Your Expert-Approved Guide to Planning a Wedding in the Age of Social Distancing

With these strategies from top experts, you can nimbly nail the logistics and still have a dream celebration.

guests cheers to bride and groom during wedding reception
Photo: Abby Jiu Photography

If you postponed your wedding in 2020, you're not alone: According to a Lending Tree survey that polled 900 engaged couples last April, 63% of brides and grooms decided to put their nuptial plans on hold. Just two months later, the shift towards micro weddings and socially-distant affairs was officially underway: According to a June 2020 American Marriage Ministries survey, 82% of officiants reported a rise in the use of nontraditional wedding venues, like backyards and parks. Now, over a year after the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, vaccinations are happening across the country, and there's hope that we will soon be able to celebrate like we did in the past. But in the meantime, if you're moving forward with a plan to host a wedding during the age of social distancing, we're here to help. With these strategies from top experts, you can nimbly nail the logistics and still have a dream celebration.

Whatever you do, remember to put on a happy face. This is your wedding day, so pass out customized masks and pouches holding hand sanitizer to encourage safe and festive mingling.

Pick Your Approach

First things first: Check the regulations on gatherings in your state and, if relevant, any restrictions on international travel. Then COVID-proof your ideal scenario with a smart work-around. You have a couple of options: First, consider bumping it to late 2021 or sometime in 2022. With vaccinations happening nationwide, there's a good chance your guests will feel comfortable attending events in the next several months. Vendors will also have their new protocols (from proper ventilation to spaced-out layouts) down pat.

But if pushing the date isn't an option (or you've already moved the wedding once and don't want to do so again), consider shrinking your guest list. There's so much beauty in a small wedding, says planner Steve Moore of Sinclair and Moore Events, in Seattle: "You have time to interact more with each guest." You could also spread your guest list out over the course of the day, says Moore: dinner with one group, dessert with another, and dancing with the last, cleaning in between.

Another fun idea? Host a few separate intimate events in places that are convenient to loved ones (like your current locale and your respective hometowns). Who doesn't want to celebrate more than once? Last but not least, you can always livestream or video-conference guests in for the celebration.

Plan for a Planner

Details deity, crisis averter, therapist—this person is an invaluable resource, especially now, when event changes are almost inevitable. An experienced pro will tap his or her vendor relationships to help you negotiate contracts or work last-minute magic, like shifting a floor plan with even just a week to spare. If you have the budget, hire one from the get-go. Or consider a day-of planner to ensure the wedding runs smoothly.

Spending Savvy

To make a statement without denting your budget, trim costs in wouldn't-miss-it areas—like favors, says planner Jenna Lam of Jenna Lam Events, in San Francisco: "You can make people so happy by handing them a warm cookie at the end of the night." Also, go simple with plates and glassware, but don't skimp on tablecloths and chairs, she says: "People take in a space from big to small."

groom setting up zoom on ipad for wedding ceremony
Astrid Photography

Party from Afar

For virtual vows, consider mailing everyone a care package ahead of time so that tuning in will feel nearly as intimate as attending in real life. As for what to include, we love the idea of sending a cocktail, such as a canned version of your signature drink, or a split of Champagne. Just like you would for an in-person ceremony, you'll also want to include a program, which will serve as a printed itinerary to let guests know what to expect. A favor is a thoughtful gesture, too. Include a shippable snack, either sweet or savory, that they can enjoy as they watch you tie the knot. Last but not least, you can pack a wedding-worth accessory into your gift boxes: a fun pin or a fabric flower that fits the day's vibe are two great ideas.

Do the Math

How much should you spend on each piece of your party? Ultimately, how you want to divvy up your funds is up to you, but we suggest allocating the biggest piece of the pie—about 35% of your budget—towards catering. Next, plan to spend around 15% on photography and videography. It may sound like a lot, but these details are more important now than every before. Family and friends who can't attend will adore watching the highlight reel and flipping through your photos. You'll also want to spend about 15% on the venue. Tying the knot at home? Divert these funds towards another category you feel strongly about. "A shorter guest list stretches every dollar, so you can go big on food or add more detail to your tabletop and florals," says Alison Hotchkiss of Alison Events.

Then, we suggest you plan to spend 10% of the budget on attire. Ditto for music. You'll allocate an additional 7% on stationery, 5% on flowers and décor, and 3% on favors and gifts.

Spin Silver Linings

Amid the planning whirlwind, heed this mantra: Your wedding is about celebrating your bond—and no pandemic can cancel that. Adjustments that at first feel like setbacks can tell your story in a totally unique way. To help keep everyone healthy, replace hugs with a safe greeting that feels natural to you, whether an air high-five or a namaste—and post what everyone should be doing on signs near your entrance.

You'll also want to rethink the meal. If passed hors d'oeuvres or a buffet are off the table, serve a next-level multi-course meal. Start with an amuse-bouche, followed by a cold-soup course, a main, and single-serve desserts. "Just sharing a meal together again will feel significant," Moore says. Last but not least, reconsider the evening's entertainment. "Instead of dancing, bring in a band and turn the night into a concert, or hire a few members of a ballet company," says Moore. "Figure out what fits your vibe and what would be meaningful."

Stave Off Snafus

If you need to postpone or cancel at any stage, you have two potential fallbacks: your venue and vendor contracts, and wedding insurance. Double-check that all contracts contain a force- majeure (act-of-God) clause and outline what portion of payment is refundable at various points in time, suggests Kerri Norris, general counsel at Legal Shield. While most insurance will not explicitly cover COVID-related losses (it's now considered a known threat), some policies will kick in if your venue becomes unusable due to changing safety restrictions on large gatherings, or if a key person identified in advance (such as a parent or the best man) catches the virus and can-not attend, says Sterling Price, a research analyst at financial- planning website ValuePenguin.

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