I know exactly why you are here. You are asking the question: how do I start to make a wedding timeline and yesiree, I have answers for you!
I am a self-appointed expert in wedding timelines and today, I'm sharing my trade secrets.
How did I get to learn so much about wedding day timelines? With real, firsthand experience, that's how. I started my wedding coordination company Without A Hitch in March of 2013 and, since then, I have created and executed over 400 unique wedding timelines with my fabulous team.
DJ or band, 350 guests or 25 guests, buffet meal or plated service, offsite ceremony or onsite, lots of dancing or heavy toasts, first look or photos during cocktail hour.
We have seen it all.
Well, just when I say that, we'll see something new 😅 but truly, I bring to the table the incredible experience of having seen so many different versions of a wedding timeline... some definitely more successful than others.
One major caveat: while I'm going to share my expertise below, I always (always) am going to recommend hiring and speaking to your professional vendors to create a personalized timeline. No one knows how long dinner service will take better than the caterer. Only the band knows how long their sets and breaks are. The photographer can advise on what lighting will be best for your first look. And a wedding planner or coordinator will pull it all together for you between the various vendors, guests, and wedding party. This is why we recommend hiring your planner or coordinator as one of the first steps when planning a wedding.
Please note: I have attempted to use gender neutral language below. Not every wedding has a bride or a groom or a hair/makeup team (hello, gay friendly venues 🌈). You'll want to take this template and fully customize it for your individual style and needs.
So let's just get right into it. Without further ado. No need to make you keep scrolling....... I'm going to share my tried and true wedding template first below and then give some details on different scenarios to consider.
Sample Wedding Day Timeline
Morning Eat breakfast - very important!
Getting ready at a nearby hotel/home
12pm Eat lunch - very important!
2pm Caterer arrives and setup begins
Nearlyweds get dressed and ready to head to venue for first look
3pm First look (onsite or nearby) followed by wedding party/family portraits
4:30pm Guests begin arriving
Room is set and music is playing
Nearlyweds hide away
5pm Ceremony invite time
5:10pm Ceremony start time
5:30pm Cocktail hour for all guests 🥂
Newlyweds take a moment for themselves
Then take remaining group photos or portraits
Then final touchups (ie bustle dress, remove veil)
Then, join cocktail hour (if time allows)
6:30pm Reception begins - invite guests to gather around the dance floor
6:40pm Introductions, first dances, optional early dance set
7pm Seat guests for dinner
Allow 1.5 hours - see below notes
8pm When all guests have been served their entree, 2-4 toasts
8:30pm Cake cutting and start the dance party
9pm Serve dessert, coffee
10:30pm Wrap dancing (last song/exit)
Vendors begin to clean up (1-1.5 hours)
10:45pm Optional after party at a nearby bar/restaurant/hotel/home
Timing the Ceremony
Always start the process of creating your personalized wedding timeline with the ceremony time. From there, you can work forwards (dinner, reception, cleanup) and backwards (getting ready, photos, setup).
The above sample timeline assumes a 5pm ceremony time, which is very popular for New England weddings May through September when the sun sets after 7pm. Winter weddings and weekday weddings will likely have an earlier ceremony. Some couples prefer a ceremony after dusk, and a New Years Eve timeline will also be shifted later.
If we want to start the ceremony at 5pm, should we put 4:30pm on the invitation?
Definitely no! Put the time on the invite that you want to start the ceremony and then plan to start 5-10 minutes after that time. If you put 4:30pm even though you secretly mean 5pm, you'll have a select few guests there as early as 4pm waiting unhappily for an hour. Plus the room may not be fully set that early.
That said, if you have concerns about your guests being late, you can use language on your invite or website indicating "promptly at." Even better, provide transport for guests so they have less control over their arrival time or invite specific guests you are concerned about to come early for photos.
Our ceremony is only 10 minutes long, should we budget 10 minutes on the timeline?
Probably not. Ceremonies don't start exactly at the invite time (see above) so you should buffer 5-10 minutes for stragglers, then time for the processional and recessional, and extra buffer. Most of the secular/non-religious ceremonies we see are 10-20 minutes long when standing at the altar and it is standard to budget about 30 minutes for the ceremony.
Length of Wedding, Transitions, and How Much Dancing
OK, so this template was created for a 5.5 hour wedding at Olio (30 minute ceremony, 5 hour reception).
Are there other options? Yes, definitely.
But most wedding receptions in Massachusetts are 4.5 or 5 or 5.5 hours long. There are a few reasons for this, including the attention span of your guests and the time commitment from your vendors, but the main reason is alcohol service. Massachusetts caps wedding bars at 5 hours, and this is best practice even beyond the law especially for an open bar. Many couples opt to have an afterparty if they wish to extend the party with those who want to rage.
A smaller guest count typically is on the shorter side, as dinner service is faster, while a larger wedding might be longer.
A big factor for the length of the wedding should be the transition time. Some venues require extensive transition time. Do you know how long it takes to move 150 celebratory (read: drinking) people through a 3-ft doorway or down a flight of stairs?
I do, and it's longer than you think.
So while some venues will require 15-30 minutes for the transition from ceremony>cocktail and cocktail>reception, Olio has the major benefit of having everything in one large room, which expedites transition time.
Finally, you'll want to consider how long you want to dance. Even for couples who love (LOVE) to dance, I never recommend more than 3 hours of dancing as part of the wedding timeline. After party with more dancing? Great, go for it. Then the folks who want to continue on can self-select. But the reception itself typically includes 1.5-2.5 hours of dancing, with 3 hours on the highest end. Guests simply fatigue and depart if the timeline has too much dancing, and it makes for a "fizzle out" at the end of the night instead of ending with a bang 🎊
To "First Look" or Not
We vote for First Look. A First Look is the opportunity for the couple to see each other (often privately) before the moment of walking down the aisle in front of family and friends. The majority of our couples who have a ceremony that directly precedes the reception do a first look. This allows the couple to join their cocktail hour after the ceremony. Without a first look, couples will use the cocktail hour as a time away from their guests to take photos together.
Dinner Service: Buffet or Plated or Other
There are so many options for ways to serve dinner! You'll want to ask your professional caterer specifically about how long to budget for service. In my experience, you won't typically save much time by choosing one manner of dinner service over another. Plated, buffet, family style, stations all take about the same amount of time to get everyone served, although it depends on the number of courses or quantity of options on the buffet.
In general, 1.5 hours is a great starting place for dinner timing. Many couples want to scale that timeframe back, but realistically, entree service for 100-200 people just takes a while. Dinner time includes not just guest entrees, but time for vendors to eat, the newlyweds to do table visits, a few toasts, and cake cutting.
Specific ideas to speed up dinner service for those who want to:
"Pre-set" a salad or cold first course, which is a wonderful option for the caterer to put out during first dances or the initial dance set so that guests can seat down and start their meal and save a bit of dinner time.
Family-style sides or rolls: again, a nice idea to limit options on a buffet and instead have guests share at their table.
Limit options: more choices for the meal will create a longer line at the buffet or more complex kitchen plate up and service.
Clearly label buffet items: labels with allergens help move the line along.
Staff the buffet: self service buffets can be slow and result in uneven food distribution.
Limit toasts (see below)
Incorporating Wedding Traditions
Many couples choose to incorporate special family or cultural traditions into their wedding. We love this! There are many options for the best time to add things onto the timeline to optimize the flow. For example, we typically suggest cultural circle dances (ie tarantella, hora, money dance) be done in the short dance set before dinner. This brings the energy up, allows for great photos, and incorporates the tradition before guests have had too many adult beverages. On the contrary, we suggest bouquet/garter a bit later into the evening, usually around dessert time. We've seen many other traditions incorporated into the wedding day timeline at various times, including: special family dances, a t-shirt toss, whole group wedding photo, surprise performances, fun and interactive wedding games, and more.
DJ vs Band
Live music is wonderful and we love bands at Olio. That said, there are more timeline considerations with a band, as they generally have more requirements than a DJ. DJ teams consistently have 5-6 hour contracts to include your prelude (pre-ceremony), ceremony, cocktail, and reception.
If you hire a band, make sure to allow time and space for them to sit down to eat. Bands generally require a hot meal at the same time as the newlyweds are eating.
You'll also want to schedule in band breaks per the terms of your specific contract. Many bands play for 45-50 minute sets and then take a 10-15 break with a playlist, though some have a house DJ that can step in during breaks.
The band is typically fully set up pre-ceremony. For this reason, we love utilizing the band for the first dances and an early dance set (pre-dinner) to get guests up and moving. Sometimes couples want to include dancing during dinner, but we advise speaking to your caterer about this. Caterers cannot serve entrees without guests in their seats, and the time it takes to get folks up and out of their seats and then to sit back down can significantly slow down dinner service and create a choppy timeline.
Onsite vs Offsite Ceremony
At Olio, we welcome couples to use our incredible historic loft space for ceremony, cocktails, dinner, dancing, and more. Some couples choose to use a nearby park or religious institution for their ceremony, which is a wonderful option. There are tons of nearby choices, including a few within walking distance.
Building a wedding timeline with an off-site ceremony may require additional complexity around transportation and the gap between the ceremony and the reception (if any).
My standard advice to couples is either to have a long-ish gap (1-2.5 hours) or no gap at all (go directly from ceremony to reception) but try not to land in between. Having no gap is easy; guests simply depart from the ceremony and head directly to the venue to start the party. A long gap can be nice as well; guests have time to check into a hotel, tour a nearby city (hello, Salem!), get a drink, change clothes or freshen up, or complete an activity.
The good news is that there's a lot to do in our special downtown so if guests are in need of some activities, they can easily be found!
Your specific getting ready timeline will be determined in part by your priorities (doing a 5k? breakfast together? golf outing?) and in part by the specific vendors involved.
In general, any beauty team (hair, makeup) is going to start earlier than you think they need to. A professional beauty team is going to provide the schedule for your crew. Their start time and how much time they need depend on the specific services provided, the size of their team, and the number of folks requiring service.
So definitely ask your beauty provider what to expect for when to start. After their completion, plan to buffer about an hour to eat a snack, use the bathroom, get dressed, and take a few photos before departing the getting ready location. So if your goal is to leave for your first look at 2:45pm, make sure the beauty (including touch ups if needed) is complete by 1:45pm.
Nontraditional Wedding Timelines
Have you heard? At Olio, we LOVE nontraditional wedding ideas. Everything about them.
Cocktail hour before the ceremony? Totally possible.
Skipping the formal dinner for substantial apps all night? So good.
Pop-up or surprise ceremony? Seen it. Love it.
Late night savory snacks? Yum.
Swapping out dinner tables for lounge sets, high tops, and creative seating? We're obsessed.
So all that being said: including some nontraditional and/or casual elements to the wedding day does not mean that you don't need a timeline. In fact, in my experience, implementing a seamless wedding day timeline that has unique elements requires even more pre-event planning. Hire a planner or coordinator as an expert to help you!
Final Tips/Tricks for Wedding Day Timelines
Build in buffer. Do not schedule your 3 minute first dance for 3 minutes on the timeline. Timelines cannot operate to the minute with hundreds of people and multiple spaces and drinking and eating and emotions and real life. Instead, just "round up" on the timeline and know that some things will be longer and some will be shorter than planned.
To that end, more important than the specific **times** on the timeline are the flow of events. Do you want to do intros>first dance>parent dances>dinner? Or do you prefer intros>first dance>open dance floor>dinner>toasts>parent dances? Try to start with the wedding flow and fill in the times from there.
Toasts usually take longer than expected. We like to call them toasts instead of speeches. They sound shorter?? If you'd like your toast-er to speak for ~5 minutes, ask them to speak for 2-3 minutes. Nothing else (timeline related) can happen during toasts, so we recommend scheduling 2-4 short toasts where possible, and maybe a brief thank you remark from the newlyweds.
You need to budget time for set up and clean up of the venue. How long? This totally depends on the specifics of your day and your contracts. You should ask your professional vendors how long they require. I've seen the same lighting installation take 30 minutes one weekend and three hours the next weekend, depending on the number and experience of the staff. In general, cleanup takes 1/3 to 1/2 of the time that setup takes. Two to three hours for setup and one to one-and-a-half hours for cleanup are perfect for most clients. Larger or more complex weddings will need more time.
Finally: expect the unexpected. We're in New England; be aware that weather and traffic can be a factor. We've had buses take a wrong turn, vendors show up on the wrong date, linens that are too small, and so much more. Make a detailed timeline and then know... there are bound to be things that need to be adjusted on the fly (another reason to hire a professional and experienced planner or coordinator).
So that's what I have for today off the top of my head 😁 Thoughts... helpful? Not helpful? Lingering questions? Would love to chat with you! And if you're on the venue hunt, I'd love to schedule a tour of this incredible historic building that I own.
(reach me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org)