Before you jump into searching through the hundreds of facilities we profile, identify what kind of celebration you want and establish selection criteria early. Here are some basics:
Your first big decision is to select a location that will make geographical sense to you, your family and the majority of your guests. Most people have special events close to home or office, 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 party destination. Given the California freeway system and traffic congestion, 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 easy to follow. 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 venue is in an area that gets bumper-to-bumper traffic. One solution is to schedule your get-together after 7pm when freeways are less congested.
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 co-workers, 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 if you live in the bay area or in a wine cave in Santa Ynez if you live in L.A. Just remember that if you’re planning a wedding that’s not local, a venue’s on-site coordinator or a wedding planner can really help: Many are experienced in handling destination events and can be a great asset.
Do you know what kind of event you want? Will it be formal or informal? A traditional wedding or an innovative party? Will it be held at night or during the day? Indoors or outdoors? Is having a garden ceremony or gourmet food a deal breaker? By identifying the geographical area and the most important elements of your dream wedding before you start looking for a venue, you can really narrow down your search.
How many people are anticipated? Many facilities request a rough estimate 60 to 90 days in advance of your function—and they’ll want a deposit based on the figure you give them. A confirmed guest count or guarantee is usually required 72 hours prior to the event. It’s important to come up with a solid estimate of your guest list early on in order to plan your budget and select the right ceremony or reception spot.
It’s also important to ensure that the guest count you give the facility before your event doesn’t change during your event. Believe it or not, it’s possible to have more people at your reception than you expected. How? Some folks who did not bother to RSVP may decide to show up anyway. In one case we know of, the parents of the bride got an additional bill for $1,200 on the event day because there were 30 “surprise” guests beyond the guest count guarantee who were wined and dined. To prevent this from happening to you—especially if you’re having a large reception where it’s hard to keep track of all the guests—it’s a good idea to phone everyone who did not RSVP. Let them know as politely as possible that you will need to have their response by a given date to finalize food and beverage totals.
Northern California, for all its (pardon the expression) faults, has got some great advantages weather-wise. Outdoor special events, ceremonies and receptions can take place throughout most of the year, and from September to November you can anticipate sunny skies and warm temperatures. However, when the mercury rises in inland areas, watch out. A canopy or tables with umbrellas are essential for screening the sun. In fact, you should 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 dutifully 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.
For the tiniest instant you picture yourself inflicting bodily harm on the coordinator or at least slapping the facility with a lawsuit, but alas, there’s really not much you can do. Whether a genuine mistake was made or the facility purposely gave your date to another, perhaps more lucrative party (this happens sometimes with hotels who’d rather book a big convention on your date than a little wedding), you’re out of luck. 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 nonrefundable), 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 that has the event date, year, time and space(s) reserved written on it, as well as the date your tentative reservation runs out. Then, just to be on the safe side, check in with the facility weekly while you’re considering other sites to prevent any possible “mistakes” from being made. 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. And even after you’ve plunked down your money and have a letter and/or contract securing your date, call the coordinator every other month to reconfirm your reservation. It pays to stay on top of this, no matter how locked in you think you are.
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 parking-challenged place like 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 car, or who are shocked at the $20–$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 much easier by having someone else handle the details. And often the relationships these professionals have with vendors can end up saving you money, too.
Food and Alcohol Quality
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.
If you’re not sure what to ask potential venues and event professionals, check out our QUESTIONS TO ASK category. We’ve put together lists of questions that come in very handy when you’re interviewing potential event locations, photographers, caterers, etc.
If you liked what you read about a venue in The Guide, then we recommend you make an appointment to see that location rather than just driving by. Sometimes an unremarkable-looking building will surprise you with a secluded garden or hidden courtyard. And sometimes the opposite is true—you’ll love the stunning façade, but the interior isn’t your style.
Incidentally, we’ve withheld the addresses of privately owned properties. Should you happen to know where any of these facilities is located, we urge you to respect the owner’s or manager’s privacy and make an appointment instead of stopping by.
When you do call for an appointment, don’t forget to ask for specific directions, including cross streets. You can also look up the location on HereComesTheGuide.com and print out a detailed street map. Try to cluster your visits so that you can easily drive from one place to another without backtracking. Schedule at least an hour per facility and leave ample driving time. You want to be efficient, but don’t over-schedule yourself. It’s best to view places when you’re fresh and your judgment isn’t clouded by fatigue.
Bring along The Guide or printed pages from the website.
We’ve listed the street address for each site, and our illustrations in the book often make it easier to identify the buildings you’re planning to see. And if you bring the book or web pages into the facilities with you, you can double-check our information with the site representative and jot down changes.
You can make notes in your copy of Here Comes The Guide, but have a small notebook or digital device handy, too. Keep track of the date, time and name of the person relating the information, and then read back the info to the site representative to confirm that what you heard is correct. Remember to have your notes with you when you review your contract, and go over in detail what you were told versus what’s in the contract before you sign anything.
Video is particularly useful for narrating your likes, dislikes and any other observations while you’re shooting a venue. However, if you’re just taking still photos, make sure you have a system for matching shots to their respective locations. You’d be surprised how easy it is to confuse photos. And bring extra batteries and whatever else you need to make your gear work properly.
Many facilities will hand you pamphlets, menus, rate charts and other materials. Develop a system for sorting and storing the information that keeps your notes, photos and handouts together, clearly labeled and easily accessible.
Some of the more attractive venues book a year to 18 months in advance. If you actually fall in love with a location and your date is available, plunk down a deposit to hold the date.
When you make the initial phone call, confirm that the information presented in Here Comes The Guide is still valid. Show or read the information in our book to the site’s representative, and have him or her inform you of any changes. If there have been significant increases in fees or new restrictions that you can’t live with, cross the place off your list and move on. If the facility is still a contender, request a tour.
Once you’ve determined that the physical elements of the place suit you, it’s time to discuss details. Ask about services and amenities or fees that may not be listed in the book and make a note of them. Outline your plans to the representative and make sure that the facility can accommodate your particular needs. If you don’t want to handle all the details yourself, find out what the facility is willing and able to do, and if there will be an additional cost for their assistance. Venues often provide planning services for little or no extra charge. If other in-house services are offered, such as flowers or wedding cakes, inquire about the quality of each service provider and whether or not substitutions can be made. If you want to use your own vendors, find out if the facility will charge you an extra fee. For more help with working with a location, see our “Questions to Ask an Event Location” on page 22.
Another factor to consider is your rapport with the person(s) you’re working with. Are you comfortable with them? Do they listen well and respond to your questions directly? Do they inspire trust and confidence? Are they warm and enthusiastic or cold and aloof? If you have doubts, you need to resolve them before embarking on a working relationship with these folks—no matter how wonderful the facility itself is. Discuss your feelings with them, and if you’re still not completely satisfied, get references and call them. If at the end of this process you still have lingering concerns, you may want to eliminate the facility from your list even though it seems perfect in every other way.
On the other hand, don’t let your rapport with a banquet coordinator or site rep sway you to book a venue you aren’t in love with—there’s a lot of turnover in the hospitality industry, and you may call Brittany one day only to—surprise!—be referred to Brian. So if Brittany was your main reason for choosing this place, you could be in for a big disappointment if you and Brian don’t hit it off and suddenly the venue’s shortcomings really stand out.
It’s easy to get emotionally attached to a location, but remember that it’s not a done deal until you sign a contract. Now’s the time to be businesslike and put your emotions aside. If you can’t do that, get a non-emotional partner, friend or relative to help you review the small print and negotiate changes before you sign. Remember all those notes you took when you first visited the site? Compare them with what’s actually written in the contract. No matter what someone told you about the availability of a dance floor, the price of pastel linens, or the ceremony arch, you can’t hold the facility to it until the contract is signed. Places revise their prices and policies all the time, so assume that things may have changed since you originally saw the site or talked to a site representative.
If you’re not happy with the contract, prepare to negotiate. Before your appointment with whoever has the power to alter the contract, make an itemized list, in order of importance, of the changes you want. Decide what you’re willing to give up, and what you can’t live without. If in the end the most important things on your list cannot be addressed to your satisfaction, this is probably not the right place for you. It’s better to find another location than to stay with a facility that isn’t willing to work with you.
We know you’d rather not think about it, but for more information about budgeting for your wedding, click here. You can do it!