It took me about an hour to learn those three are almost universally mutually exclusive.
In the three weeks after my engagement, my mother and I contacted and visited fourteen potential reception sites, some decidedly more upscale than others. What we discovered, though, was that cost didn’t always equal better service or even a better location. Even more important, after hours of number crunching with my fiancé, I realized that, no matter where we held our reception, the total prices at each venue would be within a few hundred dollars of the other venues’ costs. The less we paid up front, the more we would end up spending on decorations or other embellishments. The more we paid up front, the less we would sweat the details that add up quickly.
Along the way, I learned a few tricks about how to spot hidden costs in reception packages, how to negotiate away some of the expense, and how to figure out what you just can’t do without.
1. Weigh the Venue’s Aesthetic Pros and Cons.
For my dream wedding, an elegant reception site was a must. In my quest for the perfect venue, I visited country clubs, ocean front resorts, quaint bed and breakfasts and historic meeting halls. While some looked perfectly lovely without sprays of flowers bursting from the side tables, others looked dog-eared, like a worn paperback book that’s been passed from one reader to the next. Although I realized most of those locations would look revitalized with a facelift of potted trees and plants, I calculated the money I would spend on decorations and quickly came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be cost effective. The lesser cost of those sites would be completely offset by what I’d spend sprucing it up.
Now, if you’re simply looking for a wide open space where you can set up a dance floor and party away, reserving a less expensive venue is definitely the way to go. But if you want to create a sophisticated atmosphere, do the math before immediately ruling out the sites that come with their own built in mood, whether from ornate architectural elements or a stunning view.
2. Make Sure the Site’s Feel and Amenities Blend with Your Vision.
You might find a hip loft that offers a great price for a Sunday night or a grand ballroom that will comfortably seat your 300 guests, but if you want a traditional wedding or a relaxed country-style affair, neither location works for you. No matter how cheap they may be.
Don’t sacrifice your wedding style for a location that upsets the mood you’d like at your reception. Don’t be overwhelmed by the chef’s watermelon carvings if you had your heart set on an eight course French dinner. Don’t zero in on the breathtaking landscape if you’re planning a nighttime reception. Make sure the site offers what your wedding needs, not what made someone else’s wedding beautiful.
I only took Danny to one reception venue — the very first one we checked out — and by the time we left, he’d already had too much. The overbearing site coordinator left such a bad taste in his mouth that he calmly requested I visit the rest of the sites on our list alone.
Site after site, I met aloof or blunt or saccharine-y event coordinators. By the time I visited LPGA International, I’d gotten tired of coordinators who couldn’t care less about my vision for my reception — coordinators who just wanted to sell me their most expensive package — coordinators who tried to convince me their site was better than my first impression. Then I met Lorraine. Following a thorough tour of LPGA, we settled in to a table in the clubhouse’s bar. Within minutes, Lorraine was excitedly affirming my color scheme and offering ideas of how to implement it throughout the reception. She wanted to know what kind of food my fiancé and I loved. We discovered we had mutual friends and acquaintances, and chatted about other weddings she’d overseen. Lorraine, as much as the beautiful site itself, sealed the deal: I had found my reception site.
A few weeks later, I took Danny to see the site. He was delighted with the views and the rooms’ layout — and with Lorraine, too. When your fiancé tells you he’s glad you picked a certain site because of the coordinator, you know you’ve found a gem.
Don’t rely on adding up the numbers in your head or you will be dismayed when you read the final price. Just multiplying the price per person by your number of guest leaves out to major costs: gratuities, which usually range from 18% to 21%, and taxes.
Ask the on-site coordinator to draw up a quote that includes everything you might want at your reception — from a dance floor to an ice sculpture to butlered ahi tuna bites to valet parking. Once you have your high-end estimate (which will probably be astronomical; don’t panic), you can begin slicing and dicing to fit your budget. That’s what Lorraine at LPGA International, did for me. She also drew up two quotes: one based on a plated dinner for 175, the other based on an hors d’oeuvres reception for the same number of guests. It was incredibly helpful as my family and I worked on figuring out how much and where to spend our money.
5. Ask if You can Skip Unnecessary Ad-Ons or Waive Fees.
At one reception site I visited early in my hunt, I ran headlong into the harsh reality of cake cutting fees. I’d never heard of them before: the fee a reception venue or caterer slaps on to each slice of cake they cut and plate. At that venue, the fee was $2.50 per slice — something I simply could not afford on top of the projected bare minimum $3.00 per slice the cake itself would cost.
The coordinator quickly assured me the site would waive the cake cutting fee if I would wave the dessert that came with the meal. Since I was serving my guests cake anyway, I decided saving myself the extra cash (and, of course, saving my guests the extra calories) would be well worth it.
Although I opted to have my reception at another location, I held on to the little nugget of wisdom I’d gleaned: trade-offs are always open for discussion, and no bride should be afraid to ask about swapping one service for another.
Through a very odd series of events, we were forced to change our wedding location from a beautiful old church I’d attended as a child to the smaller, far less beautiful church where Danny and I met. I say we lucked out, even if we’ve downgraded from a church with gloriously exposed rafters and a bell tower to a small building with stark white walls. Why? Because now our guests are just ten minutes from our reception site. And that’s ten minutes on a straight road.
Keep the distance your guests have to travel in mind, but don’t let it be your only deciding factor. Think about how difficult the reception site will be to find, and whether it’s an easy drive. But if your dream site is a hike from your wedding venue, I’d still say go for it.
My friends Tom and Brittany got married in Fresno in May 2008. Their reception site was almost 45 minutes away, at Yosemite Lakes Park. The drive was picturesque, through the rolling California foothills, orange and olive groves, and vineyards. The site itself was gorgeous, propped under the foothills beside a sparkling pond. If they hadn’t held their reception outside of town, many of their guests from the East Coast would have flown in and out of Fresno without ever seeing the spectacular scenery!
When I began going over reception details with Lorraine – before signing a contract! – I quickly discovered that there are more rules to receptions than I’d realized. Example: I can bring in my own wine instead of using theirs, but a “corking fee” applies to each bottle used.
Get a solid idea of what each venue will and won’t let you do. Some venues work exclusively with certain florists, DJs, bakeries, photographers, videographers, and caterers. Others require that you use their on-site caterer; some even require that you purchase your wedding cake through their baker. If you have your heart set on a certain photographer or really wanted to get a mocha almond cake like the one you saw at your cousin’s wedding, make sure your reception site will allow you to – or, where applicable, make sure they will work with you to recreate what you’d wanted to get from another vendor.
Dance floor? Check. Table linens? Check. Cake cutting service? Check. Magical dolphin show for your guests?
Okay, so the last one’s a joke (although Marineland in St. Augustine, Florida, really does offer dolphin weddings!) but the other services are included in my package at LPGA. I liked finding a site where so many of the things I would need were included in my package price. At many reception sites I checked out, I had to pay for each service or item individually, and it added up quickly – and became much more expensive. One site, for example, charged $50 per hour per staffer who helped with the setup and breakdown. I knew that meant we were looking at several hundred dollars on top of the cost of the room rental. At my site, I didn’t have to worry about any of that. Look for locations that provide all-inclusive packages. Even if they look expensive at first glance, when you tear up the numbers, it’s usually cheaper than paying per item.
Also be sure to find out if your site provides decorations, complimentary centerpieces, etc. Most reception sites offer basic centerpieces such as mirror chargers and hurricane lamps or votives, or small candelabras. If you’re looking at having your reception at a hotel, ask if they provide a free honeymoon suite for the wedding night, and if they will discount rooms for wedding guests. If you’re having your reception at a golf club, as we are, ask about discounted golf for a bachelor or bachelorette party outing. Don’t be afraid to ask what else your reception venue can do for you.