Kate Hoffmann and Jeff Spencer chose the Wild Dunes resort just outside Charleston, SC, for their May 2007 wedding; they loved the low-country feel of the area and its convenience to their home in Charlotte, NC. But many of their guests would be traveling from all over the country to attend, half of them, in fact, coming from the Northeast. As gracious hosts, Kate and Jeff felt like it was only natural to introduce them to the best the area had to offer, from golf and tennis to sailing and shopping. And then, of course, there was the wedding itself. It would have been easy to go overboard in their enthusiasm, planning and scheduling every moment before, after and in between their I Dos, in an attempt to wow guests. But Kate knew better. "We wanted our family and friends to walk away with a good feeling for the area and know why we love it and chose it," she says, "but what they did while they were there was really up to them. We didn't want our guests to feel pressured to do anything."
So although there were abundant events, guests were free to plan their own itineraries for the weekend, making it as jam-packed or laid-back as they wanted. First there were cocktails, barbecue and bocce on Thursday evening. Friday offered a rehearsal dinner for everyone, featuring a seafood boil and a country-western band. Saturday was open for guests to explore the resort or city before that evening's main event, with the ceremony, reception and an after- party. The weekend ended with a casual Sunday brunch.
With pre- and post-wedding events like the welcome party and the farewell brunch fast becoming fixtures of wedding weekends, it takes careful consideration to plan a celebration that occupies, but does not overwhelm, those who attend. And with even hometown weddings drawing guests from all over the map, not to mention the increasingly popular destination wedding, the responsibility to host guests can easily morph into a temptation to give them too much of a good thing. The ideal itinerary is a mix of the planned and the spontaneous—think elegantly orchestrated evenings and discretionary daytime play—that is designed to keep guests pleasantly entertained.
It was this ethos that appealed to Mimi Bartow when choosing the location for her October wedding. For the entire weekend, her nearly 200 guests will be treated as though they are members of a private club on a plantation outside Savannah, GA, with amenities such as fishing, hunting, golfing and canoeing available to them. The itinerary includes a Thursday night barbecue, Friday night rehearsal dinner in town, Saturday evening reception and after-party, and Sunday brunch, and will be interspersed with as much or as little daytime activity as her guests choose. The groom's sister will provide a yoga class on Saturday morning for those interested, and a "grab it and go" lunch that afternoon will be offered as a gracious and convenient addition.
Couples who do not have the built-in activities that a resort or club offers can schedule organized activities for their guests, but should do so with care. At a wedding in Costa Rica that Glenna McMahon of San Diego, CA, attended, guests arrived several days prior to the wedding for group outings like a butterfly garden tour and a rain forest hike. The guests had a great time, remembers Glenna, but the logistics-addled bride did not. "It got complicated for her because people wanted to do their own thing once they got there and would back out at the last minute," she says. "She was so stressed out."
Maria Paz Anzorreguy avoided this pitfall by scheduling activities after her April 2006 wedding in her hometown of Buenos Aires. "It was a big wedding," she says of her 600-guest affair, "and I wanted to have some time to relax, have my final fitting the day before and talk to everyone about the very last details." Maria knew that the wedding reception would last until 7 a.m., as partying in Argentina usually starts late and ends even later. So she organized a trip for the couple's many international guests to the horse races at 4 p.m. the following afternoon, allowing plenty of time for recuperation, and provided transportation there, a guide to explain betting procedures, and a traditional barbecue at Maria's family's nearby country estate afterward. The next day they again gave their guests the day to relax or sightsee, meeting that evening for a group tango lesson and dinner at an upscale lounge in the city.
Christina Baker, a St. Louis, MO-based wedding planner, took a similar approach when planning her own weeklong wedding celebration in May 2006 in Seaside, FL. "I wanted to make it meaningful," she says. "It can become all about timelines, and then you never get to have a conversation with the people you love." In addition to hosting a casual Friday night party, Saturday night wedding and Sunday brunch, Christina encouraged guests to extend their trip through the following week, and scheduled group activities like a dolphin cruise, a day at the beach and a sushi dinner. Either way, everyone was guaranteed to spend lots of time together, since she and her husband rented a huge house to host 30 of their closest friends. From her professional experience, she knew how to manage what could have been overwhelming. "Make sure that your weekend itinerary states that all scheduled group events are offerings and not mandatory," she says. "And if you are offering high-end group activities, it's best to cover at least a portion of the fees so that anyone can afford to join in." If, of course, they so choose.
Your guests will probably want to get involved in activities, says Taylor Hamra of Los Angeles—a guest at 10 weddings in the last year alone-if you are thoughtful about how you plan them. "Bridge the gap between the bride and groom's groups of friends and families," he advises, creating guest camaraderie and encouraging interaction before the wedding itself. At a recent Chicago wedding, for example, Taylor attended a cocktail reception for all guests who weren't included in the rehearsal dinner. "It gave me a chance to meet a lot of people in a smaller setting," he says, "and the next night at the wedding, it was a treat to know so many guests."
His friend Carla Israelson's wedding this past May in Toronto offered two pre-ceremony get-togethers for this reason. The first was a festive dinner at a Chinese restaurant on Friday night. Saturday evening featured a cocktail party in the lounge at downtown hipster hotel The Drake, designed for their guests to drop in or stay and chat as they liked, followed by the black-tie wedding and reception in a renovated dance hall on Sunday evening.
Although Sarah Denton had a more traditional itinerary for her October wedding in Marrakech last year, she also wanted the events to feel unique and glamorous, but intimate enough for optimum mingling. Because the bride and groom are British but live in New York City, they had groups of close friends and family in Europe and the United States who'd never met. So Sarah made a point of interspersing free time to explore the city with private parties to forge new friendships. Friday night the couple reserved an entire famous traditional Moroccan restaurant, introducing guests to the country and one another with roving musicians and acrobatic dancers; on Saturday they secured a private home for pre-ceremony cocktails, the courtyard wedding and an international-flavored reception; and on Sunday they rented a villa and pool outside the city for a Berber picnic. "We seem to have succeeded, because a lot of people said they got to know new people," she remembers. "They were really grateful for the time we put into exploring the options and finding incredible locations, giving them different experiences."