Planning a Wedding in 2021: Dos and Don'ts

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the new year brings new wedding-planning concerns. But one thing 2021 couples have on their side is learning from last year's experiences. Here's what you need to know about planning a wedding this year.

bride and groom
Photo: Seth & Beth Wedding Photography

Don't delay in booking your vendors

“2021 will see close to double the number of weddings as a typical year, between couples who postponed their 2020 weddings and couples who got engaged in 2020 and are currently in the planning process,” says Katie Brownstein, wedding expert at Joy. As much as you may want to take a “wait and see” approach with the pandemic, it will be harder than usual to lock in your dream vendors if you delay booking.

Do keep an open mind with your date

“With weekend dates booked up, we will see a rise in popularity of weekday weddings and daytime weekend weddings as couples seek to find availability from their venue and vendors. We're here for the trend of beautiful brunch and garden weddings this year, taking a nod from across the pond,” says Brownstein.

Don't sign a contract until you read it carefully

It's never been more important to know exactly what's in your contracts. Find out what's at risk of you need to cancel or reschedule; will you lose your deposit? Are prices locked in, or could you face an increase if you push it out a year or two? The good news is now that since we're almost a year into the pandemic, you likely won't have to search too hard for a COVID-19 clause in the contract. And if you don't see one? Ask for it — and make sure it breaks down all possible scenarios so that there's no room for debate later.

“Be sure to look for clauses in contracts that stipulate what happens if a government mandate prevents the event entirely, versus making the guest count smaller,” says Sage McRae of Sage McRae Event Design. “What happens if you (the couple) want to postpone your date, even if it would have been allowed otherwise? Talk to everyone about their policies and fees in these scenarios and in the unlikely but possible case that someone in your inner circle gets COVID-19 just before the wedding and you have to cancel last-minute.”

“Specifically ask the manager what the rescheduling process looks like and if you are limited to specific dates. For example, if you have to move your 2021 wedding to 2022, make sure that you can still reschedule to a Saturday or Sunday for the same price,” says Melanie Levin of LuckEleven Events. “Some venues are protecting their future income by reserving weekend dates for new couples.”

Do ask the hard questions

“Are your venue/vendors following the rules? Are they bending the rules? At this point, we've heard too many stories about venues or vendors breaking or bending the rules and then become the next super-spreader event. You do not want to work with companies that are not following the guidelines — this should also make you question how honest and thorough they are in other areas,” says Tionna M. Van Gundy of Wedicity Wedding & Event Planning.

Ask your venue for details about their safety precautions. “From their employees wearing masks, clean uniforms, and distancing, to how often the door knobs are wiped down, to not pre-setting the table with exposed foods and pre-poured water. Ask if the venue has windows/doors they can leave open for added ventilation, and ask about their HVAC system.," says JoAnne Moore of Joanne Moore Weddings, Design & Event Planning

petal toss at wedding
Photo: Suess Moments

Don't leave your investments to chance

“Be aware that COVID-19 is no longer considered a 'force majeure' within liability insurance coverage, as it is a known risk. Consider purchasing full wedding cancellation insurance to help cover any potential monetary losses should the pandemic impact your plans,” says Brownstein.

Do consider hiring a wedding planner

Find a wedding planner who is on the same page as you with safety and health regulations. Your planner can then help you find vendors who fit your needs.

“Having a full-service planner is invaluable, especially now as there are so many additional things to consider. They can help you with the above vendor contract negotiations and will suggest partners they know will take necessary precautions. Planners can also step in to pick up items you might have otherwise had delivered, thereby limiting the number of people in your ceremony and reception spaces. A planner or designer will help you with setting up health stations that don't detract from your wedding look and can provide critical planning advice on food service and seating arrangements,” says McRae.

bride and groom
Photo: Kristopher Lindsay Photography

Don't be afraid to ask your vendors for help

Lean on your vendors for their advice on how to plan a safe wedding. “Most vendors have already started working on weddings again, so they've had some practice in figuring out what works best to make a beautiful wedding happen while staying safe during COVID-19, so don't be shy in asking their advice — they're the pros!" says Michelle's Catering.

Do choose a venue that will enforce the rules

You don't want to spend your wedding day policing your guests' behavior. “Your venue needs to be a staunch ally, because your guests won't want to be 100% responsible 100% of the time. People are good at acclimating by increments and telling themselves things are okay as long as it's a gradual build. There also tends to be drinking at the reception, and of course inhibitions are lowered under those circumstances," says Rex Freiberger of The Call Of.

Don't assume your guests know your safety rules and regulations

Every state has its own guidelines for how to manage COVID-19. Be sure to communicate your expectations and your venue's rules clearly with your guests prior to their arrival. If you want everyone to wear masks, they definitely need to know this ahead of time (and it's always a good idea for you to have some on hand for those who forget).

“Make sure your guests feel safe. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it should truly be your #1 concern. Your guests will have varying levels of comfort regarding gatherings of any size. Make sure no one feels uncomfortable by sending a list of precautions you plan to take ahead of time via invitation, wedding website or email,” says Levin.

covid 19 pandemic wedding
Photo: Daniel Nydick Photography

Do keep it small

As we move forward, smaller weddings will likely be the norm for another year or two. Embrace the hybrid method — with select guests attending in-person and the remainder joining the wedding virtually. “It is always easy to scale up if circumstances change and gathering limits increase; but no one wants to have to cut their list at the last minute. Choose a venue that allows for expansion should restrictions ease up,” says Marylee Santoro of Events by Marylee.

"The trend of micro weddings and elopements will continue in 2021 until vaccines are widely available and it is safe to gather in larger groups again. However, smaller guest counts don't necessarily mean minimalistic weddings! As couples reduce their guest counts, they have more room in their wedding budget to invest in lavish decor and florals, elevated food and beverage offerings, and an overall more personal and intimate feeling celebration with attention paid to every detail," says Brownstein.

Struggling to cut the guest list? Consider hosting multiple parties with smaller groups.

“You could host multiple wedding dinner parties and scatter them a month apart, out of COVID concerns, and hire your vendors to return to take just two hours of photos and spruce up the garden in between," says McRae.

micro wedding
Photo: Andreas Pinacci Photo via Ti Amo Ti Sposo Weddings 

Don't be offended if guests RSVP “no“

No matter how many safety precautions you take, there will be some guests who are still not comfortable attending. It's easier said than done, but try not to take it personally!

“Plan on the number of people declining the invitation to be higher than the standard rate this year due to the current pandemic situation, understand that there will be invitees who have hesitations about going to a wedding," says Tom Casella of Park Chateau Estate & Gardens.

Do embrace the great outdoors

Social distancing is much easier when you can get outside. Keep the season in mind, and aim to move at least a portion of your big day outdoors.

“Ventilation is huge, knowing that this virus can spread faster and more efficiently in poorly ventilated areas. Keep your ceremony and reception short and outdoors with ample space to socially distance,” says Levin.

Don't overcrowd your tables

“Think about new and different styles of seating — a mix of small squares, rounds, and rectangles to create individual family seating, more restaurant-style than a formal banquet with your standard tables of 8 or 10,” says Ashley Okamura of Grand Hyatt Vail.

“Take a pulse of your guests. Try and seat them in a way that will make them feel comfortable. If guests are more conscious of 'who is in their bubble,' consider smaller tables or a variety of size options. Make sure you have a seating chart that is organized in a way that will satisfy your guests’ level of comfort and prevent seat changes or clustering," says Samantha Ivain of Wild Dunes Resort.

wedding reception seating
Photo: Genevieve Nisly Photography

Do modify how you serve your food

"Skip the buffet and opt for plated meals so people do not have to stand in a line with others, using the same utensils. Call on the professional catering teams to safely prepare the food and serve your guests," says Levin.

"Even before the pandemic, we have always been firm believers in miniature versions of any item is the best thing ever. Now, with added safety precautions, we can use this trend as a way to wow guests,” says Camille Ross of Elsie Event Co. "From the most gorgeous individual cheese and charcuterie displays to individually boxed mini desserts, we have seen a sea of fabulous ideas! Hosting a micro-wedding? Treat guests to individual grazing boards as a first course to a seated dinner, which is the safest way to serve guests at this time. Many clients are enhancing their entrees to include a dual protein option along with offering more elaborate desserts to finish the evening. The late-night snack option also gets a fancy upgrade with snazzy packaging and mini offerings like chips and queso, donuts, pretzels, and mini pizzas.”

Don't encourage groups to congregate

“Bars are a huge source of gathering closely, I would recommend that you offer mini bars at each table - make your own drink kits. We recently had a mini gin bar set at each table so guests can mix their own drinks, it was a great interactive activity that made for a great conversation piece,” says JoAnn Gregoli of Elegant Occasions by JoAnn Gregoli.

Do re-think your wedding entertainment

A packed dance floor isn't so appealing these days. Instead, couples are looking for venues that can offer “pod” dancing near individual tables, oversized dance floors with plenty of room for social distancing, or venues with multiple dance floors. Couples are also thinking outside the box when it comes to keeping guests entertained.

"I can see more 'performances' making their way into the wedding space adding entertainment value where crowded dance floors might not be ideal,” says Laura McKenna of Audubon House & Tropical Gardens.

Don't miss out on photo opportunities

"Group shots and candid moments with guests may not unfold as expected, and you may want to avoid 'working the room.' Instead, set up a photo booth or step-and-repeat area to allow your guests to cycle through in a structured way and capture everyone that was able to help you celebrate,” says Jon Lemon of JC Lemon Photography.

socially distant wedding
Photo: Jess Sinatra Photography

Do hire a pro to live-stream your event

It's tempting to just hand an iPhone to your cousin to Zoom the wedding, but your at-home guests deserve better! Consider hiring a videographer to live-stream your event.

"Unlike streaming from a single camera, professionals can actually produce a live stream much like a live television show — getting multiple angles and points of view. So virtual guests will feel like they’re not missing any of the special moments," say the experts at Reverent Wedding Films.

"Professionals won’t just use an iPhone or webcam. Professionals will connect cinema-quality cameras through professional streaming equipment so memories are captured in the highest quality way and a cinematic look that will help the couple relive each moment over again. Plus, the videographer can zoom in on the moments that matter the most so those watching can feel like they’re in-person rather than just watching on a screen somewhere."

Don't forget to interact with your virtual guests

Your guests at home are likely a little bummed about missing out on the in-person action, so make sure to set aside some time during the day to chat with them. Wendy Markum-Scanian of Savvy Bride recalls one recent wedding that transformed from a 200+ guest wedding with international guests to a 30-guest backyard wedding with live-streaming. "During the ceremony, the couple turned and waved to the family as the minister (also the groom's father) acknowledged them. After the recessional, the couple greeted the Zoom guests and interacted with them for several minutes before moving into their first dance. We made sure to capture the traditional reception moments before signing off the Zoom and enjoying the reception with the present guests."

Do prepare for sudden changes

Regulations and circumstances can change suddenly these days. Make your life easier in case of emergency with this simple step: "When mailing out your invitations, include a space for an email address on the return card. This way, you can quickly get in touch with everyone if changes need to be made," says Thomas Beaman of PA Unveiled.

Don't get caught up in the negativity

"If 2020 has taught us anything, it is to adjust and be understanding that we are living out of the norm. My advice is to try and stay positive. Know that the day may not be that dream day you expected, but it will still be perfect and centered around love. With that also comes the tough reality that it also means a smaller guest list and a lowered expectation of what the day could have been. That can be very challenging for some, and it would be a mistake to hold onto anger instead of looking for the silver linings of the day so you can truly celebrate!" says Ross.

wedding exit
Photo: Genevieve Nisly Photography via Kirkbrides Wedding Planning & Design