From branded masks to strategic decor, individual servings and unexpected days of the week, here’s what couples planning weddings for this year should know.
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Planning a wedding right now? Congratulations! While it isn't quite as difficult as it was in 2020 to coordinate a ceremony and celebration (more than half of couples had to make modifications when nearly everything was planned for their wedding in 2020, according to a WeddingWire report), CDC guidelines, local restrictions, rising Delta variant cases, and some vaccination hesitancy likely all mean you're continuing to exercise more caution and scale back what you originally envisioned for your day.

Despite the ever-evolving coronavirus situation, one big thing to keep in mind is that it's entirely possible to stay positive and enjoy all your celebrations while keeping it safe and within the guidelines. "Continue to celebrate your wedding-related events with your inner circle and open the guest list up as you're able," says Lindsay Forseth, director of weddings and special events at Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Va. "Hosting intimate gatherings in a picturesque location with all of the beautiful decor that you envisioned can still be accomplished." 

The other biggie? If you weren't already working with a wedding planner, now's the time to book one. It's a planner's job to know all the rules and regulations (including those around COVID-19), as well as manage contracts to ensure you're financially protected. Read on for practical planning tips and savvy celebration ideas to make your wedding beautiful and stress-free.

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1 Check venue reviews and policies.

If you have a venue or two in mind but haven't yet booked (or re-booked), first check out their reviews on a site like TripAdvisor, suggests Tara McFarling, director of sales at Surety Hotel in Des Moines, Iowa. "If their reviews have dropped since the pandemic, ask why. Those still with strong reviews have found ways to continue offering great service while dealing with the pandemic and its impact on the hospitality industry," she adds. Also, don't forget to ask about cancellation policies. Many venues are willing to be flexible on things such as guest count and dates due to the continually shifting Covid situation. But you have to ask; don't just assume.

2 Think about alternative days.

Saturday has long been the most popular (and the most expensive) day of the week for weddings. However, at many venues, Saturday dates have been heavily booked through 2021 for a while now due to both 2020 wedding postponements and couples who got engaged in 2020, says Katie Brownstein, wedding expert with the virtual wedding planning app Joy. It's likely this will continue after 2021, too. If you can't get the weekend you were hoping for at your dream venue, look into other times such as Fridays, Sundays, weekdays, or even daytime weddings to find greater availability (this goes for your vendors, too). Brownstein adds that many couples are opting for daytime brunch or garden weddings, complete with breakfast spreads, lawn games, and bubbly refreshments.

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3 Pare down your guest list (then, do it again).

Despite growing vaccination rates, hosting a wedding with an extensive guest list (read: hundreds of people) may not be in your or your guests' best interest. Rather than being downtrodden about having to trim your list, however, look at it as an opportunity. "Take this time to really pare down your guest list to those most dear. Celebrate your special day with an intimate wedding and truly surround yourself with those you love," shares Kelly Mattox, senior wedding manager with Montage Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton, S.C. It's completely understandable and reasonable to those who aren't able to be a part of the big day given the current circumstances. Plus, having a smaller wedding gives you an excuse to throw a big one-year anniversary party with all of your friends and family and show the highlight video, adds Woods. (And don't forget about another big benefit of fewer guests: Lower cost, which means you'll have more to spend on the items that really matter, or maybe even put that saved money toward a down payment on a home.)

4 Or make tiered lists.

If you can't bear to cut people completely, you can try making tiered guest lists (which works regardless of the COVID situation) in accordance with your venue's limits on guest count, suggests Anna Fortier, director of event management at JW Marriott Grand Rapids in Michigan. Here's how: Create an A and B list before sending invitations, and only mail invites to those on the A list. If you start to receive any declines, you can start mailing out additional invites to your B list, as long as it's far enough out from the wedding day—with the RSVP date no later than three or four weeks to the day-of date.

5 Take it outside.

Whenever possible, opt for outdoor venues—not only for the wedding (both outdoor ceremonies and outdoor receptions are on the rise), but accompanying events like bridal showers or bachelorette parties. This helps guests to feel more comfortable and more likely to attend, says Fran Grote, a wedding coordinator in Nashville. You can get creative with themes for showers and parties, such as a posh picnic: Each bridesmaid has her own blanket paired with a boxed meal or an individual charcuterie board and a mini bottle of Champagne. Look for bars with an outdoor patio area for post-party gatherings, or restaurants with outdoor seating, lawn space, or rooftop options.

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6 Maximize your wedding website.

Wedding websites were already popular pre-COVID and have grown increasingly important, as couples lean into digital platforms to communicate changing details of their wedding with guests as quickly as possible. Kaitlyn Simmons, senior event manager with Gaylord Rockies Resort in Aurora, Colo., advises building a strong website and communicating clearly on your save-the-dates about it, with a line such as, "Please check our wedding website frequently for updates." Many platforms such as The Knot and WeddingWire now offer easy wedding website templates with COVID-related verbiage. Simmons also recommends supplying a visual layout or diagram of your wedding venue's setup on your website for guests to visualize and see how you're taking precautions for your big day.

7 Reimagine the ceremony setup.

Instead of traditional linear aisles, work with your wedding planner and/or venue to come up with bespoke seating layouts you can segment by household, family, or friend group, suggests Kalli Doubleday, director for Shiraz Garden, an outdoor venue in Bastrop, Texas. This also allows you to add the touch of personal signage with a seating chart or seating cards to help direct guests to their safe and grouped seating. It looks especially beautiful in a circular seating pattern where the groups of guests seem to radiate out from the altar.

8 Prioritize high-speed internet.

Work with your venue to ensure the internet will be fast and strong enough to support a few guests setting up their computer or iPad to stream your event over Zoom to other friends or family members who are unable to attend in person, suggests Newman. Or if your wedding will take place at a venue that offers hybrid capabilities for meetings and events, ask if those tools can be used for a private wedding, too. For instance, Hilton's EventReady Hybrid Solutions works with high-quality audio-visual partners to enable you to live stream your wedding for guests at home. According to the WeddingWire report, 43 percent of couples added a virtual/streaming option to their wedding in 2020.

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9 Offer themed masks.

Even with mandates lifted in some states, face masks really are a must for large gatherings to be held safely. To make this precaution feel like less of a detraction, try offering themed masks for your events—for instance, floral masks for the bridal shower or monogrammed masks for the wedding, says Tara Newman, private and special events manager for RPM Events in Chicago. Have them clearly visible to guests in a basket at the entrance for your event.

10 "Reward" safe practices.

Guests now know to expect the unexpected and are more than willing to go with the flow at events. Consider having a temperature check at the welcome table in exchange for something fun, such as drink tickets or photo booth access. "This is a great way to encourage a safe check-in while also giving guests something to look forward to in their 'reward' for having their temperature taken," says Doubleday.

11 Have a first look with grandparents.

Sharing your wedding day with your grandparents is an incredible privilege you'll want to remember. One creative way to make their attendance safe and meaningful is to build a first look and family time with your grandparents before the ceremony (away from the rest of your guests) into your wedding day timeline. "We've seen grandparents be overjoyed with these changes, allowing for intimate moments followed by socially distanced seating at the ceremony in place of reception attendance," Doubleday says.

12 Be intentional with design.

You can blend your aesthetic vision with safety by tapping into your vendor team. They'll have creative ways to encourage guests to socially distance without taking away from the visual appeal of the ceremony and reception. For example, instead of traditional partitions, incorporate floral designs in large planters or even trees that complement the design instead of drawing attention to the safety measure of distancing, shares Sarah Crowell, lead wedding planner with Mavinhouse Events in Newport, R.I.

13 Implement a wristband system.

One way to help guests feel comfortable is to offer a multi-colored wristband system, an idea Isla Bella Beach Resort in Marathon, Fla., has implemented for weddings lately. For example, a green band indicates the person is OK with hugs and high fives; a yellow band suggests they're comfortable with talking, but no touching; and a red band means they prefer others to keep a safe six-foot distance.

14 Try virtual place cards.

To avoid guests hovering around a board or table to find their place card, use your wedding website or a service (such as Allseated) that will text or email guests a digital version of what they'd traditionally pick up and provide a floor map so they can go straight to their table, easing flow of the group, says Katie Dietrich, assistant director of catering at Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids, Mich.

15 Skip the buffet and passed apps.

As much as people love canapes, having a server carrying around a tray full of bite-sized foods that guests grab themselves isn't the best idea right now. Instead, if your budget allows, look into creating tableside culinary and cocktail experiences. For instance, RPM Events offers trays with pre-portioned liquor, mixers, and ice so each guest can create their own cocktail from their seat. "These experiences are lower touch since they're individually plated or portioned so guests won't need to worry about too many people grazing at the passed bites or buffets [that were] popular pre-COVID," Newman adds.

16 Downsize the dance floor.

If your wedding location (whether it be state, city, or venue-specific) doesn't allow for a large dance floor, ask about setting up a small one where special moments like the couple's first dance or parent dances can still take place, suggests Angela Giannetti, senior catering sales manager at The Logan Philadelphia hotel.

17 Send care packages.

We get it: Couples have enough to think about for the on-site experience of planning a wedding. But if you have a lot of guests unable to attend in person, you can bring the experience to them through a small care package, says Newman. For example, if you'll have charcuterie boards at the wedding, you could send guests attending virtually a small box of similar accoutrements they can put together on their own, or even a little package of decorated cookies to help them feel like they're not missing out on wedding cake.

18 Rethink the favors.

As unexciting as it sounds, hand sanitizer continues to be among the most popular wedding favors this year, Simmons says. Dress up your bottles with customizable stickers that include your names and wedding hashtag.

19 Expect a few more last-minute declines.

Couples will typically see a small percentage of "yes" guests become "nos" at the eleventh hour, since babysitters fall through, there are family emergencies, or bad weather ruins travel plans. Couples getting married in the age of COVID-19 are likely seeing an uptick in last-minute cancellations. People who thought they could come will realize they attended an event where someone tested positive a week before. Maybe they themselves test positive. Or maybe they're worried about catching the virus at your wedding before a priority obligation soon after. The point is, it's easier now more than ever for guests to get a little spooked about attending a larger gathering, so set your expectations for the potential to receive a few more last-minute cancelations than you were previously anticipating. And, of course, keep in contact with your planner, venue manager, and/or caterer about the final guest count in those last few days.