Almost immediately after telling people that we are engaged, the first thing that they almost all have asked is “Have you set a date?” Seriously – when we had been engaged less than 2 days – people were asking us this!
But, setting a date is important. You need a date to plan basically everything else. And, setting a date makes it suddenly very real.
If you plan on getting married in your parents’ yard or in a non-popular wedding venue, you might have your choices. If so, awesome for you! Unfortunately for us, Charleston is a top wedding destination, and we are definitely limited to dates available at venues that we are considering. And, we quickly found that things book up over 12 months in advance! Most of next spring (2015) was booked up in January of 2014!
Picking a venue is super important – it sets the tone for your entire event. However, we had no clue where to begin! There are so many beautiful venues in our area – it was so hard to narrow it down. Here are some tips of what we did to decide.
First, pick a location. For us, it was Charleston, South Carolina. That’s where we live and work and where a lot of our friends are. However, we will still have tons of people traveling out of state. Since we are from different places, we figured that at least half of our guests would have to travel no matter where we did it, so we might as well make it so we don’t have to travel, too! Plus, Charleston is beautiful and a great wedding venue.
You might consider your home town, a place you vacationed or visited as a child, a place where a lot of your extended family is, the town where you went to college, or a totally random destination that you’ve always wanted to visit!
Next, come up with a tentative guest list. Sean and I each made a list and then asked each of our parents for their input. Making a guest list is hard – you don’t want anyone to feel left out! However, I think that it is important to be realistic about the number of people that you want at your event and keep it to that. When you start realizing that costs everything for a wedding are based per person, you quickly change your mind on some people.
Next, think of key features that you are looking for. The number one feature for me was on the water! I love creeks and rivers and harbors and the ocean – and Charleston has plenty! I knew that a waterfront venue would be beautiful and make me very happy.
Also, think of features that you don’t like. We know that there are tons of beautiful plantations in Charleston, but we were not interested. I didn’t like the idea of having to bus people far out into the woods, plus I was looking for something a little more light hearted and fun and less historical and fancy. Think back to other weddings you have been to and things that you did not like about them – and avoid that from the start.
Next, consider other important features – before you even look at anything. We really wanted to be able to have our ceremony on-site somewhere, just for convenience for our guests. So, we made sure to really consider the ceremony space at every site.
Now, start finding sites and booking viewings! We found most of our sites on the internet. My tip is to search for photos of real weddings on photographer’s blogs or websites. Look for photos that you like and then scroll to see what venue that was. Most venues have a web site with a contact email. I sent them all emails like this:
Hello! My fiancé and I are planning to get married next spring and are very interested in your venue. We would love to hear more about your events and schedule a time to come take a tour. We are available between 12-1pm and after 3pm during the week and all day on Saturdays.
You will probably get a canned response with a PDF of their events package. It might include sample floor plans, menus, photos, and a price sheet. Make sure to read this whole thing. If there is a deal breaker, you don’t want to waste anyone else’s time.
Analyze their price sheet. Is it in your budget? A lot of wedding sources recommend that you keep the reception (including site, food, cake, bar, and rentals) to 50 percent of your total budget. Remember to factor in any tables you might have to rent, mandatory fees or taxes. If it’s out of your budget, save yourself the heartbreak and don’t go visit it!
You might want to also go ahead and ask about availability. Though availability could change any moment, it’s good to get a general idea of the venue’s open dates. If you are set on a Saturday or a certain month, be sure to tell them now. If they don’t have your date, there’s no point in continuing with this venue and just getting more attached to it!
When you do look at dates, make sure to google them. For example, March 28, 2015 sounded like a nice date to us. It was a Saturday in the spring but technically in March (which is often less expensive than April). However, a quick google revealed that it’s the date of the Cooper River Bridge Run – one of the biggest events in town. We knew that it would be a problem booking hotel blocks when 40,000 runners would be coming to town and quickly crossed off that date. Be mindful of holidays as well. While you might not mind getting married on Mother’s Day, it might make your friends sad to not see their moms. In the end – it’s up to you, just do your homework in advance so there are no surprises after you’ve made that non-refundable deposit.
Now, time for the venue tours!
It’s worth noting that most places want to do tours during business hours – so go ahead and be upfront with your boss. I tried to schedule all of our tours for the last hour of the day, so that I could come into work 1 hour early and not have to take vacation time. Do what works for you but know that you might be seeing 10 or more venues – and you want to save that vacation time for the honeymoon!
When you go to tour a place, have questions prepared. Here are some of the questions we asked:
- Where do guests park? Is there a charge for that?
- Where are the closest hotels? Are they in walking distance?
- Do you have a set list of vendors or can we use anyone?
- Do you have a bridal dressing room?
- What is the rain plan?
- Do you provide day-of coordination?
- What time can caterers and other setup people get in to the venue?
- How many people can the space fit for a seated dinner?
- Where do people typically put the dance floor?
- Do you include any tables or chairs?
- Can we see the bathrooms that our guests would use?
- Where do people typically hold their exits?
- Do you allow sparklers, bubbles, flower petals, candles?
- Would you allow us to bring in our own special beer (in addition to purchasing a package)?
- What is the best backdrop for our photographer to take pictures on?
- Where would we put the photobooth/ice sculptures/whatever is important to you?
Some people might prefer to take notes on each venue. Since we were walking around, I didn’t. We didn’t see enough that I got confused.
In the end, you have to decide what factors are most important to each of you.
For me it was:
1) Waterfront location
2) Pretty, “Charleston” vibe
3) Separate spaces for ceremony, dance floor, dinner
For Sean it was:
1) Pretty photo opportunities outside
2) Smooth flow from ceremony to cocktail hour to reception
3) Availability of parking and ease of transportation to hotel
Finally, follow your gut. We each had different favorite spots (though Sean said I could have final veto power) until we visited our last venue. We walked out and I asked Sean what he thought and he said “it’s my new number one” and I said “mine too!” After seeing that they had our dream date, it all fell into place.
We will be back next week to share several waterfront venues in Charleston that we toured, and the pros and cons of each!