Your immediate "to do" list: Book the venue, hire a caterer, decide on basic decor. With these major tasks done, you'll be ready to focus on the smaller details.
Get It in Writing
Make sure you have signed contracts from all your vendors and that you've read the fine print and resolved any questions.
Lighting can make or break an event, but to create the right ambience, you don't necessarily need to hire professionals to cast patterns on the dance floor. You can set the mood simply by flanking an outdoor walkway with dozens of luminaria or setting dining tables with elegant candelabra or clusters of small candles; you might also replace harsh white bulbs in fixtures with more flattering amber ones.
Elegant front-door decorations, which can be as low-key as swags of greenery or lanterns leading toward your venue, serve as a visual welcome whether adorning a building or a tent and ensure that everyone's first glimpse of the party is from its best vantage point.
Especially if you are planning a destination wedding or marrying on a holiday, ask guests to mark their calendars. Ideally, mail out these announcements at least four months before the wedding to ensure the guests you really want to attend the celebration will be able to attend.
Even if you've decided against an overall wedding planner, you'll want a cool-headed pro on hand to ask guests to be seated for dinner, help organize toasts, and handle any problems. Ask if your venue can provide this service; if not, some independent planners will work for a single day.
If possible, designate a separate cocktail area and close the reception space to early arrivals. To create a sense of drama, neither you nor your guests should see the behind-the-scenes machinations and last-minute setup gaffes. Keeping the doors closed will also let your photographer take unhurried shots of the reception decor before the crowd arrives.
Stylish tokens needn't be expensive. These biodegradable bowls look sumptuous when wrapped with gauzy fabric and labeled with paper strips that are laser printed in a pretty font. Fill with mini meringues, an economical treat; either make them yourself or ask your caterer to provide them.
Many venues charge more for after-dark affairs. With an outdoor reception, if you opt for a luncheon event, you'll also cut back on or eliminate costs associated with lighting, such as setup and generators. These over-sized paper pom poms make just as big a statement as twinkling lights.
You'll save on liquor, food, and possibly vendors' fees if you shave 30 minutes or an hour off the party. So it doesn't feel rushed, cut a little from everything (make the cocktail hour a "cocktail 45 minutes") instead of eliminating events.
Set a Time Limit
Your guests have already spent hours, if not days, at pre-wedding events and at the ceremony itself; they're likely to be tired. Though you may wish the reception would never end, it should last no more than five hours. Also, make it clear that any after-parties you schedule are entirely optional.
Young guests will enjoy goodies that are all theirs. Give budding brainiacs a potted succulent pet (they're resilient enough for youngsters to care for) and magnifying glasses to inspect their new green friends. Spark creativity by offering coloring books, crayons, and colored pencils.
An unplanned ramble can interrupt the flow of a party and make everyone uncomfortable. Encourage spur-of-the-moment speeches at the rehearsal dinner so the reception includes only words from the host, the newlyweds, and the best man and maid of honor. If you're concerned that your speakers may overindulge, schedule toasts to take place early in the festivities.
A few small comfort items are always appreciated. Consider stashing a basket of inexpensive slippers near the dance floor for women who are tired of their high heels. Have hand lotion, tissues, or hair spray in the restrooms. At an outdoor fete, stock sunscreen, bug repellent, paper fans, and perhaps even a few cozy wraps for the women in case of a sudden evening chill.
Less is more when it comes to a wedding reception, so consider ditching the 30-minute video montage or the fireworks display for something less elaborate. Even a gesture as simple as distributing sparklers at night's end can charm guests and keep them from feeling overloaded.
Your hospitality should extend to photographers, videographers, waiters, and musicians, as well as any other vendors working at your reception. Make sure they have water, scheduled breaks, and, most important, a meal. It need not be the same one that you're serving to guests, but it should be nourishing and delicious.
If your budget allows, pamper guests with a plated meal instead of a buffet -- it's an especially nice gesture. If you'd prefer a buffet, be sure to have enough serving stations to prevent long lines, and ask your caterer to prepare and serve plates of food for any elderly guests in attendance.
Can't decide -- or can't agree -- on whether to have live entertainment or a deejay? Split the difference and hire musicians for cocktails and a disc jockey for dancing.
Ask What They'll Wear
Most deejays or bands will don tuxedos or suits, but it's best to clarify attire with them to avoid surprises. For a casual event, such as a beach reception, you may want them in something less formal.
Make sure you've designated someone, such as the best man, to distribute gratuity envelopes you've prepared at party's end. You'll need to tip all service providers, including the catering and reception staff (unless gratuity is added to the total bill), cleanup crew, and limousine drivers.
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