Planning the rehearsal dinner once seemed simple enough.
The wedding party walked through the ceremony the evening before the official event, then headed to a nice restaurant for a cozy dinner including participants, their significant others, parents, grandparents and, often, close friends and relatives who came in from out of town.
That was then. Now, families and friends tend to be spread out around the country. Divorce and remarriage have created big, blended families. And deciding the guest list for the pre-wedding event has become another complicated part of planning a wedding.
"There are so many variables involved," said Anja Winikka, editor of The Knot.com online wedding planning site. "How many people are coming from out of town; whether it's in the couple's hometown. It doesn't work too well when all your guests are coming (to the rehearsal dinner) — it will feel like two receptions."
Many couples are innovating, wedding experts say, going with more casual pre-wedding gatherings or moving up the rehearsal and dinner to earlier in the week.
As for inviting all out-of-town guests, "we kind of nixed that whole idea," said Marissa Larubbio of New York, who is getting married in October to Nick Healey. "Once you invite one, you'd have to invite all the other people. We didn't see a need to have a mini-wedding the week of the actual wedding."
The guest list is even more complicated for Matt Orenchuk and Amanda Goski, who are getting married this fall in Cleveland, where Matt now lives and works.
His family is mostly around Columbus, Ohio, while she's in Illinois and has relatives as far away as California. While she takes more of a traditional view of the rehearsal dinner as an intimate, small gathering, Orenchuk said, he leans the other way.
"I know these are people who are making this trip for me, and I feel like the rehearsal dinner would be a chance to visit with them," he said.
Leaving people out "can cause some hurt feelings — particularly when it comes to family members," said Winnika.
One bride-to-be asked The Knot how to answer an uninvited aunt who e-mailed her asking what time the rehearsal dinner was.
Winnika said consistency is important — either all cousins, uncles and aunts are invited or none are. And she suggests responding directly to anyone with questions by explaining the need to put limits on the gathering.
While the rehearsal and dinner are usually the evening before the wedding, Larubbio and Healey are holding theirs two nights before. That gives them a little extra time in between for last-minute details.
Having the rehearsal dinner early also helps head off the guest-list issue, said Winikka, since many out-of-town guests don't come until the night before a wedding.
Instead of a big rehearsal dinner, some families host informal gatherings for out-of-towners in the days before the wedding, either at a casual restaurant, in a home or with a backyard barbecue, Winikka said.
"That might be for the aunt (to host) who wants to do something for your wedding," she said.
For "destination weddings," when most or all guests will be traveling to a special location, couples shouldn't feel obligated to include them in a rehearsal dinner, Winikka said, but can include a "welcome party" in the pre-wedding events.
A Knot survey last year found that respondents spent an average $1,647 on the rehearsal dinner. By tradition, the groom and his family take responsibility for arranging and funding it. It's becoming increasingly common, however, for couples and both their families to share planning and costs on the dinner and other wedding events.
It's also becoming more common now for the wedding to be followed by a next-morning brunch gathering.
Winikka said the rehearsal dinner — with its toasts, trading of stories and reflection on the future — is "a great opportunity to get into wedding mode."
Cost will be a factor for Orenchuk, he said, as he and his bride decide what to do about their rehearsal dinner. He doesn't know many restaurants in Cleveland, and finding the right one might shape their decision, he said.
"I'm kind of waiting for the perfect spot," he said. "I'm a pretty laid-back guy; at the end of the day, it will all fall into place."