Invaluable tips on how to select a wedding location in Northern California
as excerpted from the Here Comes the Guide book
Your first big decision is to select a location that makes geographical sense to you, your family and the majority of your guests. Most people have special events close to home, so there’s not much to consider. But if you pick a spot out of town, you need to think about the logistics of getting everyone to your event site.
Guests may be traveling a considerable distance by car to get to your destination. You’ll save them lots of time and trouble if you provide, along with the invitation, specific directions on a separate map drawn to scale. Include symbols indicating directions (north, south, etc.) and the names of the appropriate off ramps. If you’re not sure about exits, landmarks or street names, take a dry run of the route to make sure everything on your map is accurate. And, if your function occurs after dark, do the test drive at night so you can note well-lit landmarks that will prevent your guests from getting lost—both coming to your event and going home. If you’re having a Friday evening event, take commuters into account, especially if your event site is in an area that gets bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Even if you have few constraints when picking a location, it’s still worth considering the total driving time to and from your destination. When it’s over two hours, an overnight stay may be necessary, and you may be limited to a Saturday night event, since your nearest and dearest won’t be able to spend hours on the road during the week. If you have guests arriving by plane, it’s certainly helpful if there’s an airport nearby, and if your coworkers, friends or family enjoy drinking, try to house them close to the event site.
There’s no reason why you can’t contemplate a special event in the Santa Cruz Mountains or in a wine cave in Calistoga. Just remember that the further out you go, the more time it will take to choreograph your event.
You’d think that it’s an obvious consideration, but you’d be surprised how many people, especially brides and grooms, are unrealistic about what they can afford. Part of the problem is that most people aren’t very experienced with event budgeting and don’t know how to estimate what a location is going to cost, let alone all the other wedding products and services.
Part of being realistic involves some simple arithmetic. Before you make any major decisions or commit any of your funds for specific items, take a serious look at your total budget and make sure it can cover all your anticipated expenses. If it can’t, it’s time to make some hard decisions. If you have a very large guest list and a small pocketbook, you may need to shorten the list or cut back on some of the amenities you want to include. No matter who foots the bill, be advised that doing the homework here really counts. Pin down your costs at the beginning of the planning stage and get all estimates in writing.
Do you know what kind of event you want? Will it be a formal or informal affair, a traditional wedding or an innovative party? Will it be held at night or during the day, indoors or outdoors? You can set the ambiance or tone of your function by selecting the right location, but know what you want before you start looking at locations or the sheer number of options will be overwhelming.
Northern California, for all its (pardon the expression) faults, has got some great advantages weather-wise. Outdoor ceremonies and receptions can take place throughout most of the year and, from September to November, you can anticipate sunny skies and warm climes. However, when the mercury rises in inland areas, watch out. A canopy or tables with umbrellas are essential for screening the sun. Ask each facility manager about the sun’s direction and intensity with respect to the time of day and month your event will take place. Guests will be uncomfortable facing into the sun during a ceremony, and white walls and enclosed areas bounce light around and can hold in heat.
If your event is scheduled for midday in July, for example, include a note on your location map to bring sunglasses, hat and sunscreen. If you also mention words like “poolside,” “yacht deck” or “lawn seating” on the map, it will help guests know how to dress. In summer, you might want to consider an evening rather than a midday celebration. Not only is the air cooler, but you may also get an extra bonus—a glorious sunset.
If you’re arranging an outdoor party November through April, or in the foothills or mountain areas, expect cooler weather and prepare a contingency plan. Despite our region’s favorable Mediterranean climate, it has rained in May, June and July, so consider access to an inside space or a tent.
Sometimes, places have strict rules and regulations. If most of your guests smoke, then pick a location that doesn’t restrict smoking. If alcohol is going to be consumed, make sure it’s allowed and find out if bar service needs to be licensed. If dancing and a big band are critical, then limit yourself to those locations that can accommodate them and the accompanying decibels. Do you have children, seniors or disabled guests, vegetarians or folks who want kosher food on your list? If so, you need to plan for them, too. It’s essential that you identify the special factors that are important for your event before you sign a contract.
Let’s say it’s the first day of your hunt for the perfect spot, and the second place you see is an enchanting garden that happens to be available on the date you want. You really like it but, since you’ve only seen two locations, you’re not 100% sure that this is the place. No problem. You decide to keep your options open by making a tentative reservation. The site coordinator pencils your name into her schedule book and says congratulations. You say thanks, we have a few more places (like 25) to check out, but this one looks terrific. Then off you go, secure in the knowledge that if none of the other sites you visit pans out, you still have this lovely garden waiting for you.
The nightmare begins a couple of weeks or perhaps months down the road when you’ve finished comparison shopping and call back the first place you liked to finalize the details. So sorry, the coordinator says. We gave away your date because a) oops, one of the other gals who works here erased your name by mistake (after all, it was only penciled in), b) we didn’t hear back from you soon enough, or c) you never confirmed your reservation with a deposit.
To avoid the pain (and ensuing panic) of getting bumped, here’s what we suggest: instead of just being penciled in, ask if you can write a refundable $100-250 check to hold the date for a limited time. If the person in charge is willing to do this but wants the full deposit up front (usually non-refundable), then you’ll need to decide whether you can afford to lose the entire amount if you find a more appealing location later on. Once the coordinator or sales person takes your money, you’re automatically harder to bump. Make sure you get a receipt which has the event date, year, time and space(s) reserved written on it, as well as the date your tentative reservation runs out. When you finally do commit to a place, get a signed contract or at least a confirmation letter. If you don’t receive written confirmation within a week, hound the coordinator until you get it, even if you have to drive to the sales office and stand there until they hand it over to you.
Parking is seldom a critical factor if you get married outside an urban area, but make sure you know how it’s going to be handled if you’re planning a party in a congested area such as downtown San Francisco, San Jose or Berkeley.
A map is a handy supplement to any invitation, and there’s usually enough room on it to indicate how and where vehicles should be parked. Depending on the location, you may want to add a note suggesting carpooling or mention that a shuttle service or valet parking is provided. If there’s a fee for parking, identify the anticipated cost per car and where the entry points are to the nearest parking lots. The last thing you want are surprised and disgruntled guests who can’t find a place to stash their cars, or who are shocked at the $20 to $40 parking tab.
If you’re a busy person with limited time to plan and execute a party, pick a facility that offers complete coordination services, from catering and flowers to decorations and music. Or better yet, hire a professional event or wedding consultant. Either way, you’ll make your life considerably easier by having someone else handle the details.
Food and alcohol account for the greatest portion of an event’s budget; consequently, food and beverage selections are a big deal. Given the amount of money you will spend on this category alone, you should be concerned about the type, quantity and quality of what you eat and drink. If in-house catering is provided, we suggest you sample different menu options prior to paying a facility deposit. If you’d like to see how a facility handles food setup and presentation, ask the caterer to arrange a visit to someone else’s party about a half hour before it starts. It’s wise to taste wines and beers in advance, and be very specific about hard alcohol selections.
This may come as a surprise, but not all services and event equipment are covered in the rental fee, and some facilities hide the true cost of renting their space by having a low rental fee. It’s possible to get nickeled and dimed for all the extras: tables, chairs, linens, glassware, valet service and so forth. You can also end up paying more than you expected for security and cleanup. All these additional charges can really add up, so save yourself a big headache by understanding exactly what’s included in the rental fee and what’s not before you sign any contract.