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How to Plan a Surprise Wedding Ceremony

by Staff

You invite your closest friends and family to your engagement party and, surprise, they find themselves at your wedding. Whether you want to forgo the drama of a big bash or simply have a smaller budget to work with, a surprise wedding can be an exciting alternative to a traditional fête.

More and more couples who want to avoid a grand affair but still want something special are now forgoing traditional nuptials for a party they spring on their guests instead. And what easier way to pull it off than by inviting them to another big party? While a surprise wedding offers the feel of a spontaneous elopement, it still involves lots of planning and organization.

Here, we’ve rounded up some expert tips to help you pull off the big reveal. 

Be Sure a Surprise Wedding Is Right for You

Before you start devising your secret celebration, be sure you and your partner both are okay with giving up the pre-wedding festivities and gifts. Sidestepping a conventional wedding can also mean missing out on all the fun that goes with it, like a bridal shower and bachelorette party.

However, if you’re the type of couple that doesn’t want all the attention or pressures of planning a big wedding, then this will be a well-suited fête. “There are many reasons why a couple will choose a surprise wedding, from preferring to keep things low-key or cut costs to wanting a totally unique event,” says Kate Ryan, co-owner of Gold Leaf Event Design & Production.

Who Do You Tell?

Keep things under wraps by telling only the people you absolutely need to, such as your vendors and their staff. “Hiring a great team of professionals will be key since you won’t be able to ask bridesmaids or family to assist,” says Valorie Darling of Valorie Darling Photography. “And sharing the secret with your parents is a good idea if you’re worried about how they may react on the big day. Plus, they might be happy to be part of the planning.”

Get Everyone There

You’ll need a party-worthy diversion, such as a milestone birthday or your engagement, to stress the importance of your guests’ attendance without giving away the real reason. Your cover should match the style of your actual event; for example, don’t use a casual backyard barbecue as your ruse if you’re hosting a formal cocktail party.

Word the invitation so that your guests understand the formality and dress code for the occasion, but don’t send them out too early. “You don’t want to make anyone suspicious,” says Amber Moon of Amber Moon Design. “Go all out with the stationery, so that the fake event looks legit.” Etiquette calls for wedding invitations to be sent six to eight weeks in advance, and two to four weeks prior to a social gathering. “However, in this case, invites can be sent out four to six weeks before the event,” says Moon.

How Can You Surprise Your Guests?

“We’ve planned a surprise wedding where guests were invited under the pretense of an engagement party and were requested to wear all white so that the bride and groom could mingle inconspicuously among their family and friends,” says Ryan. “As guests arrived, they were served specialty cocktails and passed hors d’oeuvres; then later everyone was asked to be seated for dinner in a beautifully lit courtyard while the couple remained standing with their officiant, a friend in on the secret who announced that he was marrying them right then and there.”

Unveiling the real reason why your guests have been invited will be the momentous part of your party, and here’s where your creativity and personalities can shine. When and how you’ll disclose the soon-to-happen ceremony will dictate the entire event.

Don’t Skimp on the Photography

Your photos and video will be the most precious keepsakes of your surprise wedding. Book your photographer and videographer as soon as you’ve set a date and be flexible with your day if you can. “Typically, wedding photographers book up 9 to 14 months in advance, but choosing an off-season date and avoiding Saturdays can help you secure your vendors if the event is more last minute,” says Darling.

On the day of, have portrait photos taken before guests arrive; then after the ceremony, have some family photos taken to go with all the great candid shots of your guests.

Don’t Forget the Logistics

Secure the traditional wedding basics, such as getting your marriage license and an officiant, and hiring your caterer and entertainment. Think about the style of ceremony and reception you want, both of which will require a few tweaks to keep the wedding concealed. “Have an approximate guest count when you meet with your caterer so that they can work with you to create a menu that will complement your party size and vibe,” says Sarah Flynn, owner of Eathereal Kitchen. “And secure a hidden spot for your food and beverage vendors to prep the meals and cocktails.”

Personalize It

The options for creating a surprise wedding are endless; it can be as casual or as formal as you like. Go beyond the typical wedding elements and incorporate what defines you as a couple to make the day more intimate and unforgettable. “Details like having a great band perform at this type of event is the perfect complement,” says Darren Olarsch, president of On The Move Entertainment. “Consider having a cover band playing one particular artist’s songs all night for a fun celebrity-like musical talent. Or incorporate a 30-minute playlist based on the word ‘surprise’ like ‘Beautiful Surprise’ by India Arie.” Build-in details that will keep your guests guessing and wanting more.

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