I am planning a pre-invitation survey to get a guest list headcount. Will this work?

September 10 2018 | Guest post by J.
I am planning a pre-invitation survey to get a guest list headcount. Will this work?
Funny RSVP card from What the Duck Cards

I have been scouring all the posts and comments threads about RSVPs and guest lists, and haven't seen an answer to a tricky question. How do you deal with guest list ambiguity when you live in an extremely expensive area, 2/3 of your desired invites are from out of town, and venues require guaranteed minimums on catering?

Is it over okay to make a survey for your friends and family to gauge best-guesses for will they/won't theys for a wedding a year and a half or two years away?

I was thinking of something along these lines:

"Dear (loved one), we are in the process of figuring out where to have our wedding in June 2020, and you are one of the people we would love to be there when we get married. The thing is, NYC venues make you book based on specific — and, yowza, pricey! — guest list numbers. I know this is unusual, but to figure out if we need a smaller or larger venue, we need to get a pretty good guesstimate of who is likely to attend. We swear you will not offend us no matter what your answer and we'll love you no matter what, so no pressure. That said, it would help us out a lot if you could tell us whether, if we hold our wedding on a Friday or Sunday in June 2020, you would:

A. Definitely attend, barring emergencies
B. Probably attend
C. Interested/maybe attend, but unsure because of money, time, or logistical constraints
D. Unlikely to attend because of money/time/logistics
E. Definitely can't attend because of money/time/logistics

This may seem super awkward, but I am at wit's end about guest list ambiguity because:

1) We have to book a venue between 18 months and two years ahead of time because we're in Brooklyn, NY — where the lower and mid-range priced venues sell out for summer weddings that far ahead, even in the surrounding cities and upstate NY;

2) Most venues force you to use their caterer and require a deposit far in advance, while guaranteeing that you will pay food/booze for a minimum number of guests (some 125 people, some 150 people, etc, at anywhere from $150 to $250 per person!). Note: we've looked into raw space venues hoping they'd be cheaper, and they can save a little bit, but they can be almost as expensive in NYC when food-tables+chairs+table linens+dishware+silverware+lighting+sound+wifi+certificate of insurance+more decor than an inclusive wedding venue because raw spaces here are often plain to ugly until you decorate them;

3) 2/3 of the people we love/plan to invite live out-of-state, and several in Canada and England;

How can you figure out how many people from your guest list will be likely to come to a wedding under those circumstances? We have to be reasonably sure how many people are coming in order to choose a venue. We would love our 150 guest list (or 125 if we are brutal) to come. But one venue requires paying for minimum 150 people at #toomuch$perhead, another venue requires a minimum spend of 125 people and we wouldn't be able to fit more than 125 into that space (also at too much money per person — sense a theme?), and another requires minimum catering for 75 people, but the maximum guest count allowed there is 100. Once we choose a venue, we are locked in to a financial scheme that won't change even if fewer people are able to make the trip to NYC than we anticipate — or if MORE people say yes than we thought, and then we wouldn't be able to fit them all unless we already chose the largest/priciest venue.

Even if we have financial help, we want to not be wasteful. If you have a "cheap" wedding in one of the lower cost venues in Brooklyn or the surrounding area, even with a ton of DIY and no flowers whatsoever, is around $30K. NYC is reportedly the single most expensive place for weddings in America, and reportedly the average is now $77,000!

We'll be doing a lot to reduce costs in other areas (DIY, Friday or Sunday dates, etc.) but for the most part, our fixed costs will still be high and knowing an approximate headcount would be so helpful.

Does the survey idea sound reasonable? Do you think people would throw a fit about it, or feel offended? Are there pitfalls I'm not anticipating about sending out a survey like that?

  1. That absolutely sounds like a good idea. You have a ridiculous logistical problem to deal with, so if you're close enough to someone to invite them to your wedding, then you should be close enough that they won't be offended. If you don't ask your potential guests then you'll have a nightmare on your hands trying to organise things without the relevant information.

    When we got married we were looking at caterers, and one needed a minimum of around 70 people while another's maximum was around 50. Our guest list was around 60 or 65 at that point so fell awkwardly in the middle, and I ended up asking the people with kids if said kids would eat a full meal, a child meal, or not require one (eg younger ones who would eat off parents' plates). This was over a year before the wedding and I felt a bit weird asking questions like that when we hadn't even got people's RSVPs. I feel like if I'd explained why I was asking it would have made more sense to people, but I was in a bit of an organisational flurry trying to pick my way through unfamiliar territory so I just asked people in a casual informal way and didn't go into why. Absolutely no one was offended or seemed to think it was weird, but I wouldn't blame them if privately they wondered why I was asking such oddly specific questions! All I was doing was trying to gauge which caterers were the most appropriate.

    If you explain to people why you're asking the questions, just as you did in the original post, they'll completely understand your dilemma and do their best to make things easier for you. The bit you put about still loving them no matter what they answered is great, as is the range of answer options. You're not asking them to firmly commit, especially as you haven't even set a date yet, so they won't feel under pressure, and they'll be able to see how their answer will help you choose a venue. Go for it!

    2 agree
  2. Absolutely this seems reasonable! Especially because of how far in advance you have to book the venue (and 18 months – 2 years is not an unusual amount of planning time for a wedding anyway), it makes perfect sense to ask these questions! With the explanation you give in your example, I can't see anyone being offended or even confused, except at the idea that the venues want you to guarantee a guest list that far ahead. Send out your survey (maybe even use a Google Survey page to make it simple to respond?) with no worries. Besides, with that much lead time, it might be fairly simple for guests to block out that time in advance and plan their upcoming year or two around it.

  3. I think it's okay to send out the survey (unusual, yes, but I assume you're very close with these 150 people and they'll understand!) but I might remove the "yowza, pricey!" language. Everybody is quietly aware that per head costs to throw a wedding are super high (especially in NYC!) but to have that pointed out to you (as in, "It's costing me a ton of money to have you at my wedding, and while I definitely want you there, I also sort of need to know if you're going to show before I make that investment") is a little uncomfortable. If there's a way to just couch the language a bit ("all of the venues we love have certain minimum and maximum guest requirements, and we'd hate to lock ourselves in to something that ends up not fitting our needs!") that might be better. I might also add some kind of line about how it's okay to change your mind after the fact — you don't want your guests to feel backed into a corner to make a call about something 1.5 years away.

    8 agree
    • I agree. I think a survey with simple “yes, no, maybe” answers is fine. Asking people to state that they may not have the money to attend seems distasteful.

      2 agree
      • Lumped in with money were time and logistics, so no one would have to state money as the reason they wouldn't attend. I don't think it's distasteful to mention it. Having those options just made me think that the original poster was mentioning the most common reasons why people might not be able to come to show that they understood and they wouldn't be offended if people said "no".

        I do agree with not emphasising how much it'll cost for each guest to attend.

        1 agrees
        • You could also make responses anonymous, perhaps with an online survey.

          Also, you should talk directly with the people you want most to be there.

          We were in a similar situation – we’re an american and a Brit living in Switzerland. Even keeping it small (34 guests) we had people from all over UK, US Switzerland and several other countries we wanted to come and quickly realized London would actually be the easiest for the majority of people. We just starting probing people when we got engaged. We actually had several American guests immediately after the engagement who told us we better get married somewhere interesting in Europe.

          2 agree
  4. I think this is reasonable but agree with people about removing the 'pricey' language. I think everyone knows that weddings are expensive.

    That being said since you have so many people traveling in anyway, does it make sense to look outside of NYC/NY in a less expensive location? Or even doing a destination wedding?

    Food for thought! 🙂

    4 agree
    • I agree. Mentioning price to guests makes me worry they will feel pressure not to come. Every adult understands the financial commitment you're undertaking without putting extra emphasis on that fact.

  5. This is an awesome idea and I'd really love to know how it worked out! Please don't forget us here when you're done with the survey!
    I can't see anybody feeling offended but I do know that getting people to RSVP is hard even in normal circumstances. I know many friends who have complained about people not bothering to do so, even when an electronic option is available. I can't help but wonder if forcing people to "commit" 2 years in advance will result in a bunch of missing responses or, equally, if people tended to "downgrade" their commitment and pick a lower letter.
    I'm also curious if you have a substantial number of "C" responses — what do you do with those? Count them into the package? Count some of them into the package? As I said above, I'd love to know how much this helped ( or didn't ) when you're done!

    2 agree
  6. Totally! My partner and I did exactly this for our upcoming wedding (12 days and counting). We made a Google survey and sent it to family, friends and plastered it on our Facebook pages (in limited circles).
    It worked great for us! Not only did we get a rough idea of who was interested in coming, or felt they could attend, but we also got to gather emails, mailing addresses, who needed help with losing/transportation, dietary restrictions, and drink preferences! All of that info made it so much easier to plan the rest of the wedding too.
    Not everyone we invited responded (parents and grandparents may not be so tech savvy), but it gave us a good baseline to work from.

    2 agree
  7. You could also make a decision based on your budget, venue preference, and a ballpark # based on who you REALLY wanted to invite. You probably already have a good sense of who will travel for a party and who will say no because of finances or babies, etc. Every couple goes through a similar process of guesstimating and then inviting B-listers when some of your favorite A-list people can’t make it for whatever reason. For your sanity, you can also send Save the Dates that request an early RSVP.

    1 agrees
  8. We totally did this. It was very helpful. Many people told us right off the bat that they wouldn't be able to come, and it helped us determine everything from the venue to the timing.

    1 agrees
  9. Love this idea! This is a super frustrating part of managing RSVPs. I created an app called Invitd so I spend way too much time looking at RSVP/invitation blog posts and stats, lol.

    I consistently see that about 50% of people invited RSVP that they are attending but only another 5% will actually RSVP that they can't attend. So, about 4 out of 10 won't even respond to the invite which is frustrating. The app doesn't have a "Maybe" option since I think some of those 4 out of 10 would RSVP as a Maybe because they feel bad saying No, leaving you guessing on guest counts.

    I do think your idea is great since I'd bet the people who really want to be there but can't will let you know quickly. This would possibly give you more options of moving the date/location if you think turnout will be a problem. Sadly, I think the people that ghost you on the survey probably wouldn't show anyway.

    I'm thinking I need to add something like this to the app! Good luck!

    1 agrees
  10. Just don't use the information you get to decide not to send someone an invitation. 🙂

    A lot can change in two years, and someone might think they can't come now, but be able and want to come when the time comes around!

    4 agree
  11. I agree with most of the above responses, but I'd like to include that the time frame may include others people's lives changing too; a birth, divorce, death and/or remarriage by potential guests. Keep in mind that having an empty seat next to Aunt Sally only reminds her of her loss. Or maybe Cousin Ted is coming alone because his wife is still recovering from giving birth.

    4 agree
  12. Thanks, everyone! I spent some more time thinking about wording before this post went up, and I already took out the reference to how much it costs to host a wedding in New York. I did leave in a thing about money for travel in a long list of reasons why people may not want/be able to come — I have a big community of writers/activists/artists, and many of us are lower income (including me, up until I moved in with my partner, who has a more financially rewarding career than my journalism/activism has been). I wanted to acknowledge that not everyone can afford to travel, that I've been there, and I completely understand that.

    I also decided at least for now to not send it as a blanket survey to everyone, but to some of the out of towners we either 1) most want to be there, or 2) are most unsure of whether they can/want to travel or not. I've already started individually sending this as a personal note, rather than a full on survey (with some preamble). I've gotten great responses so far, and no one has been offended or weirded out as I worried they might, but that could also be because I have sent each note individually. It's some work, but I have the time since it's so early.

    This is what I pared it down to:

    (Personal hellos at the beginning)

    You know that potential theoretical future weddding we mentioned mat happen at some point? It just got a little less theoretical. We haven't set a firm date yet, but we're planning to get married in the summer of 2020, ideally June 2020 on a Fri or a Sun. Or possibly the Sunday before Memorial Day in May.

    I have a handle on who would definitely WANT to come, but not who would be able to afford to fly here and etc, or could take time off of work, or travel from the West coast or internationally (3canadians, 2 Londoners, maybe 1 from Australia, plus their spouses/+1s) etc.

    I know it's way too early for anyone to guarantee anything, and it feels weird to even ask… but for dear dear friends who have a good sense of humor (LIKE YOU!), we're sending this weird little survey:

    Hey, we love you! in fact, we want to invite you to our future wedding, eventually, nearly two years from now (what? yeah, wedding planning in NYC is freaking weird, y'all.) So NO PRESSURE, but NYC wedding venues book up two years ahead and they require deposits and eventually full payment on ridiculously strict numbers of people who will attend — even though they book up 18 months to 2years ahead of time. This means that in order to figure out which venue to choose, we need at least a rough guesstimate of how many people think they are definitely or very likely to say yes. Not a guarantee (we know life happens!) but a best guesss. We totally understand if you can't or don't think you would have time or money or logistical ability to travel to NYC, and we promise we won't be upset no matter what you answer.

    Here goes: if we were to get married on a Friday or Sunday in June 2020 (or possibly the Sunday before Memorial Day, 2020), would you:

    Definitely attend (barring emergencies)

    Probably attend, unless something really unexpected happens

    Maybe? I'd like to, but c'mon, it's way too @*$&2! soon to know what my work schedule or bank account or health will look like yet

    Unlikely to attend (dude, you know I'm broke/have a fear of flying/hate crowds/am going to be finishing my post-doc at the time/can't take time away from knocking in every single door in America to prevent another four years of fascism, etc)

    Definitely can't attend (no need to tell us why, we love you anyway)

    1 agrees
    • Holiday weekends are hard for people. When my cousin got married. She got married on 3 July (that was on a long weekend that year for the 4th of July) in a resort town in FL thinking it will help people with time off. She did the same for her Daughters Bat Mitvah (over MLK and Labor Day weekend in the same resort town). Hense to say people complained about the pricing people too high (esp. over July the 4th weekend and Labor Day weekend) for plane tickets and hotel rooms.

      That is something to consider for the Sunday of Memerial Day weekend (esp. I am assuming in NYC for hotel rooms and flying into JFK, La Guardia and Newark rooms are outta sight. Which my understanding they are already outta sight when it is not a holiday).

      Either way, even if it was not a holiday weekend. Having a Sunday wedding people will still need to take Monday off vs. taking Friday off if a Saturday wedding.

      I know when I got married. I got married on a Friday. It was hard for people who were not local to take Thursday AND Friday off. My cousins who live in GA. Two of the Three came. But they just left after work Thursday and drove the 6 hours from ATL to Jacksonville, FL. That is something to consider too. Alot of people won't be able to take two days off. If they are, it is easier to request to have a Friday and Monday off then a Thursday and Friday.

      1 agrees
      • That's definitely true about Fridays, which is why we are leaning toward Sundays. I hadn't thought about higher prices for holiday weekends — thanks for that reminded. I figured that maybe a holiday weekend would allow us the Sunday discount but also allow guests to not have to take a day off of work. But maybe "helping" like that wouldn't actually help.

        (I wish the fall wasn't such a hard time for many of our guests or U would consider October for the discount.)

        1 agrees
        • You figure Columbus Day weekend. While a holiday weekend. It is not a big holiday weekend like if 4th of July was on a Friday/Sat/Sun or Monday, Memorial Day, Labor Day or even New Years (or Christmas). Of course assuming not all companies give Columbus day (or MLK, Presidents Day or Veterans day) off. But something to consider. Figure even in NYC weather is still nice and possibly the leaves are turning, not too cold, not too hot. Maybe more of a possibily!

  13. We sort of did this, but we were only planning 1 year in advance. We were also planning a wedding that was going to be a destination for about 95% of the guests. We sent a digital save-the-date and had a response survey included in it. What I think you will probably run into is that people might RSVP in the affirmative and then as the date comes closer have some reason to decline, and you may also have many people fail to respond at all. It was very difficult asking people to commit to an RSVP answer three weeks in advance, I can't imagine how hard it would be 2 years in advance. This may all lead to you overestimating your headcount and spending far more than you intended. We had lots of people tell us they would come, but had other family weddings come up, and a few had babies close to our wedding date and thus couldn't make it. If it helps, we invited 140 and had 85 attend, with several last minute cancellations. We had guessed we'd have 120, so we estimated way too high because we were trying to be safe.

    I'm sure this has been mentioned by others, but it was helpful for us: We broke up our invite list into tiers, where we started inviting people in the lower priority tiers once we started seeing "decline" RSVPs. Another thing we did was went through the guest list one by one and gave each guest a probability of attending. So for example if we thought family members or people who lived close by were more likely to attend, we gave them a 1 or a 0.8. If we knew someone didn't like to travel, were coming from particularly far away, or we weren't very close to them, we gave them a 0.5 or a 0.3. Then we added all of those up to give us an estimate of what our final count might be.

    Just some ideas. Good luck!

    1 agrees

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