We asked Larry Martin, head guy at A&A Disc Jockey Service, if he'd share his vast experience on how to create a wedding timeline. He didn't let us down!...
Quite a few years ago I had a groom tell me that he didn't want to do a timeline, because he didn't want any real structure to the reception, so that it would feel as though it was flowing naturally. That was until I pointed out to him that the total absence of structure is the exact definition of chaos. A well done play seems to flow very naturally, but it does so because of the script, the extensive planning, direction and rehearsing that goes on before opening night.
A truly complete timeline will cover everything from the arrival time of all of the vendors, the time the groomsmen need to meet to get their boutonnieres, and what time the linens will arrive. For our purposes here, and because it's the part of the day I'm usually involved in, I'm going to focus on the timeline for the actual celebration.
You absolutely MUST know your objectives. A wedding celebration consists of a lot of moving pieces. Think of it like a jig saw puzzle. If you have no idea what it is supposed to look like once it's complete, then it is much more difficult to put all the pieces together in the proper order. This is your day, and one of the most important in your life. Find YOUR vision for what you want it to look, and more importantly, feel like. Before any friends, family or professionals can help you have the day you want, you have to decide what that is. Choose several adjectives that describe your ideal wedding day; your dream celebration. Write them down.
Ask yourself some questions. For example:
Why are you having a reception?
What do you want it to be like? Use your “words.”
How do you want your guests to feel about your day?
What do you want them to say about your celebration as they are driving home that night?
What are the most important memories you want to carry away with you when it is over?
Remember Alice? In Alice in Wonderland, at one point Alice asks the Cheshire Cat the question, "Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?" To which the cat replies, "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to." Without a clear destination you will waste a lot of time chasing your tail. Once you have a clear idea of a destination or your goals, determining the correct path will be much easier, even without a GPS.
So what does your time line do?
1. It establishes your goals for your event. Remember Alice.
2. It sets out YOUR priorities for your event. If you don’t set them, someone else will, but then it isn’t your day anymore.
3. It assures that things that are important to you are done and not overlooked in the excitement of the moment.
4. It allows you to set the tempo and mood for your celebration.
5. You can use it to arrange activities in a way that flows smoothly and tells your “love story” to your guests.
Major activities set some of the parameters for your timeline. There are certain activities that have to be established and demand specific time allotments. So those have to be set first so that you can build a logical timeline around them. Keep in mind that almost anything you include in your timeline can be planned for and accommodated. Anything that happens that isn't in your timeline, simply puts you behind schedule and cuts into other activities.
The ceremony: What time does it start? Keep in mind that your prelude music should start approximately 30 minutes prior to that. How long is your ceremony? Ask your officiant. The denomination matters. A non-denominational ceremony could be as short as 15 to 20 minutes, although that can vary with the officiant. A Catholic ceremony with a full mass and communion for a large group could last over an hour and a half. Vendors will be asking you what time the reception begins. Calculate it. Start time for ceremony + length of ceremony + travel time (if any) for guests to get from the ceremony site the reception location = the start time for your reception. Lastly, one mistake many couples make is factoring in the time for post wedding photographs as something that takes place before the start of the reception. While there may be a few exceptions, the majority of the guests are not going to hang around to watch that happen. So the reception begins when the guests start arriving at the reception site, not the bride and groom, since they will be delayed for photographs.
Season’s Matter: Yes. The time of year in which you are getting married can certainly have an effect on your timeline. I’ll assume that folks here in North Carolina already know that you need to be careful planning an event in March, just in case Duke and Carolina are playing each other in either the ACC or NCAA tournaments. And even if the Panthers aren’t going, having a wedding on Super Bowl weekend is generally not a good idea. But beyond sports the seasons can still make a difference. If your outdoor wedding is in the middle of the summer and you are looking for a late night affair, having your ceremony at 6:00 PM or a little later might be fine. But in the fall and winter months you might want to talk to your photographer since having enough lighting for post wedding photos might be an issue. Check an almanac and find out what time sunset is on the date you are looking at. Even if your ceremony is inside, knowing that might be helpful if you know your photographer will want to take you outside for some nice sunset photos. Checking the times can avoid having them take you out of the reception at a time when your guests will miss you and resent your absence.
Think About Planning Backwards: Once you’ve taken some of the other factors like those mentioned above into consideration, think about planning your day backwards. What type of atmosphere are you hoping for? If you are looking for more of a mingling, garden party type of atmosphere then having your reception end in the mid afternoon or early evening might be fine. But if you were really hoping for the later part of your reception to become much more of a celebration or party atmosphere, people tend to let their hair down much more once the sun goes down. Once again, seasons matter. It gets dark much earlier in the winter months. But if you are looking for a more energetic celebration, then at least the last hour to hour and a half should take place after sunset.
You also need to find out what time limitations your venue might have. Then choose the time you want your reception to end. From there, work backwards. Most receptions in the southeast average about 4 hours (this can vary obviously depending on several factors such as the age of your guests, how many guests, is they traveling from out of the area, etc.) Then add in any travel time for your guests to get to the reception site from the ceremony if any, the length of your ceremony plus a ½ hour for your prelude, and you’ll know when you should be starting things that day.
A perfect example of this is when couples are getting married in the Catholic Church. Because of mass schedules they almost always have to have their wedding ceremonies at 2:00 PM. That means that if their guests go directly to the reception they could be arriving there as early as 3:15 – 3:30. If you want a late night reception going until 11:00 PM, you are looking at about 7.5 hours. There are exceptions, but it is rare to be able to keep a group at an event that long especially when their day started so early, and even the bride and groom can run out of energy before then. The most common solution couples in these situation us is the designate a specific time on their invitation for the guests to arrive at the reception, often with a couple of hours or more or time in between.
Talk to Your Photographer: Unless they take the majority of your pictures before the ceremony, most photographers will need some time to take post wedding photos after the ceremony. How much time? Well, that depends on your photographer and you. Are the photographs one of your highest priorities? If so, you might want to allow a little more time to get a few more "creative" shots. Include that time in your timeline and you can plan other activities around it. But be aware of extremes.
While doing a wedding at a country club once I was in the hall when I heard the catering manager tell the mother of the bride, "If we do not open the buffet in the next five minutes, all of this food will have to be thrown out. We can re-prepare it, and double your food bill, but 'Chef' will not allow it to be served if it sets out any longer." The ceremony had been over for more than an hour and a half. The photographers had the couple and wedding party out on the golf course taking photos. Over a dozen guests had already left (Remember, the guests are there for you. You are the guests of honor). If keeping your guests waiting that long is a conscious decision that is up to you, but it shouldn't happen by accident. So getting a "realistic" time allotment for post wedding photographs from your photographer can be crucial to the success of the rest of your celebration. If you really need an extensive amount of time for those photos, that’s fine. Adjust your timeline and perhaps let the guests start eating without you so they don’t get bored and think about leaving. And since time can stand still for you on that day, put someone else in charge of watching the clock for you. Perhaps as your maid or matron of honor or perhaps the best man unless you have a professional director for your day.
Food - Timing is critical: As the example above illustrates, one of the most important reasons to have a reasonably accurate timeline is for your food service. Food has a short window of optimal time to be served and your caterer wants your guests to get their food within that window to maximize their enjoyment of it. Food that sets out on a buffet or back in the kitchen beyond that time, even if it is kept hot, will begin to dry out and not be as appetizing. In most cases you will probably be spending quite a bit of money to feed your guests, so making sure that they walk away from your reception raving about the food reflects well on both you and the caterer you use.
Toasts: Want to know what a really difficult job is for any bride? Try going to your dad (who may be paying for all of this) and telling him to please keep his welcome speech short. It is going to be a difficult conversation, but we did an event last year where the bride's dad (while guests were waiting to eat) spoke for 25 minutes, even as his daughter was running her finger across her throat, which is a sign that we thought was universally understood. Weddings are emotional times and if any speaker gets on the microphone without a script or at least bullet points to keep them on topic, they could ramble on longer than you would like them to. Perhaps the easiest way to deal with this is to simply contact each person that is doing a speech or toast and tell them you are trying to prepare an accurate timeline, so could they rehearse their speech and let you know about how much time they will need to speak. Then, if one of them says 15 minutes, perhaps the expression on your face will convey the message you want. If not, you might have to set some sort of parameters if you want to maintain control over your schedule for the night.
Party Time: Yes. Now it is time for the celebration. Trust me, no MC or wedding director will let you leave that night without cutting your cake or doing your first dance if those things are on your schedule. So the one area where you have some flexibility is here. If you are running ahead of schedule, you will have more time for you and your guests to just dance and celebrate your union. If you are running behind schedule, then this is the area of the celebration that will suffer. Here is where knowing your own priorities will help. If you know that you, your family and friends are not big dancers, so this is not a priority for you, then taking a little more time with other activities won't matter that much. However, if dancing and celebrating with your friends and family and having everyone talking at the end of the night about how much "fun" your reception was is important to you, then you can't let yourselves get too far behind earlier in the event. As I mentioned earlier, in the southeast, a majority of wedding receptions average about 4 hours in length. Roughly, they usually break down this way: Approximately an hour for cocktail or social hour, about an hour for the meal (more or less), and then that leaves 2 hours for several traditional activities (bouquet, garter, formal departure, etc) and open dancing. This is enough for most brides and grooms who are usually exhausted by then, but if you have a group that you know will love to dance, and you don't have an early flight the next day, you can always add time to your event to have more open dancing.
Your Ending Time: The most important thing to remember here is that there are two times you need to get from your venue. Most couples think in terms of when they want their event to end. And that is fine as a starting point. However, the most important time to get from your venue is the time by which everyone (including your vendors) has to be off of the premises. The venue will not shoot your caterer if they get out of the venue past that time, but many will send the couple a bill for overtime fees. As an example, the average DJ will need at least a solid hour from the time they play your departure song to pack everything up and get off of the premises. If you added extra lighting and other equipment, or in the case of a band it could take longer. Don't get an unexpected bill. When doing your timeline allow for the time your vendors need to pack up and get out.
Summary: It may sound like just another piece of paperwork you have to complete, but your timeline is your opportunity to take control of your celebration and make certain that "YOUR" priorities are observed. There is an old saying that I love quoting. "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." One of the reasons I've always put a premium on proper planning is that I am, at heart, a bit lazy. And I have found over the years that it takes much less energy to avoid a problem, than it does to fix one after it happens.
If you have questions or need advice or assistance as you tackle your personal timeline, feel free to call if I can be of assistance.
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