Choosing a wedding venue can be one of the most agonizing steps in the planning process. Will it be on his turf or yours? Indoors or out? Before you throw your hands up and make your choice via a roll of the dice, examine what the possibilities entail. Think about weddings you've attended and how much the setting influenced the feel. A wedding at an art gallery has a different ambience than a beach wedding. Many spaces can be transformed—a formal ballroom can be turned into a lounge or an indoor garden—but it is always more economical to work with the location rather than against it.
And there's so much more to the decision than the ambience. You'll need to evaluate the number of people a particular site can hold and the total cost of having your event take place there, taking into account not just the rental fee, but all the auxiliary costs as well. You should also consider your guests' travel expenses and investigate weather conditions and overall convenience.
A House of Worship
If you are considering a ceremony in a house of worship, you will most likely need to book a separate location for your reception. Another thing to know is that since churches book up early (more so than synagogues) and times are often nonnegotiable, you may wind up with a wedding at 3 p.m. If your reception is planned for 6 p.m., you've got an awkward gap.
The most gracious solution is to fill that gap with some sort of hospitality or entertainment. If the reception is at a hotel where many guests are staying, a room where they can gather doesn't have to cost much, especially if you're allowed to stock it yourself. You can fill some time by stretching the cocktail hour at your reception site to an hour and a half, but the extra drinks and appetizers you'll be serving will add to your costs.
Speaking of timing, churches can be strict about starting on time. If you're perpetually late, you'd be better off with a ceremony site where the start time is more relaxed. I've done Catholic weddings where a late bride meant that the couple didn't get their full Mass!
The hotel wedding wins my vote for Most Likely to Run Smoothly. Nearly everything you need is already there, from the dessert plates to the staff. Aside from the catering and bar, you can usually bring in your own vendors, but make sure to ask, as some hotels require you to use their florist or lighting staff. When comparing the cost of a hotel wedding to an off-site wedding, compare the total price tag, not simply the cost per meal. A catered meal should cost substantially less than a hotel's, but the price doesn't include china, tables, linens, or labor, all of which are included in the hotel fee. Another plus: A good hotel catering manager can fill the role of a wedding planner. Find out who your contact person is and how involved he'll be on the wedding day.
If there's a negative about hotel weddings, it's that they can tend to feel impersonal, particularly if the ballrooms are nondescript and the property puts an emphasis on meetings. The good news is that any room can be transformed. But, again, there is a correlation between the drama of the transformation and the size of the budget required to pull it off.
Best suited to weddings of 125 or fewer guests, restaurants are often chosen for superb food, a distinctive setting, or a special ambience. Some restaurants may have a patio, courtyard, or other space that lends itself to a ceremony, but most commonly, the ceremony is held elsewhere and the reception follows at the restaurant. One downside: Your guests might be spread over multiple rooms, and space limitations usually preclude a large dance floor. On the plus side, a restaurant can deliver distinctive food and decorative features like French doors, sculptural chandeliers, or dark wood floors; odds are you'll be buying into an existing concept you adore, which is always a money-saver, rather than trying to create it from scratch.
If you're planning to take over the entire restaurant, the owner will typically expect you to match the revenues he would bring in on a regular business day. And don't be surprised if you still need to rent equipment or extras: A restaurant usually doesn't deliver 100 servings of soup at any one time, for instance, so you might have to supply some bowls.
An Off-Site Wedding
An event is considered off-site if it doesn't have a commercial kitchen or stock items like tables, linens, china, and flatware. The setting could be a beach, park, cultural center, or private home. Off-site weddings can be gorgeous but come at a high price, because you'll have to bring in everything you need. Often you must construct one or more tents, which entails floors, lighting, and generators. You may need to obtain a municipal permit, monitor tide times, and deal with bug control. Inquire about restrictions at the site and ask if the rental fee covers insurance.
The Great Outdoors
An outdoor wedding can be magical. For some, there's no space more sacred than nature. Cardinal rule: Have a backup strategy. Rain, winds, extreme heat or cold, and bugs may foil your plans.
If you're planning a year or more ahead, try to visit the site during the same month and at the same time of day that you're envisioning your wedding. This will give you a taste of the weather, the light, the foliage, the flowers, and the insect situation. (You may discover that your dream site in New Hampshire is under siege by blackflies in June.) Research the average temperature and rainfall for that time and check out what allergens are typically in the air.
Though rental costs can add up quickly, outdoor weddings have a playful quality you just can't re-create indoors. Before committing, consider your personality: Can you handle the uncertainty that comes with an unpredictable location? If you must have every detail under your control or you can't laugh off frizzy hair, you may be happier with a more controlled environment.
Home, Sweet Home
A sentimental favorite, the home wedding is personal and intimate. You won't see any other brides in the halls. You can choose any day and time you want. But, like outdoor weddings, home weddings have hidden costs—namely, the same rental equipment you need for an off-site reception. You might wind up constructing a tent, installing landscape lighting, taking out extra insurance, or hiring valet parking attendants. Home kitchens can't accommodate all the people it takes to serve your food, which is why caterers sometimes create a kitchen in the garage. A home wedding does have one big budget bonus: You can buy the alcohol yourself, cutting the bar bill in half or more.
From The Wedding Book by Mindy Weiss. Copyright (c) 2008 by the author and reprinted by permission of Workman Publishing Company