Traditionally, rehearsal dinners were thrown the night before the ceremony after the bride, groom, and their wedding party had walked through the paces of the next day. They'd all enjoy an intimate supper with the couples' families (toasts, roasts, you know the drill). But today, especially when it comes to devising a destination wedding, those customs have expanded. "Many people choose to start off the festivities with a get-together that includes everyone," says Martha Stewart Weddings editorial director Darcy Miller. "It's a great way to introduce your friends and family to one another in a relaxed setting, and take advantage of your fabulous location." On the following pages, top event designers from around the country offer their planning wisdom. Whether you choose to go big (dinner!), small (cocktails and light bites), casual (no shoes!), or fancy (killer shoes), just make it your own.
Find Your Theme
You may have toiled over the look and feel of your ceremony and reception, but keep it simple -- and different -- for your welcome event: "Design a party that's nothing like your wedding but still represents you and your groom," says Calder Clark of Calder Clark Designs in Charleston, South Carolina. Think of this fete as your wedding's playful alter ego: "Use any quirky ideas or inspiration that may not have been wedding appropriate," says Michelle Rago of MR Destinations in New York City. She, for example, has orchestrated everything from a Southern soiree with boisterous square dancing and a live caller to a charming lobster feast in Maine. And consider all that your locale has to offer, then showcase it, says Todd Fiscus of Todd Event Design and Creative Services in Dallas. He recently pulled off a dinner in Mexico replete with a mariachi band and flame throwers. Special yet low-key also works. Book an iconic city restaurant or bar in the area, and let the seasoned staff handle the rest.
Kelly Brookshire and Gerald Pyle (both from Texas and shown on the first page) selected a spot on a public beach in front of Fess Parker's Doubletree Resort and enlisted event designer Lisa Vorce of Oh, How Charming! in Los Angeles to create a relaxed affair in Santa Barbara, California (shown above). "Kelly and I are both really laid-back," says Gerald. "This party represented us perfectly."
Start by Six
The goal is to leave everyone wanting more at the end of the evening (and not feeling wrecked the next morning). So begin on the early side. "I'm a big fan of the four-hour event," says Clark. "After that, something starts to break down." This gives people plenty of time to meet and have some laughs, and you can get to bed at a decent hour. "It's also sweet when the bride leaves her own party to get ready," she says. "It steeps the whole event in the importance of the day to follow." End on a high note, and everyone will anticipate the good times ahead.
Pop the Bubbly
The quickest way to get the party started is to give your guests what they want: a drink. "It loosens people up and helps ease them into vacation mode," says Vorce. Signature cocktails are always hits, as are interactive setups, like Champagne pyramids at a cocktail party or do-it-yourself Bloody Marys for a brunch.
Add Local Flavor
Without a doubt, foods that are indigenous to the area are always high quality and big crowd-pleasers. Rago suggests a miniature panini bar for a Mediterranean locale, for example, a make-your-own conch ceviche station for a Bahamian party, or a "fresh catch" table stocked with local fish for waterfront festivities. If you want to have a seated meal, vary the serving styles to keep things casual. "Start with a plated first course followed by a family-style entree and a buffet dessert," says Rago.
Help Forge New Friendships
All of your loved ones are finally in one place, and many of them have probably heard about, but never met, one another. (And let's face it, in your mind they should all be fast friends.) "When you throw people together in a new place, they organically strike up relationships," says Fiscus. To speed the process, offer an activity that takes the cocktail-conversation pressure off and lets them mingle naturally. Lacy Branch, owner of Lacy Branch Events in St. Louis, once created a scavenger hunt for guests that ended at the welcome-dinner site. She also spearheaded a pre-party at a chic bowling alley, serving up libations, local microbrews, and some friendly competition.
Another idea? Put out a simple game that most people know how to play -- or can learn quickly -- like horseshoes or bocce. Clark set up a "cornhole" beanbag toss, a game the bride and groom both grew up playing in Ohio. "Activities like this are convivial and unexpected," she explains. "In the end, everyone wins."
Or work with what everyone has in common: you and your groom. A crossword puzzle, using your history as a couple for clues, will spark conversations. And if nothing else, warm desserts make great icebreakers. Roast marshmallows around a fire to bring friends together.
Toast, Roast, Reflect
Once you're all settled in, some entertainment is in order. And there are many ways to celebrate both your relationship -- and your friendships. Consider showing a photo slide show or a video of funny interviews with friends. Or give your families free reign (if you can bear it!). Clark, for example, once witnessed a rap performed in costume by a bride's family. "She was mortified," Clark says. "But everyone else was in hysterics."
Then follow it with some spontaneity. Ask your host (usually the parents of the groom) to say a traditional speech or blessing before opening up the floor to anyone else who wants to say a few words. (To avoid catching folks off guard, have someone walk around during the cocktail hour to ask them if they'd like to speak, and create a list to work from.) And at the end of the night it's your turn: "It's always a nice touch when the happy couple get up to thank everyone for coming," says Rago.