In between your ceremony and dinner reception there is often a cocktail reception or cocktail hour. However, cocktails are not necessarily required nor does the reception need to be exactly sixty minutes. Traditionally, a cocktail hour was needed so that the wedding party and family would have the time to take group portraits after the wedding ceremony. These days, many couples opt for their formal photographs to be taken before the ceremony, so the cocktail reception can actually be a time to relax and visit with your guests. If you choose to not do a receiving line of any sort, it’s courteous to attend the cocktail reception and greet your guests there.
The cocktail reception can be almost anywhere you want it to be. I have often seen them held by an in-ground pool or on a hard-scaped patio area. You need very little to define this area: a bar, perhaps stationed hors d’oeuvres and scattered high and low tables for guests to sit or stand at. Again, the more level the ground is, the better, but since most guests stand for cocktails, a slope in the yard won’t be completely detrimental. You do want the bar to be on level ground so that the glassware remains stable. While I generally do not recommend you ever let people inside the house during the wedding, if you have to use the house to accommodate the event, I think the cocktail hour is the best part of the celebration to put in there.
Once your ceremony has ended, the waitstaff should be ready with trays of food and drinks to greet guests as they enter the cocktail reception area. Flutes of champagne will set a celebratory tone, but also consider passing a signature drink that means something to you. Your hors d’oeuvres should be appropriate for the season: hot soup shooters in the peak of summer will not be as popular as a refreshing tuna tartare.
If you are having escort cards, they should be available for guests to pick up during the cocktail reception. This will avoid a bottleneck later while guests are trying to enter the dinner reception area. Note that your escort cards should be displayed in a way that is windproof. Depending on how guests entered the ceremony space, you may need a designated table for gifts/cards. And if you are having some sort of guest book, it is usually available to guests during the cocktail hour.
Most couples do not allocate much of their budget to cocktail hour decor, and that is totally understandable. Your guests won’t be in this space a very long time, and it is not a heavily documented part of the event. Small arrangements on the tables will suffice. If you want to be creative, invest in spiffing up the bar. Everyone will see it, so some ideas include to set up drink menus, use fun straws or stir sticks, have custom beverage napkins, and maybe add some bunting or garland to the bar area.
The entertainer who provided music at the ceremony usually stays and plays for the cocktail reception. If you hired live musicians, put them in a place that is unobtrusive and allows them to provide ambient music; you don’t want guests to have to shout to hear each other speak.
If it is a long or hazardous walk from the ceremony to the cocktail reception (or from the cocktail reception to dinner), you should offer a shuttle. You can use the mini-bus you’ve already hired for guest transportation, or you could get a horse & carriage or even arrange for a hayride complete with a tractor.