How do we make our gigantic wedding feel intimate and special?
January 24, 2013 2:11 PM   Subscribe

What are ways to make a really large wedding feel intimate and special? My boyfriend and I just engaged (yay!) and we are super excited to be married to each other. We're also super excited to have a wedding: we're taking a relatively relaxed, guests-first approach to the ceremony and reception, with the goals of the whole thing feeling (1) intimate, (2) special, (3) really, really fun. All this was eminently doable when we thought the guest list was going to be 75. But now, many difficult conversations with our parents later, we're facing down a guest list of over 250, and I'm at a loss as to how to still hit our mood/vibe/emotional atmosphere goals.

I guess the "really, really fun" part will take care of itself with the open bar, good DJ, and cool location. But how can we introduce elements that indicate intimacy and special-ness with a group this size? I can't imagine having enough time to interact with everyone personally in a meaningful way. Have you been to any large weddings with elements that helped offset the scale? Do you have any genius solutions? Activities/objects/favors/furniture arrangement? Let's pretend money is not an issue and scale down from there.

Some general background: We've been together for 6 years. The wedding is this summer, and includes access to outdoor space. No, the list can't be cut any further. Yes, we are okay with the contents of the list, they are all people we know and like/love (giant families, lots of friends). Yes, we have already arranged for a pretty rad photo booth.
posted by firstbest to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This exact thing happened to my fiancee and I. One strategy I would suggest: Instead of a typical rehearsal dinner, with just the bridal and groomsparty, you can expand it to the original guest list of 75.

You could make it potluck to lower the costs.

At the day of, you could do some interesting seating arrangements - the "king's table" is becoming popular, and you could combine two of those in a sort of cross to include your close F&F, while the "other" guests get typical round tables.
posted by unexpected at 2:16 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're going to have to provide areas for small groups to gather, shielded from the music and crowd noise. In order to allow the guests to have close personal interaction without being cut off from the group, they should have sightlines to the main space. One way of doing this would be to segregate the eating and dancing areas, perhaps connecting them through the bar. But then this brings up the issue of how do you get everyone to watch the traditional dances ...

I have been to several large indoor and outdoor weddings. For many of them, providing an option to simply leave, enjoy the night air, take a break, or go sit somewhere away from the crowd was a relief for many people.

This will be very difficult to pull off, and you should coordinate with whoever owns the space you will be in.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:19 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

This exact thing happened to my fiancee and I. One strategy I would suggest: Instead of a typical rehearsal dinner, with just the bridal and groomsparty, you can expand it to the original guest list of 75.

This worked out great for me. We wanted to have some time to hang out with the friends and family who were in from out of town, knowing that the wedding itself would be too hectic for any of that. We rented a campsite at a public park and had a cookout, and except for the sudden torrential rainstorm (PROTIP: reserve early enough to get a site with an enclosure nearby) it worked out great and was cheap enough to be a drop in the bucket of the overall wedding expense.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:19 PM on January 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Mood lighting and lower the ceiling. Whether by balloons or canopies or flowers, but a very high ceiling never feels truly intimate...unless it's an actual starry night sky.
posted by taff at 2:22 PM on January 24, 2013

Really, really think hard about growing a guest list over the size you intended. If you can't interact with all the guests what is the point? It's your wedding, not your parent's wedding. If your parents want all their friends to celebrate your nuptials they can host a dinner or barbecue or something.

Or you can compromise on your desire for an intimate wedding and have a blow out.
posted by 26.2 at 2:45 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I really recommend having the meal (if there is one) served family style. It is a super efficient way to get everyone eating at the same time and it is much more intimate than buffet or plate service.
posted by jazh at 2:54 PM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Here are some things featured at weddings I've attended that made them more fun--not sure if that equals intimate, but they were certainly memorable:

"Favors" that involve everyone: At one wedding, there was a list of facts given to each guest. Each fact was true of either the bride or groom, or both. After toasts, a family member read off the list and everyone shouted out their guesses. This was probably a 100-guest wedding, though, so this could be a bit tricky with a bigger group.

You said you'll have a photo booth--great! I've been to a few weddings with those and they were quite fun. It's a good way to keep guests entertained, and you'll likely end up with a nice scrapbook of all the photos afterward.

I agree with others on having lots of different areas to mingle in vs. just one big room with tables and dance space. It's nice to get away from sitting at a table with people you may or may not know/like. It's also kind of boring to just sit for a few hours. A friend picked a venue with indoor and outdoor space--she used the outdoor space for the ceremony and the indoor for the reception, but guests were free to hang out on the patio (for beverages), and there was a walkway nearby as well.

Or if you're willing to change things up... Another friend of mine had a very small, intimate ceremony with just immediate family and one or two close friends, then a month later (after the honeymoon), had a huge party just like a regular wedding reception. She got to wear her dress twice! I believe they started the reception somewhat formally, appearing on stage to greet the guests (and maybe they showed video/pictures from the ceremony, can't recall). Then they served dinner, changed into less formal outfits, and there was lots of dancing. You could get the best of both worlds in that scenario.
posted by eleanor_of_aquitaine at 3:15 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of my friends, whose wedding was merging two large families, had a large ceremony, followed by a small reception for only immediate family and out-of-town guests, and then a few weeks later, a big, more casual outdoor party for local folks (including those who couldn't make it to the ceremony). This appeared to work out very well for them -- the small reception gave them some time with people they might not otherwise see much of, and then they had some recovery time before taking on a big social event (which was hugely more comfortable and laid-back than any wedding reception I've been to, and more fun than most).
posted by EvaDestruction at 3:35 PM on January 24, 2013

Best answer: You're probably going to have to change your expectations a little bit. So that whatever the outcome, you can feel happy about it, and not feel like it didn't happen the way you'd always wanted. No, a 250 guest wedding probably can't be an intimate feeling event for you, but you can make it feel a bit intimate for your guests, or rather, groups of guests. For example, you can have some areas outside with lounge furniture where people can escape to and have a drink with five or fifteen others. Or some high cocktail tables near the bar. Things like that. You probably won't have time to enjoy these things, but your guests will and it will make for a nice experience in your wedding.

You already know you won't have the time to interact with everyone, but you can still plan a few things where you interact with, say, your girlfriends or your fiance's cousins or whatever. For example, make a plan in advance to take a group picture with X group, or a round of shots (yours can be fake-ish if you don't want to drink too much that night), or ask a special people x and y to help you out with whatever in the bathroom (fixing your dress, borrowing some lipstick). (Everyone who's ever been asked for a little help by the bride feels a little special.)

Oh and if you have a photographer, make sure they take lots of pics of the guests. Pics that don't include you or the groom. Sort of as a record of who came to the wedding, who they hung out with, etc. You'll appreciate them when the whole event is over and you're left going "whoa, what just happened?".

[By the way, my ideal smallish wedding was 250 guests...ended up having 500. Huge families and parents with lots of friends will do that to you. You just have to go with it sometimes, I guess.]
posted by CrazyLemonade at 4:37 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Congratulations! And with goals like that you will pull it off and it will be an amazing wedding.

I commented on an earlier thread explaining how we did this. From the beginning we tried really hard to focus on welcoming our guests and on making the event meaningful to us.

Some specifics:
- Everyone got to bring a date if they wanted to.
- We chose to invite groups of friends (so some people were invited primarily because they were part of a broader group).
- Nice, really thoughtful gift bags at the hotels including a multi-page welcome letter with lots of specific tips for where our guests could have fun in our city when they weren't at the wedding.
- Homemade favors (jam) with a thoughtful thank you note (a gorgeous moo minicard) attached.
- Thank you note to our guests in the program. (The whole program had a lot of information and explanation for why we were including certain elements in the ceremony and how specific objects used in the ceremony were meaningful to us.)
- Including friends/family in many roles in the ceremony.
- A relatively short ceremony.
- Asking guests to suggest songs in advance (they heard the song they requested).
- Since we had a lot of out of town guests and it was a long weekend, we had some other events planned (no cost to us). 2 nights before the wedding we had an event at a bar - we just announced which bar we would be at. Lots of the younger guests showed up. Then the night before the wedding we did the same after the RD - again lots of people came and it was an absolute blast.
posted by semacd at 4:38 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I had a bigger wedding than yours. I was very anxious about the size, but it turned out awesome (I might be biased). I think you are right that the key with big weddings is to be as guest focused as possible. A few points:

-In retrospect, the photobooth was the best money we spent. The young people had seen it a million times, but our parents' generation and older LOVED it. It was a fun activity for people who weren't that into dancing. Also, the pictures are hilarious.

-I agree with others that having multiple rooms/areas is a necessity with this many people. I think you probably are already set with this given that you have outdoor space. We had a bar/lounge area separate from the dance floor area, and it was great for guests who wanted to talk/mingle and get away from the music for a bit.

-Make sure you have more than enough food. We skimped on flowers and other decorations so that we could have food and more food including a good sized cocktail hour spread and a late night snack. Full guests are happy guests. (Tipsy guests are happy too (usually), but it looks like you've got that one covered).

-Keep things moving. The only way you are going to be able to enjoy people's company is to stay efficient. I would advise short & sweet toasts and timely food service (with that many people, I wouldn't do more than 3 courses, including dessert). Don't do a buffet or food stations with that many people; it will be a disaster. Try to cut out and/or shorten anything that breaks up the flow of the party. We kept in some stuff that was important to us (parent dances, cake cutting) but we made sure everything stayed on schedule so that we could enjoy the actual party.

-Along these lines, with this many people, you need someone (other than you or your husband) to be the "manager" on the day of the wedding. I didn't have a wedding coordinator, but my DJ was really, really awesome helping me with the timeline, and the wedding point person at the venue was essential in troubleshooting problems that came up during the night so that I could focus on my husband and my guests.

-We talked to every. single. table. Well, almost. We skipped the tables of the young-ish people, because we knew we would see them on the dance floor (and we did!). During dinner, we visited all of our family and all of our parents friends. Yes, this means we didn't eat. But there was no way I was going to waste time sitting around when so many people came so far to wish us well.

-Recruit your parents to share the meet-and-greet duties, especially if they invited a ton of their friends and family.

-As others have suggested, find ways to incorporate important people, both before and during the wedding. I went out with different small groups leading up to the wedding, and I involved my local, extended family in a lot of the pre-wedding stuff (rehearsal dinner, getting ready that day) so that during the reception I could feel more free to spend time with friends who had flown in for a day or two.

-Don't disappear for 2 hours to take pictures. Either do it before the wedding, or limit your formal photos and stick to candids. As a guest, I think it's super rude when the bride and groom are more interested in a photo shoot than enjoying the day with their loved ones.

-Invite people with guests. I know some couples are anti-guests because it adds to the guest list even more, but I strongly believe that if you are going to have a huge wedding where you won't have that much time to visit with people, then you need to make sure that your work friend or whoever who doesn't know many people isn't standing in the corner alone. (We invited all single people with guests, and while most actually didn't end up taking one, I think that gesture was really appreciated).

-Let go of "intimate." It's not going to happen with that many guests. And I think if you try for "intimate" with 250 people you might end up with "boring" (I'm thinking slideshows, extended speeches, and games here). Instead, focus on the FUN part. We had an absolute blast, and our mood definitely contributed to the high energy of the entire event. If the bride and groom are projecting genuine happiness, it's hard not to have a good time. Obviously, it sucks not to be able to spend meaningful time with everyone, and there were definitely people who I wished I had interacted with more. In the aftermath of the wedding, I called a few people who I felt particularly bad about to tell them it was wonderful to have them there and to ask them whether we could get together soon (or set a phone date). No one seemed to feel short changed by the massive guest list. And actually, it was really enjoyable to rehash the wedding with the people I barely saw because I was able to hear about the wedding from their perspective (and with that many people, you are bound to miss some amazing antics while you are off doing your guest of honor thing).

-Forget "special." It's your wedding, special takes care of itself. Don't kill yourself adding "unique" touches. I hate to be cynical, but no one cares about your painstakingly crafted escort cards or favors or table numbers or whatever but you and the people who got married in the last year or who are engaged. We received a lot of positive feedback about our wedding, and none of it was about anything I would characterize as special -- people complimented us on the 1) PHOTOBOOTH 2) music 2) food & drink 3) transportation from reception to hotel 4) the bar/lounge area (separated from dance floor) and 5) overall upbeat atmostphere. In other words, hospitality.

Congratulations and happy planning!
posted by murfed13 at 5:16 PM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

When one of my best friends got married and merged two huge families, she and her husband managed this a few ways:

1. They did a destination wedding. They picked a fairly inexpensive place, but the barrier of plane trips helped them cull the list without excluding anyone. But like you, they did want a big celebration with everyone they love, so ...

2. They had a big party a few weeks before (or maybe after?) the destination wedding, to which everyone was also invited.

3. They also wanted to make sure they would have time to hang out with friends who had traveled far for the destination wedding (many of whom lived far away from the couple), so they invited us to go in with them on renting a place to share for a few days after the wedding. Yeah, they kinda invited us on their honeymoon and certainly everyone won't want to do that, but it was fun. If you go this route, you'll definitely want to ask someone else to coordinate that part, because it gets to be a hassle with getting commitments, collecting people's share of the cost, etc.

Anyway, I've actually known a few people who did 1 and 2 and it seems to work pretty well.
posted by lunasol at 5:48 PM on January 24, 2013

At one large wedding I was at, the bride and groom has a two person table. They frequently got up and went around spending five to ten minutes separately at each table. It felt like we were all getting attention, despite it having to be pretty well spread around. (Whether you want to spend an hour and half to get five minutes a table, dunno.) They also didn't assign seats. This worked well because a few natural groups formed, and for the rest of us, we first introduced ourselves and made sure there was space at the table, then got to tell stories about how we knew the bride and/or groom. It was a much more natural ice-breaker than sitting down at a table where you don't know a few people and just not knowing what to say.
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:10 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding this:

-Don't disappear for 2 hours to take pictures. Either do it before the wedding, or limit your formal photos and stick to candids. As a guest, I think it's super rude when the bride and groom are more interested in a photo shoot than enjoying the day with their loved ones.

Maybe try circulating during dessert with the photographer and get as many "us and table" shots as possible. Have a quick chat. Thank them for coming. If you don't get back to them, at least you managed that much.
posted by kjs4 at 9:25 PM on January 24, 2013

One memorable wedding I was at recently was in a historic manor house. While the house had a "ballroom" it was just barely large enough to fit everybody for the ceremony, so the reception istelf was spread all over in the 5-6 largest rooms of the upstairs and downstairs of this house. There were a lot of guests, (more like 175 than 250) but in any given room it was just a 20-40 person party. The couple made it a point to keep moving, and spend a lot of time in each room; of course the group naturally kind of subdivided itself, there was definitely a "family" room, and a "friends" room, and the room with the bar, and the room with the DJ... Note, they weren't doing dinner, but waitstaff passing trays of hot appetizers; there was a huge bar in one room, and a cold-app buffet upstairs (cheese, crackers, vegetables, etc) that later turned into a desserts buffet (including their cupcake-cake).
Anyway, it definitely felt more intimate because the spaces were smaller.
posted by aimedwander at 7:13 AM on January 25, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks guys—some really great ideas here! I think we're going to course-correct our thinking from "intimate" over to "fun," and go from there — flip-flops, lawn games, table activities, comprehensive book-style programs, etc. are all going on the Big Ideas list, and we're going to see how much more room we have to let our single guests include plus-ones.
posted by firstbest at 7:36 AM on January 25, 2013

Best answer: One sweet thing at the last wedding I went to, which was a at least close to of not more than 200 people: the bride and groom went from table to table and served/shared the bread (huge and delicious challah loaf) on which they made the blessing before the meal. It had a very sweet gracious feeling to it, heimishness, in the middle of a fancy catered affair. I wonder if there's some way you could adapt that to fit with your meal plan/customs?
posted by Salamandrous at 9:43 AM on January 25, 2013

My sister's wedding was huge: 300 people at the ceremony, 500 at the reception. And yet it did feel intimate. Part of that was that events were spread over several days: a cookout when folks arrived on Thursday, planned excursions (to which guests could transport themselves) on Friday for those who weren't doing the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner, the wedding and reception on Saturday, and a big goodbye brunch on Sunday, which the couple didn't attend as they were already off on their honeymoon.

The upshot of all these events is that by the time the reception itself happened, many of the guests had new friends, and those new friends introduced them to further new friends. At the reception itself, there was a room for dancing, a room for food, and outside there was a tent for socializing, eating and drinking. People could really have conversations because they weren't obligated to be in a loud place. Things like the cake cutting and the couple's first dance were scheduled, with the times and locations indicated on the program, so folks could head to the right place if they wanted to be there.

People still talk about that wedding, even though it was five years ago. Lots of old connections rekindled, lots of new connections made.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:14 PM on January 25, 2013

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