What to Do When Disaster Strikes and You Lose a Ton of Wedding Guests Last Minute

Updated 10/24/16
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Nathan Smith of Ira Lippke Studios

Brides and grooms usually have an image in their heads of how their weddings will look, and how many friends and family will be present to celebrate with them. Most of the time, things turn out exactly as planned, and they get the "dream wedding day" they've intended.

Occasionally, however, things go awry, for any number of reasons, and a bunch of people you invited to your wedding will back out, sometimes with very little notice. It can be devastating to the wedding couple when they look at their final list of acceptances.

I've been planning destination weddings for almost 10 years, and I'm always sure to remind my clients that there is a larger decline rate for destinations than at home. Sixty acceptances of 100 invitations is about average, although there are exceptions both ways.

Traditionally, the less notice brides and grooms give their guests for a destination wedding, the lower the attendance rate will be. If you want all of your invitees to attend, the most important thing to do is to send out your wedding invitations as early as possible — with a normal maximum of eight weeks to respond — any time after the one-year-out date for the actual wedding. It's easy for all of your friends to tell you they're going to travel wherever for your big day, but another thing entirely for them to make the commitment in writing. Up until the point when they RSVP "yes," they aren't being rude if they decide they cannot attend.

In the past year, the Zika virus has wreaked havoc on the guest lists for a number of weddings I've planned, both in Florida and the Caribbean. Frequently, many of the guests (and members of the wedding party) are at an age where they are thinking about, or actively trying to, get pregnant. And the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control have labeled the vast majority of popular destination wedding areas as part of the area to be avoided if you're trying to conceive.

I've dealt with brides in tears, and brides who are just plain angry, about their friends backing out of their weddings at the last minute. I get it — this isn't new, and their friends knew about Zika when they committed to being a bridesmaid or a guest. But although her wedding may seem like the most important thing in the entire world to the bride, all of her friends and family have their own lives, too. And many won't be willing to put off procreation to see her say "I do."

Keep Negative Reactions to a Minimum

First, it's okay to be frustrated and angry, but you need to keep those feelings between you and your fiancé. And maybe your parents. Do not rant about a bridesmaid who dropped out to another member of the wedding party. People gossip. Your remarks could get back to the offending party. And while you're angry now, you do not want to lose a friendship over something you will later come to realize wasn't as a big of a deal as you made of it. Trust me, I had a bridesmaid get pregnant and drop out before my wedding. I had been her maid of honor, and at the time, I was devastated she couldn't be there with me. She'd even bought the dress! But I was nice about it, and supportive to her, and looking back, I'm glad she made the best decision for her own health.

Don't Let It Temper Your Excitement

Second, once you've "gotten over" it, you need to focus on getting excited again. Do not complain about the drop-outs to your other guests. Do not let anybody know that you are bothered that some people will not be there. To do so is to insult the guests who are making the effort to attend. It's like you're saying they're not enough to make your wedding day special. Are your parents coming? Will your fiancé show up? Okay then, you have everybody you NEED, even if you won't have everybody that you want. So get excited about your upcoming wedding, and focus on the time you will have with your more intimate group of guests. The size of the wedding has absolutely nothing to do with how much fun you'll have, or how beautiful your wedding will be. Keep a smile on your face throughout the wedding weekend because, when the bride smiles, her guests smile with her. When the bride is unhappy, the entire group will be unhappy for her.

Forgive and Forget

Third, and probably most important, let it go after the wedding. Do not return home and be snarky to your friends who didn't attend the wedding. Don't keep bringing up the absence of those who backed out. Don't tag "missing" people in the pics that you post to try to make them feel guilty. What's done is done, and their absence didn't prevent you from getting married. If it put a damper on your happiness that day, it's not about them — it's all about you.

*Sandy Malone is the owner of Sandy Malone Weddings & Events and author of * How to Plan Your Own Destination Wedding: Do-It-Yourself Tips from an Experienced Professional. Sandy is the star of TLC's reality show Wedding Island, about her destination wedding planning company, Weddings in Vieques.

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