24 Feb 2023

Sorting the Seating Plan

Seating plans are imperative for any large formal event, and most of us will encounter them at wedding receptions. A good seating plan is a finely-tuned piece of social engineering, which will ensure that compatible people meet and talk to each other, long-lost friends are reunited and new friendships are forged.

Official Formal Events

At official formal events, seating conventions are quite rigid, and differ from the customs at a social or purely private party. The host is seated at the centre of the table and as a general principle, guests radiate out from the centre of the table in order of precedence – whereas in some situations social rank may still be deemed to be of utmost importance, at most events considerations such as professional status and age are now treated as equally determining factors. For example, the chairman of a host company, the MP of the constituency in which an event is held, a foreign dignitary whose country is being honoured or a benefactor should all be recognised and seated appropriately.

The principal guest is placed on the host’s right. Traditionally the principal guest’s wife would be placed on the host’s left, the host’s wife being placed on the right of the principal guest. If wives are not present, the second most important guest would be placed on the host’s left. It is now as likely for the host, or the principal guest, to be a woman, in which case the same basic principles may be applied, with any necessary adaptations employed to achieve the desired balance.

It is up to the host to decide whether husbands and wives are to be seated together or apart. The former is easier to arrange, but the latter arrangement gives both husband and wife a chance to meet new people. It is usual to adhere to alternating the sexes. At single-sex dinners the same basic rules apply, and seating is arranged in order of precedence.

At an official event when there is a governing body or organising committee, important members or other subordinate hosts – the ‘home team’ – should be interspersed among the principal guests. For instance, at Buckingham Palace banquets, members of the extended Royal Family would qualify under this heading.

Hosting at Home

Even when you are hosting a small dinner at home, it is a good idea to at least have an idea about where people should sit (even if you don’t go as far as writing place cards).

The traditional plan is for the host and hostess to sit at either end of the table, with the most important female guest on the host’s right and the most important man on the hostess’s right. Some hosts prefer to sit opposite each other in the middle. Hosts who need to go in and out to the kitchen should sit near the door. Men and women are alternated where possible and, by convention, couples should not be seated next to one another (traditionally this rule was relaxed for engaged couples who would always be seated together). Try to avoid seating together workmates or those who see one another all the time.

It is, of course, the host’s prerogative to deviate from this conventional formula, and it is certainly sensible to accommodate peculiarities of the room and table shape, as well as guest requirements (for example some guests may prefer to be near the radiator and away from the drafts), in order to arrive at a harmonious solution. The emphasis should always be on ease and conviviality.

Wedding Receptions

The seating plan is a critical organisational task when planning the reception. It can become a difficult juggling act as complications arise, people drop out and new guests are added. There is no point starting the seating plan too early, as names and numbers are bound to change, but it shouldn’t be left to the last minute.

The shape of the venue may dictate the shape and size of the tables – small round tables, which seat 8-10 people, are the most sociable. If the bride and groom decide to have a top table which is oblong facing towards the room, the traditional seating plan (facing the table from left to right) is as follows: chief bridesmaid, the father of the groom, the mother of the bride, the groom, the bride, the father of the bride, the mother of the groom, and then the best man. This sort of seating arrangement works well for speeches, affording guests a good view, but it is more formal and may make the wedding party feel that they are on public display. It is also not very sociable for those seated in a long line.

Layout and Planning

A plan of the room should be made first, locating the wedding party’s table(s). Important family or guests’ tables can then be allocated. Positions for the speeches and cake cutting, and access routes for the caterer and photographer, must also be considered.

Tables are numbered or may be named after something relevant to the bride and groom, such as places they have visited. Each place setting should have a name card; these can be decorative and themed to match the wedding stationery, or calligraphy, or neatly printed black on white. The table plan – a diagram of all the tables with people’s names – should be clearly displayed at the entrance to the seating area. Alternatively, little envelopes with each guest’s name, containing a card with a table number or name, can be laid out in a prominent place. This can create interest and conversation as guests try to establish who is sitting at their table.

Paperwork

The caterers must be supplied with a full seating plan, highlighted to indicate those with special dietary needs. They should also be given an envelope per table containing name cards for laying the tables. If there are any late changes, the best man or chief usher can keep the caterers informed. A few contingency name cards should be to hand for new guests and last-minute changes.

Seating Plan Dilemmas

Generally, a seating plan is a chance to integrate your guests; you can have great fun ‘matchmaking’ your friends and you may even find you are responsible for new friendships forming on your wedding day. Try and ensure that you alternate sexes and arrange the tables so that guests can recognise at least one other person on their table. It’s a good idea to seat at least one lively extrovert at each table. Don’t take integration too far – you wouldn’t want your maiden aunt to be sitting on a table with a bunch of rowdy 20-something singles, so it’s often a good idea to match generations.

Traditional seating conventions, with a top table effectively hosted by the bride’s parents, who flank the newly married couple, are very much a reflection of the fact that in the past the bride’s parents would have paid for the entire event and were the effective hosts. Nowadays, payment and hosting arrangements are much more elastic, and frequently weddings are hosted by the couple themselves, rendering the traditional top table redundant. It is perfectly acceptable to dispense with these conventions and devise your own seating arrangements.

Foregoing the top table is a good way of steering clear of complications when dealing with divorced parents. Instead, they can be seated at separate tables; it may be sensible to ensure that they are flanked by new in-laws (for example the new spouse’s parents or siblings) and key members of the wedding team (bridesmaids, ushers) to make them feel an integral part of the celebrations. The bride and groom need not feel obliged to sit with their families, particularly when there are stepparents or difficult family politics involved.

If you are having traditional speeches, it helps if the father of the bride, the best man and the new husband are be seated at the same table (or at adjacent tables) and these should be in a central position so that they will be clearly visible and audible. These basic guidelines can easily be adapted for same-sex partnerships.

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