Wedding week: Make the reception personal with twists on tradition

Sure, people love a good wedding ceremony -- all those cute flower girls, weepy mothers and solemn promises. But let's be honest: We all know that your wedding guests wish you'd hurry up and say "I do" so they can move on to the after-party.

A wedding reception can be as elaborate as you want -- but it doesn't have to be lavish to be memorable. You can throw tradition out the window if you'd like. You can use music and lighting to set any kind of mood. And you can put your own stamp on almost every part of this post-wedding party.

We talked to some wedding planners, cake bakers, vendors, photographers and more to find the best tips for a smooth, stylish reception. Here are the 10 best ideas we found.

1. Abandon the guest book.

Unless you really want a guest book, try something different. After all, how often do couples pull those books out and re-read the list of their guests' signatures?

"I'm seeing very few actual guest books," says Julie Eastman, owner of Fort Worth's Extraordinary Events and Design. Instead, she says, couples are choosing more creative ways to remember the friends and family who attended their wedding.

For instance? Set out stacks of pretty cards -- 31/2-inch squares, perhaps, with writing prompts such as "Love is ..." or "We wish you ..." The cards allow your guests to leave personal notes instead of merely signing their names.

At a wedding that Eastman is planning now, the couple will provide each guest with a pretty crystal bauble accompanied by a tag on a ribbon. Guests can leave a note on the tag and hang the baubles on a decorative tree at the reception. Later, the couple can use the baubles as ornaments for their Christmas tree.

2. Have fun with photos.

Maybe you have a photographer to record every moment of the fun. But here's another way to document the reception: Let your guests pose for the camera all night.

You have a few options here:

Rent an old-school photo booth and let your guests take turns slipping behind the curtain. There are plenty of rental companies to choose from; a local option is the Texas Photobooth Company ( Usually an attendant from the rental company will stay at the event to help with photos and offer up props. Your guests can take home prints of their own photos, of course, often with a monogram or a note ("Wendy and Hal's Wedding") printed in the corner of each print. And most of the time, you can order a CD or a memory book that contains every photo that was taken.

Some wedding photographers will simulate the photo-booth experience. Dallas-based photographer Kyle Coburn, for instance, will set up a backdrop and lighting at your wedding reception, then leave a camera with a remote. Throughout the reception, guests can wander over, alone or in groups, and pose for pictures, clicking and clicking the remote. Later, the photos go up online for guests to snag and share. (Find Coburn at

Consider the flip book. The Fort Worth company PicFlips will set up a 10-foot-by-10-foot area with a white backdrop. Guests enter the area and ham it up for seven seconds -- dance, blow kisses, hold up signs -- in front of a camera. Those seven seconds are then converted into a series of sequential photos and bound into a pocket-size flip book. Flip through the pictures quickly and it looks just like a video. Each flip book can be printed and bound in less than 90 seconds, says PicFlips co-owner Amy Kelly, so guests can have a wedding keepsake right away. The bride and groom, meanwhile, get a keepsake CD that contains every dance, kiss and drunken stumble. (Check out how it works:

3. Serve dinner all over the room.

Yes, the plated dinner is still the most formal dining option. But the buffet was always the way to get people out of their chairs.

And now the buffet has given way to food stations, smaller serving tables set up here and there. You can do sushi, comfort foods, a variety of Italian pastas and risotto -- almost any type of cuisine will arrange nicely into bites and small plates.

Food stations have become a reliable way to get guests loosened up and into party mode.

"It creates more of a mix-and-mingle atmosphere," says Melinda Massie, owner of Melinda Massie Events and Consulting.

Another idea: If your reception lasts until the wee hours, send your guests off with a late-night snack or a bit of breakfast.

"Normally, the first two hours of your reception, food is available," Eastman says. "And then after that, face it -- it gets down to the drinking." You can soften that late-night ending with, say, an omelet station that opens up just before the party's end, or breakfast burritos that guests can enjoy just before they leave.

4. Get creative with the cakes.

We're not going to talk about wedding cakes. If you're a bride and you care about cake, then you probably know all about the flour-and-fondant fabulousness that is available. So let's move on to the groom's cake. After all, that's the hottest thing going, says Jamie Holder, owner of Fort Worth's Creme de la Creme Cake Co.

"The grooms are becoming front-and-center," she says. Lately, many of the brides whom Holder meets are choosing to have a less showy wedding cake and let the groom's cake really express the couple's personality.

And a top-notch baker can turn just about any concept into a cake. Creme de la Creme has made a groom's cake in the shape of every football stadium in the tri-state area, including an enormous replica of the new Cowboys Stadium. (As you might guess, the couple's photo was featured on the cake's JumboTron.) Also rendered in cake: golf bags, sports trophies, a giant bottle of Crown Royal and -- once, for a medical student -- a cadaver.

But consider this, brides and grooms: You don't have to have a cake at all. At a wedding Massie organized this month, the bride and groom weren't fond of wedding cakes. So instead, they finished off their reception dinner with a wedding-worthy tower of chocolate chip cookies and bite-size cupcakes in cinnamon spice, chocolate chipotle and caramel-filled chocolate.

5. Use lighting to set a mood.

Good, thoughtful lighting can transform a standard reception room into an enchanting space -- and turn a slightly uncomfortable gathering into a real party.

"Lighting is huge for me," Eastman says. "I don't ever do anything without lighting." That's because it's so easy to create drama, she says -- with the right lights, you can change the color of the room, direct people's focus, set a mood.

For a personal touch, use a gobo, a cutout that projects through a lighting device to display a design, your names or a monogram anywhere in the reception venue. You can bathe the room in soft colored light, then put your personal stamp on the wall or dance floor.

Even if the reception is outdoors, lighting can make a difference. At a wedding Eastman is planning at a Hood County ranch, she'll hang vintage chandeliers from the branches of a giant oak tree, lending a soft light and a warm mood to a cocktail reception on the lawn.

6. Shorten the show.

There are certain things guests expect -- and sometimes dread -- at every reception. The newly married couple's first dance. The father-daughter dance. The mother-son dance. The cringe-inducing garter toss, followed by the toss of the bride's bouquet.

If you don't love these customs, skip 'em. But if you feel obligated to have that first dance, remember this: You can always shorten it.

"Most people don't realize, a lot of love songs are very slow, and it can be three to four minutes," Massie says. "That's a bit much." So Massie advises a lot of her clients to speed things up. Get all of those first dances over with in a single song, she suggests. Or, after a few seconds of newlywed dancing, invite everyone else onto the floor. Urge friends to join in and get the party moving again, before it fades into a room full of guests looking awkwardly on.

7. Let your guests lounge.

What will make your guests feel most at home? A place to lounge.

Lounge furniture is a stylish way to make a reception area softer and more comfortable, Eastman says. It gives your guests a good place to gather, and it sets up a center of action for those who aren't dancing. Besides that, it looks stylish and -- along with lighting and some other custom decor -- can make a vast, rectangular ballroom feel like a cozy, warm space. You can usually rent lounge furniture along with your standard chairs and tables, Eastman says -- and some companies in the area specialize in lounge furniture.

"Ideally, I like to have a separate room you can make your lounge, or create a separate room," she says. Otherwise, you can put lounge furniture near the dance floor, creating a place for guests to hang out near the action.

8. Don't skimp on the entertainment.

A word of warning: Don't underestimate the importance of good entertainment.

You may think you can set up your iPod and some speakers near the dance floor and get the party going with your special wedding playlist. Please reconsider.

"That's something you cannot skimp on," Massie says. "Entertainment will make or break your reception."

A DJ or live band will be able to sense the mood of the crowd, choosing music that gets guests excited and moving.

But whether you choose a band or a DJ, Eastman offers this word of advice: Throw in some classic rock.

"I have found, in my experience, that the older crowd ... will all get out and dance to the stuff they grew up with," she says. "And so will the people in their 20s." A good blend of contemporary and classic songs will get your entire crowd involved.

9. Give favors, not clutter.

Can't figure out favors for your guests? If you want to, skip it altogether. Only about 60 percent of Eastman's clients are still giving favors to their guests. But if you offer your guests a favor, do them a favor: Make it something they eat or use up, not something that'll fill a junk drawer.

A sweet treat is a nice idea. Offer guests a little candy buffet near the exit, encouraging them to fill tiny boxes or paper bags with their favorite treats. Little boxes of chocolate are also popular, as are chocolate-covered cherries. Eastman has a client who's giving each guest a little jar of homemade jam, labeled with a sticker that commemorates the wedding.

10. Rethink the grand exit.

When the bride and groom leave, how are your guests going to mark the moment? People used to throw rice. That turned into birdseed, which eventually was replaced by bubbles blown from tiny vials of soapy water.

Try something different: Let your guests toss dried lavender. "It's biodegradable and smells fantastic," Eastman says.

Another option: sparklers. Massie has seen a lot of this, and it's a bright way to light a nighttime farewell.

If you'd prefer your guests not throw anything at you -- or light anything on fire -- you might consider giving them bells to ring or flowing ribbons to wave.

Then again, Eastman says, "I've had brides [and grooms] who don't do anything -- they just run through a lineup of guests."

ALYSON WARD, 817-390-7988