If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a wedding photographer, it’s that a good timeline can be one of the most powerful tools in your wedding toolkit. A well-thought timeline is an easy way to keep guests feeling like they’ve been taken care of, and guests who feel taken care of almost always make the best wedding attendees. (Also, as an aside, we didn’t really have a timeline ourselves, which is why I barely got to eat any lobster stew at our wedding and missed out on all the good appetizers, harrumph. So, if nothing else, do it for the lobster.) Last week Elizabeth of Lowe House Events went over the basics of timelines (it’s a good starting point, even if the below applies to you as well) and this week she’s bringing us all the secrets behind making adjustments for longer/religious ceremonies, timeline gaps, weddings with no end time, and moving guests between separate ceremony and reception sites. Dig in y’all. This is good stuff.
Religious or Otherwise Longer Ceremonies
As I mentioned in my previous post, the majority of weddings I do have secular ceremonies, most of which run about fifteen to twenty minutes long. But that doesn’t mean a religious ceremony isn’t just as easy to incorporate into the standard schedule. Religious ceremonies tend to be longer (on average from about thirty minutes on the short side, to one and a half hours plus if you’re doing, say, a full Catholic Mass. Full Modern-Orthodox Jewish ceremonies also tend to run at least forty-five minutes), so the key is to allow for the extra time. You may want to start the ceremony earlier, or just plan on cocktail hour starting later—either way, your timeline doesn’t need to look too different from the standard one I posted last week, you just move things in one direction or another to accommodate the ceremony. And talk with your priest/rabbi/pastor about the length. Most religious ceremonies have a lot of optional aspects that can impact the overall length—are you going to be including them or not?
I’m personally of the mindset that ceremony programs are almost always totally optional (and often unnecessary), but traditional religious ceremonies are where they can be the most helpful. Do the majority of your guests share your religion? Great, you’ll probably be fine without one. If they don’t, a program can help guests figure out what’s going on and what to expect next, as well as give them, say, the words to the prayers, hymns, or other group-participation aspects of your ceremony. (I can get through an Episcopal service with nothing, but I’ve been a regular churchgoer for fifteen years. Possibly not true for all of your guests.) Programs can also help people figure out what parts of the ceremony they should and should not participate in—for example, not taking communion at a Catholic wedding if they’re not practicing Catholics.
Of course, you can definitely have a longer ceremony without it being religious! Readings, music, speeches, etc., all take time, and I, for one, totally encourage you to include as many as you want. Try to finalize your ceremony at least one to two months out from the wedding (although ideally before you send out invitations), so that you have a good sense of how long it’s going to be and can create your timeline around that. If you’re not sure, put a timer on and read through it, allowing time for people to move to the front, sit back down, process, etc.
Separate Ceremony and Reception Sites
While increasingly rare (the most common request I get from clients looking for venues is that they want somewhere that the ceremony and reception can both be held) separate ceremony and reception sites still come into play fairly often, especially with religious weddings (not many churches/synagogues/mosques have space for a sit down reception for over one hundred people). There are two ways to deal with two sites—have a gap in between the ceremony and reception (see below) or allow just enough time for guests to get from one to the other. Some things to think about if you’re getting married in one location and celebrating in another:
- Stuff: There’s likely going to be ceremony equipment/decorations/furniture, as well as reception equipment/decorations/furniture. Who’s going to be in charge of setting up these things, and of taking them down/taking them with them? (As a coordinator I can tell you that I always work a two-site wedding with an assistant, regardless of any other factors, so that there’s someone onsite at each location at all times.)
- Timing: If guests are going straight to the reception, things are going to need to be set up there beforehand, since it’s unlikely anyone who’s at the ceremony will be able to beat the rest of the guests by more than a few minutes.
- Parking/Transporation: How are people getting from one site to the other? If you’re planning on using shuttles, it can actually work well to have people park/meet at the reception site, and then shuttled from there to the ceremony, and back again—less driving for your guests, which also means less opportunity to get lost. If you’re not planning on using shuttles (which, is fine!) make sure that all of your guests have clear addresses/directions for both locations.
- Restrooms/Refreshments: If your ceremony site is truly only holding the ceremony (and not, say, cocktail hour as well) think about how long people are going to be there. Generally I encourage people to provide at least bottled water at the ceremony, since many guests will be onsite for at least an hour (the first guests tend to arrive about thirty minutes before the stated invitation time) even with a short ceremony. If your ceremony site is outside/in nature, also make sure to think about the availability of restrooms there.
Separate Ceremony and Reception Times
Sometimes having a time gap between the ceremony and reception is inevitable—the religious venue won’t schedule ceremonies after a certain time of day because they hold evening services, or you simply can’t schedule back to back ceremonies and receptions at your two venues due to availability without booking your wedding two years in the future. While not always ideal, gaps aren’t that uncommon, or even that difficult to deal with. The first thing to think about (as with most parts of your wedding) is guest comfort. Do most of your guests live within a short driving distance? Or are they staying in nearby hotels? Are there things to do (coffee shops, museums, shopping) around one or both of your sites? Make sure your guests don’t have to spend a “gap” sitting in their cars in the parking lot, or awkwardly hanging out in the lobby of your reception venue waiting for it to start. In general, if you have to have a gap I think the ideal amount of time is about two to three hours, assuming that both venues and the hotels are within a half hour of each other. This actually gives people enough time to say, go and hang out and get some coffee, or go back to their hotel room to change/take a short nap, or check out some local galleries and stores. The one hour gap is the, I have to say it, worst. It’s not enough time to actually do anything, but too much time to…not do anything. So, if your reason for a gap is that you want to do photos after the ceremony but not miss cocktail hour, the solution is to do a one and a half to two hour cocktail hour. Because asking guests to stand around with nothing to do and nothing to eat or drink is just not very hospitable.
So! Here’s a sample of a wedding timeline with a two-hour gap between the ceremony and reception:
- 9:00am—Hair and Makeup/Getting ready
- 11:00am–1:00pm—Vendors arrive for ceremony setup
- 12:00pm—Wedding party and family photos start
- 1:30pm—Doors open/Guests begin to arrive/Pre-ceremony music starts
- 2:00pm—Ceremony invite time
- 2:15pm—Ceremony starts
- 3:00pm—Ceremony ends
- 3:00pm—Vendors start to arrive for reception set up
- 3:30pm—Guests gone from ceremony site
- 4:00pm—Ceremony site cleaned up/vendors depart
- 5:00pm—Reception invite time
- 5:00pm—Cocktail hour starts
- 5:30pm—All guests onsite
- 6:30pm—Move guests into dinner
- 6:45pm—Buffet opens/Dinner served
- 7:00pm—All guests have food
- 8:00pm—First dance
- 8:05pm—General dancing music starts
- 8:05pm—Second set of pre-sunset portraits
- 9:45pm—Last call
- 9:55pm—Music off
- 10:00pm—Guests depart
- 11:00pm—Breakdown done, all staff departs
The receiving line seems to have gone out of style, but I am a big fan of it. It lets you greet all (or almost all) of your guest individually while also letting you actually sit down to eat a meal (since the other popular way to do this is to go around to tables during dinner) and, if you have two photographers at your wedding, is a great way to get photos of you with many of your guests. My favorite time to do the receiving line is from cocktail hour into dinner—post yourselves at a convenient transition point (aka, a doorway) when you have about a half hour of cocktail hour to go, and have someone be in charge of gently herding guests through you to dinner—you take about a minute greeting/hugging/fist bumping everyone as they come into the dining room, and then hey, it’s time to eat!
Weddings With Photos After The Ceremony
So, one or both of you is against taking photos before the ceremony—how do you get them in after? The extended cocktail hour is your friend. I’d encourage you to schedule the ceremony about thirty minutes earlier than you normally would (so, set it for 3:30pm instead of 4:00pm), or dinner thirty minutes later, or both, thereby giving yourself at a ninety minute to two hour cocktail hour that you’ll be able to join in for at least half an hour. Remember if you do this that you’ll need enough drinks and snacks to feed your group for the extended length, so plan ahead (or talk with your caterer) as needed.
Also make sure that everyone who’s going to be in photos knows ahead of time, and goes from the ceremony to the photo site, instead of to cocktail hour. Get extended family photos out of the way first, immediate family second, wedding party third, and then do your couple portraits last—the key is to release the most people to cocktail hour as quickly as possible. A well-thought-out shot list will be your friend here—take the time to sit down with your photographer and make it, and try to condense the family portraits as much as possible. (Do you really need individual portraits of you with every single person you’re related to? Probably not.)
Weddings With No Firm End Time
Maybe your wedding is at your house, or at a venue you’ve rented for the whole weekend, or some other magical place that will let you stay as late as you want! How do you wrap things up? There are four signals to guests that a party is over: 1) the bar closes, 2) the music stops, 3) the lights come on, 4) people start cleaning up around them. When deployed together only the very, very densest of people would miss the signal that it’s time for them to leave.
But maybe you don’t want people to leave! That’s totally fine, and please invite me. You probably will want your event staff, if you have them, to leave at some point though, unless you’ve budgeted for a lot of overtime pay. At some point the bar can become self-serve, the DJ or band can switch to an iPod (or maybe was an iPod from the start), and the kitchen can close or the caterers can leave, but leave behind some trays of leftover dinner food, or big bowls of chips and salsa. (Let’s be real, if you want people to stay and drink until two in the morning, you probably want to provide them with something to snack on.)
Still to come!
- Morning weddings
- Early afternoon weddings
- Later evening weddings
- Open house receptions
- Cocktail party style reception
- Wedding weekends
- Set up timing
- Break down timing