Wedding Planning 101: Selecting A Wedding Venue

If you're like most newly engaged couples, you are over the moon about your engagement but have no clue where to even begin with the wedding planning process. If you have a significantly large budget, I highly recommend hiring a wedding/event planner (ie: In the Now) to take control. However, if you are like me and were working on a smaller budget, this is what I suggest...

1) Pick Your Wedding Date - Sit down with your fiancé and pick a handful of weekends that work for the both of you. I recommend picking about 5-6 weekends, as the venue you marry at will be the main deciding factor of your date. If you are both pretty open, then select the month you would like to marry and go from there. Many venues are booked a year out so the more flexible you are with your date, the more chances you have of getting the venue you want. 

You might be wondering how long you need to actually plan the wedding - I recommend no less than 6 months. Anything shorter than that, and I just hope you have lots of help!!! I was able to plan mine in 7 months while working full time but I had a lot of help from my Mom and I had a lot of knowledge already from working in the industry and assisting others in their planning process. If you are a procrastinator, a safe bet would be about a year.  

2) Find the Venue - This is one of the most challenging tasks in the wedding planning process. I searched high and low for my wedding venue, literally. I searched as South of San Diego to as North as Napa Valley and as West as Hawaii and the South Pacific and well, I didn't look east. My husband, Dan and I were pretty open to wedding locations, which made researching a bit overwhelming at times but it also left us confident in our decision because we knew we had seen all that was out there. The factors that I found the most important when contacting venues was availability, cost (and what's included in that price) the max number of guests that can attend and rules on food and alcohol.

The difficulty in finding an available venue will largely depend on how quickly you plan to marry once you've been engaged and how specific you are about your wedding date. Obviously, the better sounding dates (ie: 10/11/12 or 12/12/12) are bound to book up the quickest.  Keep in mind that some venues will offer a discount for Friday and Sunday weddings or even for winter weddings. Also, many venues are willing to come down in price a bit if you are willing to bargain. If you have decided to get married rather quickly after your engagement, you can often find non-booked venues willing to give you a discount. They would rather make a fraction of their usual cost than nothing at all.  If you do decide to wheel and deal, just be sure you get it in writing. I was repeatedly promised HUGE perks, such as bringing in my own alcohol, no cake cutting fee, and many other MAJOR cost saving items that would allow me to get married at a very upscale venue. Luckily, I asked the coordinator to specifically put these "throw ins" into my contract at which point in time she quickly went back on her word and could no longer promise those items. I was glad that I hadn't signed anything at that point but was greatly disappointed in the false hope that was promised to us.

A few organizational tips:
To avoid getting lost in an abundance of information from the venues you contact, create a spreadsheet and a separate e-mail folder just for venue information. This probably sounds super Type A crazypants but I made and Excel spreadsheet of the venues that seemed hopeful and categorized them by general location (ie: Hawaii, Central CA, Southern CA, etc). This was helpful in eliminating venues that had hidden fees and/or required extra rentals (ie: port-a-potty, lighting, valet service) that seemed like a pain and a big extra cost to deal with. I recently found that the master wedding planners of Martha Stewart Weddings have their own helpful template for venue information that can be printed off here

Deciding Factors for Selecting a Venue:
You may be wondering why I mentioned a port-a-potty rental but trust me, if you are considering an outdoor venue you most likely will need to rent them. Almost all of the outdoor venues I looked at on the central coast required port-a-potty rentals and additional lighting. These "little" unexpected items can be HUGE deciding factors when picking your venue. Here are some other items you should consider:

a. Cake Cutting Fee 
Almost all venues that have their own on-site caterers will require you to pay a cake cutting fee. This can be anywhere from $2.00 - $8.00+ per slice. THIS DOES NOT INCLUDE THE PRICE OF THE CAKE! If you have 200 guests attending your wedding, figure you will pay at least $400.00 for the caterers to serve the cake plus the actual cost of the cake. Most venues do not let you serve your own cake and if you try and get creative and serve cupcakes, they will still charge you the fee. Do keep in mind, this tends to be one of the services that can be negotiated with your venue. 

b. Valet/Shuttle Service
Venues that do not have ample parking require you to hire a valet service for your guests or they ask that you shuttle them in from a designated location. Even if it is not required, you may consider a shuttle or valet service when your wedding venue is in a remote location and you would like your guests to avoid driving a dark and winding single-lane road after a few drinks. Find a nearby hotel and offer the shuttle service to this spot so guests can party without worrying about their drive home.

c. Distance 
The distance of your wedding venue can be tricky. If you're looking at venues an hour or two away from where the majority of your guests live, they will most likely want to drive home after your wedding. Due to this long drive, guests may want to bail early, might not have as much fun because they have to be alert for the drive home, etc. If you pick a location that is more like 3-5 hours away, guests are much more likely to make a weekend out of it and get a hotel room or rent a house to share with other friends. If your wedding is a destination, be sure to scope out hotels and vacation rentals for your guests and put it on your wedding website. It is also a good idea to reserve a few hotel rooms nearby for family and the bridal party as soon as you book your venue. 

d. Alcohol: Corkage Fee?
If a venue allows you to bring in your own alcohol, chances are that there is a corkage fee. The corkage fee can be anywhere from $10.00-$30.00/bottle. I know a bride who figured it was a better deal for her to buy $2.00 bottles of wine and pay the $20.00 corkage fee because a bottle of the venue's cheapest bottle was $29.00. In the end, she saved $9/bottle but this might not work in your favor if you plan on serving higher quality wine. 

If there is no corkage fee at your venue, be sure to see if the venue has an alcohol license and what the regulations are on it... some only allow beer and wine while others allow hard alcohol. Your caterer most likely will have a license to serve but you will want to confirm this or else you can get in to deep trouble! 

e: Rentals
The majority of venues do have their own supply of tables and chairs which is included in the rental fee but this is not the case for all. Many venues only rent to you the space and it is up to you to find a rental company for tables, chairs, linens, silverware, plates, glassware, barware , etc. Even if a venue does provide these items, ask to see them. If you were hoping for chocolate chivari chairs and see that they have white plastic folding chairs, you will have to either settle for the plastic or upgrade to the chivari,.. another unexpected cost. If your venue is outside, don't forget that you need a backup plan for unpredictable weather. You may need to rent a tent if it rains. If your wedding is earlier in the day and it is super hot, you may want a tent to provide shade. Tents run from about $1,500.00-$3,000.00+. 

f. Lighting & Sound
Lighting, sound and a generator for electricity can be required depending on how much light and sound you would like to provide at your reception. For reference, stringing market lights above your reception area will cost about $600.00. Venues will also have regulations on sound. I found some venues that only acoustics and some that didn't allow music at all. Some will require sound to be shut off by 8 or 10 pm and some will let you party all night. Be sure you ask about this, especially if you and your guests like to party.

g. Restrooms
Some venues have a limited number of restrooms on site and require port-a-potty's to be rented depending on the number of guests attending. Port-a-potty's can be quite gross so I recommend the VIP units. They are self contained, come with a sink with running water, soap, paper towels and seat covers. I ended up renting a two-stall VIP until for my reception and it was $450.00 total - including delivery and pick up. 

h. Max Occupancy
All venues will have a max occupancy. This can put a real damper on your dream venue if you want to invite 300 guests and it can only hold 150 ppl. If you are set on your guest list, you can easily eliminate venues that don't meet your occupancy needs. 

i. Availability
If you only have a select few dates that you can get married on, a venue's availability will play a huge part in your decision making process. If you are pretty flexible on dates, you have the liberty to consider many venues and not be limited by their availability. 

j. On-site Staff Required? (ie: Coordinator/Security/etc.)
Some venues will include a coordinator who is on-site the entire day of your wedding. He/she will be there to make sure that the ceremony and/or reception runs smoothly. To be more specific, the venue coordinator should make sure that timing of the ceremony and reception are going according to plan. Make note that venue/church coordinator is NOT a wedding planner! If you have more questions on this, just ask me what you want to know. 

Every couple will think that certain factors are more important than others so sit down and figure out what is most important to you before you begin your venue search. 

Where Did I Get Married?
After eliminating several other destinations, Dan and I sought out an outdoor space on the coast of central CA. We had wanted a very natural landscape that overlooked the ocean, not too much to ask for, right? Apparently it is, as we found no such place. We came across several places with rustic barns (a little too rustic), vineyards (overpriced), olive farms (cute but not "it"), etc. but none of them were the right fit for us. Then we found our dream venue in Santa Barbara, the Bates Ranch House - I am talking 1920's Spanish ranch house, perched above the famous surf spot, Rincon - 180 degree ocean view from the front, 180 degree mountain view from the back (The first 5 photos of this post are of the Ranch). Did I mention, 1920's SPANISH RANCH HOUSE in SANTA BARBARA? The interior of the house comes dreamily fully furnished, sleeps up to 12 people and must be rented out if you want to marry there.  I could just picture Dan going for a surf the morning of the wedding while my close girlfriends and I sipped coffee and champagne on the veranda, leisurely getting ready for the wedding. Needless to say, the place took my breath away and no, I did not get married here.
As highly tempted as my Mom and I were, we could not afford to book the place. The venue requires you to book the home for the entire week ($5,000.00), pay a rental fee for hosting your wedding there, a security guard and shuttle service was required, electricity for lighting and music needed to be brought in and all rentals and catering had to be brought in as well. By the time we added up all these costs, we were well over our budget. It really wasn't that hard to let go of this dream but it sure would have been amazing.
In the end, Dan and I decided that all that mattered was that the reception was at an outdoor space that could hold all of our friends and family. So, to answer the question, we ended up having our ceremony at the historic Serra Chapel at the Mission San Juan Capistrano. My parents were married in this church and my family has a very long history in San Juan Capistrano; it was perfect. Our reception was in my dear friend's parent's backyard and it was beautiful (I'll go into more details later on our process of throwing a reception for 200 people in a backyard later). Looking back, I wouldn't change one thing about my wedding.

If you have any questions or want more details on anything I touched on, let me know and I'll be happy to assist you!

Top 5 photos: SB Digs & SB Chic
Bottom 2 photos: Personal/Kaylee Cassanova Photography


  1. Thank you for giving us a tip on how to choose the perfect wedding venue for our dreamed wedding.

  2. Thanks for your information. Those wedding venues are lovely!

  3. Your post is very informative and Whether you're intending an informal gathering, a great extravagant black-tie affair, or something in between, there are evening reception venues to meet your particular style as well as event considerations.

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  7. Nice reading!!! I love your thoughts. A wedding is a very special moment in our life so, we should choose very carefully a wedding venue. There are many factors are related to the wedding venue and make sure you are aware about all of them. Some particular wedding venues allow their special packages also so, it would be better to use them.

  8. Yeah, we have just got engaged and are over the moon these days. We have started our wedding planning also. We would like to host reception party at vintage venue Houston TX. But we don’t know about any good planner that can help us organizing our dream wedding.