Whenever I’m at a loss for the next topic to cover in our “Expert Advice” series, I usually only have to think back to my last conversation with my sister-in-law to come up with something. She’s in the thick of planning her own wedding right now, and I figure if she’s asking me about something, she’s probably not the only one who’s wondering about the topic! Our last call revolved around creating a wedding day timeline – what happens when, how long things last, who needs to be where – so today, I’m hoping to shed some light on this topic that can be very confusing!
A note: If you’re working with a wedding planner or day of coordinator, creating a wedding day timeline is likely something she will handle. If you’re on your own, it is absolutely essential that you create one of these yourself. (And trust me, there are very few things that I will say are essential for every single wedding!) A well-crafted timeline creates a seamless experience for your beloved guests (and maximizes your time with them!), helps your vendors do their best work, and cuts down on the amount of “managing” you’ll need to do on your wedding day — all very good things!
Let’s get started!
Begin by gathering information and materials. Collect all of the information you have, especially the parts that are externally set/not in your control. It might help to start by asking yourself these questions:
A note: Most ceremonies last approximately twenty minutes, but I would recommend rounding up to at least 30 minutes – and some can be much longer. Add up liturgy, readings, entrances, vows, homily, communion, rituals, etc. to get a ballpark.)
Whew! Answering these might require conversation with your vendors, particularly on subjects like food timing. Your caterer will have the best idea of how long it will take to serve all of your guests at your venue based on whether you’re having a plated dinner, a family style meal, or a buffet, and your photographer can advise you on how long portraits will take based on the list you give him. If they don’t offer this info, ask! Never assume you’re on the same page about how things will run – always confirm.
Add times and details as you confirm them. As decisions are made and information comes in, start plugging each piece into a doc (Word or Excel, your choice!). For example, you probably already know what time you have to vacate your reception venue, so that’s a great place to start! If you’re totally stuck, here’s the general arc most evening dinner receptions at two locations tend to follow:
Of course, there are many, many, many factors that can affect this timeline. Let’s discuss a few.
— One location or two. If your ceremony and reception are at different locations, be sure to build in time for your guests to get to their cars, travel, park, and walk. Take traffic into consideration. I would recommend underestimating the amount of time travel will take, because there are few things worse than having guests arrive to a reception that’s not ready for them!
— Portraits. While there are many reasons to recommend them, first looks are not the only option – but, if you’re not having one, you need to be realistic about the time of year and time of day you’re getting married, and adjust your expectations accordingly. (i.e. If you’re having a winter ceremony at 5pm, don’t expect your photographer to be able to capture daylight portraits.) Whether or not you’re having a first look, I recommend checking off as many bridal party and family portraits as you can before the ceremony, and leaving a concise list of group portraits for after.
— Location and transportation. Confirm where the gents and ladies will be getting ready, and if it’s not at the ceremony location, confirm transportation for everyone as well as how long it will take. If you’re taking portraits at the ceremony venue but getting ready elsewhere, consider putting on your gown once you arrive to make travel easier!
— Dances. At our wedding, we moved immediately into our first dance when we entered the reception, which I loved. You could also use your first dance or parent dances to open the dance floor after dinner, or do them during dinner.
— Toasts. I like when toasts are offered during dinner, perhaps between courses. I’d also recommend splitting them up, so guests are able to focus on each one individually.
— Sunset. Your photographer will likely suggest taking a few bride and groom portraits at sunset. Even if you did a first look, I think this mini portrait session (10-15 minutes) is a great idea. You’ll be in a different “head space” than before the ceremony, and it will also give you a chance to be (mostly) alone in the middle of your reception. And, there will be lovely glowing light!
The Reason via Southern Weddings
And finally, a few tips to remember:
— Guest will arrive early. Fact. Plan to begin your pre-ceremony music at least half an hour before the invite start time. Likewise, if you’re doing a first look or pre-ceremony portraits, have everything wrapped up and be “hidden” away from guests at least half an hour beforehand – otherwise you might get caught chatting with arriving guests when you’d rather be spending a few quiet minutes with your ladies.
— Make multiple versions of your timeline. I had a typed, single-spaced, two-page timeline that outlined exactly where every person was going to be for nearly every minute of the day — but I certainly didn’t send it to anyone but my day-of coordinator. That would have been completely overwhelming! I made simplified versions for each major vendor, and emailed them out a week in advance. I also printed out personalized copies for family members and the bridal party, so everyone felt confident about where they had to be when. Here’s a peek at the beginnings of my wedding day timeline, shared in this post:
For all this talk of detail, though, hear this: your wedding timeline is a guideline. As long as you don’t keep guests waiting and the food is fresh, it’s totally fine to deviate from it as the day begins to flow. And that’s where a talented coordinator or planner comes in. I know one is not in every budget, but I would highly recommend making room for one if you can, and if not, at least arranging a handpicked family member or friend to be the point person on the big day. If you’re the type to stress over whether everything is getting set up correctly and whether little details are being taken care of, a coordinator could be the best gift you give yourself. I think a coordinator is also a gift to your family and friends – both because you’ll be less stressed, and because it will allow them to relax, as well. A win win!
Tell me: Do you have a timeline for your wedding day yet? Do you have any tricky questions I might be able to answer? Are you doing anything different with the flow of your day? I’d love to hear!
P.S. I know we’re only covering evening receptions in this post, but most of the concepts are applicable to all sorts of celebrations. Just pick and choose the elements that apply to your wedding!
The Reason is a delightful member of our Blue Ribbon Vendor Directory!
This is definitely helpful! I have a DOC, but they don’t work on timelines until 2 months out – understandable, things change. EXCEPT, as an out of town bride, I’m doing my final meeting with a few vendors earlier than normal – whenever I can fit them in on trips home- and my vendors need to know drop-off/set-up times. My coordinator and her team have been helpful, but (since I’m a control freak) it’s been easier for me to just do it myself – I figure I’ll let them do the fine tuning.
Awesome! I definitely agree – I’d want to have details worked out before two months, but I can understand why your DOC does it that way!
Bookmarking this post to refer to lots in the coming months! Dave and I started working on our timeline early to try to figure out how many hours we wanted to book our photographer and videographers for, but it’s still in the preliminary stages. The biggest difference from this list for us so far though is that our ceremony will run closer to an hour and a half!
I am helping a friend as her day-of coordinator this weekend. I just wrapped up her wedding day timeline. There are always a lot of things to consider. It’s always a good idea to prioritize what means the most to you on the day of. Make sure that your coordinator is aware of what those are. For example, making sure to take the *must have* portraits first. Great post Emily!
I know a bride that can use this guide right away. Great post!
This post is perfect! I made my February wedding goal to get the timeline figured out – I started it on my own, but my DOC was a life saver! Each vendor is worried about a different aspect of the timeline, so it is definitely smart to start early and get a general idea…I am way more relaxed about the rest of the planning knowing that is under control!
Thank you so much for this post! This is one aspect of planning I feel the most clueless about.
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Very useful post for couples. Thank you!
This is such a great guide to get brides started! The itinerary is so important and helps ensure the wedding plans are executed as envisioned. I think it’s important to have a professional help with itinerary writing because they are able to think of important details that would otherwise be overlooked.
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I am having trouble choosing when to have the first dance. i think I kinda like the idea of setting the tone of the evening and dancing when we are introduced. And the opening the dance floor with the parent dances.
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HELP. We, meaning myself and bridesmaids cannot decorate our venue till the morning of our wedding. Our wedding is at 2. I need HELP organizing a timeline. Decorating will start around 7:30am and I plan on returning to get ready At 10. Is an this ample time???? I have 4 bridemaids and they will be prepreped for hair, they are doing their own make-up and will just need to get dressed.
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This is right on! Be sure to get some additional help as well from willing family members who are very detail oriented instead of trying to do it all and get married on the same day.