How to Navigate a Significantly Smaller Wedding Than You Planned For

Amy Sims Photography

The COVID-19 pandemic transformed the wedding industry from top to bottom. While some couples have opted for casual mini-monies, others have spent an extra year or two planning a show-stopping celebration. 

Regardless of your taste, there’s one aspect of wedding planning all couples struggle with: the final head count. So if you sent out invites to hundreds of guests only to receive dozens more no’s than you planned, don’t worry! You can do a handful of things to ensure your special day goes off without a hitch — even if it’s smaller than you initially imagined.

We sat down with a handful of wedding pros to get their thoughts on navigating a smaller wedding (while still making it a day to remember for all). Here’s what they had to say. 

Shift your budget

Depending on your vendor agreements and planning timeline, fewer guests can mean more money in your pocket! If you already had a specific budget set aside, you can now use this money on enhancements you once thought you’d have to pass on. 

“With fewer guests, you will have more budget for some of your stretch goals; hire that videographer, add more hours to your entertainment package, and upgrade your flowers or linens,” recommends Cathy O’Connell of COJ Events. “You could also add another event for your guests (brunch) or add other fun entertainment elements (live painting, soloist at the ceremony, late-night DJ).”

Or, if you’d rather pocket the savings, you may get to splurge on your honeymoon or stash away a portion for a house fund. Either way, enjoy the flexibility! 

Amanda Donaho Photography

Talk to your venue

Once you realize your final headcount is smaller than initially discussed, reach out to your venue first. Your coordinator should know exactly what steps to take next.

Julianne Smith of The Garter Girl notes, “The first thing to do if you have a guest head count change — big or small — is to talk to your venue immediately. They will best be able to guide you through how to handle this. They can suggest how best to spend your minimum and meet your contract obligations in a way that feels fair to everyone.”

Your venue and planner can also work together to update your floorplan and day-of timeline to factor in fewer people, which may create more flow on your wedding day.

Revisit your contracts

The last thing you want is to get to your big day only to realize you have to cough up more money because of changes in your guest list. That’s why it’s wise to review your contracts and ensure you’re not missing anything in the fine print.

“Check your contracts to see if you will be penalized for any drastic reductions in guest count,” shares John Campbell of John Campbell Weddings. “For example, many caterers, rental companies, florists, and other design vendors will only allow you to reduce their original invoice by 10% (or similar).” 

Campbell continues, noting that “many planners have redesign fees in place for events that significantly change the guest count — both reductions and additions — after design plans have been finalized. So, in the end, a reduction in guest count doesn’t mean you’ll see a huge reduction in your final invoices.”

If you’re just starting to plan your wedding, be sure to inquire about reduced guest count policies when interviewing vendors to ensure you understand the terms of each agreement.

Check-in on your layout

Chances are that you had a specific arrangement regarding your tables, florals, and more. Unfortunately, a smaller headcount can alter these well-laid plans, so sit down with your partner and venue to see how you can make the most of your space.

Nora Sheils of Rock Paper Coin and Bridal Bliss says, “With fewer guests, do what you can to keep your space intimate. For example, maybe you bring in a larger number of smaller tables or some faux walls to keep it looking like a smaller, more full space.”

Your venue coordinator, wedding planner, and designer can make suggestions based on your space, ensuring it doesn’t lose its coziness. A few well-placed tables or décor elements can go a long way!

Amy Kolo

Add to your menu

If you have a food and beverage minimum you need to meet, don’t let a smaller guest list stop you from getting creative! There are plenty of ways to spice up your menu and wow each guest in attendance.

“You can look at upgrading your bar, upgrading (or adding!) a champagne toast,” advises Janice Carnevale of Bellwether Events. “Maybe there is a whiskey-tasting or wine flight that can be added. Most menus include bread and butter — can this be upgraded to include olive oil or other tapenades or spreads? Can the salad become a duo course of soup and salad?”

Juls Sharpley of Bubbles & Bowties agrees, emphasizing, “Go big on your wine. Splurge for that cab or champagne you wanted but didn’t think you could afford! We also love to add dessert bars and/or late-night bites if they weren’t already budgeted for.”

Not only will you hit your food and beverage minimum, but you’ll also provide your guests with an elevated culinary experience they won’t forget!

Remember what’s most important

Remember that, though the guest list may be smaller, you will still be surrounded by people who love you and can’t wait to celebrate. So focus on the good and the fact that you’ll get to spend more time with people you might not see as often as you’d like!

“If you have a smaller number of guests attending your wedding than you were expecting or hoping for, the best thing is to rejoice and live in the moment with those who can make it,” reminds Smith. “It is only a big deal if you make it a big deal.”

You get to say “I do” to spending forever with your person, so your day will undoubtedly be perfect — whether it’s just the two of you, a crowd of hundreds, or anywhere in between. The size of your guest list doesn’t change the fact that you and your partner will end the day as newlyweds, starting your next chapter of happily ever after!

Meghan Ely is the owner of wedding PR and wedding marketing firm OFD Consulting. Ely is a sought-after speaker, adjunct professor in the field of public relations, and a self-professed royal wedding enthusiast.