One of the key ingredients to planning a great wedding, the kind that guests will love, is putting together a smart, intuitive, and well thought out timeline for the day. We’ve all been to weddings where we’ve felt bored or in danger of passing out from starvation and the dancing bit seems to always starts late and feels like it ends too soon. One of the really key ways of avoiding all that is to carefully tailor your timeline for the day around what you have planned for your guests.
One Size DOESN’T Fit All
It’s tempting to choose a time your celebrant or venue suggests without thinking too much about it, but remember they’re not going to factor in every element of your wedding plans so the start time they suggest won’t necessarily be the right one for you.
As with everything in my arsenal of wedding lessons learned the hard way, the process of getting the timings right is pretty organic but there’s a technique and some guidelines that will help you to figure out what’s going to work best. So where to start? This is one time where it’s actually not best not to start at the beginning.
Start At The End and Work Backwards
The best way to figure out the right timings of the wedding is to start at the end and work backwards. This is how you’re going to avoid missing out on an hour of boogie time because your speeches ran longer than you planned, so it’s where I always begin with every wedding day timeline.
Most bands or DJs will play from 8pm to 12am as standard, but if your venue has a later or earlier finish time then you have to factor that in and make sure you book your entertainment for the right times.
Once you know the “end time” available at your venue, as well as the hours your band is going to play for you, then you have a start time in mind for the evening party and you should work backwards from there. The end goal is to have everyone in the room and ready for the first dance at 8pm (or whatever is applicable). From there, just write down all the things you need to do and start allocating a realistic length of time to each element.
Bridal Party Preparations
The team doing your hair and make up will be able to tell you how long they will need on the day, but remember to schedule it so they are finished an hour before you’re due to depart. This leaves you extra time to allow for delays as well as photographs and it’s always better to feel relaxed than rushed.
Your celebrant should be able to give you an approximate length of time for your ceremony but as a rough guide…
Civil ceremony: 20 – 30 minutes
Humanist Ceremony: 30 – 40 minutes
Church Ceremony: 40 – 45 minutes
Church Ceremony with Mass: 1 – 1.5 hours
Also allow an extra 20 or 30 minutes after the ceremony for guests to congratulate you and say hello as well as any photos.
If your ceremony and reception are taking place at two different venues then you need to factor in time for transport. Allow additional time for traffic, delays and the time it takes for guests to get to their cars, gather belongings, park or get on and off coaches.
Cocktails, Canapés & Photographs
I’d usually recommend somewhere around two hours for the average cocktail reception but it all depends on what you have planned, how formal the wedding is and the number of posed photographs you have in mind.
This is the time when the bulk of your formal wedding photos will be taken and as each one takes about three minutes I always recommend couples limit their list of formal wedding shots to eight to ten to avoid this section becoming too long.
Work with your photographer on this and plan out the time they will need to get the shots that you want. If they want to take you off for some couple’s photos in a separate location then you have to allow for that and I always recommend scheduling in as many photos before the ceremony as you can (like group shots of the wedding party). Strategizing this really helps to cut down on the time that guests are left hanging around as well as giving you more time to enjoy the wedding and have fun with your guests.
This section is one of the trickiest parts to schedule, but try to carefully balance making sure the photographer has enough time to capture all those fantastic pics with ensuring guests aren’t bored or hungry. As a rule of thumb you will need to provide one drink per guest per hour plus a top up, so don’t plan on a two hour reception with one drink on offer because your guest won’t thank you for it. Also think about adding some extra food or entertainment to keep everyone happy if it’s been an early ceremony.
It’s amazing how long it actually takes to move 100 or more people into a room and sit them down. It’s a bit like one of those games at the fair when you hammer a bunny and another head just keeps popping up. It’s a wedding; people are enjoying themselves and they will take time chatting, some will be reluctant to leave the bar area and others will pop to the loo and I find it gets slower as the day moves on (and the vino flows) so always factor in extra time for any traditions or movements of guests through the day.
I always allow about 30 minutes in the schedule to seat wedding guests and I often ask ushers to help with helping guests to find their seats. If you’re having a receiving line then guests will queue to greet you as they enter the dining room but if not then this is a fantastic time to schedule in 30 minutes of couple’s photographs with your photographer while the guests are being seated.
First rule of wedding speeches: everybody thinks their speech is five minutes long (when actually it’s almost always more like fifteen). Speeches are such a wonderful part of the wedding day but they are also the part that most often sends the schedule into chaos so be realistic when planning this out. Try and limit the number of speeches to three and ask each person giving a toast to do a trial run and make sure they’re not speaking for longer than ten minutes. I usually plan for between 30 and 45 minutes for this section and find it’s closer to 45 minutes in most cases.
It’s becoming more popular to have speeches at the start of the meal, or to stagger them between courses and that’s great, but check with your caterer first to work out the best times to avoid any problems with service. You don’t want your chicken going dry if the speeches go on much longer than planned.
This is also another key time to make sure guests aren’t left hungry, so if you’re doing speeches before the meal, I often ask the caterers to provide bread or a mezze style starter so guests can munch while they listen.
As a guideline, it takes 1.5 hours to serve 100 people a three-course meal but the best way to put an accurate estimate on this is to ask your caterer. If you’re pushed for time in the wedding schedule and feel like the day is too long, a great way to save some is to have starters pre-set on the tables when guests arrive or to schedule speeches during dessert.
You can cut the cake at any time of the day, from the cocktail reception to just before the first dance so just allow 15 minutes for guests to gather and for the photographers to capture the moment. Bear in mind when planning when to cut the cake and serve it that it will take the caterers some time to slice and prepare it and they won’t be able to do this at the same time as preparing the meal.
Entertainment Set Up
Ask your band or DJ how long they need to set-up and what kind of sound check they need and factor this into the timeline. In rare circumstances the band or DJ will be able to set up earlier in the day, but more often than not they just arrive an hour before their start time for set up. So if you’re using the same room for dinner and the evening reception then you’ll need to schedule your dinner service and speeches to make sure the band aren’t setting up or doing a sound check during the speeches or the meal, which often means adding in 30 or 40 extra minutes after dinner for guests to chat and mingle while the band sets up.
At certain venues you’ll need to have a room turnaround where furniture is moved or the room is being prepared for the next part of the day with dancefloors, lighting or sound and stage equipment. Quite often this means moving guests to a separate area while the transformation takes place. Trust me when I tell you that the wedding day is really is going to whizz past soooooooo fast, so if there are periods of waiting added to the schedule then don’t be afraid to get creative and make use of this time to your advantage.
I really love adding in little extras to these parts of a wedding day; like a signature cocktail, surprise entertainment, fireworks or fun ideas with photography. There’s no reason you can’t break with tradition completely and use this time for speeches, cake cutting or even a dessert buffet and it can really help to make the day flow nicely to make a feature of waiting times.
Late Night Food
If you’re having some kind of late night food, I always recommend scheduling the service around the band’s break so guest don’t miss the fun while grabbing a bite. When you schedule that part, try and do it about 2 hours before the end of the night. That way the last hour of the party will have everyone on the dance floor and the flow won’t be disrupted by people wandering off in search of food.
Once you have your draft timeline in place, evaluate your start time and if you feel it’s too early then start looking at the schedule and work out where you can make adjustments or use your time more efficiently. When I think I have it right, one thing I always do is run the timeline past the venue, caterers and photographers to make sure it works for everyone.
So that’s it folks! The wedding day timeline is definitely one of the foundations of a really fantastic wedding day so spend a little bit of time getting it right before leaping in. There’s almost always going to be delays of some sort, but you can minimise those by planning realistically from the outset. Your aim is to have time for everything without feeling rushed, but to also make sure guests aren’t left hanging. Most of all make sure you leave yourselves the time to enjoy the day!
The photos with this post are by one of my favourite photography teams, The Hendrys, taken at the wedding of the lovely (yes just completely lovely) Melanie and Luke. This Urban-meets-Parisian stone cowshed wedding was one of my favourites of all time for so many reasons and I’m delighted to share some images of Mel and Luke’s beautiful day with you all.
*This is the third in the wedding planning feature series from Whimsical Wonderland Weddings expert contributor and wedding planner Sara J at Love Street Weddings*