The Seating Plan

Published: 27th June 2012
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Copyright (c) 2012 Karen Rhodes

Well if you thought the guest list was hard wait until you have to tackle the seating plan. Forget divorced parents for a second and just think about your friends, which groups get on, which don't.

Some are from very different walks of life. A classic situation is when perhaps you've been to a private school and have an element of posh friends but also have the friends from the village where you grew up or you moved to London or other city and your friends there are much more sophisticated than your country mates. You love both groups equally but the differences are huge. I am stereotyping now but these are facts that need to be faced when bringing different groups of friends together.

Likewise you and your grooms family may very well be from completely different backgrounds and believe me at a wedding there is always a high level of snobbery going on. A classic case recently was that the groom's family were extremely posh, they had a big country estate and no expense was spared for the wedding. Now the bride's family were far more working class and they turned up with carrier bags of Boddingtons and rolled up at the reception already half cut. Of course the posh side turned up their noses and the less posh ones simply behaved worse. The bride and groom had arranged the seating plan with his family on one side of the room and hers on the other and the marquee quickly became a split camp with one side goading the other and the evening ended with a brawl. This is an extreme and probably has only happened once in twenty years but I think the mistake was to completely split the room into bride's side and grooms side.The seating plan didn't help the situation but, I think the differences were just too great and it wasn't too much of a shock to hear that they'd split up a couple of months later.

In my view mixing the seating plan up doesn't work. Yes it forces people to mix and on the odd occasion with very outgoing people it can result in a great atmosphere with lots of new friends made. In most cases it just invites small talk and this doesn't enhance the atmosphere at all. Likewise, asking guests to move seats for each course. It may work at a dinner party or other less formal event but when you are seated at a wedding, especially if you don't know anyone it's frustrating and messy being asked to move when you feel you are just getting to know someone and having to start with small talk again.

Funnily enough I've always thought that the traditional top table very odd. The bride's father and mother sit next to the bride and groom and the grooms parents sit either side of the bride's parents, despite the fact that they've probably only met once or twice or in some case not at all. Well it may just be me but there aren't actually any rules that state where people sit (even if there were they could very well be broken or challenged). Why not put the bride's parents next to the bride and the groom's parents next to him so at least the conversation on the top table flows.

The other option is to have an oval top table where the guests sit three quarters way around, still leaving a gap at the front but basically sitting on a curve. It's much more sociable and I really think that consequently everyone enjoys the meal more. Round tables are becoming more popular but I think it's nice that everyone can see the top table and it's much easier during the speeches as nobody will have their back to the audience.

When you are doing the seating plan the best thing to do is do it once, go with your gut reaction, get someone to check it, then leave it be. The more times you go over it and change it and move people about the worse it gets. I've had brides ring me in tears on a Friday night, the day before the wedding asking for help with the seating plan. Well it's probably the only thing I can't help at all with. I don't know your family and friends so it really is down to you.

One word of advice I'd give is that you need to do it a few weeks before. I would seat all the rellies that you know get on together, all your friends together, all his friends together and have a couple family tables for respective grannies and auntie. There will always be a few odd bods left over, maybe family friends or the vicar or an eccentric uncle that you don't want to spoil anyone's day by inflicting him on them. An oddbod table often has funny consequences and can often be the loudest table in the room or at least if it isn't and nobody speaks at least there is only one dodgy table. Don't be tempted to put together people you know don't get on and hope they can settle their differences. Yes, in some cases it works but generally as drink flows, so do tempers.

Moving on to what we talked about last week, divorced parents and respective partners. I think there are two options that work and probably only two even though there are a variety of different circumstances. Basically if both your parents are alive regardless of whether they are still married or not then they all sit on the top table. If any one or all of them have remarried then either, they and their respective partners sit on the top table or the new partners sit on a table near the top table with senior members of the family or very good friends. If seated on the top table then how you arrange it can be tricky but as long as you sit warring parties at opposite ends you should be fine.

One of the issues that comes up quite regularly is whether to have a children's table or not. Again it very much depends on circumstances. If they are all family kids that know each other, it's a great idea. They feel special and grown up and they tend to behave better and enjoy the day more. If you simply gather up all the kids in the room and put them together it's painful, especially if they aren't very old. They tend to migrate back to their parents and end up sitting on knees and it just doesn't work, likewise a group of teenagers that don't know each other, they just sit there in surly silence. A quick aside make sure you give teenagers proper food, giving them chicken goujons and chips followed by jelly and ice-cream will be met with the classic teenage look of distain. I have mentioned this before but if space is tight or you think the kids would prefer to be together, it's a great idea to get a kids entertainer and give them a party tea separate to the adults. This can also work well in a marquee as you can get a separate small tent with beanbags, games, and colouring things and let the kids do what they enjoy doing rather than being a nuisance and making a racket during the speeches.

Once you've done your seating plan and sent it to be printed just let it go. If someone cancels at the last minute don't worry. Have a separate rough copy for the hotel and caterers marking where everyone is sitting with special diets marked clearly along with kid's meals and any other special requests. Another idea is to do the seating plan without place cards, so that everyone knows what table they are sitting at but they can choose who they sit next to. Don't ever be tempted not to have a seating plan at a formal wedding as it is a disaster. A family of four comes together and ends up being sat on four separate tables. Partners get split up and start demanding extra place settings on tables where there quite clearly isn't room. It's a nice idea the thought that everyone can sit where they want but trust me on this one it's a bad idea.

My final word on the subject of seating plans is to keep them hidden until it's time to go in and eat or at least limit access to the tables. Over the years the number of times that guests have come into a marquee and moved place cards so they are sat with who they want to is amazing. It's particularly rude of them when you've gone to so much effort but give them a few glasses of champagne and in a matter of minutes all your hard work has been spoiled.

Consider yourself warned.


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Karen Rhodes is a wedding and party planner in the Lake District specialising in high-end weddings. She has been a wedding co-ordinator for over 20 years as well as specialising in wedding catering in Cumbria and the north of England. For her free report go to http://www.karenrhodes.co.uk

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