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How to Pick a Wedding Venue: 10 Critical Keys

Nov 21, 2019
By Wedding Spot

The ring is on your finger and you’re looking forward to your big day, and your life together afterward. You might also be feeling a bit of trepidation about diving into wedding planning, especially if you’re thinking about all of it at once. If the to-do list seems daunting, it’s time to step back and break it down into manageable tasks — starting with picking the perfect wedding venue

Of course, this is a key piece of the wedding-day puzzle and requires a fair amount of thought, research, and exploration. But, there’s good news! Once you pick the site of your celebration, other wedding decisions — including theme, decoration, and even dress style — tend to build naturally off the venue’s location and style.  

So we’ve rounded up the top 10 keys for how to pick a wedding venue (yes, the one of your dreams!). From when to look to how-to book, this guide to wedding venues gets you on the right track — and keeps you there.

How to Pick a Wedding Venue in 10 Steps:

1. Give yourself plenty of time to look at wedding venues

Plan to book your wedding venue at least nine to twelve months in advance. You may find the most popular locations and dates are booked up even earlier. Plan ahead so you’re not feeling rushed into a decision. Allow for two months of research, tours, and soul-searching so you don’t sign a contract in haste.

If you get engaged in December (the most popular month for engagements), aim for a mid-winter or early spring wedding to give yourselves plenty of time to research and book your venue. If you get engaged in July, you’re looking at an autumn wedding. Of course, you can find venues and plan a wedding over a longer or shorter period, but you’ll need to adjust your timeline accordingly. 

The Wedding Spot makes it beyond easy to explore possible venues from the comfort of your couch. Researching sites online is a great way to start seeing what’s out there in detail, and clarifying what you two really want for your wedding day.  

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2. Ease the decision process with non-negotiables

For some people (those who’ve been dreaming of their wedding day forever), this part comes pretty easy. They know what they want in a venue—and what they don’t want.

For most, however, settling on the non-negotiables for a wedding venue is new territory. Spending time on this is well worth the effort because it eases the process and helps you avoid a choice that isn’t a great fit for your wedding style. 

Consider the little questions you can answer without hesitation as you start researching your top contenders. These answers will narrow the field significantly. No sense researching (and falling in love with) a wedding venue that’s not a possibility. 

Here are questions to help you pinpoint your non-negotiables:  

  • What season or dates do you prefer? Whether you know your exact day or have a specific season in mind, your wedding date plays a role in the venue you select. Research annual events or seasonal holidays that may impact your ability to book specific locations, or that put a damper on your guests’ ability to travel and stay over. Do you have hotel venues in mind for a wedding during high tourist season? 

  • What’s your general location preference? Is a local wedding the obvious choice, or is your heart set on a destination wedding? Do you have your heart set on a barn wedding and live in a city? Do you want to have a summer wedding in your parent’s backyard, but they are planning a vacation overseas in the same time frame? What are the requirements for getting married and celebrating in a house of worship?  

  • How hands-on are you? Do you want to do it all yourself, tackle a few projects but leave the rest to the experts, or step back and let someone else manage every detail?

  • What’s your budget? This one’s easy: Skip venues that are out of your budget. It’s nice to dream, and it doesn’t hurt to explore more expensive listings for ideas—you may be able to incorporate them into your final choice. But, if it’s out of the budget and there’s no room for adjustment, consider options that won’t drain your resources.

  • How many people will you invite? Do you expect a huge guest list, or a smaller gathering? While you don’t need an exact headcount this early in the process, narrow down the search if trimming your guest list is out of the question.

  • What’s your wedding planner’s expert opinion? Your wedding planner’s knowledge and relationships with vendors can help make the initial hurdles easier to manage. Use their expertise as you work through the process—it will save you time, and may prevent snags down the line.

  • Do you want the ceremony and reception in the same location, or different venues? An all-in-one venue saves travel time, but what if you have a different site for the vows in mind? The ceremony location may be more difficult to book than a reception venue; secure your ceremony location before you settle on a venue.

Consider these factors when your ceremony and reception will be in two places:

  • What is the distance between venues? A little travel is okay, but how much time do you want your guests on the road versus celebrating?

  • How will guests get from one location to another? Will you provide a shuttle, do they drive, or is there public transportation between the two?

  • Will traffic get in the way? For weekday weddings, the evening commute may extend the time it takes to get from Point A to Point B.

  • Is there enough parking in both locations? In non-urban venues, people tend to drive. You’ll need enough parking on hand, or you’ll have to help organize ride shares.  

  • How far will guests have to walk in either place? Keep your guests in mind when making this choice. Long walks and challenging terrain are difficult for the disabled, the elderly, and the parents of very young guests.

If you’re keeping the ceremony and wedding venue all in one place, consider:

  • Where will guests go between the ceremony and reception?

  • Does the staff change over the room? 

  • How long does the changeover take?

  • Is there ample space for cocktail hour? 

  • Is there room for entertainment during the changeover period?

3. Narrow down your wedding venue options even further

When you’ve got a broad idea of location, necessary capacity, and the budget, settle on your wedding venue style

Beaches, gardens, vineyards, and barns offer a natural backdrop. Or, do you prefer the elegance and glamour—and choreographed proficiency—of a ballroom wedding? Or, perhaps historic charm or the easy atmosphere of a rustic setting suits your taste. 

Modern, unconventional venues can turn a wedding into an experience. There’s no need to stick with a ballroom or barn: Let your personality guide your decisions. Recreate the time he surprised you with tickets to your favorite musical by hosting your guests at an opulent theater, or let art stand in for decorations when you rent an art gallery. Or, invite your guests to a lakeside retreat for a weekend-long event.

Don’t count anything out in the beginning. Create a wish list and see what stands out—dream big. If a venue is too pricey, see if an off-season or non-Saturday date fits within your budget. Look for themes within your list and consider which details you’re not willing to give up. Refer to your non-negotiables again, if needed.

4. Determine if your favorite wedding venues meet your needs

If not, can you fill in the gaps? If the on-site options for your wedding photos don’t suit your vision, are there picturesque sites nearby. If it’s a hotel venue, are there rooms available for your out-of-town guests? Other things to ask or research at this stage:

  • Does the venue offer day-of snacks and champagne for the bridal party?

  • When can you start decorating for the wedding?

  • When can the vendors arrive?

  • Do they have adequate wedding insurance coverage?

  • Do they offer coat-check service in cold weather? 

  • Is there an overtime fee if the party or the vendor breakdown goes longer than planned?

  • If you are managing the food and decor yourself, can you break down the day after the wedding? 

  • Does your preferred table layout (long, family-style rectangles) leave enough room for your entire guest list? (Pro-planning tip: Round banquet tables fit the highest number of guests; square tables fit the least.)

  • Are there accessibility challenges for guests in wheelchairs or using canes and walkers?

  • Can the venue host your rehearsal dinner at a discount?

Finally, two key questions that have an outsized impact on staying within budget and designing your dream wedding:

  • What are the venue’s vendor restrictions? Some venues only work with specific vendors or provide the services themselves. While you may fall in love with a venue, the approved vendors may not be your style. Find out if you can bring in an outside caterer or supply your own liquor.  When bringing in an outside caterer, check out the available workspace. Your final cost rises quickly if the caterer must have the refrigerator and cooking equipment delivered. The dream of a wedding catered by a variety of food trucks may not be feasible at a venue that restricts large vehicles or has a quaint, yet difficult-to-pass driveway.

  • Is there a guest minimum? It’s not all about paring down. Some venues have a minimum number of guests they require. The sunset dinner cruise you are dreaming about may not set sail without a certain number of guests on board—unless you pay that minimum. Are you willing to pay a minimum 100-guest charge, even if you’re only inviting 60 people?

5. Pay attention to your dream decor ideas

What pops to mind when you think of your decor aesthetic? Dreamy swaths of sheer material, ceiling to floor; a room filled with flickering candles; boughs of greenery decking railings? 

Hotel ballrooms may already have opulent design features that don’t pair well with the visions of weathered tables aglow with fairy lights dancing in your head. Historic venues may have restrictions on candles, hanging decorations, string lights, bubbles, and more that limit your ability to create the romantic atmosphere you’ve been planning. A short set-up window may stand in the way if your decor is intricate and time-consuming.

Hands-on brides may prefer the ability to customize an à la carte venue, while an all-inclusive location can cut stress and save precious time. Supplied linens, chairs, and tables may be basic—if they don’t suffice, you may be able to rent them elsewhere.

bride and groom smiling on wedding day.jpg

6. Visit your top five wedding venues in person

Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many options. Narrow it down to five to seven venues and schedule site visits. Plan ahead, leave plenty of time to explore, and get a feel for the place. As you tour, scope out photography locations on the property, check out the restroom situation, envision your celebration in the space, and talk about the details that matter most to you.

What’s the overall vibe of the place? Get an idea of whether the event staff is the right fit. Do they give straightforward answers to your questions, or are they hesitating? Go prepared: check out our venue site tours checklist so you don’t miss a thing.

Site visits are challenging for destination weddings, especially if a vacation doesn’t fit into your budget or schedule. Use the destination weddings’ page on the Wedding Spot to your advantage. Destination venues offer details and pictures of all the essentials, including the availability of indoor and outdoor spaces, beach wedding set-ups, and wedding sizes.    

Another option is asking for a virtual tour from the venue manager. Have them walk you through the venue on a video call to help you get a ‘feel’ for the place that doesn’t always come through in photos.     

7. Be realistic, be flexible, and adjust as needed (remember: there is no perfect wedding venue)

Your site visit may have exposed some challenges to the location, such as minimal on-site options for photographs or your preferred dates already booked for another couple. Some other concerns that might pop up at this point: 

  • Construction projects happening on-site during your event. Are they willing to give you a discount? 

  • Your preferred dates were booked after you set up the visit. Are you willing to budge on the day? If not, scratch the venue off the list and move on.

  • You notice significant foot traffic from the general public at the site. Are there separate bathrooms and services, such as the bar for the wedding? 

  • The venue hosts multiple events at the same time. Do you have the budget to buy out the venue?

  • The cocktail hour room is worse for the wear. Is there a remodel on the calendar?

Do any of these issues overlap with your non-negotiables? If not, you may decide the pros still far outweigh the cons of a top venue choice. 

8. Take a little time and then follow up 

After the visit, take a day or two to absorb what you saw, and all the information you received. Discuss what you liked and disliked with your fiance. A venue or two (or three) will likely drop off the list at this point. Follow-up with the venue manager of your remaining choices to ask the questions you forgot, review what you talked about on the tour, and clarify anything that is still unclear.

Talk with as many people as you can with first-hand experience of the venue, including your wedding planner and vendors. Ask what was great, where the venue fell short of expectations, and anything that could help your day go smoothly. Ask for photos of real weddings—not staged shots for promotions—to get a feel for the space.

Request referrals for clients who have worked with the venue. Glowing reviews—or stern warnings—feedback from real couples can help you know what to expect. Comb through reviews on social media and rating platforms, as well. 

9. Make your final wedding venue decision

Bring all of your careful work together to decide which venue is the one. Make a list of pros and cons for each of your final venue options. There may be room for customization: If your number one choice is knocked down a notch because they don’t have a designated bridal suite for primping, request the use of a private room with brunch and mimosas instead.

When comparing costs, it’s about more than just the base fee. Additional costs like chair rentals, extra lighting for portraits, decor, uncorking fees, or caterer charges may drive up the price. It may be a better deal to book the venue that supplies the table linens and sound system than one where you have to provide them. Even if the cost isn’t a concern, you may prefer to rely on the venue to manage the details so you have fewer pieces in motion.

Once you’ve made your choice, double check your gut reaction. Does it still feel like the right choice? Does the thought of your wedding at this venue put a smile on your face? Do you feel comfortable, as though you’ll be taken care of by the venue managers? If yes, move to the next step!

10. Sign the wedding venue contract (after reading the fine print)

When you’ve made your choice, request a contract from the venue. Go over every line of the agreement and review it with your wedding planner, if you have one. Watch out for additional costs like set-up or delivery fees that weren’t discussed previously, review the cancellation and refund policy, and ensure you understand exactly what you’re signing.

Remember: Your date is not reserved until the contract is signed, even if you request a soft hold. When you return the contract to the venue coordinator’s hands—it’s official and breathe a sigh of relief.  

Put the date on the calendar, and take your time moving to next steps. When you’re ready, learn what goes into planning the rest of your wedding, or explore stunning cheap wedding ideas if you’re on a budget.  

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Wedding Spot

The Wedding Spot blog is designed to help couples navigate every step of the wedding planning journey. From before the engagement to after you say “I do,” our goal is to give you the tips, ideas, and inspiration to prepare for your big day — and all that comes with it.