Doing a Wedding Site Visit: Questions to Ask and a Checklist

The last step before writing that big check.

Two weeks ago, we talked about how to start your wedding venue search, and what research you should do to help narrow down your options. Let’s assume you’ve done that. Now you’re ready to decide between your finalists, and bringing this grueling wedding venue search to an end. Hooray! All that’s left now is to just show up and look around, or just call up to see what dates are free and write a (gulp, how much again?) check, right? Well. Not exactly. If you want to make sure that you’re making an educated decision before handing over a chunk of change, you’ll probably want to do a formal, pre-scheduled venue site visit. (Or, if you really can’t, at least a question-filled phone call.)

But wait—what the hell is a wedding site visit? A site visit is a brief walk-through of a potential venue, usually with a representative or sales person associated with that venue. The site visit allows you to actually see the space itself, ask more detailed questions, and frankly, make sure that what you’ve seen and read online is for reals. Much like those hotel rooms that look spacious and luxurious online but end up being teeny tiny closets, venues are businesses and they’re going to do whatever they can to make themselves look great online. So go see it in person. Please.

Because these site visits take time and effort, I generally recommend narrowing your venue site visits to your top three choices. Worst case, you may need to do some more, but usually you have some favorites and it’s best to start with them. As I mentioned in my previous post, please please please don’t do a site visit with a venue that doesn’t fit into your budget. You’ll just torture yourself and nobody needs that.

It’s worth mentioning that some people aren’t able to do site visits, despite my protestations. Perhaps you’re planning your wedding from across the country, or your schedule is just too busy to fit it in. In that case I recommend asking the venue for references of past couples so you can talk to real couples that used the space. I also recommend you trust your gut regarding the photos and details online (if it seems too glam to be true, it probably is)—or ask the venue for more details, such as additional photos, actual floor plans with dimensions, etc., to reassure you that you know what the space is really like.

But let’s assume you have the time, you’ve narrowed it down to your top three, and now you’re ready for the actual visit. Here is a checklist of wedding site visit questions you should be armed with at each venue:

1. How many hours are included in the rental? The average hours needed are two hours for load-in, and one hour for load-out. Make sure that the remaining hours are enough for your event, and if not, find out how much it will cost to add hours (if the venue offers that option). The average venue rental is eight hours (three hours for load-in/load-out and five for the event).

Side note: Assume that people will arrive for the ceremony thirty minutes prior to the invite time (the time listed on your invitation). Therefore, load-in needs to be complete two hours before guest arrival, not the invite time.

2. Is a ceremony rehearsal included? If so, how long is the rehearsal, when does it usually take place, and how far in advance can you book the time?

3. Discuss load-in and load-out. Is there a loading dock? An elevator? Ask if there are any specific difficulties or challenges at this venue. Sometimes the building is old and has a tiny elevator, meaning load-in takes a lot longer. Sometimes there isn’t one at all, so the rentals company will charge more to carry things up and down stairs.

4. Where are the entrances and coat check? If your wedding is during a cold or rainy season, do they have a built in area for a coat-check or do they provide coat racks? Also consider where guests enter—some venues have multiple entrances and you may prefer one over the other. Some venues might also have security concerns (ask about whether a security guard is required, recommended, and included in the rental fee). This is also where you want to consider accessibility issues—if you have older guests or guests with disabilities, will they have any trouble entering and maneuvering around the facility? Is there an alternate entrance for those guests, if necessary?

5. What sort of lighting is included in the venue? Is it dimmable? (Very important! Romantic and dim lighting: GOOD. Fluorescent, corporate lighting: BAD.) Lighting is often forgotten since most site visits are during the day, but many events are in the evening.

6. Ask about electricity. Vendors often pull a lot of power from the building. Make sure you have a sense of whether outlets are scarce or if there’s plenty of power to go around. It’s also helpful to note where the outlets are located to help you later determine your layout (for example, the photobooth can go in that corner, but only if they provide a ten foot extension cord).

7. Where are restrooms located? Are they easily accessible or do guests need to use stairs or an elevator to reach them? Are they wheelchair-accessible?

8. Where does the caterer set-up? Some non-traditional venues which have been turned into wedding venues don’t have a catering kitchen. Make sure you’re okay with the location, set-up, and logistics.

9. Are there alcohol restrictions? Some venues don’t allow red wine or dark liquor. Others require special permits (that sometimes will be provided by the caterer—so ask who normally provides them). Still others will allow you to provide your own alcohol as long as it’s served by the caterer, while others won’t allow it at all.

10. Are there decor restrictions? Lots of venues don’t allow confetti or other small items to be thrown. Others have open flame and candle restrictions, as well as sparkler restrictions. If these things matter to you (you were dying to do that sparkler exit) best to know now and let that inform your final decision.

11. Are there volume restrictions? Some venues, especially outdoor ones, have restrictions on what can and can’t be played at certain hours and in certain spaces. It’s a bummer if you have the space until 11pm but your party has to end at 10pm since that’s when the DJ needs to stop playing.

12. Does the venue ever do more than one event on the same day? If the venue is large and has multiple spaces, or if it’s a non-traditional space such as a theatre, it’s important to know what else, if anything, will be going on in the venue. How will guests know where to go and how will the venue keep others out of your space? Will you get the attention you need from the venue staff?

13. Does the venue provide any equipment? Sometimes venues have tables and chairs available to clients, or A/V and lighting equipment. Be sure you SEE the chairs (some of them are hideous… just saying), and ask the venue if they have an equipment inventory list that they can share or email.

14. Ask if they have a list of nearby hotels that they recommend. This can help you make those transportation decisions later on, as well as start researching group rates at nearby hotels.

15. See if you can get a sample contract and be sure it includes their cancellation policy. It’s not fun to think about, but wedding cancellations can and do happen. Make sure the contract is clear on that issue and that you’re comfortable with their language.

And again, while at the site visit, revisit some of those initial questions you asked yourself when doing online research! Those questions will keep you focused on what you really want and whether the venue truly meets your needs. Will you feel silly unfurling your enormous list of questions? Maybe. Will those questions ensure that you find the best venue for your event? YES. It’s worth it. So tell the venue manager to get comfortable, and rattle off those questions proudly!

Katie Wannen, The Plannery

Katie Wannen is the leader behind The Plannery, a boutique wedding planning and coordination company based in the DC area. Katie earned her undergraduate degree from Barnard College, Columbia University in NYC. She received her certification in events management through George Washington University’s School of Business in July of 2013, and is a current member of the Del Ray Business Association and recently launched the Del Ray Wedding Vendors group, a collaboration of local wedding businesses. Katie is also a pop-culture junkie who loves eating her husband’s delicious cooking and fanatically enjoys organizing family travel plans–often years in advance.

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  • AGCourtney

    Thank you! Hopefully we’ll be getting to this stage soon. We’ve got it between his family’s church, my church, or his family’s backyard. It will be helpful to have these questions on hand!

  • I’ve just planned my first site visit! This is perfect timing!

  • Kayjayoh

    “Side note: Assume that people will arrive for the ceremony thirty minutes prior to the invite time (the time listed on your invitation). Therefore, load-in needs to be complete two hours before guest arrival, not the invite time.”
    Granted, it is *possible* to do this a bit faster, but you need to have several things:
    1. Very little and very simple set-up.
    2. Really, really good organization and documentation.
    3. Magical elves to help you.

    Our venue let our helpers start bringing stuff in an hour before they closed for regular business and let them start setting things up in certain areas about 15 minutes before the close (because some areas closed earlier). However, this meant our timeline was still like this:

    4:00 Load-in
    4:45 Start set up on roof and art area
    5:00 Full set-up begins
    6:00 Guests arrive
    6:30 Ceremony

    If you have any complicated set-up, you really don’t want a venue with a short set-up to ceremony time. :)

  • Valerie

    Ask if they have CAD diagrams of various space setups! We were concerned about space (as it turns out, if your guest list is over 120 people in San Francisco, your venue options are drastically reduced), and I have a hard time imagining what X number of people in a particular space actually LOOKS like. Sometimes the “capacity” of a venue means “fire code maximum,” which is probably not comfortable. Being able to see the floor plan for 200+ chairs or whatever was really helpful and calmed my anxiety about being able to fit all our guests comfortably.

  • Kayjayoh

    Also, if you can do a pre-ceremony walk-through with the person who will be your coordinator/stage manager,maybe a week before the wedding, that can be really excellent. That lets your actual set-up person see where everything is, meet the venue coordinator, get an on-site idea of your vision for the space, and have a greatest-hits repeat of a lot of the things you went over on your first walk-through.

  • Stephanie B.

    “12. Does the venue ever do more than one event on the same day?”

    Make extra sure the policy is spelled out in the contract, so you’re covered legally if the venue TELLS you that they only book one event per day, but actually double-books your wedding day (and doesn’t tell you about it, but lets you find out about the second event on the local news [true story, and I bet YOU didn’t have unplanned historical reenactors at your wedding!]).

    • Helen

      I’d call that an amazing bonus. “Hark, the bride approaches!”.

    • Lindsey d.

      Please tell us the rest of that story! (Unless it is still a little painful).

  • Kara

    Real Simple had some other good questions to ask:

    Always, always ask about a Plan B in case of weather issues.

  • under #10 – decor restrictions, also be sure to ask about ways you’re allowed to hang things from walls/ceilings as there are usually specific things allowed and not allowed. This applies to outdoor spaces as well. If you have planned an elaborate backdrop hanging from a tree for your ceremony, make sure the venue allows you to hang things from trees!

    • Juliet

      So crucial! Many places don’t allow tape or staples on walls or ceilings, so make sure you know how the venue will allow you to hang all of that gorgeous DIY bunting before you spend hours making it :)

  • carolynprobably

    For non-traditional sites (historical, museums, galleries, etc) be sure to ask whether any additional insurance is required and how much. Sometimes you find out you need a million dollars of coverage for dinosaur bones a month before the wedding is all I’m saying….

    • qj

      I was *just* going to leave a comment about additional insurance. Our venue required some as well, which was only something we learned upon asking.

    • Eenie

      I’m sure you enjoyed the heck out of those dinosaur bones!

  • SLG

    “Will you feel silly unfurling your enormous list of questions? Maybe.
    Will those questions ensure that you find the best venue for your event?
    YES. It’s worth it. So tell the venue manager to get comfortable, and
    rattle off those questions proudly!”

    Seconding this. Feel no shame about asking all your questions. It is much, much less embarrassing than realizing the day before the wedding that there’s no space for your bridesmaids to get ready, or that the electrical setup can’t handle your DJ’s speakers. Just smile and cheerfully say something like “So I’m the sort of person who has a lot of questions about everything, and I brought a list. I figure it’s best to find out all these things ahead of time. So if you don’t mind, I’ll start at the top of my list here…”

    They will not mind (and if they do, that’s a red flag). You’ll probably get complimented on how organized you are.

    • K.

      This has been my biggest wedding planning hurdle to get over. In my work life, I have no problem expressing exactly what I want. But with wedding planning, I’m so concerned with being seen as (ugh) a bridezilla, that I’m weirdly cautious about asking or requesting pretty basic things. It’s frustrating.

    • Glen

      I had a binder with pocket inserts for all the stuff, one of which was my list of questions for each potential vendor. Most vendors were impressed that I was so organized. And having my own list made it so much easier to compare – what did x site say about candles vs y? Right here on page 2 – no open flames at x but y allows votive candles that are 1″ below rim of holder. I think I’d have gone crazy otherwise.

  • westofhere

    If you already have a set date (or two dates), will the venue hold that date for you (1) until the site visit? and/or (2) for a set period of agreed upon time the site visit to give you time to make the decision? Easy for some venues, not

  • Leah

    Adding in a couple of things specific to outdoor venues – which is the most common out here in the middle of nowhere where I live. all of these were on our things-to-ask list during our site visit –
    – do they allow dogs?
    – do they allow camping on the premises? (this was mandatory for us)
    – when and where is there shade vs sun – are there trees, buildings, etc that will provide shade during an outdoor ceremony? where will the shade be at the time of day of the ceremony? can you fit all the ceremony seating in the shady area?
    – what’s the deal with trash disposal? do you have to haul it away, or will they?
    – is there somewhere cool to store flowers, cake, whatever during the heat of the day to prevent wilting/melting?
    – are you allowed to put down a dance floor (if you want one) – some places don’t because oh-the-poor-grass
    plus all the regular stuff :)

  • Amber

    How would I know how long wedding/reception might be? Is there a rule of thumb I don’t know about?

      • Amber

        Yes, of course! I had completely forgotten about this. Thank you, Laura!

    • Lindsey d.

      As a guest, I would expect the reception to last three to four hours. The ceremony will depend on what type of wedding it is. Full Catholic Mass? You’ll be there for an hour and then mostly likely have to build in time for travel to the reception. Secular wedding at the reception site? About 20 minutes with a quick walk into the reception space.

  • LisaG

    Try googling “(venue) wedding photos”. If the venue hosts weddings frequently you’re likely to find blog posts from photographers who have shot weddings there. You can often see more photos this way than just what the venue has on their website.

    • Lindsey d.

      This is a great idea that I also used. I also used this idea in reverse to get a sense of other possible venues that weren’t showing up on google searches or talking to friends.

  • Lindsey d.

    I also asked about the parking situation and how the room is generally set up for weddings. Not only where does the caterer work from, but where does the buffet generally work best? Where should the band set up? The bar was built in, but if it isn’t, where do you envision that? I loved our venue because it had a great lounge area near the bar that overlooked the dance floor. No one felt they were stuck in the back at a table.

    Before we even went out to the venue, we asked about availability in the range we were looking for. We knew we wanted spring and if they were booked for all of March and April, what was the point?

    For the most part, I feel like a good wedding venue will discuss quite a few of these point just on the walk through. But definitely worth having a list of things to go over.

  • Lindsey d.

    Also, especially if your venue will provide the tables and chairs, consider trying to set your visit for the afternoon the day before or the morning of an event. The tables and chairs should be already set up and it will help you get a better sense of how the space will be used. Sort of like viewing a house for sale with furniture in it versus empty rooms.

  • LifeSheWrote

    This is fabulous and wonderful and so very helpful! I wish I’d had it when we were doing our site visits (though I created a similar-ish list of questions that I adjusted as we learned more about what to ask). Also, we thought it was brilliant to invite our mothers along with us (and my Dad decided to come too) which upped the stress level on the six venues we saw on a weekend trip to the wedding city. I don’t necessarily recommend this approach (we were trying to be inclusive but it made everything a zillion times more stressful). Another weekend trip to the city a month later with just the two of us was so much more relaxed and we fell in love with a venue we wouldn’t have expected to like based purely on their website and got to talk through all that together. It can be an enjoyable process. For those in the midst of it now – have fun and use these questions!

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  • So many great things to ask! It’s funny what you forget to ask when you’re just seeing all this pretty!

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  • Myra Groenewegen

    A quick tip from a wedding guest troving this site for fun. acoustics. ASK ABOUT ACOUSTICS. Better to shout it now than have none of your guests hearing more than the person beside them in an echoing room. This is my number one annoyance at more than one wedding. Your guests want to socialize. Please take care about how sound travels in a room when many people are in it.

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  • Belen Jorosa

    Simply amazing article! Thanks for the info, super helpful. I’ve found PDFfiller – online service for forms filling. It’s pretty easy to use and pretty cheap. You can find fillable Rental Unit Walk Through Checklist here