Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing orders, the micro-wedding trend has picked up full steam, with brides-to-be across the country downsizing their nuptials to just their closest family and friends. Here's how to plan one of your own, according to experts.

By Rebecca Deczynski
Nov 20, 2020 @ 4:09 pm
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lauren spinelli photography
| Credit: lauren spinelli photography

If you’ve been noticing more and more of your friends eschewing big, 200-person bashes in favor of intimate, perfectly Instagrammable weddings with just a handful of attendees, you’re far from alone. The micro-wedding trend has picked up full steam, with brides-to-be across the country downsizing their nuptials to just their closest family and friends.

According to industry standards, a micro-wedding is one with fewer than 50 guests, and the trend has taken hold largely out of need: The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing orders have ruled out big celebrations for the foreseeable future. And while many have postponed their big day indefinitely, other brides have turned lemons into lemonade, shifting their idea of their dream wedding into something pared-back, yet special as ever.

“Small, intimate weddings have been happening forever,” says wedding planner Allie Shane, founder of California-based Pop the Champagne Events, and her newest venture, Backyard Wedding Collective. “Now, they’re just coming to the forefront.”

Micro-weddings, she says, have all the components of what you might consider a traditional wedding — your ceremony and reception — just on a downsized scale. Elopements, by contrast, typically involve some sort of travel (maybe not to Vegas, but to some inevitably Insta-worthy location) and an even smaller guest list — if any guests are invited at all.

For some couples — especially at this time — a micro-wedding can also be a precursor to a bigger celebration later down the line, once it’s safe again to gather in large groups, says wedding planner Sara Murray, founder of Philadelphia-based event planning firm Confetti & Co.

Whether or not a micro-wedding is right for you — either as your only wedding or as a smaller celebration before a larger gathering — depends on your priorities for the big day. “When you close your eyes and you really think about what you envision, what is the most important part? Is it dancing with your dad? Is it having a crazy dance party?” Shane says. Assessing the aspects of a wedding that are meaningful to you can help you decide whether a smaller celebration would fulfill your wedding dreams. “At the end of the day,” Shane adds, “The size of your wedding does not determine the value of your marriage.”

If you’re considering planning your own micro-wedding, here are a few key tips you’ll want to keep in mind.

1. Assess your guest list and send out invites.

“I think the guest list is the hardest part of any wedding,” Shane says. And when you’re limiting your invite list, it can feel especially stressful. Due to the pandemic, however, most everyone will be very understanding if they don’t make the cut (especially since you’ll still want to coordinate COVID tests and quarantines with those who do end up attending). She recommends establishing ground rules for who’s invited: That can mean only immediate family, close friends that know both you and your partner, or any other guidelines that feel right for you. You want to make sure that both families feel sufficiently represented and that there are no hard feelings — honesty goes a long way.

As for when to send the invitations, standard practice holds true: Murray recommends sending them two if not three months before the big day (and save-the-dates as early as a year beforehand), and ask for RSVPs back at least a month before the wedding. If you’re pivoting to a micro-wedding from a traditional celebration and have to let friends and family know about the change, personally call those closest to you who aren’t making the cut to explain your situation, and send cancel cards to your bigger list. In this message, you can say that you wish you could still celebrate together and that you look forward to having a toast sometime in the future.

Of course, even with a micro-wedding, there is the possibility for sudden change in the age of COVID, so the best way to keep your guests updated on any cancellations or changes of date is by including your wedding website on any invitations and notices, and saying that any changes will be published there, Murray says. You’ll also want to make sure you have the email addresses of everyone on your guest list, for any last-minute updates.

2. Set your budget.

While many couples may be attracted to a micro-wedding because they can certainly be cheaper (fewer guests means fewer people to provide food, favors, and alcohol for, after all), a smaller wedding doesn’t have to be a budget wedding if that’s not what you want. “We’ve done weddings for five people with a budget of $20,000,” Shane says. “It can be all over the map.”  Ultimately, it’s up to you and your priorities.

Opting for a micro-wedding can help you make the most of any budget you have put aside, though: With fewer guests, you can have more money left to splurge on flowers, decorations, a live musical performance, or anything else that you feel will really make the day feel above-and-beyond. “You can also elevate the meal substantially,” Murray says. “You’re not going to serve lobster to 250 people. But when it’s just 20, that’s a lot more reasonable.”

3. Start planning early.

“Micro-wedding does not necessarily equal micro-planning,” says Shane. Murray recommends reaching out to vendors as early as possible in your planning process — that way, you’ll have a better chance of securing that caterer or florist that you really want. But be mindful of cancellation clauses, just in case you do have to make any schedule shifts. A month before the wedding, once RSVPs are in, you’ll be able to finalize table counts, florals for said tables, and other variables that are dependent on the size of your guest list.

Don’t make the assumption that a backyard wedding is necessarily less work, either. “Without a traditional venue, there are so many little pieces to think about, and things you need to order ahead of time,” says newlywed Gabriela Ramos, who opted for a 20-person wedding in her parents’ backyard. Murray echoes the sentiment: “Things like power strips, lighting, parking, and bathrooms aren’t an issue at a venue, but in a home, they might be more of a challenge,” she says. “Take your time, hire someone, or get friends to help you plan — and make sure you’re setting yourself up for success."

And of course, try not to let the wedding-planning stress become a burden to your relationship — after all, this is a major celebration you’re working towards. Compartmentalization was key for newlyweds Lindsey and Bri Leaverton, who had to change their wedding plans due to COVID-19, landing on a perfectly socially distanced micro-wedding in a drive-in movie theater. “Bri and I would only work on wedding planning when we drove,” Lindsey says. “I know it sounds strange, but we planned both wedding A and wedding B while driving.”

4. Determine your must-haves.

While a micro-wedding can certainly have most, if not all, of the same aspects of a traditional wedding, it’s helpful for the planning process to hone in on the most important part of the day to you. “To me, the core piece of the wedding was having a ceremonial side and having our pastor on Zoom officiating," says newlywed Katie Wong, who pivoted her original 200-person wedding into an intimate 20-person affair in Malibu. “And that meant everyone could hear and see him, which you might not even get in a traditional wedding.”

Wong stresses that while the word “micro” might connote ideas of informality or casualness, a micro-wedding is just as special and important as a bigger celebration — a sentiment that newlywed Gianna Henke echoes. Henke originally had a traditional wedding planned for late March, then shifted to a micro-wedding outdoors at a restaurant, and ultimately opted for a reception in her parent’s backyard after getting married at a courthouse a few months prior. “If you have the budget, you can still go all out on decorations and get your hair and makeup done and everything like that to make the day feel like a big deal,” she says. “For me, that was important. It doesn’t have to mean that you’re just barbecuing in the backyard.

5. Add a tech element.

“What we’ve found helpful to mitigate the awkwardness of people not being invited — or uninvited in the case of a big wedding-turned-micro — is saying, 'Hey, here’s the link to the live stream of our ceremony,'" Murray says. So, if you’re open to it, incorporating a Zoom component can help make everyone you love feel involved. And it might even make your wedding feel extra special — as was the case for newlywed Sakile Camara, who opted for a backyard wedding after canceling the destination wedding she had planned for April 2020. “Zoom allowed us to have so many more friends and family join in our celebration,” she says. “It was really special, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

The Zoom experience for guests who don’t attend the wedding IRL can still feel elevated, too: Shane has had clients who have sent out pieces of cake to those tuning in virtually, to help them feel more involved. And, of course, a dress code always makes everything more festive, too. If you’re open to adding this kind of element to your big day, there are plenty of companies that now offer live streaming services, and can handle all the technical elements (and sometimes the hosting elements) of a Zoom wedding.

If a live stream's not your style, you can still get the wedding photos and video of your dreams. Newlywed Ali McCabe, who pared back her original 165-person wedding to 18 people, was concerned that her video footage might look awkward with such a minimal crowd — but in fact, the opposite proved to be true. “The photographer and videographer we hired captured the most beautiful moments,” she says. “We never felt like it was odd having cameras around with such a small number of people.

6. Consider out-of-the-box options.

There are so many different ways a micro-wedding can look. It can be the classic ceremony-at-City-Hall, followed by an intimate dinner, it can be a backyard bash, or virtually anything else — just take the Leavertons’ drive-in movie theater venue as an example of the possibilities: “It truly was the most unforgettable experience of our lives, aside from the birth of our children,” Lindsey Leaverton says.

“I like staying true to who a couple is and where they love to go,” says Murray. One upside to a micro-wedding, she adds it that it can open up more possibilities for venues. For example, a favorite restaurant might not be big enough to feed 200 people, but 20 is almost certainly bookable.

And Shane adds that even backyard weddings have limitless potential. She’s currently planning a micro-wedding that draws inspiration from Thailand, with Thai desserts and tropical florals — an homage to the fact that the couple originally planned a destination wedding that they had to pivot. “It can feel special to take your plan A and infuse that into your plan B in another cool way,” she says. “Maybe you always wanted to get married in Italy — so you can create an Italian villa in your own yard.”

7. Embrace the little things.

While a micro-wedding can still certainly have all the special elements of a larger celebration, at the same time, it’s special in its own regard. For Ramos, a smaller-scale party meant she could savor the day. “Everyone always says that your wedding day goes by so fast, but I genuinely didn’t feel like that,” she says. “To be able to spend that time with the people who are really closest to us was so incredible.”

As Murray notes, a micro-wedding can always be followed by an eventual large-scale reception (maybe even coinciding with a one-year anniversary) if a couple does feel like they still want to have a party with even more people involved. But for many, the pared-back option might just be — surprisingly — the real dream. “My husband and I woke up the next morning and had absolutely no regrets and no urge to have a bigger celebration,” says McCabe. “It was a blessing in disguise — I felt really comfortable, I was surrounded by close friends and family, and I didn’t even feel silly doing my first dance.”