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  • Writer's pictureGiselle Smith

Tried & True Wedding Day Timelines

What do race horses and weddings have in common? They go by really quick. Haha. I do try to be funny. Seriously though, a tried-and-true timeline can make or break your wedding day and time is of the essence considering that you are spending tens of thousands of dollars on a single day. My name is Giselle Smith, wedding planner and florist at Lovely Leaves, and today we are covering how to make the most of those precious hours. Most wedding coordinators will help you create a timeline for your wedding, but just in case your coordinator does not, read on for pro tips on determining your wedding day timeline in the sixth post of our wedding planning blog series. If you are joining in the middle but are just beginning wedding planning and you missed the first post on Three Big Wedding Questions: Budget, Guest Count & Date, click here to check it out. That particular post can help any couple lay the foundation for a stress-free, memorable wedding day.

If you're a new wedding coordinator or photographer, this post is also for you! I am happy to answer any questions you might have on wedding timelines. Feel free to email me directly at

Setting Your Ceremony Start Time & Reception End Time

Setting your ceremony start time is simple. Google sunset time for the date and city you plan to wed. Plan your ceremony start time for two hours prior to sunset. For example: Sunset is 7:08pm (it's always a random time), so your wedding ceremony is 5:00pm. This means guests will begin to arrive at 4:30pm. Light is so important for not only ceremony photos, but also portraits which will hang throughout your home and be passed down for generations. The exception to the rule is summer when the days are long and you have ample light at which point 6:00pm is a perfect ceremony start time so as not to start too late and to avoid cocktail hour (read: booze and hors d'oeuvres) starting later than 6:30pm. Drinks and appetizers at 6:30pm with dinner at 7:30pm sounds like a perfect summer Saturday night to me.

Determining your reception end time is equally easy. From ceremony start time add five hours and that is what time your reception should end. For example, weddings beginning at 5:00pm should end at 10:00pm. This is the perfect amount of time to include all of those traditions and special moments with your fiancé plus ample time for dinner and dancing. Below are the average times that each of the most common timeline elements require:

  • Vendor Installation / Hair & Makeup: 4 to 6 Hours

  • Pre-Wedding Detail Photos: 2 Hours

  • Getting Ready Photos: 1 Hour

  • Pre-Wedding Portraits: 1 Hour

  • Guest Arrival/Seating: 30 Minutes

  • Ceremony: 30 Minutes

  • Cocktail Hour / Additional Portraits: 1 Hour

  • First Dance, Father- Daughter & Mother-Son Dances: 10 Minutes (total)

  • Dinner: 1 to 1.5 Hours (depending on the style of meal)

  • Cake Cutting: 10 Minutes

  • Toasts: 20 Minutes (suggested limit)

  • Bouquet & Garter Toss: 10 Minutes (total)

  • Sparkler Exit: 15 Minutes

  • Clean Up / Packing: 1 to 2 Hours

Tent installations usually occur days before the wedding. Talk to your venue and tent rental company about acceptable installation times. If you are planning to use a tent as a rain plan; you will likely have to say yay or nay on the tent 72 hours prior to your wedding day.

Vendor Installations & Photographer Arrival Time

Why are vendor install times important? Most vendors charge for installation whether it is an itemized fee or worked into their pricing and you definitely want to be sure your chosen vendors have enough time to set everything up before your photographer arrives to take detail photos (with the exception of the caterer and DJ/band who just must arrive and load in before guests begin to arrive). Knowing how long it takes to set up different elements of your wedding is difficult because it changes with guest count and the level of installation required. TRUST THE PROS. Ask each vendor how long it will take for them to set up and what needs to be in place for them to be able to begin setting up upon arrival.

For venues that offer 10 hours or less on wedding days including install and strike (another word for clean up/packing), you may either have to add additional hours to the venue rental or require your vendors to set up in a shorter timeframe than usual. If time at your venue is limited, let the vendors know well in advance as they will likely have to hire extra staff (which you will be charged for) in order for everything to be in place in time for the wedding. The earlier everything is set up the better if your venue rental time allows.

When creating the portion of your timeline listing vendor arrival times, consider how each vendor affects others. A primary example is the rental companies who bring everything other vendors need to begin setting up. There is no reason for a band to be on site to set up prior to the arrival of the rental company and the installation of the rented stage. Similarly, if your florist is set to arrive with centerpieces at noon, the coordinator or caterer should have table linens placed before the florist arrives. For this to work, the venue or rental company will have to have tables and chairs delivered and set up before the linens can be placed. Renting a bar, bar shelving and glassware? The bartender will need the bar, shelves and bar glasses on site to begin setting up. There are countless examples. Use common sense. Coming from a florist: Unless we have a large or difficult installation, we should arrive last. Arriving first to a wedding when nothing is in place for us to place flowers is a waste of our time and your money. Your coordinator should be on site first as he/she is going to be overseeing all other vendors and will make sure they have what they need for your wedding.

Photographers and videographers should arrive four hours prior to the ceremony start time and should be flexible in what they plan to shoot first just in case something/someone isn't ready right at the scheduled time; instead of waiting around, they should shoot something else. That said, ideally they will shoot an hour of flat lays and personal details, an hour of getting ready photos, an hour of pre-ceremony portraits and an hour of ceremony and reception space details. The order is important because:

  • You want your photographer/videographer to shoot flat lays and personal details before things get hectic to be sure those memories are captured.

  • Getting ready and dressing photos are best once everyone is fully ready.

  • Pre-ceremony portraits are perfect while hair and makeup are fresh but not too late, so the couple and bridal party have time to relax before guests arrive for the ceremony.

  • Ceremony details need to happen once the bridal party is resting and hidden away, but before guests arrive and begin taking their seats. Ceremony details usually only require 15 minutes of photos.

  • Reception details call for the full 45 minutes prior to the ceremony once all is in place. These photos are a must for magazine and blog features; you want to have your photographer shoot the space before guests enter.

What goes up must come down. Vendors realize that the amount of time allowed on site at the close of the event is limited to one or two hours. Be sure all vendors are aware of what is expected of them at the end of the night and that they will have enough staff on site to accomplish the task within the time allotted for strike to avoid additional venue fees. Because some venues do not allow for rental/floral pick up on Mondays whether it be because they are strict on rental times or because they have additional events the following day, be aware that late night pick up fees are often added to cover additional staff required for picking up at the close of the event.

Sending Out Your Timeline

Your coordinator should handle sending out your timeline to all of your vendors as he/she will be working with the said vendors on your wedding day to be sure they have everything they need to make your day magical. Be sure to have him/her CC your nifty wedding email on the message sending vendors the timeline to help you stay in the loop. Timelines are only useful if all of your vendors not only have them, but also approve them and agree to arrive on time and to be packed up on time at the close of the evening.

When should the timeline be sent to vendors? All coordinators are different, but we send out initial timelines months in advance to be sure vendors have our preferred arrival times well before they begin making delivery/install schedules for the wedding weekend in question. We re-send out timelines for confirmation 30 days prior to the event asking for vendors to send through any concerns and to let us know if clients have final balances due. One week prior to the wedding, we send out timelines again and re-confirm final numbers just because I like to be sure everything will run as smoothly as possible.

Whoever you hire for wedding coordination, be sure you know the level of communication with vendors that is included. Avoid true "day of" coordinators as they do not handle any prior communication up until the wedding day and likely won't have a clue when it comes down to what is happening on your actual wedding day. If you don't know where to start in your search for a winning coordinator, click here for last week's blog post titled Fact: You Need A Wedding Coordinator. Some of my favorite Kentucky wedding coordinators are featured (and a traveling Texas gal) plus helpful tips on making the big decision. If you really like me and you really like flowers and pretty things, chances are I really like you too. We offer wedding coordination to a very limited number of couples. Feel free to inquire here to see if we are a good fit.

Thanks so much for reading along today for the sixth post in our wedding planning series! If you need some inspiration, check out our Instagram at @_giselle_smith. Be sure to subscribe to the blog to receive monthly email updates. Stay tuned next Tuesday, March 19 for our next blog post on hiring the perfect wedding vendors!

Cheers to your very own tried-and-true wedding day timeline! Happy Planning! XOXO

Fun photos by Dani Cowan Photography at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, actually on the day of my wedding, the perfect example of a well-planned timeline offering up extra hours to spend with friends and family on our wedding day.


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