Since Jon and I have never planned a wedding before (as most of you probably haven’t!), I had no idea what to ask employees at the different venues we visited. There are all kinds of different things to consider when choosing a venue, and they all can have a big impact on your wedding itself and—just as importantly—on your budget!
Obviously, the overall mood and design of the place will have a big impact on what your wedding is like. This is probably the type of thing you will naturally be considering for the big day, but you should still try to take into consideration the whole experience; this is particularly true if you are trying to have the ceremony and reception at the same location.
At one conservatory venue, for example, we were greeted enthusiastically and repeatedly by some overzealous parrots (“Hello? Hello! HEL-LO!”) that would have been a big distraction through the I-dos, and the cell-block community room that would have served as the reception area was windowless and better suited for A.A. meetings than festive gatherings.
Beyond those more-obvious characteristics, there are also all kinds of other factors that I learned to consider after we had visited a few places. So here, to aid you in your search process, I have created a list of the top 10 things to consider when selecting a venue. I hope these can help you in the process!
Here are a few topics to consider, as we learned in our search:
1. Privacy/Exclusivity: If you are having your wedding in the middle of a park or public garden, it is highly possible that the facility will not be closed off to the public, which means that random people out for a walk that day can wander into your venue area while you’re saying your “I do’s.” The general consensus I’ve heard from wedding planners at these types of venues is that people are pretty respectful about this sort of thing, but there are no guarantees.
2. Additional or Increasing Costs: Venues can have any number of hidden or additional charges. Some of the fees we saw included: cake-cutting, rental of items (tables, chairs, tablecloths, etc.), photography permits, etc. Even if there are not additional itemized costs, venues will have varying overall value. Try to look at the entire package when making your decisions. Maybe the venue seems inexpensive, but you would have to purchase extensive decorations in order to make the space festive. Perhaps there’s a huge dance floor, but the audio system would have to be brought in by a DJ. Small elements can give you better value for your dollar.
Additionally, if you are planning your wedding far in advance like we were, be sure to ask about what the costs will be. Since we were booking our wedding in fall 2010 for a spring/summer 2012 wedding, we encountered some venues that rewarded our planning ahead by charging us the 2010 costs. Other venues, however, expressed that their costs were going to increase significantly for 2011 (and were not even willing/able to estimate the 2012 price). One venue’s prices were going to make a $1,000 for 2011 alone! Ask lots of questions about these possibilities, and read your contract carefully!
3. Vendors/Staffing: Quality vendors and facility staff can make a seemingly mediocre venue exceptional, and vice versa. Even though you can choose to “deal with” difficult vendors for one day, things will run much smoother if you can find people you like and trust. After all, you are putting these people in charge of one of the most significant [and potentially stressful] days of your life!
To illustrate my point, I must share a story with you about one of the property owners we encountered on our venue search. First off, she sounded exactly like Roz from Monsters Inc., in that her creaky voice that could have been honed only by a lifetime of chain smoking.
She was also all over the place. She didn’t have concrete answers to virtually any of our questions about pricing, timelines, exclusivity, or just about anything for that matter. She was also easily distracted. As we were looking at pictures of the venue, a college student came in looking for a job. He was just going to drop off his résumé in hopes of being hired on as a busboy, but she conducted the [awkward] interview on the spot, commenting in her Roz voice that “You have to strike while the iron is hot!”
Given that she couldn’t keep her attention focused on us for our half-hour appointment, I was not at all confident about hiring her to manage our entire wedding day. Although there were aspects of this venue I appreciated, we were turned off by the disorganization of the owner and decided to strike out this venue.
4. Number of Guests/Traffic flow: The size of your wedding is an important factor in the
selection process; a venue that is too small will leave guests feeling cramped, while one that is too large will feel empty.
One of the venues we considered, a fairytale estate property, had a picturesque lawn area for outdoor receptions and a beautiful historic home for dinner and dancing. Unfortunately, the home had a maximum 100-guest capacity, which is about the number of people we planned to invite. If everyone had to pack inside due to inclement weather, guests would have been fragmented in separate rooms all over the house and may have felt excluded if they were not close to the action. We noted similar problems with the conservatories we visited, as winding garden paths made beautiful settings but were not designed to accommodate the chairs needed for a ceremony set up.
5. Flexibility: Some wedding venues have the process down to a science, so much so that the setup, timeline, or other factors are unalterable. This can be a great stress reliever if you want someone to take care of everything for you, but it can also be a major roadblock if you have a lot of your own plans.
6. A back-up plan! One of the places we visited, an arboretum, had a beautiful open-air ceremony area serenaded by the soothing sounds of a nearby fountain. What this facility did not have, however, was a suitable back-up location in case of inclement weather. The indoor option was a dark and undecorated, and if we’d had to use that space, it would have voided all the reasons we would have selected an arboretum in the first place. You’ve always got to consider the worst-case scenario!
7. Outside Vendors: Some venues, we found, have exclusivity contracts with outside vendors, such as caterers, florists, DJs, etc. This means that in order to work with them, you have to select additional vendors from their approved list. In some ways, this is a benefit because the approved vendors have experience with the location and are familiar with their rules, setup needs, equipment, and timelines. However, this same factor can also ruin a perfectly good venue if you are not satisfied with those vendors, cannot afford them, etc. Review the whole package before choosing a place: contract-breaking fees can be very expensive!
8. Local Laws: Local laws and ordinances impact what you can and cannot do. Having an outdoor reception? Find out about neighborhood quiet hours or noise level regulations. Want to be picked up by a carriage? Make sure local zoning laws allow for this. Like your alcohol? Make sure you’re not planning in a dry county! Your wedding vendors should be well aware of these types of regulations, so keep them in the loop about what you’re planning.
9. Construction schedules: Construction work is always at the mercy of countless factors: union negotiations, weather setbacks, funding concerns, fluctuations in external funding sources, etc. Although construction ultimately means improvements to the facility, there is plenty of inconvenience and mess while it is going on. If you are considering a facility that is or will soon be undergoing construction project, try to ask as many questions as possible to determine how it might affect your wedding and when it will be completed. The last thing you want is dump trucks, orange fencing, and misplaced dirt piles in the background of your pictures or jackhammer noises interfering with your vows!
10. Overall location & Facility: Are you having a lot of guests visiting from out of town? A venue that is near interesting local attractions would be appreciated would assist them in making a weekend of the trip.
Will there be a lot of children at the wedding?
Consider whether your venue has somewhere nearby that parents can take rambunctious little ones. Will a break between your ceremony and reception require guests to occupy themselves for a few hours? Think about how close your venue is to other places where guests can relax and kill time.
Also be sure to consider the safety and aesthetics of the area. One of the venues we visited is a beautiful Chicago Park District facility with an enormous conservatory boasting a childrens’ garden, several outdoor patio areas, countless water features, koi ponds, numerous themed garden sections, and more. It is a beautiful and historic facility that would be an amazing place for a wedding. However, there were several important issues with it as well.
First, guests attending the wedding would have to navigate their way there through a maze of one-way streets and aggressive Chicago traffic. Once arrived, they would have limited parking options. Finally—and most importantly!—they would be parking in a once-wealthy part of the city that had deteriorated over the decades to being the kind of place that had a guard stand in the parking lot so someone could watch the cars. While we were comfortable visiting the venue at 11 am or so on the weekend, I would have been much less thrilled with the idea of inviting all of my guests to hang out there late at night.
There are all kinds of factors that can affect what venue to choose, but I hope that this information has helped you at least make a more informed decision. In the final installment of my three-part venue series, I’ll tell you more about the place we chose. I love it! I’d also love to hear more about the locations you’ve chosen. What went into your planning process?
Editor’s note: During this time of quarantine and social distancing, some of the general wedding planning advice we share may not be applicable or possible due to restrictions on events. Please adhere to all current regulations and stay safe and healthy! Learn more here.