One thing I have done many a time in my career as a Wedding Planner so far is Venue tours. Venue tours can be really fun, but really exhausting if you're going to the wrong places, time after time, (Cyndi Lauper, anyone?). It is really important to have at least a couple things nailed down before scheduling venue tours.
1) Date. Make sure you have decided on your wedding date, because that is how venues book weddings, based on the date. Especially if you're a numbers person and love the idea of being married on 10/10/10, (which I will tell you right now, no where is open for that date anymore). If you're patient and can wait until next year, or even 2012, then you have 11/11/11 and 12/12/12 for fun wedding dates. But the point is, many places book up to a year in advance depending on popularity or demand for the date or venue. So knowing what day you want to be married on is very important. If you're flexible with the wedding date, make sure your Wedding Planner or at least the venue coordinator is aware of this.
2) Budget. This one is simple. If you have a disposable income, awesome, we're all jealous. But, if you're like most Americans and need to keep an eye on what you're spending with the wedding, know this general number before scheduling venue tours. Knowing a budget for what you would like to spend on the Ceremony and Reception venue is very important because it can allow you to not waste your time on places you can't afford. Everyone is different, some people want the dazzling ballroom at the expensive hotel downtown; but some people are fine with having a secluded backyard wedding, (free from most relatives!). Always call and ask the Venue coordinator for any pricing packages or at least venue fees that they can provide over the phone or via email BEFORE you schedule a Venue tour. The last thing you want to do is waste a month of Sundays touring venues, only to realize they are overpriced and not willing to negotiate.
3) Food needs. This is a biggie. Many Reception Venues do not allow outside caterers when they have their own on-site catering. Find this out before you book your Venue tour. If they do not have their own catering staff, or they do allow outside caterers, ask them if they have a preferred vendor list of caterers that has worked with them in the past, successfully. A preferred vendor list is always good to look at, especially if you don't have a specific caterer in mind yet. If a catering company has already done weddings or events at the venue you are interviewing, they will know their way around the kitchen so to speak. It is important to get references from past clients to make sure the caterers, (even if they are the on-site catering staff), have pleased clients in the past. It is always nice to know that a vendor has good customer services before you hire them. If that caterer has had a problem arise in the past, how did they handle it? Besides all of these catering questions, don't forget about food allergies and other special needs. Do you want a kosher meal? Vegetarian? Gluten free? A specific recipe from your grandmother? Indian/Chinese/Mexican dishes? Generally, most venues are willing to work with clients if they need to customize certain aspects of the menu due to food restrictions/requests such as these. If a venue is increasing their prices too gingerly based on your needs, look at other places. There are always other venues that will try to work with you on your budget and food needs, just to get your business. They should be trying to please you, not the other way around, don't forget that!
Liquor licenses are another topic that generally goes hand in hand with the catering and food questions. Usually, venues won't allow you to bring in your own alcohol, (some do though, so always ask), if they cannot allow outside beverages it is generally because of liability issues and liquor laws. If they won't allow you to bring in your favorite bottles of wine, you can always request they purchase that wine themselves for your wedding and serve it.
4) Ballpark number of guest list. If you're planning an intimate gathering of 40 close friends and family for your wedding, you don't want to reserve your city's professional NFL football stadium for your Reception party. On the other side of the spectrum, if you're having 500 people attend your Reception, you don't want to try to squish them all into an intimate Art Gallery where no one will be able to move around or enjoy themselves. Think realistically about the number of guests you are going to invite. Anywhere between 20-60% of guests who are invited to weddings do not attend, (for various reasons, either unable to travel, have a prior engagement etc). When scheduling Venue Tours, tell the Coordinator how many people you are INVITING to your wedding, to help determine what types of Reception areas to look at. Generally, about 2 weeks before your event, the Venue, (and the catering staff), will request a final head count. That is why it is important to have your guests RSVP at least 3 weeks before your wedding-this way you can draw up your seating chart and the venue can have the correct number of chairs available in time for your event.
5) Any special needs that should be met. Are any of your guests in wheelchairs or needing handicap accessible entries? Do you need a sectioned off area of the Reception room where children can be watched by a professional babysitter during the party? (They have people who offer this service, it is great!) Does your religion or cultural traditions require special activities during the wedding? Write up a list of anything you can think of that is important to you so that you can ask about these issues during the Venue tours.
Many Venues will have a folder or packet for you of standardized information when you come for a tour, but if you're not pleased with their customer service, don't waste your time! Whatever your wants or needs are for your wedding day, you deserve to have them met.