Many couples dream of having an outdoor wedding, and tents allow you to go ahead and plan it without worrying about the season or the weather. With a tent, you can hold your ceremony and reception in any venue you like -- a botanical garden, sandy beach, or your own backyard. And today's options can fit in beautifully with any wedding design.
If you are considering using a tent, the time to contact vendors is right after you set the date. Many tent-rental firms are full-service, providing everything that's needed for a tent wedding and reception: tables, chairs, linens, and place settings, in addition to flooring, lighting, generators, heating or air-conditioning units, and portable restrooms. Most have a showroom with samples of the choices available, as well as portfolios with photographs from previous events.
Once you choose a location, the vendor should schedule a site inspection, preferably six months in advance, in order to view the grounds and determine the best place to set up the tent. He will also set a master time line for delivery of equipment as well as floor installation.
The three major tent styles are pole, tension, and frame.
The classic push-pole tent has a fabric roof over a straight line of high-center poles that slope to a shorter set of support poles. The tension tent has recently become a favorite of vendors and brides; its soaring center poles create a "sculpted" exterior. Both are generally a minimum of 30 feet wide and, by adding sections, can be extended to almost any length. Push-pole and tension tents require about 8 additional feet of clearance on all sides for anchor ropes and stakes (frame tents can be erected without clearance if necessary).
If your site is small, you may decide on a frame tent; it can be as narrow as 10 feet. These tents are supported by a framework of pipes in the ceiling, which is often concealed with a fabric liner. For a more extensive guest list, you'll likely want a pole or tension tent, which can be made to accommodate a large number of people.
If you're having an open-air ceremony at the reception site as well, it's a good idea to reserve a backup tent for it in case of bad weather. Since you'll need only chairs (not tables), this tent can be smaller than the one for the reception. For a Saturday wedding, the company usually needs to know by the Wednesday before if, based on the forecast, you want to install the backup tent.
The push-pole tent, shown with open sides, has a billowy silhouette.
A tension tent, here with windowed sidewalls, has a high-peaked roof.
Frame tents are ideal for narrow spaces.
Tents offer a great deal of flexibility in designing your wedding.
Left: A complex grid of pipes supports the ceiling of a frame tent, leaving the interior unobstructed by poles. Right: Tall center poles provide a sweeping sense of space below.
Left: Sidewalls with windows are decorative and practical. Right: Clear vinyl sidewalls allow guests to look out at the view and still be sheltered from the elements.
Left: Flooring beneath the tent keeps guests' heels from sinking into the ground. Right: Even if tables and chairs are on the ground, guests can glide around a dance floor assembled from parquet-wood panels.
Left: A small canopy forms a formal entrance to the reception area. Right: With steps at each of the entrances, guests have easy access to raised flooring.
A popular choice with any tent style is to have sidewalls all around that can be raised for ventilation or lowered for protection from the elements. Solid white vinyl offers privacy; clear vinyl or walls with windows allow for views. Another area to consider is flooring.
There are basically three options: the plain ground, a partial floor for dancing, or a full floor under the tent. The ground, of course, is the least expensive one but it may be difficult to walk on for guests wearing heels and can get messy if it rains. If the tent is to be placed on a deeply sloped area, your vendor will probably suggest constructing a full -- and level -- floor.
Jane Case Frost of Stamford Tent and Party Rental in Stamford, Connecticut, says many couples believe a tent wedding will cost less than a banquet hall or hotel ballroom, "but it can be more expensive because you're essentially building a reception hall and renting all the accoutrements plus a staff." In general, the push-pole tent is least costly and the frame tent most expensive because constructing the latter's ceiling framework is labor-intensive.
Teresa Spencer of Wallace Tent & Party Rentals in Ellsworth, Maine, says that in her area, a tent that would seat two hundred people for dinner -- 40 feet by 120 feet -- plus a dance floor and basic solid sidewalls would average $3,200. Tim Smith of AARCEE Party and Tent Rentals in Minneapolis quotes $3,350 for a similar configuration.
The Fine Print
Before signing a contract, ask tent vendors for references from customers who've hired them for weddings. And be sure your contract is fully itemized with all fees and services time frames for tent setup and breakdown, deposit amount (usually 50 percent), balance-due date, and cancellation policy. The contract should also specify the policy for a backup ceremony tent if needed.
Generally, if the backup tent is installed, you pay the full fee, even if you don't use it. If it was reserved but not erected, you pay half price. The vendor must ensure that the tenting material is flame retardant, that the installation complies with all local regulations, and that he is covered by liability insurance.
Once you've got all the details "covered," you can relax and enjoy a beautiful evening under the stars.
"A tent is a blank canvas -- you can create anything you want, anywhere you want it. And if the tent is installed in your backyard or the garden of a friend, you will have as much time as you need, even days, to set up." --Jane Case Frost, Stamford Tent and Party Rental
With carefully chosen decorations, the effect of a wedding under a tent can be magical.
Electric lanterns are charming and provide soft illumination.
Structural poles all but disappear when wrapped with beautiful fabric.
Graceful ceiling liners give a fairy-tale look to a tent while concealing unsightly pipework.