Finding a wedding venue is probably the most exciting step you’ll take in planning your wedding—and it can also be one of the most daunting.
This is the decision that will (literally) shape your entire event: it’s the canvas you get to paint your vision on, and it’s also where you’ll need to make some of your biggest logistical choices.
All of which is to say that—unless you’re the free-spirited type—you’ll want to be as prepared as possible before you move onto this stage.
If you’ve been following the recommendations in the previous wedding planning posts on our blog, you’ll already have a lot of material to work with:
• You’ll have your trusty Wedding Inspiration Folder, which will help you narrow down which venues to look at, based on their overall aesthetic. • The month and season you picked for your wedding will determine roughly when your venue needs to be available; once you start narrowing down your list even further, you can start zeroing in on specific date. • Your budget will give you a sense of how far up the price range you want to look, and how far your money will go. • You’ll have decided whether you want to work with your own wedding planner, or whether you’re looking for a venue with an in-house planner/coordinator.
If you’ve made some of those initial decisions and done some prep work, you can feel confident about calling up venues and starting to set up visits.
Chances are, you started dreaming about your perfect wedding venue the minute you got engaged, if not before. If there’s only one place you can imagine getting married, a lot of the work in this stage will be about making your wedding fit into that space. Whether you’re still shopping around or think you’ve found your perfect venue, there are some important questions to consider:
This is why we recommend picking a wedding season rather than a wedding date to start with: your perfect venue might be booked out for the next twelve months, while the date you had in mind is only nine months away!
If you’ve done your planning around a particular season instead of a date, and you find that you’re already past the booking window for your dream venue, you’ll have more flexibility to adjust your plans. You can decide whether to extend your engagement, or shift your plans to the earliest date for which your venue is available—whichever you choose.
Will you have to rent items like tables, chairs, linens or tents at additional cost? Are there other charges not listed online? This is a big one. Some couples will get drawn in by a venue fee that they think is within their budget, only to find out later that the add-on costs are more than they expected.
Make sure that you nail down exactly what’s included in the venue fee, so that you can get a full accounting of your costs. Consider putting all this information into a spreadsheet so that you can easily compare costs: create a column for each venue, and then list out the costs in the rows below.
This seems obvious, but the way you think about this question probably depends on how you’ve approached your planning so far.
Some couples think first about where they want to get married, and then match their guest list to the venue. Others start thinking immediately about their guest list—all the people they’d want to invite—and then find a venue to accommodate them. Neither way is right or wrong: it just depends on what your priorities are.
If you’re a venue-first person, the maximum capacity will be important, because it determines the maximum size of your guest list. If you’re a list-first planner, the maximum capacity might be a deal breaker if it can’t accommodate all your guests. (Although, keep in mind that only about 80% of invited guests will actually attend a typical wedding. Estimate accordingly.)
Where will people stay, and how will they get between their accommodations and the wedding venue(s)? This one is so important and so easy to overlook. Couples sometimes get so caught up in planning the choreography of their big day that the boring-but-necessary decisions are left until the last minute, or forgotten altogether. Accommodations and transportation are two of the biggest concerns that allow your guests to enjoy your wedding as much as possible. Where will your out-of-town guests stay before and after the wedding? How will they get there and back again safely?
Some venues (like the Inns of Aurora) have accommodations and venues all within walking distance, but wedding destinations like that are rare.
This is another little detail that can make a huge difference. Having a spacious, comfortable, well-equipped place for you and your wedding party to get ready is such a relief. On the most important day of your life—when you want to be well-rested, relaxed, and looking your best—you don’t want to be scrambling to get ready. Finding a venue with a pre-ceremony space that can comfortably accommodate your whole wedding party will make things so much easier. And more fun!
Once you choose your wedding photographer, you’ll need to give them an idea of what shots you want in and around the venue.
You don’t need to put together an extensive shot list at this point (your photographer will be in charge of that) but it’s good to start thinking about what locations would be available at each venue. If you can imagine your picture-perfect couples photo in a particular spot, make a note of that in your Wedding Inspiration Folder; maybe take some quick snaps with your own camera for reference.
If you’re torn between two venues, the photo opportunities might end up being the deciding factor. Plus, you’ll already have the beginnings of a shot list to use in the photographer selection process.
Who is the venue’s day-of contact person? If you’ve already started working with an independent planner, you’ll need to figure out how to coordinate with their event staff. If on-site coordination is included in the event fee at your venue (like it is at the Inns of Aurora) and you’re also paying an independent coordinator, you’ll need to decide how much planning help you need and how much of your budget you want to use.
We presented some ideas about working with a wedding planner in another post. An outside planner can bring a lot of experience from working with many different venues—but an on-site coordinator will already know the venue intimately. If you can afford it, and both planners can work together collaboratively, having an independent planner and an on-site coordinator can be a dream. And if you’ve decided to do your own planning up to this point, an on-site coordinator with no additional fees will make the rest of your planning infinitely easier.
Do you have to use only their vendors? can you find your own professionals? A good vendor list is another big selling point: high-end venues with exacting standards for events will have already done the hard work of weeding out sub-par vendors, which means less shopping around for you.
The venue will also have developed a working relationship with the vendors on their list; this can sometimes (not always) mean discounts on services and other perks that wouldn't be available to the general public. Just be clear on whether you have to use their vendors or whether you can do some of your own vetting and work with outside vendors as well.
Not every venue has the space to accommodate both a ceremony and a reception, let alone a rehearsal dinner and a post-wedding brunch. (The Inns of Aurora has multiple venues, all within walking distance, that can accommodate these events.) Multiple venues means more travel for you and your guests. That means more planning for transportation, which will be complicated by how far your guests' accommodations are from each location.
This isn’t impossible to plan—just a good thing to consider when looking at venues. When the day comes, you’ll want to simplify things as much as possible: every minute you spend getting from one place to the next will mean added costs and less time to celebrate with your guests.
For those who aren’t in the wedding party, there’s often a lot of free time: before the rehearsal dinner, before the ceremony, before the reception, and before departing for home. Many of your guests will be traveling from out of town; it’s always nice to have some suggestions for activities near where they're staying. Again, this doesn’t need to be a deciding factor in choosing your venue, but it is a good thing to consider while you’re looking around.
You can keep these questions in mind as you make your list of potential venues to tour. When you go to your tour appointments and meet with each venue representative, it’ll be really helpful to have a place in your Wedding Inspiration Folder to write down the information as you get answers to each question. Like we recommended above—if your Excel game is strong, you can make a spreadsheet to quickly and easily compare the costs of each venue, along with any additional notes. Once you’ve visited each venue, you’ll be able to do a full comparison based on the notes you took.
I’d love to help plan your special day! — Jacquie Phillips, Sales Manager