While pretty much every aspect of a wedding is optional, from wearing a suit instead of a dress to ditching the flowers to forgoing the wedding cake, there's one thing you can't skip: a venue. After all, you've got to have somewhere for your friends and family to gather and celebrate (even if you're having a micro-wedding).
But finding the perfect venue isn't easy. There are so many options to choose from, whether you're looking for a stunning barn, an elegant ballroom, a cozy restaurant, or a quiet stretch of beach. So we asked a few wedding planners to share their top tips for finding your dream venue.
Meet the Expert
Talk to a Planner First
Yes, talk to a planner before you start looking at spaces. "Planners are much more familiar with the capabilities of a space, the layout, and the time and items you'll need to really transform it," says Alliey Kline-Weichelt, lead planner and CEO of Alley & Co., in Green Bay, Wisconsin. If there's a creative way to make it unique or a quirk about the space that could make your vision hard to accomplish, your planner will know.
Choose a Venue That Aligns With Your Vision
"This might seem obvious, but seek out venues that fit the aesthetic you have in mind, says Kait Costanti, co-owner and creative director of Bash in Bozeman, Montana. "If you're planning a modern wedding, look at art galleries, well-designed restaurants, or warehouse spaces. On the flip side, a wedding incorporating more natural elements works well with outdoor venues such as parks, backyards, and ranches. Choosing a venue that fits in with (and enhances) your theme will enable your wedding to feel more connected to the space."
Know Your Guest List
"Knowing how many guests you're expecting to invite before you go looking at venues will help save you from headaches and heartaches down the road," says Holly Patton Olsen, wedding planner and owner of Seattle's Perfectly Posh Events. "If you choose a venue that is too small for your guest list and more guests RSVP 'yes' than you can fit in the space, you might be in a tough situation." Couples often underestimate how many people they will invite (or how many their parents will want to add), so have that conversation early to know what you're really working with. "This will also help you break down your budget, as some costs are very dependent on the number of people you're inviting," Olsen says.
Remember Your Budget
"It's more than just how much renting the space will cost," says Kline-Weichelt, since venues with in-house catering (like hotels) will charge a price-per-plate. "Décor and floral design will also drive the cost up." Know how much your total budget is, as well as approximately what your design will cost to execute. If adding that on top of the cost of using the space blows your budget out of the water, you'll either need to scale back your design or look at more affordable spaces. Adds Olsen, "Break down your overall budget by category, prioritizing more funds for vendors that are a higher priority. If you select your venue first, and then realize it's more than you should have allocated, it's an uphill battle to stay within your budget when you still have a dozen other people to hire."
Not sure how prices break down in your region? Consult with a local planner to get information that's more specific than the national averages often found online.
Consider Your Guests' Experience
"If you're inviting a lot of out-of-town guests or having a destination wedding, look for a venue that's near (or connected to) a hotel," says Kline-Weichelt. "And remember their comfort within the venue, too. The maximum capacity of a room isn't often a comfortable amount of space, so ask the venue how many people they can fit comfortably, as well as what is allowed according to the fire code."
Think About What Is Included
"If you're looking at some venues that are full-service, and somewhere you can bring in your own vendors and décor, be sure to price everything out," says Olsen. "A venue with tables, chairs, and linens included might cost more upfront than a venue where you need to rent your own, but you should get an estimate from a rental company to see how they compare when you've added on the price of renting things for yourself."
And remember that the included rental items are often more basic (white linens, standard flatware, banquet chairs, etc.), so you may still pay more to rent items that fit your vision better. "And if you're working with a venue that has in-house catering with a food and beverage minimum, be sure to include the tax and the gratuity in your calculations. For example, in Seattle, sales tax is 10 percent, so I recommend that my clients add at least 30 percent to the food and beverage minimum to account for tax and a 20 percent gratuity. That takes a $10,000 minimum up to $13,000."
Stay True to Yourselves
"With the influx of Pinterest weddings, a lot of couples choose venues based on the style of a wedding they fell in love with online," says Costanti. "But it's important to ask yourselves what feels authentic to you two as a couple, and to choose a space and a design that's a representation of who you are." And remember that a venue might have looked gorgeous with a different theme or design scheme, but it may not be the perfect canvas for yours.