Event Planning Checklist and Timeline
Planning a large formal event, such as a wedding, may seem overwhelming and unmanageable. The sheer number of tasks, details, and aspects to surmount can easily cause undue stress and anxiety. How does one deal with such a complex undertaking? As the old saying goes - how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, of course! Breaking down a complex project into smaller, achievable tasks and arranging everything in a logical order will not only make the overall planning process easier, it may even seem like an interesting, fun, and exciting game.
Following are some general guidelines of various tasks and timelines for planning a complex event. For this example, we will use a wedding, but similar techniques can easily be applied to almost any type of event.
Pick a range of dates.
9-12 months in advance.
Sometimes, and exact date is known in advance. In other cases, the event date can be variable depending on available venues and other circumstances, such as conflicting events on the same date. In either case, pick a date or several dates well in advance of the event to allow some flexibility in picking a venue.
Decide the number of guests.
8-10 months in advance.
There is no need to have the exact number of guests initially. At this point, that number can and will change. However, it is a good idea to decide on the approximate size of the wedding. Are you going to have a small wedding of about one hundred people? Are you going to invite the extended family and work friends and up the count to about three hundred guests? Do you plan on putting the royal wedding to shame and have over a thousand? Just kidding! In any case, put some thought into deciding the guest count up front as it will have a cascading domino effect on just about every other aspect of your event.
Create a budget.
7-8 months in advance.
A dream wedding can be expensive, but that doesn't mean it has to be prohibitive. Creating a budget you can afford, and sticking to it, will mean the difference between staying within your financial means or facing out of control ballooning costs. A good budget worksheet will let you account for every expense of your event, sub-totaled by category, venue, and vendor. Create a reasonable budget, and then decide how to pay for it. Do you have the necessary monetary reserves or will you need to take out a loan? Will family be helping out financially? Also, keep in mind, that you will get some money back in the form of gifts from guests. It's customary to give anywhere from $50 to $150 per adult guest, depending on the level of elegance and sophistication of your party, so be sure to factor this in. As a general rule, don't take on more debt than you can easily afford to pay off. Remember - the final result is ONE day of your life, no need to endure a lasting financial burden over just one day. Click here for guidance on creating a comprehensive budget for your event.
Pick the main venue.
6-9 months in advance.
Once you have some potential dates and an approximate guest count, it's time to find a venue for your wedding. The place where you have your special event needs to be able to accommodate all of your guests as well as go along with a theme you have in mind. Remember, this is a special day not just for the attendees, but for you as well. Are you wanting a conventional ballroom in a hotel or catering hall? Do you envision a place with great ocean views? A party on a cruise yacht? How about an outdoor event in a large tent? A destination wedding at a tropical resort? Choosing the main theme for your wedding should narrow down the venues that are appropriate. At this point, make a list of potential venues, call each one and make appointments to explore them in person. This is where the fun really begins! As you're touring the venues, get ballpark prices for the number of guests, number of tables, in-house catering, cocktail hour selections, and any other special options each place offers. Make sure the venue is available for at least one of your chosen dates.
After you've seen a few places, and have settled on one, make an appointment to go over everything in detail and draft a contract. Carefully review the written contract to make sure there are no hidden pitfalls that would have an adverse effect on terms and costs. Don't forget to review additional cost items such as tips and any incidental fees. You may want to consult an attorney or someone who is versed in legalese to help you digest the contract language. Once you are pleased with the contract, sign it, and finalize your booking with a deposit. Deposit and payment schedule should be outlined in the terms of your contract. Initial deposits usually range from 20-50% of the total cost. If, for some unexpected reason, you need to back out of the deal, most states have a three-day cancellation period where a contract can be withdrawn and voided and the venue is required to issue a refund of the deposit to you. Again, consult an attorney if this happens.
Save the contract in a safe place. It is a good idea to have it in an electronic format (PDF, MS-Word, etc.). You can easily scan the document if it's on paper. If you're using event management software, you can upload the contract into the program so you can have easy access to it at any time.
Find a food caterer.
5-8 months in advance.
If the venue itself will not be providing food, you will need to find a caterer. Visit several, sample their food offerings and discuss pricing. You can also choose one based on recommendations or reviews. Take into consideration any special requirements for specific guests such as vegetarian meals, allergy concerns, and religious or cultural dietary restrictions.
Pick additional venues.
5-7 months in advance.
Now that you've picked the main location for your wedding, it's time to think about any additional venues you may need. Are you having the ceremony separately at a house of worship or city hall? Will you have an after-party at a nearby dance club? Are you inviting guests who are staying overnight to a brunch the next day? Do you plan on having a rehearsal dinner the night before the main event? All of these venues can be picked in a similar manner as the main one. They usually need to be relatively close geographically so that guests can easily get from one place to another. Be sure to draft proposals and sign contracts with each provider specifying the date, cost, number of attendees, tips, and miscellaneous fees. Similarly to the main contract, upload all of these additional document into your event software for safe keeping and easy access.
Hire a ceremony officiator.
5-7 months in advance.
Have you decided who will perform the ceremony at your wedding? Will it be a priest, minister, or rabbi? Will you be getting married at city hall? Will one of your ordained relatives be officiating the nuptials? Be sure to find and book your ceremony officiator early in the process, as soon as you have all your venue dates and times finalized.
Build a master guest list.
5-7 months in advance.
One of the most complex aspects of planning an event is the guest list. Having an organized list will allow you to make informed decisions on whom to invite to your wedding, how to categorize and arrange your guests, how many and what types of favors to get, how to format the invitations, count RSVPs, and a plethora of other details of your event. If you're using high quality planning software, you will be able to build a list of guests quickly, specify their relation to each other, assign multiple categories, sort and filter using various criteria, record details about each guests such as dietary restrictions and favor sizes, print detailed reports,, and import guests from existing lists. Click here for a detailed step-by-step guide on creating guest lists.
Decide which guests to invite to which venues.
5-6 months in advance.
Now that you've put together a master guest list, it's time to pick those lucky ones who will be invited to your event. A full featured electronic invitation worksheet will help tremendously in checking off who will be invited and to which venue(s). You will also be able to see the totals instantly as you're checking off various guests. Keep in mind your target estimates as your totals increase. You will be able to fine tune the invited list and play what-if scenarios to keep the totals in line with your estimates and within your budget. As you're filling out the worksheet, you will also be able to format everyone's invitation addressing exactly as you would like it to appear on their envelopes, such as "Mr. and Mrs. William Smith".
Order invitations and save-the-dates.
4-5 months in advance.
This can be a time consuming task because there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, different available designs. Try to match the invitation design to your general party theme or color scheme. It's a good idea to visit several vendors and look at the actual samples so you can gauge the quality of the paper stock first hand. If ordering online, be sure to read reviews and ask the vendor to send you some physical samples once you've narrowed down your selection. Remember to stick to your budget as invitation costs can vary significantly from vendor to vendor and from design to design. It is also a good idea to have several people proof-read the wording you choose before you place the final order to make absolutely sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors and that the text is clear and understandable.
Hire a calligrapher or DIY addressing on invitation and save-the-date envelopes.
4-5 months in advance.
Quality event planning software allows you to easily print your own envelopes and labels if you feel inclined to do it yourself. Click here for instructions on how to print your own invitation / save-the-date envelopes. If, however, you would like to have a professional calligrapher, be sure to shop around for price and quality. Ask to see actual samples. Find out how long the job will take based on the number of invitations that will be sent out. Inquire about possible last minute additions or changes. If you are using event software, many reports are available to provide to the calligrapher to help speed up the process and bring down the cost. You can create and send these reports using various formats, such as PDF, Excel, or MS-Word.
4-5 months in advance.
You can either assemble the save-the-date packets yourself, or hire someone to do it. Many calligraphers will offer stuffing and sealing the envelopes in addition to addressing them for an extra fee. Make sure to inquire at your local post office as to the cost of mailing these packets as they may be heavy enough to require additional postage on top of standard first class stamps.
Screen and hire entertainment / photo / video vendors.
3-5 months in advance.
Finding the right entertainers and video/photographers can be challenging and time consuming. Many entertainment choices are available including bands, DJs, magicians, comedians, etc. Ask your friends and family if they know of anyone good they can recommend. Read reviews if shopping online. Look for any red flags such as frequent complaints or any indications that the vendor did not deliver what they promised. Always meet with the vendor in person to gauge their professionalism and to make sure you are comfortable working with them. Be sure to get a written contract listing out all details and addressing any concerns you may have. Have someone you trust review the contract before signing and leaving a deposit. As with any vendor, upload important documents into your event software to have handy at any time.
Shop for wedding dress.
3-5 months in advance.
There are many places and choices for finding the right wedding dress. Bridal shops and higher end department stores are a good start. There may be a dress one of your friends or family members has that you like and can be altered to fit you. Whether working with a store or a tailor, be sure to get commitments in writing as to when the dress will be delivered for a fitting and final alteration. This would also be a good time to decide and shop for any bridesmaid dresses.
Mail invitations and set up online RSVP.
2-3 months in advance.
If you've done the save-the-dates already, this will be a familiar process. Decide whether you will be assembling the envelope packets yourself or have a vendor do it for you. Check the weight of the packets to ensure affixing sufficient postage. Double check the stack of envelopes against your invited guest list to make sure you haven't accidentally omitted anyone before dropping off the envelopes at the post office. If you're using event software, you can create the online RSVP page at this time. This will allow guests to RSVP to your event via the internet.
1-3 months in advance.
As guest responses start coming in, record them, preferably in an electronic RSVP worksheet. You can also record their meal choices and any special requests at this time. Event software will keep a running total of everyone who responded "Yes", "No", or hasn't responded yet. Run the various RSVP reports as the due date is approaching to see if you need to reach out individually to any guests who have not provided a response.
Order guest favors.
1-2 months in advance.
It's optional, but customary in many cases, to give your guests a nice token gift favor that will serve as a memento of your event. The range of favor ideas is far and wide. It can be something wearable, something edible, a bottle of wine, or a souvenir. Often, party favors reflect the overall theme of the event. You can even decide to give different types of favor to different guests, for example sweatshirts for kids and wine bottles for adults. Your event software will allow you to allocate different favors to different guests and even record such minute details as size and gender for wearable items.
Make hotel arrangements.
1-2 months in advance.
Are any of your guests coming from out of town? Will they need to stay at a hotel? You can negotiate a discounted rate and reserve a block of rooms with a nearby hotel of your choice. Keep track of all guests staying at hotels using an electronic Hotel Stay Worksheet if your planning software offers one. Putting together welcome gift baskets and having them ready in the rooms for your guests will be a nice touch. Be sure to use the worksheet to keep track of those as well so you'll know how many to order.
Order flowers and party decorations.
1-2 months in advance.
A florist or a party design shop would be a good place to look for party decorations. You can shop for and decide on flowers, balloons, special decor accents, table centerpieces, sign in boards, etc. Make sure to stick to your budget and get guarantees on delivery date and time to accommodate the start time of your party.
Get wedding rings.
4-6 weeks in advance.
Wedding rings can be purchased at a jeweler, a department store, even an antiques dealer. There may be a ring in your family that gets passed down from generation to generation. Most reputable jewelers will include fitment of the ring in the final price, and many can do it right in their shop while you wait.
Wedding dress / tuxedo fitting and alterations.
3-6 weeks in advance.
It's time for everyone in the wedding party to get fitted into their attire. Any last minute alterations can be done as needed and any defects in the fabric or workmanship should be repaired by the vendors.
Prepare table seating plan.
2-6 weeks in advance.
You know your guests best, so you will already have a pretty good idea of who will be seated where. Your event software will allow you to draw a general layout of the room and arrange tables, place each individual guest at a specific table, and prepare a list of place cards for your calligrapher, or print them yourself. You can use categories to easily group guests by similarities to make sure they are seated at the most appropriate tables. For example, work friends, cousins, bride's and groom's families, and so on, can all be categorized and grouped to sit together. Click here to see how easy it can be to prepare a detailed seating plan.
2-4 weeks in advance.
Are you having a limousine service transporting some or all of your guests between venues and hotels? It's a good idea to create a Transportation Worksheet to keep track of who will need transportation. This will allow easy estimates of how many guests will be going where so the transportation vendor will know the proper sizes of vehicles to have ready.
Hold a rehearsal dinner.
1-10 days in advance.
In theory, everyone in the wedding party and very close family member should attend. This will give a chance for everyone to become comfortable around each other and have an opportunity to do a dry run of any ceremonious parts of the event. Rehearsals are usually held in a comfortable setting such as a restaurant that can provide a separate private room for less disturbances.
ENJOY YOUR BIG DAY!
You have worked diligently for months to make this a perfect event. You have followed your plan, crossed all the "t"s and dotted the "i"s. You can now relax and enjoy your special day feeling confident that your guests will have a great time and will appreciate your planning efforts. Give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done and remember how big of an undertaking this was and how you masterfully accomplished it, one step at a time.
2-4 weeks after the event.
Use a Gift Worksheet to record all gifts you have received from your guests. Separate monetary and non-monetary items so you can get accurate totals. A good worksheet will automatically calculate everything for you. Don't forget to keep track of gifts sent by guests who were not able to attend your wedding.
Prepare and mail "Thank You" notes.
4-6 weeks after the event.
Using the Gift Worksheet from the previous step as a starting point, prepare the Thank You notes and envelopes to send to those guests who provided a gift. If using integrated event planning software, you will be able to create proofs for your calligrapher or print envelopes/labels yourself using the same formatting as for the invitations.
Order photos and video.
2-4 months after the event.
By this time, your photographer and videographer will usually provide you with samples to review and options for collages, montages, albums, and custom video editing. Take your time and choose carefully, since these will be the lasting memories of your event that you can share for many years and generations in the future.