Ask the Right Questions to the Caterer from the Start.

Think saying “I do” is going to be the most emotional moment in your wedding? Probably so, but putting down a deposit on your wedding venue could be a close runner-up.

Reception costs consume almost half the budget for the wedding, which these days means you can expect to lay out almost $13,000, including food. And the venue you select can not only limit your choice of caterers or bakers, it’s sure to affect how much you spend to “cover up” its weak spots or accent its highlights. Most stressful of all, the popular venues book far in advance, forcing brides to make the big decision almost as soon as they set the date.

For that reason, the savvy venue-hunter wants to know what questions to ask before she walks in the door, much less signs the contract. Here are a few ideas:

Do you have a pre-set list of caterers I can use, or can I choose my own?

Some venues — high-end ones with their own catering staff, or small-town ones with little competition — require you to use the in-house caterers or choose from a small list of “approved” vendors. It can be difficult to get taste-tests or otherwise put this type of vendor through its paces. If you’re stuck with such a list, search high and low for brides who have “been there, done that” and can give you their honest opinions.

Any restrictions on decorations?

Many venues have them, but rules vary widely from place to place. Common restrictions include: no open flame (or no flame whatsoever), no tape or tacks on the walls, or no confetti. When linens are provided, some halls will prohibit the use of pins. Ask if the hall can provide any decorations themselves, especially around holidays. Useful centerpiece items such as hurricane lamps or Eiffel vases are not uncommon.

Can we bring our own liquor, is there a “corkage” fee, and do we need a license?

If the liquor’s to flow freely at your wedding, you’ll save an immense amount of moolah by bringing your own. But some venues prohibit this and require you to buy from them. Even worse is the venue that says “yes” to bringing your own alcohol, but charges you a mandatory “corkage fee” to serve it — which typically starts at an unbelievable $10 per bottle or more! You’ll want to be crystal-clear on the fine print regarding alcohol before you commit to a venue.

As for licensing, many states consider wedding receptions to be an “unlicensed social function,” meaning you don’t need one as long as you’re not charging anyone for the alcohol. But be sure to check your local regulations before moving ahead — and ask your venue if they know of any licensing requirements.

Is there a cake-cutting fee?

Some venues even limit your choice of bakers, but most don’t. A more common (and sneakier) tactic is to charge you a cake-cutting fee, which like corkage fees, can really add up — often at $1 per slice!

DIY Detective Work

These, of course, are only a few of the questions you’ll want to ask a prospective venue manager. A few more tips while you’re checking out the place:

- Bring a tape measure. Get the dimensions of the room, the tables, and the distance between any features that might impact your decor, like windows. How many outlets are there and where are they located? What kind of climate control is available to you?

- Check the kitchen. Does it look clean, roomy and suitable for your catering staff to work from?

- Check the hall itself. Where will you put the band, the cake table, the coffee service? Are there coat racks for your guests? Is a sound system available?

- Check out the parking. Is it ample? Is it paved, or can it get muddy in the case of rain? Is there handicap access?

One final thing to get clear before you autograph that contract is your venue’s cancellation policy. But hopefully, with these helpful tips, you’ll have done enough homework to rest easy in your choice and not worry about having to cancel. Now that you’ve signed, take some time to sit back and relax … before you tackle the next task in that thick wedding planner!

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