It's a wedding planner's job to expect the unexpected—and, yet, no one could've prepared for the current state of weddings. Now, with uncertainty surrounding social gatherings for the foreseeable future, planners and couples are being forced to make a decision: postpone their planned celebrations or pivot to marry in a new, "socially distant" way.
"I’ve been planning and designing weddings for almost a decade and I would have never thought the term 'socially distant' would be a regular part of my vocabulary!" admits Darryl Moore of D’Concierge Weddings in Houston.
Meet the Expert
- Darryl Moore is the founder of D’Concierge Weddings in Houston. He has been in the planning business for nearly ten years, acting as both the creative director and "planner extraordinaire" at his company.
- Jacin Fitzgerald founded Jacin Fitzgerald Events, a full-service event planning company, in 2009. She is based in Atlanta but specializes in destination weddings and events.
Even so, Moore—like other industry pros and couples planning weddings mid-pandemic, whether by choice or obligation (hello, nonrefundable deposits!)—has embraced the era of the socially distant wedding. He explains, "Throughout the course of my career, I have faced more than my fair share of challenges, so I have decided to look at planning weddings in the midst of a pandemic as another challenge."
The specific challenges of planning a wedding mid-pandemic are ever-changing as rules and regulations are modified often and vary by location; however, one thing is clear: "For the immediate future, weddings and events will continue to 'look' and 'feel' differently," Moore says.
This is the time to pivot whatever original daydreams you may have had into a version that will work with our current pandemic climate.
Moore says, if you want to celebrate in 2021, it's time to accept this as a fact and accommodate accordingly. "Couples and celebrants will have to be okay with this and begin to plan with a more intimate and more personable encounter in mind," he says. Jacin Fitzgerald of Jacin Fitzgerald Events agrees that flexibility is key for couples—with their wedding vision and, also, with their guest list at this time. “Be open to change," she advises. "This is the time to pivot whatever original daydreams you may have had into a version that will work with our current pandemic climate."
To help, we asked more than a dozen wedding planners for their advice on planning a socially distant celebration. Read on for their creative ideas and solutions—you may even find some silver lining in their suggestions!
Provide Face Masks
First and foremost, a socially distant wedding begins with attendees wearing face masks. While some guests may choose to bring their own, why not make them readily available?! That way, no one has an excuse for not wearing one. "If you are extending the invitation beyond your close and immediate family, you may want to consider conducting temperature checks and ordering custom masks for each guest," Moore advises.
Institute a "Comfort" Band System
“Aside from on-site rapid COVID-19 testing and seating guests by family or pod, our favorite new party trick is color-coding wristbands that outwardly express comfort levels," says Lynn Easton of Easton Events. This system allows guests to, quite literally, read the room. Below, a breakdown of suggested colors and their meaning.
- Red or Pink: "Kindly keep your social distance, but I am smiling behind my mask!"
- Blue or Yellow: "I am comfortable in a group, but no hugging, please!"
- Green or White: "I have antibodies—time to celebrate!”
Leslie Price of In Any Event also recommends what she calls the "comfort color signaling concept." "It works with masks, boutonnières, bracelets, ribbons or pins," she says. "The options are limitless with how to allow guests to graciously signal their comfort preferences.”
Plan For Unique Seating Arrangements
Even with a smaller guest list, Eliana Baucicault of ellyB Events suggests being intentional with seating arrangements. "For your ceremony, move to soft seating where families are on sofas and banquettes that seat two to three people at a time, keeping the groupings socially distanced," she advises. "For the reception, place households together with no more than six people at a table. This way, families are amongst their loved ones and will feel more comfortable during the festivities."
Communication is key—especially when encouraging guests to take specific precautions such as wearing a mask and sanitizing their hands. In fact, Emily Butler of Karson Butler Events encourages couples to "over-communicate with guests" by explaining safety precautions in advance of the wedding and establishing clear signage at the event. "Setting expectations for guest behavior is crucial to keeping all guests and vendors safe," she adds.
Create Safe Spaces For Guests
Just as it's important to advise guests of any suggested safety measures, it's important to give them room to heed your advice. “Get creative and clearly define safe spaces for all your guests," Butler continues. "At a recent event, we hired a chalk artist to create floral markers six feet apart to designate where guests could safely stand.”
Lynn Ehumadu of LilyVevents says you can even create individual care kits to encourage such practices. “For a recent wedding, we provided small bags that said ‘Please say I will as we say I do’," she explains. "Each contained a note asking people to sanitize their hands, wear masks, and respect social distancing rules. We also included embossed masks and a small measuring tape from IKEA to remind people that six feet should be maintained. Guests had a good laugh and some actually took the tapes out at the reception and used them!”
Limit Trips to the Bar
Just as planners are reimagining dinner plating, they are revisiting how drinks are served. The bar is one of the most populated spots at a wedding, after all. “We are advising couples to reduce contact by being creative with the beverage planning," says Jillian Smith of OneTouch Events. "Consider tableside beverage service by an attendant who is assigned to service a single table, reducing contact. If you don't have the budget for extra beverage staff, another option can be sealed carafes in various shapes, which can add a little personality to the tables.”
Tara Fay of Tara Fay Events is also encouraging couples to opt for table service. "This means the staff can serve drinks directly at a table instead of guests approaching a bar and standing in line," she explains. Another bonus? Fresh glasses are used for each drink served.
Consider a Plated Menu
The way dinner is served can contribute to the overall atmosphere and pacing at the reception, and it can also be adjusted to influence the behavior of guests. “Plated meals are the simplest and most effective way to avoid issues when it comes to the wedding meal," explains Michelle Cousins of Michelle Leo Events. That said, if a client is adamant about family style platters or buffet-style services, she recommends enlisting the help of catering staff. "Self-service is no longer an option," she says.
Allison Jackson of Pineapple Productions is also implementing new catering strategies, with an emphasis on low-touch service. "For example, in lieu of passed hors d'oeuvres, we are recommending custom plating hors d'oeuvres, served by masked and gloved chefs at custom-built counters made extra safe using plexiglass screens, to minimize food handling," she says. "The result is that each guest feels special as each small plate is beautifully arranged and customized based on what each guest wants to taste."
Throw Your Own Concert
Many social distancing regulations involve the congregation of guests—and, well, that's exactly what dance floors are made for. As an alternative to the tradition gathering, Beth Helmstetter of Beth Helmstetter Events has an innovative (and fun!) solution: “Have the couple dance to their song and then let the band throw a concert! Seat everyone in groups of two to four strategically throughout the space, then let them enjoy the show while dancing in their seats or in their designated area like you would any concert.”
Host a Silent Disco
Crowded dancefloors are, for now, a thing of the past. But that doesn't mean you can't dance at all! First, speak to your vendor team and venue about executing this idea safely, but here's an idea: Bring back the silent disco! This was a big wedding trend a few years back, and, trust us, it's worth the hype.
Mail Favors To Virtual Guests
Social distancing technically involves guests gathering IRL, but there's no reason to forget those unable to attend. "Send virtual guests an artifact so that they feel included in the event, perhaps a wedding program or a slice of cake or another dessert," recommends Moore. "There are so many ways to engage your guests. Your planner can help you achieve this goal and make sure that everyone feels apart of the moment."
Reimagine Wedding Traditions
While traditions exist for a reason, it's important to keep an open mind when deciding what is (and isn't!) safe in the current climate. “Cut traditions that encourage close personal contact such as the receiving line," suggests Mindy Weiss of Mindy Weiss Party Consultants. When in doubt, consider it a safe bet to ask yourself this question.
Lastly, while some social distancing practices may be unfamiliar—that doesn't mean you shouldn't welcome the new, especially when gathering your nearest and dearest. As Moore says, "This is the best time to be creative because we're seeing a different style of celebrations that we haven’t seen in a long time or either we haven’t seen at all. Don’t miss the moment!"
Additional reporting by Colleen Sullivan.