Guest List and Location (and vice versa)

What comes first? The location of the wedding reception or the number of guests?

It depends on the size of your wedding.

Do you have a large number of family and friends that must be included? Or are you planning a small gathering? A good start is to make out a guest list.

But let’s look at it another way: you have a specific location in mind. If it’s the dining room of your home, chances are your reception will be fairly small. In a park? You might have a huge crowd. Depending on the setting, you will have to tailor your number of guests to fit. In this case, determine how many guests your location will accommodate. Then write up your list.

Here are four examples of weddings where the size and location that reflected the needs of the participants.

A small wedding with less than 30 participants

  • In a hotel Anne and Henry were married in a private reception room at a downtown hotel accompanied by about 15 family members. The ceremony, performed by an officiant, was followed by an elegant tea. The bride’s family travelled from England to attend. The small size of the wedding meant that Anne and Henry spent a lot of time with their close relatives and that the two families had time to get to know one another. The whole wedding party stayed at the hotel which gave them further opportunities to get together. The size and the location of this wedding suited the bridal couple perfectly: they wanted an intimate gathering in a beautiful place.
  • At home Jessie and Billy were married with their children, family members and a few friends at the bride’s brother’s home. After the ceremony, they had a reception with tea and champagne. The bridal couple wanted an intimate gathering in a familiar place that was cozy for everyone, including their children. They were sensitive to their children’s feelings, knowing that blending a family requires special consideration from parents. An over the top wedding would not have suited this family but a festive celebration was definitely the order of the day.

A large wedding with over 150 participants

  • At home. A wedding reception at home for 280 guests with a seated dinner and dancing? I couldn’t fathom it! But that is exactly what my friend Antonia did for her daughter’s wedding. “We have a huge family and so did the groom. We are very used to big family gatherings and when my oldest daughter decided to get married, we all wanted a big wedding.” Their house, which was in the country, was large but not immense. The first decision was to hold the party outside in a large tent. The dancing took place in the barn. “We found lodging for everyone in nearby hotels or with friends.” The bridal couple was very young, and busy with work and school.The bride’s parents paid for the wedding and did most of the organizing. When it came to the guest list, there was no stinting: family and friends of both the bridal couple and the parents were included.

Like Antonia, my friend Chris has undertaken weddings for her two daughters at home. These were very large gatherings, beautifully organized, for a modest amount of money. Her secret? Good friends. “In my group of close friends, when our children decide to have weddings, we all pitch in.” This includes being pressed into cooking and serving duties. One detail I loved: “My neighbors thought having all the cars parked along our driveway would really spoil the looks of the lawn and garden. They provided the ‘valet parking service’ in their own driveways and along the side streets.”

  • At a hotel. My friend Antonia’s second daughter was married a large urban hotel. The location accommodated 165 guests. Unlike the previous wedding, the groom’s family was quite small. However, the bridal couple had a huge group of friends and was obliged to keep their list within bounds. The wedding was very festive and elaborate but mainly “in the hands of the professionals,” my friend said. In this case, the groom’s parents contributed to the cost and the bridal couple participated in the planning and organization.

Being ‘in the hands of the professionals’ can be a real relief. My friend, Stephanie, felt that she and the coordinator for her daughter’s hotel wedding communicated well and that her concerns and questions were addressed. But the relief part had to do with the day itself: the hotel came through with all details taken care of and the participants really enjoyed themselves. One hotel sales director said this, “Once all the planning is in place, let the hotel do its work. Enjoy yourself and don’t worry about the details which will become a distraction.”

Determining the guest list

Determining the number of guests a commercial space can accommodate is the easy part. What can be difficult is the guest list. You start with a core group: your parents, siblings, and best friends. Still game? You then expand to include your parents’ siblings, family friends, and your close friends. Next? Cousins, neighbors, school and work friends. You will probably include in your list a small number of people who won’t attend but would appreciate receiving your invitation. This group would include elderly relatives and family friends who live far away. People who know you well.

Not everyone you invite will attend but do not invite anyone that you do not wish to attend. A wedding is not a business meeting or a political convention.

As your common sense guide, I am a great believer in wedding announcements. Sending an invitation is in a very real sense, a request for a gift. An announcement is a graceful way to spread good news with no other expectations.

Compiling the guest list is a joint effort and might be one of the first real links with your future in-laws. It requires sensitivity from all parties. No one wants to have their dear ones excluded. If the bride and groom insist on only having ‘their friends’, they will surely cause hurt feelings. If your family is involved in your wedding, their guests are important too.

In other words, whether you are the bride, mother-law, groom, or father, don’t bogart the list! You may not be thrilled that your nutty Aunt Hattie will be doing the Frug at your wedding but has she ever been excluded? Would it be fair?

With in-laws, bride and groom both need to be on board and talk with their respective families. Fair-minded people should not insist on a large number of guests that breaks the budget or cannot be accommodated. Best to be up front about those parameters.

Choosing the Location

Home Weddings

Having a wedding at home offers a great deal of flexibility in both size and scope. You have the option here to do all the planning yourself, calling on family and friends to help with everything from food, flowers, photography, bartending and music. Less hands on? Hire caterers, rent a tent, engage a photographer and a florist: it’s all possible and more. You won’t have any of the time restraints of a public venue and your guest list will depend on how many people you want to ask. On the other hand, a home wedding involves a lot of organization. A caterer can do most of it but you or whoever is the host will have many decisions to make. And just because you’ve decided to have your reception at home does not mean it will be the least expensive choice. This can be a wonderful experience if you don’t mind jumping in and being actively involved with all aspects.

Hotels, Inns, Reception Halls, Clubs, Churches, Mansions

Why is a public venue a good choice for your wedding? For one thing, the folks running these places are professionals and managing weddings is their business. Public reception spaces come in all sizes and offer many services. In researching what is best for your event and your budget, you will need to understand clearly what services are being offered.

There are wedding venues that rent the space only. You must furnish the caterer, rental equipment, servers, liquor as well as music, flowers, and decoration. Others will ask that you use their catering service or select from their list of caterers. ‘Full service’ providers such as hotels will generally have a wedding coordinator who plans and schedules all services within the hotel.

It’s important to understand right from the outset what your venue will provide and what it won’t. What ‘extra’ services are in fact requirements. What you will be charged for liquor and food and service. If you are planning a reception in a church or temple hall, find out if there are particular restrictions, such as for alcohol and music.

To give a clear picture of what is involved when you are choosing your location, I posed some questions to Shauna Noah who is the director of sales and events at the Jupiter Hotel in Portland, Oregon.

  • How do view your role with a wedding couple? (Or, put another way, what is the role of event planner?) 

As a venue contact, my goal is to make the wedding couple feel comfortable and confident that they have everything that they need so they can focus on spending time with friends, family, and each other.

  • Typically, who are your customers? (i.e. the bridal couple? the parents?) Who are the funders?

As a venue contact, we really work with all members of the party to “organize the organizers”. I generally work with the bride, the groom, the parents, the caterers, the rental companies, the DJ or live band and various members of the wedding party.

As for the funders, I find that many couples are now paying for their own weddings and accepting aspects of their weddings as gifts. An artist friend makes the invitations, an aunt that owns a bakery provides the cake, etc. It’s a great way to be cost effective, have the reception the couple envisions, and for the celebration to feel inclusive.

  • What are some common mistakes that couples make?

Forgetting to ask the question, who is going to take care of what on the actual day? Between make-up, hair, getting ready, photos, etc– the wedding couple’s day is packed and doesn’t leave a lot of room for decorating the reception space, putting together DIY crafted centerpieces, picking up and delivering items– or the thousand other things that wedding couples take on themselves to save money. My suggestion when looking at a delivery fee on any proposal or putting together a DIY decor piece is to ask that question, who is going to take care of this on the actual day? If you can delegate it to a friend or family member- great, but let them know way in advance and make sure they are reliable. If the answer to the question is you– pay the money, it’s going to be worth it.

  • What are some pointers you would give to couples?

Always ask the question: “Does this include the service fee?” You’ve built your budget; you’re going out and talking to caterers, rental companies, and venues. You’ve fallen in love with the food/drink/linen/event space and have talked about price and you are feeling good. You get the proposal and POW! Everything is officially over budget. The reason being is that most places have service fees attached to them for cleaning and staffing and sometimes they don’t include that when quoting you pricing. It’s not because they are trying to hide things from you, but price and service charge are considered two distinct things. By asking the question you can help stick to your budget.

Get the hotel room the night before.Check in time is generally 4pm and though you can request an early check in, it’s never guaranteed. By getting the room the night before, you can wake up, get ready at your leisure, and have a place to store items. Worth it.

  • What are some things that couples do that you see as being very positive?

Enjoying themselves. So many couples I work with have the mentality of “I just want to have a great party with people I love,” which is a great way to keep things in perspective and be able to enjoy the day.

  • What should a bridal couple expect when they meet with you?

A tour of the property and a discussion about what they envision for their special day. They also get a run through of the process (contracts, payment plans, run of show meetings, etc).

  • Should they be armed in advance with their date and number of guests?

I would suggest having a few dates in mind and an approximate number of guests. Also have an idea of what your budget is and what you’d like the “flow” of it to be like (are you looking for a more formal sit down dinner or a cocktail style event? Are you looking to do a ceremony and reception at the same place?)

  • Do you give a tour of the hotel? Do your customers often use your hotel rooms or other amenities?

I LOVE to give tours of the hotel. It really is the best way to experience the feel of the space and if it’s what you envisioned. You know once you’re in the venue if it’s “your space”- you just feel it!

Customers do use our hotel rooms but we, as with many hotels, have backed off of reserving blocks of rooms for a wedding party.We’ve found that the actual number of rooms needed can be difficult to determine.We’d rather offer a special rate for the wedding guests than run the risk of unsold rooms.

And the point of view of the bridal couple…

I asked some recent bridal couples a series of questions regarding location. James and Trina decided on a reception at a fun and slightly offbeat country hotel. Here’s what they had to say: 

  • How did you select the location for the wedding party?

We chose the location because it had everything! We had a lot of out of town guests coming and I thought it would be fun if everyone stayed in the same hotel. I feel that if you are asking people to schlep across the country then you better be prepared to show them a good time. The hotel offered comfortable rooms that were without TV so people were forced to explore. There was amazing beer on tap, multiple restaurants, golf course, etc.

  • Did you have to use their restaurant/catering services? Were you given a choice of party rooms?

We did use their catering and their bartenders. It was an easy choice because we familiar with all their food and drink. If I were somewhere else I probably would have shopped around for a caterer. I can’t remember if we had a choice of rooms but the one we got was perfect. It fit the size of the gathering well and it was very private because we rented out all the rooms below.

  • Did you have an idea of the number of guests you planned to ask before selecting your location or did the number of guests evolve from your choice of location?

Oof, we had a rough idea of how many guests would attend. The number wouldn’t have changed our decision. We loved the location.

  • Did the hotel offer you services you hadn’t asked for/good ‘deals’, etc?

If yes, to the above, did you feel these services were in fact ‘good deals’ or simply additional add-ons that cost you more money but were nonetheless pleasant.

I believe we got a discount on rooms that we wanted to reserve. I never felt “upsold” by them and there were plenty of different options for the bar and food.

The extra services were things like, a champagne toast. We agreed to that but otherwise we didn’t have extras.

  • Did you reserve hotel rooms?

Yes. We reserved the whole second floor of the building. It was a fantastic idea. We got a great deal on them most likely because they would have had a really hard time selling them to other unsuspecting guests. We got a suite for ourselves, and paid for two other rooms for a couple of our friends who couldn’t afford to. Other than that everyone else paid for their own rooms. Older relatives got rooms in the main building.

Conclusions

A reputable hotel or commercial venue will want your business, provide you with good service, and be up front about costs. This includes service fees and the possibility of extra services not included in the package. A reputable vendor will not approach the bridal couple or the parents (or other funders) during the festivities to ‘suggest’ added extras.

Responsible consumers will go into the negotiation with a good idea of their budget, will ask questions, and take note of what is provided and what is not. They will gather information and pricing on several possibilities even if only to make comparisons.

Word of mouth is probably the best way to get information and feedback about location, caterers, and other service providers. Website recommendations from purported customers should be taken with a grain of salt.

If the wedding is at home or at a location where you are organizing the event, attention to detail and awareness of overall cost will be your job. You can and should delegate many tasks but ultimately, you (the bridal couple and/or the parents or other funders) will be the ones to oversee the whole event.

Finally, remember who you are. Getting wrapped up in the fantasy of a wedding will not translate into a fantastic experience on the day itself. You may not love being in a huge crowd. Or, conversely, doing karaoke might be ten times more fun for you than a quiet dinner with 30 relatives. Still, to think of your wedding day as your day is shortsighted and adolescent. You are celebrating with others and that celebration will be meaningful if it reflects a warm and inclusive approach. So whether your invitation list is 500 or 50, your reception do-it-yourself, or fully catered, keep in mind what fits you, your family and friends, and your budget.

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