“Intimate weddings have always been chic—even before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Joy Proctor, who designed Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner’s intimate wedding in the South of France. And we couldn’t agree more—small weddings, no matter how petite, are weddings nonetheless; well-deserving of attention to detail, jaw-dropping fashion moments, and a stellar guest experience.
With couples postponing and rethinking their wedding plans for 2020 and 2021 with fresh priorities, safety, and national and international regulations in mind, celebrations have inherently become smaller, more intimate—and, if we’re being honest, more intentional and personal than ever before. A common misconception is that a small weddings mean less effort, curation, and elevation. Quite the contrary; a wedding is a wedding, regardless of size, scope, and location—and smaller guest counts make it possible to get even more creative.
Whether your celebration takes place in the backyard at home or far and away, a smaller guest count allows for extra creativity for an unforgettable experience. Here, 21 tips from the experts to make your event as unforgettable as the larger wedding you (might) have had planned.
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Go All Out
Whether you keep your wedding at home or opt for an intimate venue, a smaller guest list allows for you to go all out on details you’d likely have had to dilute for a larger group. “With a smaller guest count, you have the opportunity to really pull out all the stops and give you, your beloved, and your guests a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says luxury and celebrity event designer, David Beahm. “From a unique and gorgeous venue, to an abundance of flowers, your family china, embroidered linen napkins, fabulous furnishings, fine stationery, really rare wines, or a guest chef creating the menu you’ve always dreamed—go for it!”
Blake of Gregory Blake Sams Events, agrees wholeheartedly, encouraging couples to “incorporate heirloom pieces like fine china, silver, linens, vessels, and more” when designing the event. Most families don’t have heirlooms in bulk, but your intimate dinner party of your closest family and friends is the most sentimental, thoughtful, and size-appropriate way to showcase objet that you’d only otherwise enjoy at private family occasions.
Be Fearless with Your Fashion
Accessorize in a way that feels outside the bridal box. Dare to walk down the aisle in color; skip a full length gown; wear your mother’s wedding dress; in fact—wear two (or even three) looks during the evening. Style your looks for a small wedding the same way you would a larger one—based on your setting. You don’t need to wear what people expect you to wear, but your looks should feel unique to your personal style, to you both as a couple, and to the location you’ve decided to host your nearest and dearest.
Should you be looking to don multiple looks, keep in mind that each wardrobe change will signal a shift in energy to your guests. Enter into your dinner reception in a new look; or change into luxurious silk pajamas or a micro mini for late night.
Indulge in Fine Dining
When it comes to food and beverage, go super luxe. “Perhaps a caviar and champagne cart is too extravagant for 200 guests, but for 20 people it becomes something you can include,” suggests Luis Otoya of RobbinsOtoya and The Kitchen Kiki. “Use the smaller guest count as an opportunity to get more creative and unique with the courses and ingredients. Layer in extra courses to your dinner menu, like individual cheese and charcuterie boards or individual raw bars. Have fun with the wine selection and go for more unique and extra special options.” Your guests likely aren’t expecting a feast for the ages—surprise and delight them.
Customize the Little Things
It’s all about the details for any event, but when hosting a smaller affair, have fun with surprise elements that your guests will cherish forever. Opt to monogram each guests initials on their own dinner napkin. “It serves as their place card at the table, but also makes guests feel instantly considered and special,” says Victoria Holland of Victoria Ann Events. Holland also suggests producing custom chinaware for your wedding day that you can then keep as your newlywed set.
Embrace Your Guests’ Hidden Talents
If you’re considering accepting help from family and friends on or prior to the wedding day, leave the primary components to the professionals. Even if you’re aunt is a beloved florist or your brother-in-law is a seasoned photographer, you want those key people to be there to enjoy the day. With that said, perhaps your cousin in an incredible ceramicist who can craft vessels for your centerpieces, or maybe one of your siblings is a talented musician, and can play the tune that walks you down the aisle. Consider your loved ones’ talents and time, and incorporate their not-so-secret talents in meaningful ways. “It’s these micro details that stay with us and make the moment that much more memorable,” says Fallon Carter of Fallon Carter Events.
A small wedding doesn’t mean it has to be at home. If your guests are will to travel, it’s possible to do so safely and make it a destination wedding. “There are so many beautiful nooks around the world and here in the U.S. that will make your guests feel embraced—without you needing to add much more to the ambiance,” recommends Nathalie Cadet-James of Luxe Fête Event Planning and Design Studio.
And with a smaller guest count, you can also include extra activities for the wedding weekend to take extra advantage of those destinations—especially excursions that would be impossible to coordinate for a large group. “Consider a beautiful day sailing day with a chic picnic; or, perhaps a wine tasting— which is an experience that’s perfect for a smaller group,” suggests Matthew Robbins, of Matthew Robbins Design. The overall experience can be more varied and customized when you have a more intimate guest count.
Whatever your destination of choice, make sure you think of the guest experience from start to finish. Cadet-James advises: “Send a handwritten invitation and provide a PPE Care Kit to get your loved ones to your event safely.”
When it comes to wedding favors and details that your guests get to keep, opt for a personal approach. “For intimate receptions, consider hand-painted portraits like those made by Karina Puente Arts as place cards, doubling both as thoughtful gifts and to help them find their seat,” recommends Joy Proctor. Not only will your guests enjoy such a special touch, they’ll feel appreciated, loved, and cared for as well.
Embrace a Festival Feel
With intimate weddings you get the chance to really tailor your guest experience. “To keep things fun and personalized, hire your favorite food truck and have guests walk up and order like they would at a festival or any of their late-night haunts,” says Nicole-Natassha Goulding of Chic by Nicole Weddings and Events and Ethos West Collective. While this could work for the main meal, we suggest you opt for this cheeky eating experience for dessert—or, for late-night snacks.
Looking for an even-more-personal touch? “As a sweet surprise, create a special menu based on individual guest preferences and name the dishes in honor of each attendee,” suggests Goulding.
Curate Thoughtful Welcome Bags
While a standard welcome bag is just that—standard—considering your guests’ needs on a more individual level will make their stay at a smaller event that much more memorable. “Details unmanageable for large guest counts are doable and magical for smaller intimate weddings,” says Joy Proctor. She suggests putting together thoughtful welcome bags—complete with amenities tailored to your guests dietary needs, slippers and robes in their size, and hand written welcome notes.
Get Creative with Safety Measures
Embrace new and unique ways to keep your guests safe by designing a new type of space, like bringing an event-style bar into your home for a super-small event, or accenting a more residential venue with high-touch level service details. Scaling down guest count doesn’t mean paring back design or guest experience, and you set that tone with service, and your nods to safety. “Create an amazing entrance, then create beauty between socially-distanced tables with gorgeous floral installations, says Rishi Patel of HMR Designs.
As for COVID safety precautions, incorporate masks and sanitizer seamlessly, making it clear they’re essential without making them the main attraction. “We recently designed an event where we put hand sanitizer into beautiful glass perfume bottles to create beauty on the tabletop,” Patel added. “One of my other favorite—and safety-conscious—details was when we designed individualized, custom salt and pepper cellars placed in front of each guest place setting, which also doubled as a holder for an elegant place card, to avoid guests sharing anything at the table.“
Skip the “First Look”
“If you’re having a small wedding, the entire guest list is in the photo lineup and you have the luxury of letting the couple see each other for the first time as they walk down the aisle,” says celebrity event planner Marcy Blum. “Rather than having to do a “first look” and take photos before the ceremony, all the photos can be done afterwards because there aren’t any other guests waiting.” The result? A more meaningful ceremony, event flow, and overall guest experience as they get to witness the couple seeing one another for the first time, and enjoy spending time with them during family photos.
Opt for Outdoor-Indoor Entertaining
One often considers indoor-outdoor entertaining and living—but consider the reverse for a small group. “If you’re having a tented reception that’s surrounded by nature, invite the trees inside. Spring for a taller tent and let the trees green up your space,” encourages Ashley Mason of Saunter Weddings. “Instead of a floral installation from scratch, add an abundance of blooms to the trees as your statement pieces, or light them up with suspended fixtures for a grand, yet intimate feel.”
“If you were planning a big wedding, and now it’s a small wedding—riff on that,” says Bryan Rafanelli of Rafanelli Events and author of A Great Party. “Think: tiny wedding cake, a small French posey bridal bouquet, chic champagne splits, and serve all the beautifully curated mini entrées for a cocktail supper vibe, like mini fish tacos, mini filet Mignon, tiny baby back ribs, etc.”
But why stop there? Rafanelli advises that you extend this nod to all things small across the event, in the sweetest and chicest of ways. “Your can even design a mini bar with 186ml bottles of champagne, rosé, craft beer, and sparkling waters. As for the bridal party, have the little people in your life be your best people. Your 5-year old nephew becomes your best mini man, and your 6-year old niece can serve as your maid of honor.”
Don’t Skip the Band
“Large or small, the dance floor is where the party really shakes down. Don’t skimp on the full band,” says Lynn Easton of Easton Events. “The juxtaposition of an intimate guest count with the power of a full band performing is unparalleled. A full band is going to bring maximum energy to your celebration, and the dance floor is guaranteed to be full, regardless of your guest count.”
With a small group, sometimes it’s nice to also make it personal. “Include space for song suggestions in your RSVP card and play a medley of all those tunes to ensure each guest has their moment to shine on the dance floor,” suggests Guerdy Abraira of Guerdy Design.
Find a Home Away from Home
When it comes to privacy and safety, smaller, more intimate venues become options for those planning an event for an edited guest list. “Opt for taking over a small boutique property for your intimate celebration. This eliminates the stress of preparing and hosting the experience at a family homestead and still allows for personal touches,” says Blake of Gregory Blake Sams Events. “Create a multi-day celebration utilizing all aspects of the property, like the private piazzas, as well as the salon, café, library, and lush courtyard garden. The experience allows everyone in attendance the ability to really connect with the bride and groom and share their special day with a warm, at-home feel—without the stresses that come along with actually being at home,” he says.
Make Your Menu Bespoke
“One request about which we are often cautious with events of size, is how to successfully integrate a favorite restaurant, or esteemed chef to cater,” explains Ryan Hill of Apotheosis Events. “Catering for large numbers of guests is a specific skill, and way of cooking that not everybody possesses. This conversation changes entirely when your gathering is an intimate 20-50 guests. That chef you adore is back on the menu, so to speak. Most restaurants have private dining rooms or courtyards, so handling your guest count isn’t entirely new to them.”
More good news? This also applies to wine. “Ring up the sommelier for your favorite wine list in town, and hire them to work with you as well,” Hill suggests. “It makes your entire menu a bespoke enterprise—plus, a great sommelier may have access to that perfect bottle that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Play with Bold Color
Bright and bold tones can look overwhelming when done in droves, but for a smaller gathering, playing with rich, saturated hues is key to making a splash in an intimate setting,” says Augusta Cole of Augusta Cole Events. “You can be bolder with your color choices and feel confident to mix and match patterns when you are designing for a smaller audience,” she says.
Cole also encourages that you work with a color palette you’d consider entertaining with long into the future. “I am encouraging my clients to look at their wedding as a way to further enhance their at-home entertaining. If you have been eying a gorgeous china pattern, but never had the reason to splurge, now is a perfect time. Rather than renting all of the elements of your tabletop, invest in tablecloths, chargers, china, flatware, napkins, or that gasp-worthy Italian blown glass that you will enjoy for years to come.”
Reimagine Guest Seating
“When it comes to guest seating and lounge setups, create a living room-like feel by using a combination of sofas, arm chairs, and bistro tables in a variety of mini vignettes,” encourages Chanda Daniels of A Monique Affair. “The guest placement can be based on family members who have been quarantining together,” she says; and residential seating will make clusters of guests feel more substantial than distanced chairs.
Or, explains Lea of Lea Stafford Events, “Go café style; set up bistro tables and low profile seating a la the quaint cafés in Paris. Once the ceremony is over, that setup can easily double as cocktail hour seating.”
As for event rentals, the options increase drastically when you aren’t looking for too many of the same thing. Gathering furniture for an event with an 150+ guest count can pose daunting stylistic challenges, but renting or borrowing furnishings for a celebration with a close group of family members and friends is far more manageable. Our advice? Set a loose color palette and play within it, mixing and matching complementing items—like a lush settee or chaise with a one-off end table.
Serve Family Favorites
Eat family style, and serve dishes that speak to your childhood favorites, albeit made by the caterer of your choosing. “This will definitely spark great dinner conversation with a smaller guest count, notes Guerdy Abraira of Guerdy Design.” Serving family recipes in a really elevated way—whether it’s a cake or cookies your grandmother was known to prepare, or a riff on your mother’s best hits—will add a nostalgic, family-oriented note to a close-knit celebration.
Opt for a Portrait Studio
At a large wedding, the timeline is infinitely more sensitive, and time is slotted in for photos in a calculated way,” explains celebrity wedding photographer Jose Villa. “If you have a smaller group, create a studio-quality photo “booth” with a backdrop and lighting designed by your photographer for memorable portraits of you, and of each member of your family. Not only does a smaller guest count allow for a more relaxed feel, it gives us the opportunity to really capture art-directed portraits of each guest, and of you in your fashion moments. After the wedding, consider gifting each guest a printed portrait of themselves as a favor.”
Skip Traditional Speeches
“What I witnessed recently at a wedding was kind of amazing in its simplicity,” says celebrity photographer John Dolan. “A 12 person dinner party with a ceremony in the living room, followed by dinner in the dining room. Speeches were intimate and solid, but then the bride stood up and went around the table directing words of gratitude to each person, starting with the best man, then the father of the groom, mother of the groom, etc. It was so simple but oh so powerful. No snark, or sentimentality, just honest appreciation for each person, and individualized. I found it powerful—and possible to do at any event with a small group.”
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