Seating is different at official formal events from the conventions 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. (At a private dinner the host would more usually be at the head of the table.)
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.
Guests’ partners should be placed according to the precedence of the guest invited in their own right. 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 (which is always followed at private dinners) 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.
Guests of Honour
Whereas in some situations social rank may still be deemed to be of utmost importance, at the majority of events considerations such as professional status and age are now treated as equally determining factors. In other words a hereditary peer or their spouse should not be seated in a place of honour above, say, the main supporter of a charity.
The nature of the occasion should offer indications as to the relative significance of guests. A guest of honour must be seated to reflect his or her status, and, by way of 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.
Guest Lists at Official Events
For a party of not more than 30, a seating plan may be displayed. For a party of up to 100, a numbered drawing of the table may be displayed with a list of guests alongside it in alphabetical order, each with a seat number.
For parties of more than 100, each guest may be provided with a printed table plan, with the names listed in alphabetical order, and a table diagram with their seat marked or a card with their table numbers. Alternatively a number of boards may be on display.
A guest list at an official event requires names and titles to be listed in full, formal style, as on an envelope, rather than in the more informal social style.
Prefixes such as ‘The Rt Hon’ and suffixes such as ‘OBE’ should be used.
Male guests without a title or rank should be styled ‘Mr’ rather than ‘Esq’. An untitled married couple would be listed separately as ‘Debrett, Mr John’ and ‘Debrett, Mrs John’.
Any guest invited by virtue of office should be so indicated: for example, ‘Hertford, Sir William, KBE, President of the Society of Stationers’.
Peers are shown by their exact rank in the peerage. For example, ‘Aldford, The Earl of, JP’; ‘Aldford, The Countess of’. The definite article is optional for the ranks of viscount and barons and their wives and widows. Consistency in these listings is important.
Peers by courtesy are not prefixed by the definite article (ie simply ‘Audley, Marquess of’, ‘Burlington, Earl of’, etc).
Privy counsellors are accorded the prefix ‘The Rt Hon’.
Baronets are accorded the suffix ‘Bt’.
Crown honours and decorations should be included, and degrees, etc, where appropriate.