The Keys To Planning A Great Wedding Or Party

First In A Series   Part 1:  Decisions, Decisions…

                Planning a successful event, regardless of whether it is a wedding reception, birthday party or banquet, requires navigating a seemingly endless checklist of choices: the date, the theme (if there is one), the décor, etc. Like a mental set of dominoes, many times your decision in one area of the process can have an effect on other decisions.  For example: if you are planning a formal affair with guests in Black Tie and Full Length gowns, you might want to avoid barbecued chicken wings as an appetizer. Planning a champagne toast for your Bridal Party? Make sure your facility has the appropriate liquor license.

                When planning a successful get together, there is no such thing as too much attention to detail. To illustrate, check out an exercise given to students in certain creative writing classes:

                The instructor would pick out a student and ask him or her to “tell him a story”.

“Well,” the student would begin, “there was this guy who…”

“Wait,” interrupted the instructor, “ who was this guy? What was his name? Was he married? Any Children?  What did he do for a living?”

The student would proceed to fill in the various gaps.  We might learn that the ‘guy’ is named Bill, he has been married for 17 years to his first wife Cathy, and they have three children: 2 sons, Jake and Rick, ages 13 and 9,and one daughter, Lauren, 5…

This would go on and on, with every possible gap in the story being required to be thought out.  In the same way, when your guests think back on the “story” of your wedding or party, you don’t want the first thing they remember to be the important details that were not addressed.  You need to get answers, and before that, you need to determine the appropriate questions.

                Who is going to perform your ceremony? Where will the reception be? What kind of food will be served? Who is going to prepare it? Will it be served on disposable plates or on china? Will there be bar service? What kind, and who is paying for it? These are just some of the basic questions you have to ask yourself at the beginning of your planning.  Other things to consider are less obvious.  The following will assist you in identifying those questions, and pinpoint the answers that are right for your personal taste and budget.

                Part 2 will discuss the decisions you need to make in picking your venue…

The Keys To Planning A Great Wedding Or Party

Part 2:  Options Available For Every Taste & Budget


                In Part 1 we pointed out that planning a successful event required thinking through a seemingly endless list of decisions that will affect your guests’ experience, and how every choice you make is a factor in others.  Part 2 considers the selection your event venue…

Choosing the site of your reception (and often the ceremony itself) is a critical piece of the puzzle, with a myriad of options available. These can range from literally your own back yard to the elegance of a Country Club or a renovated historic building such as the newly refurbished Embassy Theater/Indiana Hotel complex in Fort Wayne. Hotel Ballrooms, Reception Halls and Restaurants with large function rooms are popular options, as are Park Pavilions and Church halls.  All have both advantages and disadvantages, which go well beyond mere cost:

·         Country Clubs, while often beautiful inside and out, are rarely available to non-members;

·         Function spaces within hotels provide convenience if you are having a large number of guests coming in from out of town. The facility’s sales department will likely offer you a block of rooms at a discounted rate if a large enough number of rooms are needed. You might even consider having the rehearsal dinner there as well. In larger cities, however, your guests may be charged a substantial fee for parking.

·         Reception Halls are generally a lower cost option, as are Neighborhood Clubhouses, Church Halls, Parks, and various “Barn” venues.  These will differ greatly with regards to style of décor, availability of tables and chairs, etc.

·         Outdoor Spaces, such as gardens and parks, can be beautiful but come complete with unwanted guests (insects), plus the unavoidable possibility of inclement weather. If you intend an outdoor function, you should at least arrange for an indoor “Plan B”.

Planning a wedding, anniversary party or other large function is stressful enough; the last thing you need is to discover that your chosen facility will not adequately meet your needs after you’ve paid a deposit. You can, however, eliminate many of the potential negatives by asking the right questions up front:

·         Does the facility have a required caterer, an approved catering list, or allow outside food to be brought in?

·         Is there a kitchen? How is it equipped?

·         Does the facility have bar service?

·         Do they have their own tables and chairs?  Is there a separate charge for their use?

·         Do they set up the tables and chairs and do cleanup, or is that your responsibility?

·         What is their cancellation policy?

·         Is your deposit refundable?

·         Is there a charge for parking?

·         What is the policy regarding security guards?  What is the cost? Who arranges for them?


The list goes on. Start making a list of what specific things are important to you for your event, and make note what each potential vendor’s answers were. This will make it easier to compare before making your final decision.


If at all possible, do an on-site walk through. Most facilities look larger in their photos on websites or brochures than in person.  Will it accommodate your number of guests? Keep in mind that space occupying features like Head Tables, DJs, Photo Booths, etc., all take away from usable space for tables.


How many guests do you expect? A good rule of thumb (though neither exact or scientific) is you will have a 15-20 percent drop off from your invitations to your RSVPs. (For example, if you invite 100 people, normally you will get RSVP conformations for 80 to 85.)  Another 5-10 percent of your RSVPs will normally not be able to attend due to illness or other unexpected events; in the above example the actual number of attendees from the invited 100 would probably be 75-80.


The vast majority of facilities will give you an honest answer about how many guests they can handle comfortably (as opposed to legal occupancy, which are usually much higher than would be practical.)


Finally, be sure to ask about any special restrictions at the venue.  These can include Smoking Policies, tthe forbidding of Glitter or Helium Balloons, and/or not allowing anything to be taped or tacked to walls.


Once the venue is set and your date reserved (and deposit paid), it’s time to decide about your food to be served.  We will address that in Part 3…

The Keys To Planning A Great Wedding Or Party

Part 3:  Choosing Your Menu


            In Parts 1 and we discussed that planning a successful event required thinking through decisions that will affect your guests’ experience, and how every choice you make is a factor in others.  Part 2 considered the selection your event venue, and how there are choices available to suit nearly any taste and budget.  In Part 3 we begin the multi-faceted discussion of Food and Beverages.

Full Menu? Light Snacks?

                One of the most important, and potentially most frustrating, aspects of planning an event is the series of decisions regarding your food and beverage selections, for one inescapable reason: the refreshments at your party or wedding will be one of the primary things your guests will remember (especially if things do not go as planned). 

Are you planning a full sit-down dinner? A light buffet where guests make their own sandwiches? A cocktail party with hors d’oeurvres? Comfort Food? You have many options, and the decision should be made based on more reasons than just cost. Is your event formal, or more casual? Who are your guests?  They are probably a combination of many age groups, ethnicities, and socio-economic classes.  Do you want to dazzle them with your unusual assortment of treats, or make them feel comfortable by providing traditional favorites?  You can, of course, get lots of opinions on all this, but when it is all said and done, you have to make the final decision.

Another factor to keep in mind are local and regional traditions.  For example, a sit down, formal dinner might be considered customary in big cities like Boston or Chicago, but may make guests in a less Metropolitan setting uncomfortable.  You should also be cautious about serving a menu that is dramatically different from what your guests probably expect.  Just because you fell in love with some exotic dish that you enjoyed on your recent vacation to the Caribbean or Asia, does not mean that your guests will appreciate it as much as you do.  This is not to say that your entire menu needs to be predictable, although familiarity with the food leads to making your guests comfortable, and is a big reason why so many weddings and other catered functions tend to serve similar items. If you do decide to surprise your attendees with a menu that is foreign to them, it might be prudent to have some more traditional options available as well; just don’t be surprised if the afterthought “boring” food runs out before your more sophisticated items.

While deciding what the food is going to be, and how it is to be served (buffet style, sit down service, etc.) you also need to factor into your budget whether you will be using china, metal flatware and glassware or going the disposable route. China, Flatware and Glassware can easily add an additional five to ten dollars per person to your catering. Remember, you need more than just, for example, one hundred plates for one hundred guests. You will need a number of extra dinner plates to accommodate accidents, people who go through the buffet line multiple times, and so forth.  You will also need additional plates and utensils for cake and appetizers. Coffee Cups…you generally have to pay for these by the setting, and it adds up quickly. 

Disposable plates, utensils and drinkware, by contrast, are much more attractive and sturdy than the paper plates and Styrofoam cups of old.  Party stores, warehouse clubs and big box retailers all carry a variety of such items, often in a wide range of colors, and a significant savings.

Once you have made at least a preliminary determination of the kind of food you want, you now have an even more important decision of to make: Who Is Going To Prepare It? 


Keys to Planning a Great Wedding or Party

Part 4:  Who Will Prepare The Menu?


            Once you have made at least a preliminary determination of the kind of food you want, you now have an even more important decision of to make: Who is going to prepare it?  Let’s compare the possibilities:


When Choice Is Limited

                Often times the decision of who is going to prepare your event’s menu is made for you, because many facilities require you to use their caterer.  This is particularly true at Hotels, most Country Clubs, and Universities and often at Banquet Halls.  These facilities have enormous costs in staff and commercial kitchen equipment, so they understandably do not want their venue be used for an event without profiting from the catering business.  Many times the required caterer is a large national company that may not have a lot of local flexibility. Many facilities such as government owned buildings (Coliseums, Convention Centers, etc.) may have an in-house kitchen staff or contracted food company, but will also allow food to be brought in by an outside caterer. In these instances the outside caterer is usually from an “approved list.” There is, however, a cost for this flexibility: it is common in such situations for the outside caterer to be required to pay the venue a hefty fee for the privilege of doing business there (to obviously make up for the lost revenue to the facility). The catering company can rarely afford to absorb this fee, (nor should they) so it will be passed on to you. This can result in your catering cost being 15-20 percent higher. The venue is obviously hoping you will decide to make use of their offerings to avoid the additional expense.

            For the sake of this installment, however, we will assume you are in the position of having your event at a facility (like THE COTTAGE EVENT CENTER in Roanoke) that affords you multiple options for your meal preparation.


Caterer? Friend? Yourself?

            While there are dozens of hybrids and variations within the categories, there are in essence two options to consider when deciding who will prepare your meal: Some form of professional catering, or “self-catering”, which for our discussion will include having the food prepared by a friend or a relative. There are definite advantages and disadvantages with each category, and numerous levels within each type. Let’s analyze doing it yourself…

            First and foremost, if budgetary concerns are the primary decision making factor, then some form of self-catering is definitely an option to consider, and the reason is obvious: lower cost. Preparing the meal yourself, or more commonly having a friend or family members do it, saves you labor costs (unless Grandma plans to hand you a hefty invoice for the Potato Salad). In most cases you should save significantly on the cost of the food itself by purchasing it yourself and eliminating a caterer’s markup. You can save even more by purchasing items in bulk from wholesale/retail hybrids like Sam’s Club, Costco and GFS Marketplace (operated by giant restaurant wholesaler Gordon Food Service).  These outlets primarily sell food in larger packages (#10 cans of vegetables, for example) as they are intended for use in preparation of meals for larger groups. These are the same items often used by restaurants and caterers and are relatively simple to prepare.

            Another advantage of the self-catering route is when the bride (or groom, guest of honor, etc.) has a particular fondness for a unique food item that might not be available through more commercial sources.  These can range from “Aunt Mary’s Barbecue Chicken” to certain ethnic foods that no caterer can recreate as well as Mom & Grandma. While in rare cases a caterer might allow certain food items to be served along with their products, this is generally avoided due to Health Code and Liability Insurance reasons.  Therefore, if having familiar comfort foods are a high priority for your event, you may have no choice but to hold your gathering at a Church, Park, Clubhouse or other facility that allows outside food…or at someone’s home.

            Disadvantages to self-catering?  Start with the notion of asking a friend or relative to be included on your special day…by working their tail off.  Make no mistake, if Uncle Joe (or more likely Aunt Carol or Cousin Estelle) is in charge of the kitchen, that person is going to have very little enjoyment at your wedding. Their memories of your big day will be sweating over pans of baked beans coming out of an oven. Hurrah!

            Secondly, people who make their living as caterers are professionals for a reason. They have training and experience. Your family may have great cooks to prepare a fantastic dinner for 20 people at Thanksgiving, but unless they have experience in mass food service they don’t automatically have the skill set for feeding several dozen guests.  Commercial caterers and restaurants also are regularly inspected for health code compliance.

            It is not uncommon for the cooking at self-catered events to be handled by a friend or relative who is indeed a professional food service person, one who is experienced at the challenges. Many times the providing of this service is considered the “wedding gift” from that person. If you are fortunate enough to have someone to whom this description applies, you have the best of both worlds: low food and labor cost coupled with professional expertise.

            While it is not uncommon for weddings that are self-catered to still contract commercially for the wedding cake, many choose to have a friend/family member produce that as well.  Cupcake arrangements or towers are particularly popular in such instances.

            Despite being a lot of work to accomplish, self-catered events are a viable money saving option to consider.

In Part 5 we will discuss the other end of the spectrum: commercial catering.