When it comes to weddings, there are literally unlimited places to get married. But when you’re actually in the throes of the Wedding Planning process, it essentially feels like there are basically only two options, and none of them are good. The “good” venues are booked out months (years) in advance. Some venues require you to have specific caterers that you’re not thrilled about, other venues are just completely inhospitable and make it clear that they’re really only after your money.
When my wife and I were planning our wedding, we originally planned to have the wedding in my future in-law’s backyard. After a month of planning this, however, we realized that it was more-or-less impractical and that left us without a venue just a mere two months before our wedding (since we did the whole engagement thing for only six months. Yikes, right?). Thanks to my mother-in-law, who is a pretty phenomenal researcher, we ended up being able to have the wedding at a friend-of-a-friend’s ranch, on hundreds of acres, in the prairies of Colorado, with Pikes Peak in the background.
At the end of the day, finding a venue can be hard (and expensive) work.
Having photographed weddings for five years, something I’ve come to realize, though, is that some of the absolute best wedding venues along the way haven’t typically been venues at all. They’ve been DIY’d backyards, National Parks, Campgrounds, family farms, and Airbnbs.
Now, I need to mention that this isn’t a rant against venues: they can be wonderful and there are a ton of amazing venues around the country. They’re easy, less of a headache, and can usually host a lot of people.
With that said, however, one thing I’ve come to realize about many (not all!) venues are pushing many weddings through their doors every month and so it’s easy to feel lost in the shuffle. The grounds are manicured and they have their workflow down to a science, but they can tend to incite feelings that are stiff and rigid. What often feels missing is an organic chemistry and sense of Experience.
In Colorado, many of the venues here tend to charge between $6-12K solely for the use of the event space. No catering, no alcohol, no nothing. In addition to that, they tend to have staunch rules on how long you can use the space, as well as where you’re allowed to go for photography. As a photographer, these aesthetics can greatly impact my ability to create the kinds of imagery that I want to create. In my work, a lot of the inspiration comes from the creative zeitgeist of the couples I work with and typically, with bigger venues, they tend to be more unfavorable towards that creative pairing.
Now, for the #realtalk of all this: if more private, intimate “un-venues” are typically better for weddings, why aren’t they a hell of a lot easier to find? The reason they aren’t easy to find is becausee they’re not typically wedding venues. They end up being hidden-in-plain-sight. Often you need to dig in to other, non-wedding sources which can be a hassle and can lead to a lot of dead-ends, which leaves couples discouraged.
At this point, couples are often left with a handful of choices:
1. Dig their heels in the ground and keep searching for the perfect space
2. Book a more traditional wedding venue
3. Bang their head against a wall
If you’re like me and you feel like a traditional wedding venue just isn’t for you, I encourage you to not give up heart. This is your wedding day: it’s one of the most important days of your life and it’s important for you to make it the way you want it to be. When you have the chance to have more input on your wedding venue/location, it allows you to have more of a say in the curation of your wedding experience and to focus on what’s important to you. After looking back on my own experience, and my experiences with my couples, here are some tips for helping to find the perfect space:
1. Ask Around
I know it seems simple, but one of the best things you can do to simply start asking friends and family (and even strangers!) for help. When we were looking for a venue, I found out who owned certain plots of land and I would email them and call them, asking if we could rent their property for our wedding. Eventually, we found our venue because of a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend in my mother-in-law’s art class.
2. Hit up Airbnb, VRBO, and Bespoke Rental websites
While this may be a bit more regional, I’ve had multiple couples of mine find venues by looking up a space on Airbnb, VRBO, or simply googling “private home (villas) in [Region]”. Another option, though, is to look through architectural rental websites for some amazing homes/spaces that are well designed and sutied to hosting small gatherings. Websites such as The Modern House or BoutiqueHomes can help you find some really beautiful places to rent for your wedding, while also providing you with accomodations as well. In comparison to a typical venue, these homes will often be the same price (or less) for an entire week than for just a single day of use at a normal venue. While these types of places tend to limit the number of guests you can have, I’ve had couples find bespoke villas in Italy, large farms in Colorado, and designer homes in the English countryside. This can be a great way to extend a destination wedding into a weeklong adventure.
3. Thinking outside the Box
While they may not advertise it, there are a large majority of beautiful places that would host weddings, ranging from restaurants to campgrounds. There are a lot of beautiful indoor/outdoor restaurants that will let you rent the space for the night (and it condenses a lot of thecost because it often includes catering). On the other end of the spectrum, there are beautiful places such as summer camps and ranches, that may let you use their space in an off-weekend. The advantage of these spaces is that they’re designed to host a lot of people and often come with a lot of flexibility, making it very easy to have that intimate, deep forest ceremony & reception. As an added bonus, if you’re more into natural settings, it can be incredibly easy to simply invite a few food trucks and have food served outdoors, without having to fuss with trying to organize a large buffet or catering system.
4. Intimacy and Connection
This isn’t a something specific regarding venues, but it’s something to consider. When Hills and I got married, we had 200 guests at our wedding. Granted, my wife has a huge family (that’s almost all local to Colorado), and with both of us having lived (and studied) out-of-state and overseas, we had quite a large group of folks we love around the world. The downside to this, however, is that it ends up being waaaay more people than you think. To counteract this, we invited guests to come out to Colorado early and we probably had a core group of about 30-50 who spent the week with us, prepping and enjoying time together. For us, while we desired an intimate wedding, we have so many people we loved that we wanted present that it just meant, simply, that we were going to have a large wedding. However, don’t think that for a few, long moments we considered having an intimate, destination wedding with only our closest friends and family. While we look back so fondly on our wedding day, my only regret is that we weren’t able to connect as deeply with more people. Of course, the easiest way to make this happen is to make an intentional decision to have a smaller, more intimate wedding. Having a smaller wedding would have greatly opened the doors for us to book other unvenues along the way and would have made our process a bit simpler overall. If you’re curious to hear more, I have a whole guide about how to plan an intimate wedding.
5. Hire a wedding Planner
I think it’s important to mention that while most couples balk at the thought of hiring a wedding planner, they are very often a lot cheaper than splashing out for a very expensive venue [that offers no amenities]. Additionally, one of the jobs that planners can help with most is to find alternative Un-venues outside of the traditional spaces. You would be surprised at how hiring a planner + booking a less traditional venue space can often be thousands of dollars cheaper than simply booking a cookie-cutter venue.
6. Wedding Blogs/Websites
Some wedding blogs, like Green Wedding Shoes or The Venue Report, can give you a tremendous insight into finding alternative spaces. A lot of these wedding blogs will tag each wedding/shoot with a location or website of the location, making it very easy to explore more info on venues and spaces that are in your same geographic location (or the geographic location that you’re planning your wedding in) that you may not have heard of yet.
As a photographer, my goal is to advocate for all of my couples to help them have the best photos and experience possible. If you’ve got questions, I want to help. I want to participate with you in making your wedding exactly the experience and event that you want it to be. Nothing less. If you’re looking for help connecting with a great planner or if you are looking for ideas on how to help find the right location and vibe for your wedding, reach out. I’d love to connect with you and collaborate on making something amazing together.