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Rehearsal Dinners ~ How to Plan a Great One!

The rehearsal dinner is your special responsibility. It is typically the one wedding related activity that is truly your event to plan, so enjoy yourself as you plan and host a wonderful event celebrating the wedding of your son and his bride. The rehearsal dinner provides an opportunity for family members and special friends to come together to support the couple in a manner that is more personal and relaxed than the wedding itself is likely to be.

Beginning to Plan

There are a few basics to get straight right away: timing, location, and guests. Once you have these three items settled, everything else will start to fall into place. You will want to discuss everything with the bride and groom and coordinated your planning with their expectations and plans. However, it is up to you to lead the rehearsal dinner planning process.

Timing
Check with the bride and groom on their plans for the actual wedding rehearsal and discuss how the rehearsal dinner will fit into the things they have to take care of the day before the wedding. Typically, the idea is to have the rehearsal dinner the evening before the wedding. In some cases there may be a need or want to have the “dinner” at a different time, either some other time of the day or a dinner on a different day. The preference is to have the dinner on the evening before the wedding is to take place, but be sure to check this out with the bride and groom.

In many cases, the rehearsal is held during the afternoon the day before the wedding. Check on the actual timing of the rehearsal, how far away it is from the location you’ll have the dinner at, and other logistical concerns. Try to start the dinner reasonably early - perhaps a 6:30pm start time - and plan to end reasonably early - 9:30 or 10:00pm. You want to do your part to encourage a good night’s rest for everyone. Plan to begin with a mix and mingle opportunity. Thirty minutes at first for drinks, introduction, and conversation works well. Remember that many of the guests at the rehearsal dinner may be meeting for the first time.

Location
As you select a location for the event, first consider the type of mood you want to set. A rehearsal dinner is best when it is an entirely different experience from the wedding that will occur the next day. For example, if the wedding is going to be very formal and elegant, then the rehearsal dinner should be informal and more free-spirited. If the wedding is to be held outdoors, the rehearsal dinner could be inside and a little more sophisticated in atmosphere and mood. You are not competing with the wedding, you are complementing it.

Favorite foods, locations, or activities of the bride and groom can help you select a great venue. If the couple loves a certain little Mexican restaurant, that may be the perfect choice. A great location that relates directly to the couple can inspire the details of the entire evening. From invitations, to food and beverage choices, to decorations and activities, a venue that seems to match the couple is key.

It might be tempting to host the dinner at your home. If you do a lot of large-scale entertaining in your home on a regular basis and already have all the space, equipment, and support staff necessary to pull off an event of this magnitude, then by all means have the event in your home if that is the wish of the couple. Realize that if you do not have all of the resources listed above, you will end up having to rent equipment, hire helpers, etc., and what may have started out as an attempt by you to economize will most likely end up costing you more than if you held the event in a nice, moderately priced restaurant.

One additional warning: do take into consideration the mobility and comfort of your guests when selecting a venue. If you have elderly relatives or persons with physical limitations, be sure that they will be able to get in and out of the event without complications. A location where your guests will have to climb stairs may not work.

Guests
Creating the guest list is critically important and potentially very tricky. There are basically three options in figuring out who to invite - small, medium, and large. It is best to pick one of these choices and be consistent in implementing it.

Small is the most traditional approach. Up until just recently, almost all rehearsal dinners were small, intimate gatherings of the wedding party and the immediate families of the bride and groom. The guest list for this type of rehearsal dinner would be: the bride and groom, all members of the wedding party and their dates or significant others (if any), the parents and siblings (along with dates or significant others), the grandparents, and the officiant with his/her spouse. Depending on the family, its size, and the couple’s wishes, possibly aunts and uncles would also be invited. This is a lovely, small, family-oriented approach to the rehearsal dinner. If this is the wish of the couple, then enjoy this intimate evening with the closest of family and friends.

Medium may be the most common approach to today’s rehearsal dinner. If you follow this model, the general rule is to invite everyone mentioned above who would be included in the “small” version plus family and friends who have traveled from out of town to attend the wedding. This is a very nice way to show hospitality to those who have made the commitment to be present at the wedding, perhaps at great personal expense.

The only difficulty with this approach is that you may have a wedding where a significant majority of the guests are traveling from out of town to attend. In that situation, if you include the majority of wedding guests at the rehearsal dinner, it potentially can be perceived as a slight by those in-town guests who you may be very close to, but who don’t get invited to the rehearsal dinner. If that is the situation you are up against, another acceptable approach is to have the attendees you would expect to have at the small version, plus any additional out of town relatives and friends who are very close to the bride and groom and to whom you can assign some specific wedding tasks. This way, the rehearsal dinner keeps with the traditional wedding party-immediate family rule, but includes in the wedding party definition all of your wedding helpers. Some people who traveled from out of town may be a bit put off at first when they figure out they’re not on the guest list, but if it is clear that the rehearsal dinner will just have people with specific wedding duties, the guest list will seem fair. Also, this provides enough out-of-towners who are not attending the rehearsal dinner that they can go out in groups together and have their own fun the night before the wedding. The main thing is not to create a situation where a handful of people feel that they have been treated unfairly. Striking a fair balance in this situation can be tricky, but it can be done.

Large is basically a rehearsal dinner that has the same guest list as the wedding itself. There is really only one situation where this is necessary - a true destination wedding. If the wedding is at a beach resort in Cozumel, everyone who has come for the wedding should be invited to the rehearsal dinner. In these situations, all guests tend to participate in all activities for an entire weekend (if not longer). Often, a destination wedding has a smaller number of guests, so the dinner may not include more people than a smaller version would have, it will just include the entire guest list. It is always possible that you’ll have a large destination wedding to deal with. In that case, you’ll be planning a big, all-inclusive rehearsal dinner on a scale rivaling the wedding itself. This approach makes it especially important to coordinate the rehearsal dinner with the wedding/reception so that each is distinctively different.

There are some brides and grooms who think they want to have a big rehearsal dinner and include everyone, even when there is no real need to do so. Resist this approach if at all possible. Try to steer the event in the direction of a relaxed opportunity to visit with closest family and friends, leaving the wedding/reception itself to be the undisputed main event. As always, however, remain flexible and open to the wishes of the couple.

What Happens at a Rehearsal Dinner?

One of the great things about hosting a rehearsal dinner is that there is very little set protocol that has to be followed. It is all about creating a wonderful communal experience to prepare the bride and groom for the important next day and next phase of life. There are a few basic elements, however, that ought to be included in any rehearsal dinner type event.

Greeting and getting to know each other
Very often the rehearsal dinner is the first opportunity that members of the two families have to meet each other. It is also likely to be the initial reunion of family members who have traveled to be together for the wedding. Because of this, you want to create opportunities for this acquainting and reacquainting to occur.

Unless you have a rehearsal dinner where everyone in attendance knows each other, it is a good idea to provide name tags. You can make up attractive name tags ahead of time and distribute them to guests at a check-in table as they arrive. If your event includes a sit- down dinner, the name tag could also be coded with the table assignment of each guest.

Provide for a meet and greet opportunity as guests arrive. Offering a drink and a small receiving area for guests to mingle before sitting down for dinner is almost a necessity. You won’t get people to walk in and immediately sit down when they are excited to see each other, so anticipate and accommodate the need for people to visit as they arrive for at least the first 30 minutes.

Mixing the two families at each table is a great way for everyone to start to feel comfortable with each other. Put together tables with common interests, for example aunts and uncles from both families at a table, out of town friends of both the bride and the groom at a table, etc. Try to put a representative at each table from your pool of family and friends who you know will be a good table host and keep the conversation flowing. A nice idea is to have one table for the bride and groom, the bride’s parents, and the groom’s parents. This may be the last chance for the two sets of parents to have a relatively calm moment with the bride and groom until the wedding and related festivities are over. Place cards are optional, but they are helpful in encouraging even more “mixing” of the families, and guests typically welcome the direction that place cards provide.

Enjoying a meal together
The actual food and beverages served at the event can range from a multiple course sit- down dinner to drinks and heavy appetizers, depending on the venue and type of event you are planning. The food does not have to be elaborate or fancy. Hamburgers and hot dogs might be perfect at an outdoor barbecue. A different, equally appropriate choice would be a sit-down dinner at a lovely restaurant. The main idea is to match the menu to the venue and type of event you are planning and to pick choices that you know the bride and groom will love.

If you are holding a dinner at a restaurant, work with the restaurant staff to select a special menu for you, featuring specific choices for guests to select from. Most restaurants will let you select several soup or salad options, several entree options, and a dessert to feature on a custom menu which they will prepare specifically for your event. You can ask them to personalize the menus with the bride and groom’s names, the date, and the event name. They will typically print up these menus at no additional charge to you; the menus themselves become fun keepsakes.

If the dinner is a catered event in a location other than a restaurant, you will still want to give guests some choice in food options. In addition to the main selection of food, a vegetarian option is good to include. A vegetarian dish will generally satisfy the needs of most people with dietary restrictions. If you know that a guest has a very specific dietary issue, do your best to accommodate that need and advise the serving staff accordingly.

Drink choices should be specified ahead of time. In the interest of everyone being alert and feeling good the next day, it might be smart not to have an unlimited open bar. This is a night that you do not want to encourage excess. If you want to offer alcoholic beverages, a nice approach is to select a few specific choices to be offered. This could be a red and white wine choice, a beer selection, soft drinks, and water. At a Mexican restaurant, you might offer margaritas, virgin margaritas, a Mexican beer, and water. By limiting the choices, not only do you simplify the serving process, but you discourage excessive consumption.

Initiating the wedding festivities and making special thank you’s The rehearsal dinner is the kick-off event in a progression of wedding related festivities. The significance of this function needs to be recognized in some way at the event. There is no hard and fast rule about toasts and speech making at a rehearsal dinner, except that you need to decide how you will handle this aspect and stick to your decision. The bare minimum is that a representative from the groom’s family (this could be either the groom’s father or the groom’s mother or both) address the entire assembly of guests, welcoming them to the rehearsal dinner and the wedding itself and acknowledging the hospitality of the bride’s family. This would normally be done as an initial greeting immediately after the guests have been seated at tables in anticipation of food being served.

If you want to use the rehearsal dinner as a forum for toasts to be made, reserving the wedding day toasts for just a few significant toasts, be sure that guests know this ahead of time and try to remain in control of the number and length of public toasts. Ask the bride’s parents ahead of time if they want to offer a toast or make any public statements at the dinner. Immediately after dessert has been served, begin the toast making. Either the groom’s mother or father should initiate this with her or his own toast, following this with an introduction of the bride’s mother or father (if they are going to offer a toast). The groom’s mother or father will then proceed to act as master of ceremonies, introducing the additional toasts, if any. When all toasts are concluded, the bride or groom may want to say a few words of thank you to the guests. And sometimes the bride and groom will present gifts to their attendants at the rehearsal dinner.

Providing closure to the pre-wedding period
As dinner and final toasts are winding down, a final word of closure is appropriate. The groom or bride may want to announce some final information needed for the wedding day. Reminders of when and where people need to be the next day can be made. The groom’s mother and father can thank guests once more for their attendance and loving support and wish the guests well as everyone heads home to anticipate the events of the next day.

It will take a half hour or so for everyone to say their good-byes and be on their way. There is no need to rush people out the door, but don’t encourage lengthy delays either. The bride and groom will appreciate being able to get a good night’s rest and knowing that the rest of their wedding party is (hopefully) doing the same. And you have a very big day ahead of you tomorrow!

Fun Ideas

Themes
Your venue choice can inspire an entire theme to use at the rehearsal dinner. For example, if you are planning to have your event at a Chinese restaurant, an Asian theme can be used for invitations, decorations, favors, and background music. Even without a built-in theme of this sort, it is fun to consider using a theme that relates to the couple and tie together all of the elements of the party with the theme. The possibilities are endless, but here are a few to get your ideas flowing.

Mexican Fiesta
Inviting the guests to a Mexican Fiesta Rehearsal Dinner immediately communicates that this will be a fun, festive, not-too-formal event. Mexican food is one of the most universally loved cuisines and is perfect for a rehearsal dinner. It is reasonably priced. easily made and served in large quantities, and is a total change of pace from what is likely to be served at a wedding reception/dinner. Decorations and can be made from large brightly colored tissue paper flowers. Small pewter heart tokens or charms make great party favors for this theme and can be scattered on each table, serving double duty as both table decorations and favors. A traditional Mexican wedding sentiment can be imprinted in Spanish on cocktail napkins commemorating the event and date. A CD of Mariachi music can be played as background music. It is hard to miss with this theme.

Beach Party
If you are in a location that lends itself to a beach theme, a Beach Party Rehearsal Dinner is fun and memorable. Depending on where your beach is, you might customize this theme even more. A New England Clam Bake and Lobster Boil takes on a different personality than a California Beach Party. This theme approach requires that you have a venue that can accommodate you both outdoors and indoors in case of inclement weather. Be sure to indicate on your invitation what the party conditions will be - e.g. dress comfortably for a night on the beach. You might even consider having a large basket of flip flops in all different colors and sizes to give out as party favors; this comes in especially handy if some guests show up in shoes that won’t work on the beach. With the beach itself providing a magnificent backdrop, decorations can be as simple as shells and candles. And, if you time your party to include the sun setting, it is pure magic!

Sneak Preview Rehearsal Dinner
Do the bride and groom love movies? A movie theme is a great example of incorporating a shared hobby into a rehearsal dinner theme. Inviting guests to an Advance Screening of John and Amy Get Married is a clever way to introduce this theme. Guests can arrive on a red carpet and have their picture taken. Movie posters can be used to decorate, and table assignments can be designated by using the names of famous Hollywood couples. Who wouldn’t love to find out that they are seated at the “Brad and Angelina” table! Classic movie treats, such as boxes of Junior Mints or Mike & Ike’s, can be tied with a pretty piece of ribbon and used as party favors. Movie soundtracks and theme songs are great background music. You could even have a menu inspired by great movie meals - think pasta and The Godfather! For a fun, creative couple who loves movies, this theme will be an inspired way to “preview” their wedding in a very special rehearsal dinner.

Favors
It is customary and fun to provide a small favor of some type. The theme party ideas above demonstrate how to connect the favor with the mood of your rehearsal dinner. You do not need to spend a lot on favors. Even if you could afford to give away expensive, lavish favors, do not do it. Expensive favors will make it seem like you are trying to compete in some way with the next day’s wedding. That is the very impression you are trying to avoid. Creativity and thoughtfulness are much more appropriate and important in a rehearsal dinner favor than is the perceived price of the item.

The following list gives you favor ideas that could work with almost any rehearsal dinner. All of these can be purchased for $1 to $3 per guest. All of them can be customized with a sticker, a piece of ribbon, or a note card of some sort to commemorate the occasion. Many vendors will customize their product for a surprisingly small charge with printing or a special label.

* a small fabric bag of customized M & M’s
* a single fresh flower
* small pewter charms or tokens - e.g. hearts or inspirational phrases
* a customized cut-out sugar cookie
* a CD mix of the bride and groom’s favorite love songs
* customized fortune cookies in a tiny to-go box
* a votive candle
* a small potted plant
* a small pouch of a custom coffee blend

Added attractions
Because it is typically smaller and more casual than the wedding, the rehearsal dinner permits you to introduce some additional elements that are more personal and appropriate for this type of occasion. The closeness of the relationships of the guests at the rehearsal dinner provides a wonderful opportunity to acknowledge the roots of both the bride and the groom. Assuming that the people at the rehearsal dinner truly are the people who are most important to them, this is a perfect time to acknowledge the significance of family and friends. There are many wonderful, personally meaningful ways to do this. The few examples below will help you come up with your own way to incorporate a celebration of family and friends into your event. It is an added bonus if this can be done as a surprise for the couple that is unveiled at the rehearsal dinner.

Combined Family Tree Photo Display
Collect family photographs from both the bride and the groom and create a family tree photo display. This can be as simple as displaying the photographs on a large bulletin board or poster board. You can graphically represent the origins of the bride and groom and show their early years as separate “branches,” then include pictures of the two as a couple as the branches come together. The display can be embellished with graphic details or remain very simple. The emphasis on family roots makes this a beautiful, meaningful display at the rehearsal dinner and a treasure for the couple to take home with them.

The First Family Scrapbook
Wouldn’t it be great to begin married life with your family scrapbook already started for you? Create a scrapbook for the bride and groom by asking family and friends to contribute a favorite photo or two of them with either the bride or groom (or both) and a brief written message commenting on the significance of the photo and, therefore, the significance of the bride or groom (or both) to them. The photos and messages you will receive from this request will truly astound you. When asked, most people will rise to the occasion and reflect in very moving and authentic ways on their relationships with the bride and groom. Your challenge will be to put all of the responses into a scrapbook, displaying them in a way that creates a lasting legacy of the very special people in the life of your bride and groom. Present the scrapbook and display it at the rehearsal dinner for everyone to see. There won’t be a dry eye in the house.

Music Video Retrospective
Storytelling through pictures and music is a powerful way to reflect on the two people who are about to take a big step as husband and wife. Assemble a representative sample of photographs from childhood to present day of the bride and groom and create a video by using the photos, set to music, to show the journey each person has taken. Beginning with baby pictures and ending with recent photographs of the bride and groom together, a music video retrospective takes the bride and groom and the rehearsal dinner guests on a sentimental journey that sets the perfect mood for the next big step in life that the couple will take the next day.

Practical Considerations

As with any important, large scale event you might plan, there are many details that are easy to overlook. These aren’t necessarily difficult, just important to creating a successful rehearsal dinner experience. Some of the more common ones can be anticipated and are covered below.

Confirming arrangements
Whether your rehearsal dinner is being held at a restaurant or in your own home, chances are there are at least several people and service providers who are assisting in some way. One of the cardinal rules of event planning is to start early, book your location, contract for necessary services, and then confirm and reconfirm the arrangements as time goes by. Every time you speak with a person, either to make initial arrangements or to confirm, keep a written journal of the conversation, including the name of the person, the date and time of the conversation, the agreements made during the conversation, and any confirmation numbers. This will make it much easier to trace the source of any errors or misunderstandings and resolve any possible disputes. Hopefully, there won’t be any problems; at the very least the journal will help you remember what you have agreed to.

Once the initial arrangements have been made, put on your calendar to confirm those arrangements at least twice. Contact to reconfirm at least 2 months before your event and then once more 1-2 weeks before your event. The vendor may have additional specific instructions for you regarding reconfirming, for example they may require you to reconfirm 48 hours ahead of time. Document and follow all of the confirmation requirements.

Invitations and rsvp’s
Coordinate the preparation and mailing of invitations with those responsible for mailing the wedding invitations. You will want to select and prepare your invitations so that they are ready to be mailed approximately one week after the wedding invitations are mailed. This is especially important for guests coming from out of town who will be invited to both the wedding and the rehearsal dinner. They need to take into consideration the rehearsal dinner plans as they make their travel arrangements.

Keep careful records of rsvp’s and follow up by phone with anyone not responding by your requested date. Be sure to have all rsvp’s tallied at least a week before required deadlines from the restaurant, caterer, etc. for final headcounts. Make sure you understand policies for last minute additions or deletions.

Set-up and clean-up
Factor in the need for time and help for both set-up and clean-up. You are going to be very busy the day before your son’s wedding. Assume that you will have less uninterrupted time than you think you will and plan accordingly. Try as much as you can to use decorations, favors, and other necessities that can be prepared well ahead of time. Remember that you will want to delegate set-up and clean-up as much as you can to others. Avoid elaborate materials requiring last minute assembly or complicated installation. You want to be able to give simple short direction to others who may be helping you.

Recruit a team of trusted helpers who will be your extra sets of hands. You will need more helpers with a big event than with a small event. At the very least have 2-3 friends or family members who will enthusiastically assist you before and after the event. If the rehearsal dinner is not at your house, you will probably be bringing in a variety of items to the venue. Prepare boxes with the items that you want to transport back and forth, then assign responsibility for transporting those items in both directions. Make sure that everyone knows what he or she is bringing and doing well ahead of the actual event.

Be sure you thoroughly think through what you will need to provide in the way of special equipment. Do you plan to make announcements and toasts at the dinner? Even in a very intimate space with a fairly small number of people, it will be difficult to be heard without a microphone. If the venue doesn’t provide such equipment, you will have to bring this yourself. Don’t assume anything. Try to do a mental run-through and anticipate any resources needed. And always include a pair of scissors, masking tape, duct tape, a permanent marker, extra place cards, and a roll of paper towels in your emergency kit!

What to do if the unexpected occurs
In spite of your best efforts, there will probably be something that doesn’t go according to plan. Expect the unexpected and keep everything in perspective. Do not let minor problems upset you, and if something major occurs - like you get to the restaurant and they act like they weren’t expecting you till tomorrow - put on your charming, problem solving face, open up your journal documenting all arrangements, and work through to get the situation resolved. It will work out.

Never lose focus on what is truly important: creating a meaningful celebration of family and friends for your son and future daughter-in-law on this most special night. If you are
unwaveringly gracious, all unexpected challenges can be worked through and will be
quickly forgotten. What you and everyone else will remember is the beautiful, special
night before your son and his bride were married.