We’re in the throes of securing dates, venues and caterers for some of our newest couples which looks a lot like navigating questions, questions and more questions to ensure us and our client’s fully understand what they are signing up for before finalizing those venue and catering contracts. Because there can be a bit of vagueness in initial estimates provided, I thought I’d share what we look for when reviewing contracts and estimates with venues and caterers. Please note, this list is designed for a venue where they require catering to be done in house such as a resort or full service event space, but there are several points that could be broken apart and used in your conversations with your venue manager and catering manager separately should you be in a situation where you are hiring these teams independent of each other.

  • What are the site fees and what do they include? Site fees are typically simple line items, but what’s included differs with every venue. Some include tables, chairs, linens and tabletop items. Others include servers, bar setups and more and others just give you the empty space to build on
  • With the site fee quoted, how many hours does that allow you for set up, the actual party and clean up fees? What happens to the site fees if you want to extend the party? What happens if you need more time to set up the wedding or breakdown the wedding? Finding out these fees upfront are important factors in determining everything from your design to your timeline.

  • Are there any services the venue requires you to use? For instance, many hotels require you to use their A/V team for sound needs. Some require you to use their engineering team to rig chandeliers and other lighting. Find the parameters out upfront and don’t be afraid to ask for a historical averages estimate of what that typically means for a wedding of your size in their space.
  • What are the service standards calculated in their estimate? More specifically, how many bartenders are they quoting? How many servers? How many banquet captains? And if you want more than their standard includes, what would the cost be to explore that detail? For instance, a venue may naturally include 1 bartender for 100 guests, but you may want 1 per 50 guests to avoid a crazy long line at cocktail hour.  Even if you don’t think you’ll want added service anywhere, it’s always good to have the numbers in your back pocket just in case priorities change.
  • Ask for a line item estimate rather than just ranges. Because venues and catering managers often do not know exactly what you would like, they will give you broad ranges. They might say, the average wedding dinner costs $150 to $250 per person plus tax and service. I always recommend digging a bit deeper. Even if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for yet take the time to put a rough vision together of what your food & beverage needs may be. If you’re still at a loss, I’ve included a list of my personal go to’s when asking for more thorough estimates below.

  • Lastly, be sure to give your venue or caterer a general timeline to work from. You want staffing to be reflective of your actual anticipated event rather than the general four hour estimate they send to everyone. For instance, if you’re starting the ceremony at 4pm, and want a cocktail passed upon arrival to the space, make sure the staffing is arriving in time to ensure this is happening. Or if you are planning on an after party that goes until 1am, make sure the estimate doesn’t have the servers and bartenders quoted to leave at 11pm.

As promised, here is my list of check points I ask for when securing estimates for my clients:

Ceremony Fees including staffing, surcharges and taxes

A non alcoholic welcome drink passed at the ceremony or at bare minimum, a water station. If you happen to know you want to pass champagne, an Aperol Spritz or what have you, go ahead and tell them that level of detailhere.

Cocktail Hour Site fees including staffing, surcharges and taxes 

4 to 6 pieces of passed appetizers at cocktail hour

Full bar including wine and champagne at cocktail hour plus two signature drinks tray passed upon arrival (If you don’t want signature drinks, skip it. If you know you want to pass Rose upon arrival, be sure to tell them here.) 

Dinner Site fees including staffing, surcharges and taxes

3 course plated meal (or whatever you envision; 2 course family style, 4 food stations, etc.)

Wine passed table side (I personally default to 1 red and 1 white for estimate purposes, but if you know you want to pair each course with a different wine or you know your guests aren’t into wine enough to offer this at all, adjust accordingly. 

A champagne toast (if having) 

Full bar open through the duration of the event. (We typically see this from 4 to 5 hours but again having an idea of how long you want your event to last can guide this timing accordingly)

Dessert Station (if interested in this)

Wedding Cake (or cake cutting fees if applicable)

After Party Snacks (Based on 1/3 to 1/2 of the guest count. So if you have 200 guests attending, get after party snacks for 75 to 100 guests only.)

After bar quoted on consumption (Because less guests will typically attend the after party, we typically don’t recommend continuing bar packages into cocktail hour. Instead, reduce the after party bar to a consumption based bar. With this in mind, you should ask for a “historical average of a bar based on consumption for 2 hours for 100 guests” or whatever timing and guest count you have.)

Any other must-haves. Do you want S’mores by that cute fire pit near the reception? If so ask for a quote for both S’mores and any costs of using the fire pit. Do you want guests to be greeted at the ceremony with gourmet popsicles? This might sound simple enough to you, but it could mean the need to rent a portable popsicle cart or cooler and having a person to man it accordingly. Whatever it is, bring it up in the initial conversation so you can see the numbers around the vision accordingly.)

Then, on all of the above, be sure they calculate the service charge, taxes and any additional staffing needs or rental fees. Many will tell you a blanket statement such as there is a 23% service charge and a 9.75% tax on top, but ask them to please calculate that for you accordingly to ensure you don’t miscalculate or skip any element which these fees may apply. 

While the above estimate might take the venue and caterer a bit more time and the bottom line a bit scarier, I personally believe a line item estimate showing the worst case scenario is much more valuable than a vague quote that isn’t representative of a wedding you’d actually want it. As long as you’re meeting the venue’s general service standards and meeting any related food & beverage minimums, you can always scale down from the estimate.

I hope this helps just a bit! Happy planning!