Now that you’re engaged (congratulations!), it’s time to figure out where you want to take the next big step in your relationship. Yup, we’re talking settings for your “I dos,” and there are more options than you can possibly imagine. From all-in-one venues that take care of everything, including the planning, party decorations, catering, and entertainment to unconventional locations like your Grandma’s bingo parlor, almost any spot can become your spot if the powers that be agree and the price is right.
So, how do you choose?
Check out this expert advice to help figure out what you want and how to book the venue that will make your wedding-day vision come to life.
1. Decide on a date, time, and whether you need multiple venues
You need to know your wedding date before you start contacting venues so you can immediately find out whether your top choices are available when you need them to be. The exception to this is if you are willing to pick a wedding date based on your dream venue’s availability.
Many venues book out a year or more in advance, and the most popular destinations may only have free dates two or three years out. Some only open for weddings seasonally, such as ski lodges, or have drastically different pricing based on whether the venue is busy with regular tourist traffic or not.
You may be able to score a primo venue by taking an early morning slot instead of a popular evening reservation. Conversely, if you’re interested in having a brunch reception, not all venues will offer morning bookings due to other obligations or permit or staffing issues.
And don’t forget to let guests know once you pick a date. Sending out save the dates is the best way to guarantee guests have enough lead time to block off a day or an entire weekend.
2. Know your budget — and stick to it
No matter how big your budget — and everybody has a budget — there will be venues that are beyond your means. Even billionaires balk at exorbitant costs for in-demand venues or struggle to get preferred dates. So, before you start hunting for the perfect setting for your upcoming I dos, decide how much you want to spend and commit to it.
The average cost of a wedding in 2019 was $28,000, and wedding and venue reception fees accounted for $10,500 of that cost. That means you can expect to spend about 38% of your total budget on your venue. Start by determining your absolute financial ceiling, then calculate 35-40% of that and use the resulting number as the max for your venue costs.
For some couples, venue is more or less important than other wedding elements such as a dress, the food, or the entertainment. In those cases, it’s okay to steal from one budget to pad the other. For instance, you might find a total steal of a dress or rent your tux, saving a couple thousand on attire that you can add to your venue budget. Or perhaps you want lots of vintage wine, and you’re willing to go for a more casual venue to accommodate the vino — in that case, you’ll lower your venue budget and shop accordingly.
3. Determine your wedding theme
Your theme determines your wedding — or it can be the other way around if you have your heart set on one specific location. If you want a beach wedding, don’t even waste your time looking at old castles. If you’re going formal, narrow your search to venues that can accommodate your desire for a sit-down dinner and full dance floor.
4. Think about location
Location ties into your theme, as discussed above, but it’s also a matter of convenience. Destination weddings can be a ton of fun and surprisingly affordable, since they typically involve package deals that include accommodations, the ceremony, and the reception and you can honeymoon right where you said your vows. But not all your guests will be willing or able to travel to a distant locale.
When you’re looking at locations, think about:
- Will elderly and/or disabled guests be able to climb stairs? Are there restrooms nearby? Are there places for people to sit and rest?
- Foreign destinations are fun, but they’re more expensive to get to and guests will need time to get a passport.
- Certain times of year are more expensive for air travel. It might also be difficult for guests to get hotel rooms or rent cars if you choose to get married in a popular destination during high season or if there is another major event going on. For instance, tying the knot in the same city and on the same weekend as the Super Bowl is asking for trouble.
5. Guesstimate your guest list
Most people don’t have a totally accurate guest list when they book their venue, but you need to have some idea of how many people you’ll invite so you know how big of a venue to book.
Space costs money. If you have 300 guests, you’ll need to pay for a venue that can hold all of those people comfortably. While you can’t ask a venue to skirt capacity rules (which are usually dictated by local regulations and permits/codes), you can sometimes get creative in how you set up a venue to accommodate more people. Communal seating using long tables will allow you to seat more people than round tables, as will foregoing a dance floor.
On the other hand, a smaller guest list opens up a plethora of creative options like a wedding in a renovated barn, bowling alley, community garden, library, brewery or winery tasting room, historic home, vintage shop, or planetarium. There are outside-the-box venues for larger weddings, too. Imagine getting hitched at an alpaca farm or in the great hall at your local natural history museum with a giant dinosaur skeleton as your witness. However, those may be more expensive and harder to score.
6. Figure in the costs that come with creative venues
Speaking of outside-the-box wedding venues, almost anything can be the setting for your big day if you have the owner’s agreement and enough imagination. People get married underwater in scuba gear. They get married while bungee jumping. They book art galleries, nightclubs, festival grounds, houseboats, Airbnbs, campgrounds, luxury car dealerships, amusement parks, pool halls, rock climbing clubs, aquariums, zoos, sports arenas, golf courses, caves in a local or national park, private orchards, wineries, airplane hangars, concert halls, or movie theaters.
However, some non-traditional venues come with additional costs that can totally bust your budget if you’re not careful. Saying your vows in a field of flowers sounds romantic, but where will guests sit? How will they hear what you’re saying? Will the reception be held elsewhere or will you need to drag in a tent, tables, chairs, and catering equipment?
Non-traditional venues don’t have the built-in conveniences and amenities offered by dedicated wedding venues and hotels, so look into getting any or all of the following:
- Permits and licenses for holding the event, bringing in food and alcohol, etc.
- Security if you need to keep looky-loos away during your ceremony and/or reception
- Lighting and sound systems
- Electricity courtesy of portable generators
- Furniture rentals including tables, chairs, a dais, a bandstand, a dance floor, etc.
- Extra vendor fees charged for extended setup times or extra travel
7. Ask about nitty-gritty details like curfew, contingency plans, and vendor contracts
Some venues have very strict policies when it comes to determining what time an event has to end, how early your vendors can get in to start setting up, and even what types of refreshments or entertainment your event can include. An hour here or there can make all the difference, so it’s good to find out ahead of time if you have to shut down the after party at 9pm due to noise policies in the neighborhood or if your venue forbids alcohol.
ll policies in writing and read the fine print before signing on the dotted line and putting down a deposit. A dream venue is no longer a dream venue if it prevents you from having your BFF’s band play or if you have to use their caterer who only makes burgers and fries when you have your heart set on a French feast.
Wondering where venue visits fall on your lengthy wedding to-do list? Our experts designed this wedding planning checklist to help you figure out what to do when. Download the PDF or browse the list online and you’ll be planning every stage of your big day with confidence from here on out!