be optimal for every single guest, but ultimately everyone there is there to support you and get to know your family and friends. Some people may be there to catch up with loved ones, and others may be there looking to meet new people, but what everyone shares is a deep love for YOU. I know this is something I say often, but that’s because I truly believe it: try not to choose things for the sake of it, but really think about what means the most to you – as that will be the secret of making the day feel like an extension of your own personalities. Let the dinner be as formal or as informal as you truly want it – and the guest list only as large or small as you wish it to be.
I hope these ideas have helped you brainstorm on how to plan your seating. If you’d like to have a chat, or would like some help with planning your wedding, don’t hesitate to get in touch!