Saying "I Do" to the Venue
I'll be super real with you, this blog post was a beast to write. Why? Because finding the perfect venue on a budget is a very complex process. Even for an event planner of seven years. I've been a part of venue scouting dozens and dozens of times and it's always a persistent challenge. The good news: there are so many venues in New England to choose from. The bad news is: there are so many venues in New England to choose from. And not all are created equal. Selecting a venue is one of the biggest investments you will make and can heavily influence the experience and expenses you may face, for better or for worse. If you're not working with an event professional to find the right site for you, consider the below tips before saying "I do" to the venue:
BEFORE YOU LOOK...
You are all excited to begin scheduling tours, but BEFORE you start looking for your venue do the following:
1) Talk openly about what your ideal setting and priorities look like. Urban? Rustic? Beach? Tented? Hotel? Industrial? Pinpointing a loose idea of setting that you can agree on will help cut out a huge number of venues right off the bat. Are you wanting accommodations on-site, an outdoor ceremony, accessibility to a downtown location? There's a lot out there, don't bother looking at something that doesn't fit your vision and top priorities.
2) Draft a budget of the maximum amount that all contributing parties are comfortable giving (aka your total wedding budget). A typical site fee can range from $3,000 - $10,000 (and more for a more luxury experience). Agree on what everyone is willing to contribute before scouting for venues so that you're not shopping out of your price range.
3) Draft a guest list. You can't find the right venue for you without having a sense of what your max guest count could look like. Look for a venue that will be able to fit this number comfortably (AKA do not book a venue that holds 150 if you are planning to invite 180). No one likes to feel squished, and no one wants to have to cut down their guest list at the 11th hour. Before visiting, reach out to the venue rep and share details about number of invited guests and your desired setup (large dance floor, band vs. DJ, stations vs. plated) to find out if the space is a good fit, literally.
Once you've done all this, DON'T WAIT to reach out to venues to book a site visit and inquire about available dates. I can't stress this enough. Especially if you are looking to book a Saturday in a peak month like September or October. Most couples are totally shocked to discover how far venues book out in advance. At least a year, if not two.
WHEN CONSIDERING TENTED AND RAW SPACES...
Are tented weddings on private properties absolutely gorgeous and offer the ultimate canvas for a personal and customized event? Of course. Will you save money doing this? Absolutely not. To do it properly, consider all of the elements of a traditional venue that you have to recreate: bathrooms, electricity, weather-proofing, parking, heating and cooling, lighting, and not to mention all of the rentals to fill the space. Now, if a tented wedding is what you've always dreamed of and you have the budget for it, go for it. But do not do it to save money. To simplify logistics for you, consider a venue that has a tent installed all wedding season long and is equipped with the facilities and staff to help you navigate the challenges of a tented event and unpredictable weather. Do NOT try to do this one on your own.
As a planner and creative, I love to plan and design at "raw" four-wall rental spaces. It's a (mostly) blank canvas to create the exact look and feel you desire and will often (but not always) have looser restrictions regarding catering and bar service. However, before you book a raw space consider what you are not getting from the space and try to put a price tag on it. See "Budget Beyond the Rental Fee" below for tips. If a wedding coordinator is within your budget and you want to bring in specific design elements to create the look and feel, go for it. Otherwise, you might want to consider a venue that fits your aesthetic as-is (i.e. ballroom overlooking the ocean, a restaurant with a cool vibe), and ideally, with as many facility inclusions as possible.
BUDGET BEYOND THE RENTAL FEE...
When considering how the venue fits into your budget, don't stop short at the rental fee. It's so so so important to imagine all the needs of your wedding day and what additional costs come into play at each venue. For example, questions to ask could include:
- Facilities and Inclusions: does the venue have event basics like plenty of restrooms, a catering kitchen, parking, tables and chairs, house linens, basic lighting. If not, this will require additional vendors and rentals. Don't forget to ask about added costs such as security detail, cleaning costs, etc.
-Accommodations and Transportation: where are the closest hotels, and how easy will it be for guests to get from A to B to C? The longer the trip, the more properties, and the more inaccessible your venue is (aka in a more rural location, no Uber/Lyft or public transportation, not walkable) the more the ball is in your court to ensure your guests are transferred safely from all the various locations. What you may be saving with a more remote location could potentially cost you in transportation.
- Catering and Bar Restrictions: does the venue have an exclusive caterer, and if so, ask to see a quote for catering costs before locking in the venue. The same goes for policies regarding alcohol - be sure to understand if your venue holds a liquor license or whether you can contract with a caterer or bar service and supply your own.
- Event Coordinator: what role does the venue play the day-of? Who will oversee vendor load-ins, oversee setup of the space, and manage the timeline? If the venue coordinator sounds like they focus more on facilities, you should 1000000% hire a wedding coordinator to help run your day. Not all venues come with a manager for the day who will actually facilitate the details of your wedding reception. Be sure to be clear on their role and ask how frequently outside coordinators are used.
- Weather-Proof Plans: does the venue have a solid weather-proof plan B? A ceremony in the gardens might be a stunning plan A, but in the event of poor weather, where is the backup ceremony location? Will this backup plan incur any additional costs (think - additional tenting, additional decor and rentals). Make sure you are signing on for a weather-proof experience that you also love.
Ask around. You'll be surprised at how many people you know have attended or know someone who has planned a wedding at the venue(s) you're considering. Ask for advice! Read reviews online. Do your research.
Consider the date. Fridays and Sundays will save you some cash, as well as off-peak months like November - April. If you're flexible, this could be the key to booking your dream venue on a tighter budget.
Beware of Pinterest and Instagram deception. When looking at photos of your ideal venues all decked out, consider what add-ons it took to achieve that design look. Lighting looks, floral installs, specialty rentals like escort card walls or vintage furniture. Try to separate those images from the venue as it currently is. If you want to achieve those looks, ask the venue rep. details about the vendors who worked that wedding and to refer you to one of their preferred wedding planners.
Stay organized. I recommend creating an excel sheet to collect info. on all of your options. You can create columns with: Name, City, Capacity, Available Dates, Catering/Bar Restrictions, Proximity to Accomodations, Parking, Rental Period, Facility Inclusions (tables, chairs, AV), Cost (don't forget to factor in additional fees like security, cleaning), Link to Photos.
Lastly... keep things in perspective and trust your gut. Unless you have unlimited resources at your disposal, be prepared for the reality that a venue might not check every single box on your list. It's like an episode of House Hunters - you want to find a venue that hits your top priorities and is within your budget. If you hold out to find a venue that fits absolutely every single parameter, you might be out there searching for a long, long time. Or, it might not exist at all. I've seen it happen. Remember to stay true to your initial vision and try to look at the whole picture. At the end of the day, you have to trust your gut and go with the venue that speaks to you the most.
Happy venue hunting! For more advice on venue scouting or to setup a consultation with me to help you get on track with your venue search, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.