Picking a venue is one of the most important—and difficult—wedding decisions you'll have to make. The spot you settle on helps to determine many later choices, from flowers to food. Here, experts offer their best tips.
Know Your Numbers
Before you start your search, set a preliminary budget and guest list. Talk to your fiancé about your ideal size for the event and ask your families how many people they want to include. If your families will be helping financially, ask how much they would like to contribute. This knowledge will help you determine which venues are in your size and price range.
Consider a Style
Hotels and banquet halls are common choices because they're streamlined: Most offer ample space for events, as well as on-site catering and planning. Also, these sites often include tables, chairs, linens, china and staff as part of the wedding package. At other venues, you'll likely need to rent those furnishings. "I often encourage people to get married in a home; it's gracious and personal," says Paul Bott, a Hollywood, CA–based designer who recently planned a wedding in a rented mansion overlooking the cliffs of Carmel, CA. You might also consider a destination wedding on a beach, a yacht, a mountain or at a winery.
Get the Details
Once you've found a few potential settings, it's time to think like a planner to determine which of the sites will ensure your wedding flows beautifully. JoAnn Gregoli of NYC's Elegant Occasions says that the most common mistake is booking a location that's too small. Make sure everything, even the dance floor and the cocktail-hour area, is big enough for your maximum guest list. Your dining space should be 12 square feet per guest, minimum, and the dance floor at least three square feet per guest.
Ask About Restrictions
Always inquire about a potential venue's rules and regulations. Some may require that you use certain vendors. This can be convenient, since you won't have to find those vendors yourself, but make sure that they are up to your standards. Don't be afraid to ask a lot of questions: Are there noise regulations for music? How many hours are included in the rental fee, and what are the charges for overtime? Is your wedding the only one booked for that day? What time will your designer be given access to the space in order to set up? If you want to negotiate any of these restrictions, the time to do it is before you sign the contract, not after. Don't depend on verbal agreements. Get everything in writing.
Examine the Contract
Don't sign anything on the spot. Take your agreement home and read the fine print. Are there extra costs for insurance, staff, gratuities, cake cutting, corkage, setup, trash removal or elevator or restroom use? You can try to negotiate those hidden costs, go with another location or move forward regardless of the charges—what's important is that the bill won't surprise you later. Finally, ask yourself if you feel comfortable. "Never settle," Gregoli says. "Once a bride has found her site, she should feel relief and joy."