Picking between wedding venues is a big deal. It’s expensive. It sets the tone. It’s the “meat” in the wedding sandwich, if you will. As a wedding planner who has seen clients regret their venue choices, or become incredibly overwhelmed with the venue booking process, I have a few tips—and a LOT of important questions to ask—that will help you figure out how to choose a wedding venue that is the best fit for you.
First, before you make any venue decisions, you need to make a draft budget. (Editors note: APW post coming soon on creating your draft budget, because yes, you probably need a better system than that post-it.) Don’t sign a contract with an expensive venue, only to realize down the line that you have no money left for that DJ you’ve been coveting. Second, prep yourself with a venue research spreadsheet—a place to track all of your research on wedding venue ideas, so that you can organize it and then review it without losing your mind.
A Word of Warning: The most frustrating part of finding a venue is the initial research. Much like the college application process, venues and their websites are all completely different. They offer a variety of information in various places, and sometimes they don’t offer any information at all, which is even more fun. Try not to get too frustrated by this. If you can’t find answers on a venue’s site, use the spreadsheet below to reach out with your questions via email. Often venues are stingy with info online, but if approached, they have a marketing packet ready to share that has a lot of the initial information you are looking for.
My research spreadsheet for wedding venue ideas tends to include the following columns:
- Name of Venue
- Capacity: Make sure the capacity fits your event. If you are doing a cocktail party rather than a sit-down meal, the space can likely fit more people.
- Availability: If it matters to you.
- Type: Such as hotel, outdoor, historical, restaurant.
- Layout: Note if it has space for all aspects of your wedding (ceremony, cocktails, reception). Sometimes this isn’t clear till a site visit.
- Rates: Enter the rough info available online. In a later column as you narrow things down, I recommend you create a “My Cost” line (see below).
- Website: You can easily go back and remind yourself with photos on the venue’s site.
- Restrictions: Does the website list any major restrictions, such as a definite end time, that would affect your decision?
- Parking/Transportation: Make any notes regarding free parking, public transit access, or other transportation considerations.
- Facility Extras: List here any items included with the venue: A/V equipment, chairs, tables, linens, etc.
- Caterer: See if they have restrictions on catering, such as an in-house caterer or a preferred list of caterers you are required to work with.
My Cost: Once you’ve done your initial online research and have a healthy list of places you’re interested in, I recommend going back to the venues you like the most and giving yourself a VERY rough sense of what this venue will cost you. Things to consider: what it will cost for your size and timing of the event (for example, will you need to pay for an extra hour?); what extras are included (chairs and tables means cheaper rental costs down the line, free parking means no transportation needed)?
- Please note this line item could just LIST these factors all in one place—you don’t need to necessarily know the monetary value (yet). For now, a list will let you do a quick rundown and remember “Hey, this cheap venue is awesome but I need to provide transportation, all rentals, and use a restricted expensive caterer, while this other more expensive venue has a lot of items included—hence, the costs probably balance out.”
- You can also use that draft budget of yours and create different versions of the budget for each venue you’re considering. There you can get more detailed and add in actual venue costs, rental costs, etc., for each venue. This will give you a hard look at how different the venues really are and can help you make that final decision.
Ask yourself some key questions as you do your research and fill out this spreadsheet.
- Can I afford this venue? (See what I did there? I mentioned budget again. ’Cause it’s important.) Don’t torture yourself and keep a $12,000 venue on your list when you can really only afford $4,000. It’s just going to break your soul and waste your time.
- Is this venue available on the date (or month, or time of year) that I want? Some venues have online calendars, others you can email for rough availability. And I always recommend double-checking their availability at the site visit.
- Does this venue’s capacity fit my estimated guest list? Like, really? Sometimes venues stretch what’s possible in order to make themselves more attractive to all couples. One way to discreetly figure this out is to ask at the site visit: “What number of guests is most successful in this space?” Just because you can fit 150 people into a room, doesn’t mean you should.
- Does this venue’s layout/available space fit my needs? For example, if you’re doing ceremony, cocktails, and reception all in one venue, does it have three separate spaces for all of those events? If not, do they recommend a “flip?” The typical “flip” is changing the ceremony space into the reception space during cocktail hour, when guests are in another area. Flips are a great way to make a venue work for you. However, make sure they are done at the venue often, and ask how they are done: where are the reception tables and decor stored? Will it require renting pipe and drape (a faux fabric wall to hide these items from guests)? Does it require a space that is weather dependent (such as an outdoor space)? This is where you can recognize potential hidden costs and hidden issues. It’s also important to talk through the flow of the ceremony if you’re having one there. Where is the couple kept prior to processional? Are there multiple places if they don’t want to see each other beforehand? Where do people process from? Is there a typical ceremony layout or “altar?”
- Consider location. Are you okay with needing to provide transportation for guests from a hotel to your remote venue? Does the centrally located venue allow for guests to get themselves there via walking or public transportation? If everyone is driving, is there ample parking (paid or unpaid)? Again, transportation can be a fairly big line item on your budget if you’re bussing or shuttling people to and fro.
- Does this venue have any catering restrictions? Sometimes a venue makes you use one exclusive caterer (who is usually really expensive—and therefore means this venue pushes your budget too far). Other times you were dreaming of having your favorite Mexican restaurant cater your wedding, but this venue won’t allow non-traditional caterers—or they will, but at an additional cost.
- And finally, does this venue fit your general vibe? This is a hard one to nail down, as it’s usually a gut feeling and completely depends on the type of wedding you’re hoping to have. If you’re looking for a casual BBQ wedding, a historic, marble-laden hall isn’t the best fit. Or a black tie barn wedding might not make those guests in stilettos and gowns very happy. I do recommend you stay open to possibilities until you do a site visit. I’ve had lots of clients think they want one thing, only to visit a venue and then switch gears altogether. This is also where you should consider decor. Is the venue naturally beautiful and impressive, so it doesn’t require additional lighting or pizzazz? Or is it a blank slate that will need uplighting to warm it up, and additional decor? Take a close look at those marketing photos the venue shows you online—often they have a TON of uplighting and draping to decorate the space. Make sure you’ve either made room in your budget for that, or that you prefer the space as-is.
Now that you’ve done your preliminary research and completed your superstar spreadsheet, you’re all ready to narrow your options and do some site visits! Check in next week for a detailed look at site visits—what they are, when to do them, and most importantly, the list of questions you should come prepared to ask.
What Next? Learn more about event rentals (and what they cost). Figure out how to avoid wedding sticker shock (and plan a wedding you want and can afford). Look at creative wedding budgets from $3K to $30K to help get you started budgeting and planning.