Creating an Airtight Timeline

  • May 1, 2021


If you’re anything like most brides, your wedding is the biggest thing you’ve ever planned by yourself. Your photographer might have been the first one to mention a timeline, but where do you even start building one? How detailed do you need to be? What do you need to include?


The cornerstones of a solid timeline are your venue start and stop times, and your ceremony time. From there, you can build out the rest of it pretty easily. The other big hitters are when dinner starts and your exit time, and you want to ask your photographer how long they think they’ll need for each session of photos. If you’re taking separate portraits prior to the ceremony, it will give you more time for portraits together, or just a moment to breathe between the ceremony and reception.


Prior to the venue start time, you’ll want to include any hair or make-up appointments, any rental pick-ups or drop-offs, and lunch for the bridal party. If you’re spending all morning with your squad, make sure you specifically schedule a time to eat lunch or you might be starving all day. You should also have a very specific time that you’re putting your dress on.


Starting at your venue start time, list out the time that each of your vendors is expected to arrive. There may be some arriving during the cocktail hour or ceremony, which is completely fine. Typically, the coordinator (hey!) will be the first one on-site, with the florist close behind. Your vendors will let you know how much setup time they need and suggest a time for their arrival. If you don’t want to see your partner before the ceremony, make sure you stagger your arrival times as well. If you’re doing a first look, it’s recommended to do it before guests are expected to arrive – it’s a special moment for you and your partner, not your great aunt Linda. Lastly, be sure to include the time that the ceremony space needs to be ready – at least 30 minutes before the ceremony start time – and the time at which the bridal party needs to be sequestered before guests arrive.




For your ceremony, include both the time listed on your invitation and your ceremony start time if it’s different, the time you want to begin the processional and the approximate time you expect to start your recessional. On your timeline, be sure to list out in what order your bridal party is walking up and down the aisle as well. I recommend padding your estimated ceremony duration by five minutes to be on the safe side. This is the time at which your cocktail hour space should be set and ready as well, especially if it’s an immediate transition at the same location. If you’re skipping a cocktail hour and going straight into the reception, the same timeline applies.


After the ceremony, list out what time the cocktail hour begins (usually immediately) and what time the bar opens, if that’s different. Talk to your photographer about how long portraits after the ceremony should take, but there’s a reason it’s called the cocktail hour. Most of your portraits can be done within that hour. If your cocktail hour space is separate from your reception space, it should be ready sometime during the cocktail hour.


The reception is when things start happening very, very quickly. Most often, your reception will begin without you and your guests will find their seats, and about 10-15 minutes into the reception time, you’ll have your grand entrance where you’re announced as a couple for the first time. Be sure to note on your timeline how you want to be introduced – Mr & Mrs, first names, etc., and go over that info with your DJ before the big day.




A typical reception will proceed as follows:


  • Reception area opens for guests
  • Bridal party grand entrance
  • Dinner opens - make sure you eat first
  • Toasts – while guests are eating
  • Cut the cake - as soon as your last guests have gotten or been served their dinner plate
  • Open the dance floor
  • Bouquet/garter toss – totally optional
  • Bar closes/last call – recommended no more than 30 minutes before grand exit
  • Grand exit – recommended no less than 1 hour before venue end time


For your first dance, you have a few options. Personally, I recommend doing it immediately upon your grand entrance to your reception. This way, you’re not interrupting dance time later. If your dinner space is separate from your dance floor, however, I would recommend doing it after dinner closes and you’ve cut the cake – just make sure to watch where the frosting! This would open up the dance floor as well.


Another optional event that I very highly recommend is a secluded last dance. This is typically done while your guests are lining up and preparing for your grand exit – lighting sparklers, getting their bubbles, etc. This gives you not only crazy intimate photos of just you and your new spouse in your reception space, it also gives you a moment to breathe it all in before the night is over.




After you’ve left the party, your guests will leave pretty quickly, and your vendors will start tearing down. Personally, I’ll be tearing down before you even leave – you don’t need your ceremony décor up after the ceremony ends, and if dinner is in a separate location from the reception, I’ll be busing tables and packing up to make tear-down at the end of the night as fast as it can be. Many venues charge extra if you stay later than your allotted time, so I recommend having your exit at least an hour before your vendors need to be fully cleaned up and out. On your timeline, you should also notate who’s taking what so there’s no confusion last-minute and you don’t lose any décor.


Of course, getting all the events in the right order is only half the battle – you also need to know approximately how long each of these events are supposed to last. You should have a good idea of how long your ceremony should take – modern ceremonies take typically no more than twenty minutes. Ask your officiant if you’re not sure.


How long dinner takes depends really heavily on your guest count and how the food is being served. Buffet style will take longer because you have to dismiss each table in turn, and if you have twenty tables, table one is probably done eating by the time table twenty is getting their food. You should also include a specific time during which your vendors can grab their meals. Dinner time is always the best time for this, as you don’t really want photos of your guests stuffing their faces. If you’re doing toasts during dinner, let your photographer grab their plate early.


The Knot has a really great timeline planner where you can drag and drop your events, add custom events, and remove any you’re not doing. I highly recommend using that if you can, or if you hire a day-of coordinator, many of them will create a timeline for you or look over what you’ve created to make sure that it’s airtight. You should also have your photographer review your timeline before you send it to anyone else to make sure that you’ve given them enough time to get all the photos you want.


If you need help putting together your timeline, I’m happy to help, even if I’m not your coordinator. Reach out to me for details on that offer, and good luck with planning!