Planning the Guest List and Who sits where?

Planning the Guest list and seating table plan

Numbers are always tight at weddings so planning. You and your fiancée will spend weeks fretting over who to invite and where to sit them at the reception. With a bit of planning this needn’t be such a daunting task.

The grisly politics of weddings mean that seating plans have to be organised with all the diplomacy of a United Nations peacekeeper. While the seating at the actual ceremony is normally straightforward enough (see box), when it comes to the tricky question of who to invite and which tables to put them on at the reception, suddenly all sorts of unimagined problems come into play.

The guest list

As groom you’ll be permitted all the usual friends from school, college and work. But in general the guest list is very much the domain of the bride and her parents. The father of the bride is blowing much of his pension paying for his daughter’s big day, so it’s understandable that he’ll want to invite his golf friends and his wife’s ladies from Women’s Institute.

This won’t seem fair to you. This is you and your wife’s wedding, right? Not your parents’-in-law. Why should you have to curtail the number of work colleagues you ask along? Why shouldn’t your parents invite some of their friends? What possible connection has the Little Hadham WI got with your wedding?

This is where arguments between groom’s family and bride’s family often first arise. The problem is that numbers are always tight. Someone somewhere has to give. And unless you’re contributing to the costs of staging the reception, it’s your side of the family that loses out.

Here’s a little tip though. If numbers are really tight, then explain to your friends that no kids and only long-term partners are invited. They’ll understand. The other way to cut out a whole swathe of extra guests is to make a pact with your wife that no work colleagues are to come.

Quite often the church (or equivalent) is a lot smaller than the marquee (or equivalent). To get round this, some couples invite just relatives and close friends to the ceremony – and everyone else to the reception. In any case, rest assured that at least 10 per cent of the invitees will decline.

Table plans

What a mathematical conundrum the reception table plan can be. 150 guests ranging from pageboys and teenage cousins to friends, colleagues, godparents and boozy old aunts. Many a wedding couple have torn out their hair in an effort to get the demographics right. It’s a Herculean task. A recent survey by YouGov discovered that doing the table plan was the second most difficult and time-consuming task of the entire wedding process. (The first was choosing the venue.)

But there are certain methods you can employ to make the task easier. Start off with the top table. Traditionally this would include bride, groom, best man, chief bridesmaid and both sets of parents. If there’s room, ushers and other bridesmaids might join them too.

The problem with this set-up is that best man, ushers and bridesmaids are separated from their partners. Step-parents also complicate matters, “Many couples are now doing away with the traditional top table arrangement as it doesn’t create an opportunity for the wedding party to mingle with the rest of the guests, it also gets away from the difficulties of building stepmothers and fathers into the traditional structure!

If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Why sit yourself next to your in-laws? There’s plenty of time for that over the next 30 Christmases. Instead, why not sit with your best man and his partner, chief bridesmaid and her partner, plus another few close friends and their partners? The reception meal should be as enjoyable for the newly-weds as possible. Besides, parents-in-law will have more fun sat with their own friends.

Now for the rest of the guests. Write each invitee’s name on a piece of card. Then draw a large diagram of the reception venue with all the tables on it. (A lot of couples name each table according to a theme close to their hearts – football teams, countries, pop bands, food, cars etc.) Split the guest names into groups that will fit on each table. Next, after placing each half of the couples on opposite sides of the table (like dinner parties, partner next to partner is a no-no) arrange all the names on the diagram. As far as possible alternate the sexes. Always seat children next to their parents.

It sounds obvious, but use a bit of common sense when grouping the guests. Nigel from the accounts department will have nothing in common with Mad Dog Mitchell from the rugby club. And Quentin Cholmondley-Warner will hardly hit it off with your builder cousins from Essex.

Saying that, it’s always a good idea to spread the shy, retiring types amongst the more gregarious ones. If you lump all the bores on the same table, none of them will emerge from their shells, no matter how much Champagne you ply them with. As an ice-breaker it’s fun to have an extrovert head on each table whose job it is to pour the wine, carve the meat and ensure the disposable camera gets used.

Be aware of inter-familial politics. Every good family has at least one long-running fiery feud. The reception is not the place to fan the flames. Families are notorious for a ceaselessly shifting balance of internal issues and politics, and it’s as well to find these out before sitting two people together who haven’t spoken for months.

Don’t feel obliged to mix up the generations. Your mates from university will feel seriously inhibited sat either side of Auntie Ethel. And they’ll never meet her again, so why sit them together? What’s the point?

Similarly, it’s a good idea to put all the tables of young guests near the back (where they can make noise) and the older guests near the front (where they can see and hear the speeches). Guests with babies will thank you for being near the door since their little angels always start screaming the moment the speeches start.

Single guests will feel a tad green and hairy on tables of all couples. For this reason and perhaps to spice things up a bit, place all the singletons on the same table. After all weddings are naturally romantic occasions, so there’s no harm in a little matchmaking, as long as it’s not overtly obvious.

Pew order for a Church or Register Office Wedding

Here’s the traditional seating plan for a church or registry office wedding.

Left side of the venue                                        Right side of the venue

Bride’s parents                                                   Best man and groom’s parents

Bride’s family & bridesmaids                          Groom’s family

Bride’s other relatives                                       Groom’s other relatives

Bride’s friends                                                    Groom’s friends

Ushers                                                                  Ushers

The right invite

The content of the invitation is far more important than the presentation. Yes, thick card with embossed italic lettering is impressive, but if you don’t get all the essential ingredients it won’t do the job.

  1. The format: “Mr and Mrs Parker-Bowles invite you to celebrate the marriage of their daughter Camilla to Mr Charles Windsor.”
  2. The crucial info: ceremony venue, reception venue, date, time and dress code.
  3. RSVP: Don’t forget a response card. Guests are notoriously poor at replying, something which will irritate the bride’s family no end. An RSVP slip may encourage prompt response. Give them a deadline.
  4. Map: churches in rural Oxfordshire are not easy to locate.
  5. Gift list: you don’t want them coming empty-handed, do you?
  6. B&B: supply details of every level of accommodation nearby.
  7. Home James: transport details for after the reception.

The bride’s mother normally mails out the invitations.