Friday, April 26, 2013

Making Your Guests A Priority

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From Our Print Issue

Weddings are traditionally about the bride and groom, but more couples are making it a priority to focus on their guests. “Yes, the common phrase is ‘It’s my day,’ but it’s really a day about you playing host to all of your guests and asking them to celebrate with you,” says Lori Stephenson of LOLA Event Productions. “And a good host keeps their guests’ needs in mind at all times.”

Mary Ann Kenmotsu, the director of social catering at InterContinental Chicago O’Hare, recommends setting up a wedding website “that provides up-to-date information, as well as the ability to RSVP conveniently online.” The website is also a good place to put information about registries, keeping all of the necessary details in one, easy-to-find place.

It’s also a good idea to reserve a block of hotel rooms for your guests. Many hotels will offer discounts off their published room rates to customers who book a block of rooms. (Keep in mind, if you’re booking on a holiday weekend, hotels may fill up quickly and rooms may not be as readily available.) Also, giving guests options between more and less expensive hotels shows that the couple is thinking of their visitors’ needs. When you make the arrangements with a hotel, get a group code for guests to use when booking to receive the reduced rate. Again, the wedding website is a good place for this information.

For guests to get from the hotel to the venue, consider providing them with transportation. A rented school bus can fit a ton of people and also takes people back to their elementary-school years (for better or for worse), or a trolley can set the scene for the party early on.

“Little touches and nice gestures go a long way,” says Amanda Belton, catering director at PUBLIC Chicago, who explains that one couple helped pay for their guests’ rooms. If a friend from out of town really wants to come but can’t afford the flight, consider helping to pay for her flight.

Show your appreciation for out-of-town guests by giving them a small welcome gift. Sheri Lechleitner, the director of catering and events at The Allerton Hotel says, “Maps of the area and an itinerary of the weekend’s events are a must.” She also recommends including bottled water, aspirin, snacks, and postcards in welcome bags.

“I love the idea of welcome packages,” says Farrah Singh, owner of Simply Azure Events, who suggests something personal, such as gift cards to the couple’s favorite coffee shop or a package of the groom’s favorite cookies. “Add in a little card or note stating why those items are being shared,” Singh says.

The welcome gift can also be a great way to help guests get to know the host city. Fill a bag with local treats—in Chicago’s case, a bag of Garrett’s caramel and cheese popcorn, some Vosges truffles, a map of the city, a coupon for Portillo’s— even a $5 CTA card to encourage guests to visit other neighborhoods.

“Most out-of-towners are not sure what to do or where to go other than the popular tourist locations,” says Sohana Cantwell, director of catering at the Congress Plaza Hotel and Convention Center. Recommend a show at one of your favorite small theaters or a delicious restaurant off the beaten path.

You can also host a welcome reception. In the hotel’s hospitality suite, leave some water, sodas, and snacks, and encourage guests to stop by and mingle.

Nell Oz, the senior social catering manager and wedding specialist at theWit Hotel, says that one of her couples served champagne and petit fours upon check-in. Another bride at theWit gave guests a small cupcake and specialty popcorn in a welcome bag, which a doorman delivered to the guest’s room shortly after their arrival at the hotel.

“Brides and grooms always want to accommodate their guests’ dietary needs, but not all menus work for all guests,” says Kenmotsu, whose culinary team handles meal requests such as gluten free, kosher, and vegetarian/vegan.

Stephenson suggests always offering a vegetarian option. “Offer printed menus with in-depth descriptions so guests know what they’ll be eating. Find out dietary restrictions well in advance so you can coordinate appropriate meals with your caterer.”

“Also, see if any of your guests have any airborne food allergies. If a guest breaks out in hives if he’s within inches of a peanut, it might be best to avoid any peanut sauces or chocolate covered nuts at the tables.”

It used to be that couples invited their immediate family and members of the wedding party, as well as out-of-town guests. Nowadays, the guest list for rehearsal dinners is getting bigger—perhaps because there are more out-of-town guests to invite.

“Rehearsal dinners usually kick off the weekend, and you definitely want to include fun activities for your guests who have traveled a great distance for your special day,” says Lechleitner.

Oz describes a rehearsal dinner at theWit that started with “fun” food stations. Then the celebration moved into the hotel’s private movie theater, where guests watched a movie, drank sodas, and ate popcorn and candy.

If the number of out-of-town guests would mean the rehearsal dinner becomes a mini-wedding, instead of inviting them all to dinner ask them to meet you out at a bar later on in the evening. You can still spend a good amount of time with your guests.

Keep your guests entertained with a photo booth. “People fall in love with our booth’s design,” says Jeff Hellenbrand, owner of The Traveling Photo Booth.

The booth’s two-person seating setup has a back curtain that opens for group shots. Photos are available in black and white, sepia, color, and retro color, which Hellenbrand says, “looks similar to an Instagram photo.”

“The guests keep one copy of the photo, while the other copy goes in the couple’s guestbook.”

“It’s such a personal way for guests to give something to the bride and groom,” and vice versa, says Hellenbrand, noting how guests often go back into the photo booth over and over.

“A new way of doing favors and a thank you is giving something ecofriendly, something living like a tree sapling,” says Elizabeth Wray, owner of Elizabeth Wray Design.

Green favors are having they’re moment in the spotlight. “I’ve been seeing a lot of air plants,” says MarlĂ©n Valdivia of Anjeli Flowers. “We put them in glass containers for the reception.” The air plants, which are low-maintenance and don’t require dirt, can make great wedding favors. Valdivia says that she’s also prepped cacti favors.

Wray says that many thank-you bags tend to have “regional elements.” Take the Geneva bag, which featured a caramel apple, Geneva popcorn, and chocolates from a local chocolate company. “If it’s not food-oriented or consumable, people may leave it behind,” explains Wray.

Another of Wray’s couples chose to give guests postcards made from the groom’s black-and-white photos of Chicago. “They were iconic shots that were artistically done,” she says.

When the reception is over, the party often continues elsewhere with a fun, casual gathering. TheWit hosts after parties from 12 to 2 a.m. in the hotel’s private restaurant. Guests, especially those staying at the hotel, enjoy continuing the festivities without having to drive to another venue. “It’s very convenient,” says Oz.

Typically, the after-party has a cash bar and some music. Couples also can order food, such as sliders and macaroni and cheese.

Guests love to be pampered, so they may treat your wedding like a vacation. “Attending a wedding is very costly too, so making them feel important, appreciated, and welcomed means so much to them,” says Singh.

Belton says that many couples offer guests a continental breakfast the day after the wedding. The meal, which typically includes light fare such as bagels and fruit, is a great send-off for guests, especially those who will be traveling.

Whether you tackle little details like paying for parking or cover bigger expenses like the fees associated with a room upgrade, your guests will be grateful. “Everyone wants to be appreciated,” says Cantwell. “These little touches help show them you care.”

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