I said at the start of the previous post that the ceremony was one of the two biggest challenges in planning, and the other is the reception. If you have more time, you might go with something like a hotel or a banquet room, and the likelihood is that you may be the 5000th reception they have ever done, or perhaps even the SECOND one THAT DAY, if they had an afternoon one. So what does that mean? It means that, like any traditional venue with lots of experience, the conversation with them will be along the lines of:
Hi, welcome to our planning session. We’re so happy you’ve decided to have your event with us, and to make us part of your day as you start your life together! We’re so excited!
Before we start, do you have any particular theme in mind? No? Okay, well let’s start with the basics. We have four rooms available, all of different sizes. One that holds 50 for dinner, two that hold 100, and our largest will hold 200. How many people do you think you might have? 125? Okay, that means you’ll be in our biggest room, the Champagne Room.
They’ve been through this before. Questions that will follow will be what type of meal (sit down or buffet), time of day, whether there will be dancing, do you already have a DJ or band, do you want to use theirs, etc. For the meal, they’ll present you with a menu, and suggest one of three or four “packages” to pick from, which is basically going to be basic, moderate or deluxe, with different price points. It might even seem overwhelming, but it’s a bit false. Because in the end, while you’re making a series of decisions, each one is quite narrow in focus, just as it was when you told them how many people you wanted. It limits your choices as you go. And while you might dither on chicken breasts or tender beef, or some combination of the two, plus a fish or vegetarian option, basically, it doesn’t matter. You’re choosing “food” from a small menu of choices.
That’s what traditional venues give you — experience and a preset series of choices, similar to what 100s of couples have chosen before you.
Are they likely to suggest flaming desserts for everyone? No, because they tried it once and it was a disaster. So that came off the list of choices.
Will they recommend cramming 75 people into a small room designed for 50? No, because they tried that once, and it wasn’t great.
But if you go back to what I said at the beginning, being inflexible on one thing (getting married in six months) meant being flexible on another (the venue).
Because we didn’t want a hotel banquet room with four walls around us, and a lot of the “nice” venues with windows and views would already be booked a year in advance, we went with an out-of-the-box option — a cruise on the river. We weren’t sure at first if we would even be able to do it — how far in advance do the boats get booked? How many companies would there be to choose from? In the end, there was really only one, and they had two different boats to choose from…basically, as with the example above, depending on how many people we wanted (100) and whether we wanted dancing (we did), we narrowed our choices to one. Great. Nice, easy, good to go.
Except when we met with them to plan all the elements, they basically took out a pad of paper and said, “Okay, what do you want?”. No menus, no preset packages, nothing really to guide us in our choices. Just an expectant look on their face that we would magically tell them everything. We DEFINITELY weren’t prepared THAT much! So we kind of made some of it on the spot. But it got us worried…hadn’t they done weddings before? What did they do last time?
They had indeed done weddings, but it wasn’t super common. In fact, most of the time they did corporate-type events. Aka booze cruises. And the food consisted of hamburgers and hotdogs served on the dock. And that was our image for awhile. All of us dressed up in elegant clothes, with my wife and I having a receiving line at the gangplank, passing out hams and hots to people as they walked by, and saying “Thanks for coming, don’t forget your bag of chips too!”. Not the image we had in mind.
So we started getting nervous. Triple-checking the plan, arrangements, making sure they knew EXACTLY what we wanted because it wasn’t like they would think of it on their own. Plus, they had napkins and everything, as long as we wanted blue or red. The blue was the exact shade we wanted, so no issue, but if we had wanted everything pink to match a bridesmaid outfit, we would have had to bring those 100 napkins ourselves.
In short, the out-of-the-box venue didn’t come with the same level of hand-holding we would have had with the established traditional venue. For me, the boat was fine, the tables would be fine, the alcohol fine, which left me with three worries.
First, the food. They basically said “we do our own catering” and it made me REALLY nervous. Sounded like cousin Bob whipping up a crock-pot. So we said approximately what we wanted, and we asked for a tasting. This is common with ANY venue, they’ll usually prompt YOU to ask when you want to do it, and they’ll make a dish or two or four of the offerings, and let you sample them to make your final selections. At least a month before, preferably at least six weeks before, if not sooner. Partly because your choices determine the cost and they don’t want surprises for anyone. But when we asked for a tasting, they were like, “Huh?”. We had to explain it to them, and then they weren’t sure how or when they could do it, and were even leaning towards “if” they could do it. Considering we were writing them the largest cheque of the whole process, after the wedding ring, I told them there was a tasting or no event. Oh, sure, they could arrange a tasting. They had something else booked about six weeks before our event, and they set up a tasting. We arrived, nobody was really expecting us except the head of the catering crew, and it took a few minutes to find him. We explained who we were, and he was like, “Oh, right, I forgot. Here, we’ll set you up here.” Gave us some food from the buffet to try. It was all really GOOD. So we’re chatting with him and the reality dawns. He’s a sub-contractor. He does 500 events a year. When they said they do their own catering, they meant they arrange it with an outside contractor they already had a contract with…as soon as I realized he did 500 events a year and was running his own business, my stress disappeared. He knew what he was doing, he would deliver, and it wouldn’t be hams and hots on the dock. Problem solved. BUT the venue should have told me that up front. Basic element for any couple to know. Yet, they didn’t tell me the right details.
Second, the music. They said they had their own DJ who had all the latest music. Ummm, okay, but when could we meet with him? They couldn’t figure out why I wanted to do so. Again, it wasn’t normal for them. I had a backup in any case, I was going to bring a whole bunch of burned mixed CDs with the music I wanted, plus the special music for our special dances, so I didn’t force the issue. When we arrived, same deal as the caterer. It was a sub-contracted DJ, not quite as established as the caterer but still experienced, and he had all the music except the 2-3 songs that were “unique” to us. Again, no problem, but if the venue had more hand-holding built into the process, I wouldn’t have been worried at all.
Third, the weather. We were basically choosing a floating banquet hall. And so I wanted to know what they did in case of bad weather. And again, not very comforting answers. They told me that we could have the event on the boat, regardless of the weather, but it could only leave the dock at the Captain’s discretion, and if the waves were more than a specific height, he wouldn’t go. I had worries this would turn out to be some scam that they booked it, didn’t leave the dock, saved the fuel costs, and claim the light rain prevented them from going. Later, I found out that they would go almost in gale-force winds, as long as the wind wasn’t going sideways and the waves weren’t giant whitecaps rocking the boat too much. And even then, they would likely be able to go for part of the time, as a storm wouldn’t likely last for the five hours we were going to be on the boat.
While not a big part of the above, and not worthy of a separate heading, we did ask for references. Which they were really reluctant to give us — this is extremely common for any traditional venue, but it was “new” to them. Again, I said, “No references, no contract”. And they reluctantly coughed up some names. One of them emailed me back and told me they had done their wedding there in May (he was emailing me on his honeymoon, the whackjob!), and he sent me about two pages of comments. All of it was “positive” in the outcome, but basically reaffirming what we had already discovered — using the out-of-the-box venue meant we were doing a lot of extra leg work to “self-organize” what we wanted to happen. They had actually been the first cruise of the season, and you know what the boat forgot? To stock the bathrooms with toilet paper. So picture 75 guests, including a BRIDE IN A WEDDING DRESS, trying to share various sources of Kleenex and papertowel to get through their “special” night. I could tell the guy had been as stressed as I was, because he sent me close to two pages of venting and explanation of their saga, despite saying he would be brief because he was on his honeymoon. He was releasing all that extra energy. And he was clear — in the end, it would all go well, but there would be more hand-holding required of THEM to the organizers than by the ORGANIZERS to them.
But we wanted the cruise so we stuck with it. And in the end? Everything was awesome on the logistics side, or close to it. One small wrinkle, and I’ll cover it below.
So, what will you need to do…
A. Choose and book a venue — pretty obvious, but again, timing and availability will be the enemy of “perfect” [Week 1-4] but the main challenge will be numbers. It is a HORRIBLE experience deciding on your guest list (more on that under invitations), but you’re going to have to basically figure out numbers to decide how big a room you need. In our case, it went almost the opposite — we chose our venue, and the limit was around 110. So that was our maximum size. We figured out immediate family (siblings and parents), extended family (cousins, nephews and nieces), and then figured out how many spaces were left for friends. That part was BRUTAL. Really good friends get relegated to B list just because somebody else was a fraction closer to you or you saw them more often than you saw the other couple.
B. Plan schedule for event — decide in advance how long you want the reception time to be…if you’re having dinner, how far in advance it will be open to people to enter the site, what time it will close down, how long a band or DJ might be playing if you want dancing, how long you’re allocating for speeches (and double that item) [Week 4-8];
C. Decide on a menu — It’s not rocket-science to realize that you will likely have two main options…a sit-down served meal where everybody orders in advance when they RSVP to the invitation (“Bob wants beef, Marie wants a vegetarian option”), or a buffet with a variety of choices for people. We went with a buffet, with a beef, chicken, vegetarian and pasta options. Plus a plethora of side dishes. Not super extravagant, not super fancy, but good solid food. And a step up from hams and hots at the dock, with a side bag of chips. And then you’ll have to confirm numbers to them. [Week 20]
You’ll also want a tasting probably in Week 16-18, which will help finalize the menu. If you’re having children at the event, figure out a children’s menu too.
I’m glossing over something really big, or really small, depending on your situation. If you go with a big hotel, your caterer is the hotel (usually). If you’re somewhere else, you may need or want to hire a separate caterer. Same timelines apply, but know this — outside caterers usually charge significantly more because they have to transport all the food to the location in hot plates, etc., AND they’ll also likely have to provide the cutlery and plates, which they also have to transport. Each item they bring is a charge to you. Plus the hotels and banquet halls often give you a reduced rate on the room rental because they plan to gouge you on food and drinks. If you have an outside caterer, they may charge you full commercial rates on the banquet room. Just know your costs will be much higher, most of the time. On the other hand, if you have a truly out-of-the-box venue that works for you (like a meeting room at the local municipal building), then that “outside” caterer may be your only choice.
Lastly, you also need to decide if you want a cake. Traditionally, this was a big deal. The “big moment” for the bride and groom to cut the cake together, pieces were handed out to all the guests, sometimes pre-wrapped to be taken home and thrown out, or taken home and frozen, and then thrown out later. But it was a photo op. Then, it morphed into this “playful” moment where the two people feed each other a piece with their hands and trust the other to not smear it all over their face. Some couples love it, some couples hate it, some couples grin and bear it.
Initially, my wife-to-be and I weren’t super excited about a cake. We didn’t really feel like a generic cake would be that exciting to us, and there were other desserts available. I confess part of my lack of enthusiasm was knowing that if it had been 20 years earlier, when my father was alive, he probably would have offered to make the cake, and it would have been this old-school three layer stacked cake with columns (secret trick — the lower layers were actually styrofoam and iced to look like cakes, only the top layer was actual cake). He did it for my two sisters, and probably would have offered for me too, if I had wanted it. So we kicked it around a bit, and sort of realized that if it was just a generic cake, or a slab cake from Loblaws, we’d just skip it. It wasn’t like it would have any real meaning to us, since it wasn’t made by anyone we know…but wait a minute. We knew someone. Someone who LOVED to bake. A friend who considered doing it for a living. With parents who were bakers. Could we ask? Would that be a huge imposition? We floated the idea tentatively, just looking for a simple little 8-inch round cake we could cut for the photos. For the rest, we would just go with slabcake from a grocery store. She was willing, hey this would be great. A tasty cake made by a friend we admired, how awesome is that? Totally personalized.
Except we forgot to take into account who we asked. We asked an over-achiever. She was SO excited, she took a COURSE in fondant. She researched the crap out of ideas. She enlisted her best friend to help, because she wasn’t just making one cake, she was making CAKE for EVERYONE. Two different kinds in fact. It would be her gift to us. While we felt suddenly really guilty, because it was WAY more than we asked for, we couldn’t exactly say no since it was a gift. Plus, it would be…AWESOME! 🙂 So she was onboard as of Week 7, and we met again at week 14 or so for a small tasting and discussion. She was worried…she’d never done anything like this before, and after talking to her parents, they had warned her that we might have too big of expectations and would be devastated if it didn’t turn out. I think I actually laughed. We weren’t looking for perfection, we were looking for personalized meaning, and we already had that because she was making it. That was more than enough for us. She was incredibly relieved and still wanted to do it. We did a formal “cake taste testing” with some friends in week 20 or so (a bit of a delayed engagement party with some close friends) and tested out a couple of cake choices. Did we need multiple cake tastings? Heck no. But who says no to fantastic cake? Plus, it was often an excuse to have FUN with our planning.
Did the cakes turn out? Yes, absolutely. She even did one in the shape of a PANDA, which was our theme. Amazing. Plus 8 other cakes for guests. Stunning. But here’s the thing. She was making the cakes the day of the wedding. So she couldn’t COME TO THE WEDDING CEREMONY. Well, that was poor planning on our part. Plus we had made a small mistake on which dock the boat was leaving from, and while we updated it on the website, we also handed out notes to everyone at the ceremony to make sure they knew where the dock was…except she wasn’t at the ceremony. As we drove to the boat in our limo, I suddenly realized SHE HAD NO IDEA THE DOCK WAS CHANGED. ACKKKKKK! I had a sudden panic attack for about 20 minutes as I tried to figure out if I had her cell number with me to tell her where we were. Turned out, her best friend’s husband had been handling transport duties and had checked the website that morning for the latest directions. He saw the change, knew where we were going, and crisis was averted. About ten minutes after we got to the boat, the three of them showed up with the cakes. All good. Whew.
So lots of little tidbits in there…the time factor for who’s making it, handling deliveries to the venue, taste testing if possible. Or eliminate it completely.
Know what else you’ll need for the cake? A knife to cut it with. Apparently most people forget this at off-site venues, and suddenly they’re using a butter knife. Just so you know and plan ahead, as someone may have to bring it with them.
This leaves me with four last things to mention for the “menu”. First, somewhere in all of this, you’ll have to pay the caterer. Maybe it’s all part of the bill for the venue, with deposits in advance, etc. Don’t worry, they’ll tell you when you need to pay them. It’s common for 50% in advance, and 50% the day of the event. Some places want it ALL in advance.
Second, you’ll have to decide on a seating chart for everyone. Remember that Great Aunt Gladys can’t be at the same table as Great Aunt Bethany, because of that whole “sugar in the cake” incident back in 1954. Yep, it can be that confusing. In our case, we tried to keep at least some people at each table with other people they already knew. And if not, then at least with some people of similar temperment and age. It wasn’t too hard in our case, but there are stories out there…small tip? Keep the parents and siblings involved in other things, don’t let them see the seatings ahead of time, because dollars to doughnuts, someone will have a view. And there is NO end to that kind of accommodation. 🙂 Don’t forget if you’re having kids attend, you might need high chair or booster chair options.
Small aside — I didn’t mention this in the ceremony part where it is often the bigger issue, but whether or not to include kids is often a huge issue for people. Some brides and grooms are adamant that they don’t want crying kids misbehaving and disrupting the wedding. Their wedding, their rules. So they won’t invite the kids unless they are, perhaps, over 8 or 10 or 21. But know this…like everything else, if you’re inflexible on this (no kids), you have to be flexible on something else (your favorite cousin may not come). Because they may feel it is a family event, their kids are part of their family, and they’ll choose not to come. You weren’t trying to be rude by not inviting their kids, they’re not trying to be rude by not coming. In some cases, maybe they have a 2 year old who has colic, and they don’t feel comfortable leaving them alone for 8 hours with a babysitter yet. Or they’re from out of town, and have no easy option to leave the kids behind. Maybe you can facilitate things a bit by offering up a bridesmaid to arrange a group babysitter or two for several people’s tots, at the parent’s expense of course. In our case, I was totally fine with any and all kids being there. It’s a family event for us, and all were welcome. Some parents preferred to have the time off instead and ditched them with grandparents. Some of my favorite photos from the day are with the kids.
Third, decide if anything is being served before or after dinner as appetizers or late evening snacks.
Finally, decide what you are doing about alcohol. The three aspects to decide are generally:
- will there be a bar or not;
- will it be an open bar (i.e. free), use drink tickets with two for every guest or so and they can pay for their own after that, or it is guest-paid the whole time; and,
- when will the bar be operational (before dinner, during dinner, after dinner?).
Most people serve wine or something during dinner, but often restrict the service during dinner (i.e. the bar is closed), but don’t forget not everyone drinks wine, even if they drink other alcohol. And others don’t drink at all…do they have to pay for soda drinks too, or is that included? You’ll basically decide on this early on.
In our case, we had some attendees who have a history of over-drinking at events. Enough said. So we didn’t intend to use drink tickets, seemed too complicated to me but others have said it worked well for them (noting that some cultures would be offended by ANYTHING other than an open bar), but I didn’t want it to be paid the whole night either. So my intention was that it would be paid up until we finished dinner and our first dances, and then open i.e. free bar after that…it would restrict the number of hours of “free bar”. Except someone forgot to tell the bartenders that, and they didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing. It quickly became mixed up, one bar was charging, one wasn’t, etc., and in the end, I just said, “Screw it, open the bar fully.” I didn’t have time or energy to fix the “screw-up”. But if I was at a standard venue, it wouldn’t have been an issue…it would have been part of the standard “tick this box for drink tickets” type choices, or tick that box for open. With the less-experienced venue, it wasn’t clear to them (we also had a small english/french barrier, which also made me less inclined to deal with it when I was supposed to be mingling with guests).
D. Speeches / Master of Ceremonies / Dances
When we were planning the night, we got two things right and two things wrong.
For “right”, first, we chose my brother-in-law-to-be as the MC. Gave him a basic program, asked him to help keep us on track, keep it light, and he was good to go. Perfect guy to do it.
Second, when my wife and I wrote our speeches, we divided up who would thank whom to ensure we didn’t repeat or miss anyone. My wife would thank the guests who traveled to get there, my family (including my sister, nieces, brother in law who helped with setup at the dinner and theatre), Minister, the wedding party (i.e. her sister), those who did the readings, those who helped with other decorating, some logistics people (such as transporting gifts, cakes, etc.), her parents, her grandfather, and me. I got to thank the cake makers, the caterers, a bunch of extended family members on both sides, friends, the wedding party (again), my mother (but not my father, too emotional), and Andrea.
For “wrong”, we had too many speeches. If I was to do it again, I would ask several of the people to write a brief message instead, and I would put it at every place setting for people to read at their leisure. Or include it with the program at the ceremony. Something short and pithy. And then only do a couple of speeches at the actual reception. Instead, we had:
- Intro by the MC;
- Words from the bride’s family from great grandfather;
- Words from the groom’s family by groom’s sister (groom’s mother didn’t want to do it, so I had her help me get ready at the ceremony at the theatre instead);
- Words from the bride’s parents (who, with maid of honour, had helped her get ready before the ceremony);
- Blessing from the Minister;
- Speech from maid of honour (actually read by the MC, her husband);
- Speech from the bride;
- Speech from the groom (My wedding speech about Panda Astronomy); and,
- Toast from the groom’s brother to father who died years before (toast helped out by another brother).
That made the flow and dinner really long, with constant interruptions. None of them were bad, mine was probably the longest but apparently entertaining (my new brother-in-law thought it was one of the best ones he’d ever heard). And yet at the time, it seemed ludicrous to cut any of them — they were all added for very specific important reasons. Still…
Equally, though, we didn’t handle the dances right, although again, for the right reasons. Now picture it, we had a pre-dinner walk around on the boat, lots of mingling. Then buffet so people were getting up and moving around. Then sitting for a LOT of speeches. Then it’s time for the dance. We thought about doing a big dance and taking dance lessons in advance (hard to do in six months of hard-core planning), but still, we wanted our first dance.
Plus a few others:
- Bride and groom’s first dance;
- Bride dances with father, groom dances with bride’s mother;
- Bride dances with her grandfather, groom dances with his mother;
- Bride and groom dances with all the couples who have gotten married in the last five years i.e. the weddings the bride and groom attended; and,
- Bride and groom open it up to big fast paced dance to get the party started.
Most songs are 3-4 minutes long. So there’s 15-20 more minutes watching while other people do stuff. We could have easily made do with just the first two and worked something out. Overkill.
I flag all this because while it made perfect sense to us, it was really bad for our guests who were sitting for a REALLY long time. Sure, this happens at most weddings. Do you want it to happen at yours? I wouldn’t do it the same way if I was doing it over. And a standard venue or DJ might make a different suggestion — like do one dance early, another one later, etc. Something to break it up.
There are a ton of extra little things to think about, particularly in non-traditional venues. Some things to think about:
- Music playlists (for the dances and generally afterwards);
- Are you having place cards for seating? If so, who is printing them, and who is placing them on the tables in advance? Will someone be “seating” people or will there be a master list people can consult to see where they’re sitting?
- Are there tables for the cake(s)? Guestbook (with chair)? Memorabilia? Gifts? Who is carting all this stuff from the site to home afterwards?
- Do you have audio/visual needs for speeches? Be warned that when people often do “montages” as tributes, they are often three times as long as anybody sitting wants to see or listen to. Anything longer than about 3-4 minutes is TOO long and usually nowhere near as interesting to the general audience as the person who makes it up thinks it will be.
One slightly bigger issue is the kissing part of dinner. Usually, someone will try the old stand-by from days of old where they tap the glass with their spoon until the bride and groom stand and kiss. If you have relatives older than sixty, this was their OLD TRADITION. They all did it, they all had to do it at their wedding. Even if you say don’t do it, someone will. And putting in place some “penalty” like making that table get up and kiss won’t stop them from doing it, even if you think it is stupid. Often people come up with a great party game like themes or love songs that have to be sung as a table. But bear in mind that some people would rather be buried alive with ants than do stupid things in front of people. So forcing them as a table often means your “extroverted” guests think it’s a hoot, and the “introverted” guests are ripping their eyeballs out of their sockets.
We thought we had a great solution. A trivia game — someone could go up to this “Jeopardy” style board, pick a question about us, and ask their table for help in answering. If they got it right, often with help from the crowd, we would then kiss. It was an easy way to have “anecdotes” about us. Did it work? I think three people went up, out of a total of about 20 questions. We should have just put one question on each table. Or suggested they come up with their own ideas of anecdotes, and they had to tell one to get us to do something. Something simpler with less rules. A funny story or moment, or the best first meeting, or something else, and limit one per table. They could therefore talk among themselves and come up with something to use as an example.
Or just let them clink glasses.
Most of these last elements can all be decided at Week 20-24, although some will come up earlier when booking the venue.