First Comes Love, Then Comes Venue Hunting?!


So you said “Yes”

No matter if you are bride or a groom, everyone has envisioned their wedding day at some point. From gilded golden archways that spill into a candlelit aisle, to reclaimed wood beams that frame wildflowers and natural linens, that day started as a vision somewhere.  

But wait.

No one said there would be just as many decisions required to build and furnish a house, as there would be to say I do.

We understand.

So where do you start?

Well it all needs to happen somewhere, right? So, let’s start with the venue.


The Basics of Wedding Venues

In Chicago there are two major categories of wedding destinations; hotels and venues. From the Drake Hotel and Union League Club, to the Bridgeport Art Center and Chicago History Museum, there is no shortage of options to float over the floor during your first dance. However, there’s another, often overlooked, differentiator between the locales: on-premise vs. off-premise.

What is on-premise?

On-premise venues refer to venues in which the food is prepared on site. Think hotels, private clubs, restaurants, banquet facilities, and even some of the cultural institutions like the Shedd Aquarium. These venues generally are able to offer you more finite wedding “packages,” many of which include in-house equipment, like tables and chairs. On-premise venues will often provide the bar and may include staff as a part of your per person price. On-premise venues generally will come with an F&B (food & beverage) minimum or tag on a mandatory gratuity or service charge.

A Service Charge? Where does that go?

More often than not, a service charge will go towards staff gratuities and taxes. When working with a hotel it’s important to establish early on what the standard service charge of the property may be. There’s nothing worse than budgeting based on a published menu or package price, only to be surprised when the actual bill is going to be 20% - 25% higher.

If the property does have a service charge, another important thing to note is if that service charge covers gratuity. If so, confirm with your catering manager or salesperson if the expectation is that you would add any additional gratuities on top of the total charge. Think of this being similar to going to a restaurant with a large group and finding that a standard 18% gratuity will be added to parties of 6 or more. For exceptional service, you may tip beyond that.


What is off-premise?

As you might guess, off-premise is somewhat the opposite. Think a converted loft venue that can be transformed into a Soho House fantasy, or a park district venue that does everything from public programming to garden weddings. Off-premise venues, a lot of the time, will allow you to choose your caterer, may or may not have tables and chairs for you to use (or if they do, you may prefer not to use them, just saying), and may even allow you to provide your own liquor for the bar.

It takes a village

With off-premise venues, you can expect to be reaching out to a few more partners to execute your day. With more partners, comes more meetings, more logistics, and sometimes more room for details to slip through the cracks.

At an on-premise venue, by comparison, you will typically be working with one Catering Manager who handles your menu, room layout, staffing, equipment, and sometimes even lighting. In the world of off-premise, you can expect to work with someone who represents the space (a Venue Manager), your main catering contact (who will typically handle staffing) and may even have a third-party equipment provider that will be bringing in specialty furniture or rentals. There’s also potential for a lighting crew (which may be coordinated through your décor partner), or a vendor hired to provide some drape or fabric panels.

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All of these vendors will be in addition to your more commonly referenced wedding vendors which apply to both on-premise and off-premise venues: Wedding Planner, Florist/Decor Provider, DJ or Band, Photographer, Videographer, and Bakery.

What Wedding Venue Is Right for You?

So where do you start? While style is always a driving factor, something else to think about is the amount of decisions you will want to make. We’ve sat through a tasting with a caterer that has erupted into an argument over the flatware pattern for an off-premise wedding. While the argument was never about the pattern on the fork (we kid you not), it was only heightened due to the amount of decisions that had to be made.

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Off-premise venues are often times a blank slate, allowing you, as the incredible visionary you are, to mold and transform the canvas into your own personal work of art.

Now if that last sentence just made your heart flutter, and a wave of anxiety washed over you, maybe off-premise is not the way to go. We are not saying you can’t turn the ballroom at the Four Seasons into something that is truly unique and incredible (if you are interested look up Oprah’s going away party, pretty astonishing to see the before and afters), but even so, you are generally a little bit more limited in your selections.

We are lucky enough to live in an incredible city that allows us the luxury of having every type of venue available to us. There’s no one right way to choose the place you may be taking your fiancé’s hand in marriage and dancing the night away, but hopefully a little knowledge leads to power in weighing the options.

As always, we’re here for you, with services ranging from month-of coordination to full service planning, and everything in between!

Happy hunting!

Photos in this post are courtesy of Erika Mattingly Photo / Tim Tab Studios / Ben Elsass Photography / Emilia Jane Photography / Elizabeth Greve Photography