How one couple figured out a beautiful structure for their wedding's cocktail hour
Imagine you're attending the wedding of a second cousin, your partner's colleague, or a childhood friend. It's cocktail hour. You search for familiar faces and notice that folks have clustered around three large, colorful boards. Oh good. Something to do. You assume the boards are covered with photos of the couple. But as you approach, you realize they're photos of the guests. One snapshot shows a little girl in a pink jacket kissing a dog. In another, a woman grins at a swim meet. And then you see a photo of yourself. On the front of each card is a photograph of the guest, their name, and a table number. When you turn your card over, you find a personalized note from the couple, Jess and Greer. In it, they've written a memory ("I remember your genuine interest when you came to take my amateur intern tour in D.C.!"), what you mean to them ("You've been a true role model in our lives"), and then, a recommended connection – another guest who they want you to meet during cocktail hour, based on an interest, experience, or personality trait ("Kyle shares your passion for woodworking"). The photo boards are part-seating chart, part love letter, and part map of connection.
The couple, Jess and Greer, without even being in the room, honored and connected their guests. And whether or not you're part of the 2.5 million weddings (!) scheduled for 2022, weddings are wonderful examples for all of us to notice, learn from, and practice artful gathering.
Artful gatherers introduce just the right amount of structure.
The first step to being an artful gatherer is determining the need and the underlying purpose of a gathering. Once you've figured out that need, the next step is to ask: What do I actually do with all these people? How should we structure our time together? The answers to these questions are what I call "the Math and the Poetry" — the dashes of structure and form you bake into a gathering to facilitate thoughtful, relevant, and appropriate connection that helps fulfill the purpose. As a guest at other weddings, Greer was "always a little bit antsy during the cocktail hour," she told me. "I typically only talk to a few of our closest friends, or make small talk with people we knew in college but now only see at other weddings," she said. She and Jess didn't have a pre-assumed format in their heads. They invented these boards by thinking through the type of connection they wanted to create. They included their community in the process. Greer's father told her that a good host introduces people to each other. But how would they introduce 200 people to each other? Meanwhile, Jess's sister had recently attended a wedding where the table assignments were photos. The couple combined these two ideas. And then innovated some more: Underneath each photo was a copy of the same photo glued on so that even when a guest removed their own card, their picture and name remained so guests could locate their suggested connections.
The design process connected Jess and Greer to their community before anyone even entered the room.
You might be thinking, this sounds like a lot of work! Well, it was the right form of work for them. It was work that created meaning through the work itself. For this couple, the process of designing the board became a way to think deeply about their guests and relationships. The note-writing gave them a chance to reflect on each person, share with one another stories and little details of the people that shaped them, and honor the guests before even entering the room. They brainstormed the connections on a long road trip and "had the best time thinking about the backgrounds and interests of all our friends and family," Greer said. Digging out photos of everyone reminded them of their journey to this moment. "It was really fun to look back on pictures from throughout our lives," she added. Along the way, they realized that they could also use the boards as a subtle tribute to honor loved ones who had passed away. "We included their pictures and I wrote notes about how I wished they could be there, the impact they had, and why I'd want them to meet Jess if they were there," Greer said. "That part is probably not for everyone but meant a lot to me on a big day and didn't feel morbid or cliche." Cocktail hour was a smashing success. Some of the connections have since started hanging out post-wedding. Their guests felt moved and loved, and grateful for the thoughtful connection. It was just enough.
You can do this too.
Think about the last gathering you attended that was really engaging. What was the connective tissue? Was it a question? An activity? How was the layout of the space? The size and density of the group? Did they ditch the table extension to create a cozier dinner setting? Did breakout rooms allow for smaller discussions? At your next wedding, retreat, conference, or reunion, observe how hosts honor their guests' specificity and uniqueness as they arrive. Think about how these hosts give their guests meaningful and right-sized steps to connect with others. Start a note in your phone or in a notebook; as they come to you, jot down ideas for how you might invent a new form like Jess and Greer's for your next gathering.
I wish you many happy weddings (or meaningful community moments) as we embark on this event season.