The word "reception" has a dual meaning in the event-planning world. While many assume the word to be interchangeable with "event," whether it be dinner, cocktails or both, in the planning world it refers to a 1-2 hour social hour of sorts. This social hour comes in the form of a light or a heavy reception, both of which are described in detail below.
Light Reception: A light reception, sometimes known simply as a "cocktail hour" is typically an hour or two in length and precedes a larger function, such as a seated dinner or awards ceremony. The hors d'oeuvres served at a light reception are snacky in nature and meant to tide over the masses prior to the big meal. It's a great opportunity for the hotel or catering company to showcase small bits of unique flavors, offering variety to appease the entire audience. Among the varietal should be a vegetarian option, a meat option, and a seafood option. A normal light reception would offer 3-4 butler passed or displayed one-bite pieces of hors d'oeuvres and in some cases would be accompanied by a display in the form of cheese or vegetables. All of this comes of course with a full bar or just one serving wine and beer.
Heavy Reception: A heavy reception often takes the place of dinner for the attendees, and rarely precedes a dinner event. The menu will usually include a few reception displays, like charcuterie, cheese, or roasted vegetables. In addition to the displays would be reception stations, like a pasta station, salad station, or mashed potato bar. These stations allow the guest to assemble their own small plates using a buffet-like set up. Some stations may be "action," meaning that the food is made to order for each guest by a chef. Often times there is a selection of butler-passed hors d'oeuvres traveling around the event as well.
Refer to these descriptions as you plan your 2014 receptions!
For more information, read Food for Thought: Reception Without Dinner? Feed 'Em Like You Mean It and Passed Hors d'oeuvres v. Staffed Food Stations.