Choosing Our Wedding Venue - Wedding Wednesday

  • Tips for Brides
Wednesday, December 10, 2014 - 15:39

Wedding Wedsnesdays are posts about my process on planning my own wedding. I’m not a weddimg planner, nor am I saying there is a “right way” to plan a wedding, but figured it may give you a unique insight into how a wedding photographer planned her wedding.

After setting our wedding priorities and budget, we had to face my second most dreaded decision- choosing our venue. With a rough estimate of a guest list at 125-150, we started searching. As a wedding photographer, let’s just say that I am picky. Very, very picky. I put a lot of pressure on myself to not only keep our venue affordable and in budget, but also be pretty for photos, flexible on vendors & options and the illusive requirement- natural setting but not rustic country barn type venue. Another plus was if guests could stay and it be a “wedding weekend”. Many of our guests we rarely get to see, and these were all the most important people to us, so we want the wedding to be as much about them as it is about us. This was more difficult that you’d imagine. We love Sedona but with an expected guest list of between 125-150 people, it was too expensive and many venues were too small. Many of the farm type venues in the valley were outside our price range ironically enough, as much as I loved many of them. My dream- a simple forest ceremony & reception around a campfire- was not very feasible because of logistics of power consumption, hotel accommodations and transportation and idea of that made my mom nervous, so we threw out that idea too. (Below are phone photos, so excuse the quality)

We went to a few venues- only a few since I had been to so many as a photographer- but none of them were really capturing my heart. We went to a GORGEOUS venue outside Prescott called Van Dickson Ranch that I LOVED, but it was very difficult to get to and the drive into Prescott made my mom sick, so I could only imagine what it would be like for guests to drive (some of them drunk) at night up a windy mountain road. That dream was dashed, and we continued our search.

Van Dickson Ranch Prescott wedding venue Arizona

open field wedding venue with tents in Skull Valley, Arizona

I dug around Rustic Mountain Bride for some non-country looking venues and stumbled across Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch, not even 30 minutes from my house. The guest ranch was along the Salt River, which I grew up around, going to the river and nearby Saguaro Lake, so the area had some great memories attached to it. It also had 20 casitas on site, perfect for our out of town guests. And the backdrop…. STUNNING. I mean look at those mountains! The only negative- I really preferred not to have a desert, western looking wedding. A silly thing, I know, but I shoot in it so often that I just really prefer something different. I’m such a typical Arizonan in that regard- always wanting what’s just not around here J It was a contender, but I still kept looking.

Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch Mesa, AZ with old western style barn & mountains lit by the setting sun

Prescott, about 2 hours away, didn’t really have any venues that were really what I was looking for, but I love northern Arizona. So, I started searching around Payson, which is about an hour and a half away. The area is full of pine trees and not too far away are some beautiful mountains and the Mogollon Rim. One of the things Richard & I love to do together is hiking. It was hard to find really anything in Payson with it being a relatively small town, especially something big enough to fit our 125ish guests. A friend and local photographer Galaxie photographed a wedding at Camp Tontozona, a summer camp and training ground for Arizona State University’s football team. The camp was surrounded by forest and about 20 minutes away from the stunning Mogollon Rim overlook. With it being a summer camp, there were a lot of options for people to stay there, which was something that was important to us to ensure anyone drinking wouldn’t drive and that people could stay and have a long wedding weekend. The camp had done a few weddings in the past, but it wasn’t a formal wedding venue like many of the other places were, so we would have to do pretty much everything ourselves. We took a trip up there, and I loved it.

open grass field at Camp Tontozona summer camp in Payson Arizona

Retreat at Tontozona summer camp outside Payson, AZ

Milky Way over pine trees near Mogollon Rim, Arizona

So, essentially I was left with two choices- Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch, very close to my house, with housing on site, a beautiful backdrop but definitely a desert, potentially country, western theme, or drive a bit further to Payson at Camp Tontozona, do nearly everything ourselves and it be a partially destination wedding. I agonized for about a week over it but with time ticking away, I had to make a decision. Our date was dependent on the venue we chose because Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch was in the valley and thus got very hot after April. Payson we had more leeway with dates because of the weather. I also had my own wedding season to consider- if I got married in the middle of spring when my busy season was, I was losing out on the possibility to take some weddings during that time. Ultimately, we chose Tontozona because it was more in line with who we were as a couple and what we both wanted for our wedding.

Not factored into our decision but a definite major bonus was that Tontozona allows us to bring our dogs, so we will have both our two dogs, Lobo & Pearl, in our wedding as our ringbearers & standing with the wedding party and my parents’ adorable dog, Bella, as our flower girl. I have to say, I am very excited about that. I am that crazy dog mom.

My advice to brides choosing their venue:

First, figure out what your “must haves” are for your venue. I started with what our wedding priorities are and how those played into our venue. For us, it was photography, DJ, and that our venue reflected us as a couple and allowed us to give our guests an experience. For you, it might be food, or eco-friendliness, or all-inclusiveness, or something else. Take those into consideration BEFORE searching for your venue and it will help you a lot in narrowing down your search!

How will your guest list impact your venue options? Your guest list will most directly impact the cost of the venue in most cases. A large wedding guest list will mean that you have more limited options than a 50 person wedding. You can save some costs in some cases by looking at venues that allow you to bring in your own caterers & such, but only sometimes. Sometimes it might be cheaper to go with a venue that bundles it.

Alcohol also plays a part in cost in a venue. Look at the alcohol rules and how that plays in with your guests. For us, we didn’t want a venue that charged per guest for alcohol, because a lot of our guests don’t drink. Also, if an open bar is important to you, make sure your venue allows for that. Ours is beer & wine only, which is ok with us because they allow us to bring it in ourselves instead of buying it through them.

If photography is important to you: consider lighting and backgrounds. I really can’t stress this enough. Yes, a good photographer can work with the available light and modify some light to make it better, but some lighting, like during the ceremony, can’t be messed with. There are a lot of pretty wedding ceremony sites but photography wasn't considered when choosing the site so the lighting is terrible, or some other challenge exists. If you aren’t sure if the lighting is good, look at other weddings from that venue and look at the lighting and see if you like it. I did this with all of the venues we were considering. I simply Googled “wedding venue wedding photos” or “weddings at wedding venue” and various other related terms so I could see what the photographer would see, especially with the ceremony. It’s also a great idea to look at multiple photographers’ work, as styles and photographic eyes are different for everyone.

LOOK AT REVIEWS FROM MULTIPLE WEBSITES. I have heard of several local wedding venues suddenly shutting down and leaving their brides in limbo and not refunding them. This is NOT the norm, but definitely look for anything fishy in any reviews and in any contracts venues send to you to make sure they can’t do this to you. If in doubt, ask what happens if that happens. Look at the reviews of their service. Sometimes brides will blame vendors for things outside their control but if something was within their control and it happens often- that’s a red flag. In general, you get what you pay for in the wedding industry and cheap venues or vendors provide the opportunity for poor service oftentimes.

If you’re going the total DIY route with an out of the box venue that doesn’t normally do weddings, or a guerrilla style wedding: I can’t recommend enough how hiring a planner or coordinator can help you. I’m going to write a whole blog post on this topic next, but in short, they’ll save you so much stress, think of things you didn’t even know about, and probably save you more money than they cost. Even with me being a photographer and thinking I know a lot of things, we hired a day of coordinator and I already feel so much more relieved  having her handle some things for us. More on that at a later date! DIY guerrilla style weddings in stunning, natural locations are MY JAM and I LOVE THEM and totally recommend that as an option if you want a stunning wedding on less money and are willing to do a lot of the planning work yourself, but know that it’s a LOT more work and potentially risk than going with a tried & true dedicated wedding venue. Also, in my opinion, it's way harder to plan this style of wedding with a guest list over 100.

Your venue might not be perfect. Don't drive yourself crazy by searching for the PERFECT venue. If you're anything like me, that venue might not exist in your area. For that matter, your wedding day doesn't have to be perfect either, nor will it probably be. Just focus on it being what you want, and that it fits your criteria (mostly) and that it makes you happy.

Most importantly, stay true to what you & your fiancé want and who you are as a couple. Don’t let too many outside opinions sway your decision. Even if someone else is paying for the wedding, keep your voice and personality in your wedding.

Hope that’s helpful! Follow along with this series by checking back, liking my page on Facebook or signing up for my newsletter at the bottom of this page! Thanks!