The Wedding Guide: From Engaged to ‘I Do’

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Photo by Robin Lin

So, you’re engaged! You are bursting with jubilation, love and a whirlwind of emotions as you imagine your life and future. You eagerly begin Googling wedding venues and create a “Dream Wedding” board on Pinterest. And that’s when this other, unwelcomed feeling emerges. It lingers somewhere between slightly overwhelmed and overt hysteria at the sheer magnitude of the to-dos, the confusion over conflicting etiquette messages, when to book what, and stress due to money, in-laws or timing.

Well, we’re here to help ease that stress (seriously, that’s my entire business). I’ve created a timeline-meets-local-resource guide that will hopefully serve as a cheat sheet to get started with planning.

This is a 12-month scale for simplicity sake, but if you are engaged for longer than a year, please don’t take this as me advising you to let the clock tick until you’re one year out! And don’t despair if you just said yes, and you’d like to plan a celebration sooner. Just cut the timeline into the months you have (and maybe hire a planner).

12+ Months


These two go hand-in-hand as the first things you must do before you call a single vendor. Start by assessing a budget range, then identify your priority areas.


For most couples, booking your wedding ceremony and reception venue are the first major task, (unless you would like to enlist a full-service wedding planner to help you narrow down and choose venues to tour). Try to be open about dates within your desired month, or prepare for disappointment – especially if you are seeking a peak season wedding date.

If you have envisioned a Duke Chapel wedding, you’d best be ready to hunker down in a tent for a few days to secure your spot. On the first of each month, the Chapel opens up wedding bookings to qualifying couples (Duke University association via employment or studentship) who seek to get married in that month on the following year. It is executed strictly on a first-come, first-served basis – thus the legendary camp-outs. Tip: Create a game plan with your beau to alternate hours. If you’re seeking a popular wedding month like April or October and you live out of town, you’d better save up some vacation days; couples often line up a week out!

Durham has some of the most fantastic wedding venues in the state. For a classic Southern affair, the ultimate choice is the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club. Their new sister property, JB Duke Hotel, is ultra modern with versatile event spaces. Duke alumni and nature lovers will swoon over Sarah P. Duke Gardens – available for stand-alone ceremonies and full-scale receptions at the beautiful, onsite Doris Duke Center. For an artistic, modern vibe, try the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University or 21c Museum Hotel. For an urban warehouse vibe, there are plenty of choices such as The Cotton Room, The Rickhouse or The Cookery (the latter has just expanded with a new ballroom and outdoor patio). Another impressive venue with the exposed brick look is Bay 7 at American Tobacco Campus. This signature point of downtown has several other venues that would work for an offbeat wedding, such as the Full Frame Theater at the Power Plant or the Durham Bulls Athletic Park’s private space. Durham also has several intimate and unique wedding choices, such as The King’s Daughters Inn bed and breakfast, Parizade or The Durham Hotel.


Start channeling your wedding vibes and enlist help. Even if you fancy yourself quite crafty, enlisting a wedding planner or wedding designer is crucial. You might save some pennies through their coordination skills, and you are guaranteed to be spared plenty of headaches. If you don’t want a full-service planner, you can look into partial planning services or month-of coordination services.

There are lots of amazing wedding planners in varying styles, but two fantastic choices who are based in Durham are Grace Leisure Events and A Swanky Affair. Both are well-respected in their craft and are known for designing events that range from edgy to elegant.

11 Months


Today, even haute couture fashion can be ordered just a couple months out, but do not push it, ladies. You will want to save room for alterations.

If you are a Durham bride-to-be, consider Tre Bella Bridal (pictured below) a must-visit. They elegantly balance a full-service, upscale wedding salon atmosphere with the best qualities of our city: authentic, down-to- earth and delightfully distinct.

Photo by Fancy This Photography


Photographers often book a year or more out, so make sure this is the next thing on your checklist. Look for a photographer who matches your aesthetic and also has experience shooting weddings. Rocket science, right? Today, everyone with an iPhone 8 thinks they’re a professional photographer, but that ahhh-mazing photo that your fashion blogger bestie took of her living room mantle is not going to translate as wedding photography.

When it comes to artistic categories, go with the artistic photography look that you and your fiance both admire. You may even find a multi-talented photographer who can incorporate some trends you are currently seeing along with some of the everlasting standards that you might see in black-and- white film.

For vibrant and artistic photos, try Richard Barlow Photography. For the light and airy style, go for Cor Photography. For a hybrid of classic film and digital photography, check out Fancy This Photography. Another hybrid photographer with a soft, fine art look is Casey Rose Photography. For sharp, documentary-style photos, Brian Mullins is your guy. For timeless tradition and beautiful portraiture, reach out to Renee Sprink Photography.

The documentation of your engagement and your day doesn’t stop here. Check out Riley MacLean Photography’s tin-types for an out-of-the-box portrait or engagement session that will become a cherished heirloom. Videography is becoming more standard, especially with the rise of gorgeous wedding films by local pros like Twenty-One Films. And we know that photo booths are never going to go out of style. ZimZoom is super fun reception entertainment with their open air booth that becomes part of the decor.

10 Months


Whew! You made a lot of hard decisions last month. Take a breather and focus on some light-hearted tasks now, like asking your nearest and dearest to be in the wedding party. Heck, maybe they’ll throw you a party! And just in case they do – please, do us all a favor, go ahead and register for gifts. Yes, you can register for a honeymoon fund but no, don’t make that your only registry. This is the South; we’re still not quite comfortable with asking for money.

For the widest range of styles in formal to casual china, head to Belk. If you prefer a casual or minimalist vibe, The Streets at Southpoint is also home to a Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn and west elm.


Next to the bride and groom, the most important person on the wedding day just might be the officiant! Without them, it’s just a party. If you don’t have a family priest or minister who is able to perform the marriage, now is the time to start researching
this category.

9+ Months


Residing in a foodie community has advantages beyond your weekly date night. Many wedding caterers in this region are on par with our amazing restaurants. So this part of wedding planning can be especially fun.

Durham Catering Co. has long been known for casual food for foodies, and with their new executive chef, Josh Munchel, (formerly of 21c Museum Hotel) at the helm, that is sure to continue. Another chef-driven caterer is Happy Cardinal Catering & Events, based in The Boot. Chef Rob Kinneen has a wide range of culinary skills and is dedicated to locally sourced, creative dishes (he even has a pimiento cheese that utilizes Ponysaurus beer – I can’t make this stuff up!). There is also the beloved Durham classic, Parizade (a Giorgios Hospitality original), which has an incredible catering division serving up Mediterranean delights!


Especially if you are getting married during peak seasons and want prime locations for your guests, it’s about time to start working on securing affordable accommodations for out-of-town guests. You can make a minimal guaranteed commitment for a discounted room rate.

In Durham, there are choices aplenty no matter where you would like your guests to stay. In RTP, a quality spot is the DoubleTree by Hilton’s Mansion on the Hill. Near Duke University, outstanding venues are the classic Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club, the brand new JB Duke Hotel, historic bed and breakfast The King’s Daughters Inn and the Hilton Durham near Duke University. In the heart of downtown are a wide range of styles and price points including the Aloft near American Tobacco Campus, the Durham Marriott, 21c Museum Hotel, Unscripted Durham and The Durham Hotel. Feeling overwhelmed? Contact the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau – they offer complimentary services to help you gather quotes for this purpose (and they help with locally focused gift bags, too!).

Photo by Brian Mullins Photography

8 Months


The ceremony, cocktail hour, dinner and dance party typically have different musical vibes. Tack on any extra gatherings you may host over the weekend, from your welcome party to farewell brunch, and you’ve got a lot of planning on your hands. A booking agency like Save the Date Music can help with solo instruments and small bands in just about any theme under the sun, while ECE (formerly EastCoast Entertainment) has big party bands – from soul groups and beach music to current country rock. (Please note, if you are trying to secure A-list entertainment, you might want to move this category back a few months.) Now, if you’ve ever been to a wedding that had an amazing DJ, you know that they can make a wedding one for the books. Even if you get a band, you’ll probably want a DJ for part of the wedding event to emcee or play during band breaks. Or, try the best of both worlds! SPIN has a DJ-band operation that can rock a wedding out.

Photo by Katherine Miles Jones Photography


If you’ve hired a wedding planner, they’ve already made a lot of headway into your wedding decor. If you haven’t, you can still reconsider and get a partial service coordinator to step in. If you still want to go solo, get organized and start interviewing! It’s time to begin planning your cake, flowers and rental items that bring the overall event design to fruition.


Durham is home to an amazing family business that has served wedding events for more than two decades. American Party Rentals covers all rental needs, from tents to linens, tabletop items and furniture. For mind-bendingly cool lighting designs both elegant and industrial, Get Lit Special Event Lighting is a must (owner Dave Watson gets really excited about custom projects!) These two very Durham groups love to work together, too!


Durham happens to have some stellar wedding florists, among them Tre Bella Flowers (romantic), Bowerbird Flowers (natural garden look), and Sanders Florist and Ninth Street Flowers (classic).


In Durham, we are all fans of one sweet shop or another. From Guglhupf to The Parlour, Rise and Scratch to East Durham Pie Co., rest assured, they’ll be happy to serve up their treats to your wedding guests. Hot tip: Mad Hatter’s Cafe & Bakeshop has been loved by locals for generations, but they are doing more elegantly decorated wedding cakes now with a new designer on board.


If you’re doing an engagement session, go ahead and interview hair and makeup artists, and perhaps do a test run for your shoot. Alternately, you could shelf this project and revisit it for your bridal portrait.

Many wedding hair and makeup artists will go off-site to serve their brides … but they don’t all have a spa that’s perfect for a group mani-pedi. The original Bella Trio near Southpoint has it all. They also have a new studio space at American Tobacco Campus. Over on Ninth Street, check out 140 Salon & Blow Dry Bar and Wavelengths for specialty bridal services.

7 Months

If you think about it now, you can get wedding bands that perfectly suit your personal style, and support local businesses while you’re at it – Hamilton Hill and Jewelsmith are known for interesting and custom designs. If you want the biggest selection in diamond jewelry, visit Diamonds Direct at nearby Crabtree Valley Mall.

It’s time to plan the bridesmaid dresses. Or better yet, let your bridesmaids pick their own. Many bridal boutiques carry them, and there’s also an entire store devoted to it – Bella Bridesmaids in Cary (a great choice because even if your bridesmaids live far away, there’s a good chance there is a locally run company near them).

Book your stationer now, because you want to send your save- the-dates five or six months out. They will help guide you in a suite that matches the colors and theme you’ve chosen for the wedding celebration in one pretty package that will clue the guests into the tone of the affair.

Cute Buttons in Morrisville is a gem and has all of the classic made-to-order options and connections for customized papers. Blush and Blue Calligraphy and Impression Stationery are both Triangle artists and masters of customized designs and calligraphy.

6 Months

Just when you thought you had the event about nailed down … It’s time to plan your rehearsal dinner. So it’s back to the basics – start with a guest count, budget and vision for how you want your event to be: Kid-friendly vs. adults only? Intimate vs. large? Casual vs. formal? You might already have a favorite restaurant in mind. Plenty of couples today book event spaces and bring their own catering onsite, too.


If you’re taking the tradition of a post-wedding honeymoon, start planning now. If you are going abroad, make sure that passport is renewed now because the clock is going to start speeding up

5 Months


Time spent on some marriage preparation with a pre-marital counseling or minister will be invaluable. This service often gets put on the checklist with good intentions and pushed aside, but it can set the foundation for your intentions as a couple and future family to come together with a united outlook. Local pre-marital counseling service D’Elia Family Solutions covers topics ranging from financial goals to juggling expectations of in-laws.

Everyone knows that self-care is the best way to feel healthy. And if there is ever a time that is needed, it is now. Netflix and chill is great, but a staycation at 21c is even better! Stress management can begin with a monthly facial at Massage Envy, or a package at your local spin or yoga studio.

4 Months

Plan the formalwear for the wedding party. Bernard’s Formalwear on Ninth Street is the go-to shop – they’ve got it all, from the newest fitted suits to classic black-tie looks. Put someone in charge of gathering measurement information from the wedding party and doing tux duty (pickups and returns) the weekend of the wedding.

If you did your own save-the-dates, book your stationer and calligrapher now. (You need to send invitations six to eight weeks before the wedding).

Photo by Bronwyn Duffield

3 Months

Everything is a photo opp on your wedding day. A fancy ride like a classic car or a rickshaw can take that getaway shot to new heights. But transportation is practical, too. It’s just easier to have the entire bridal and groom parties riding in unison, and limousines or limo buses are the best bet. Guests should be considered as well; many hotels offer a shuttle service within town. If your wedding ceremony or reception are far away from the hotel, you’ll need to rent a bus. Southern Bride & Groom Preferred Planners recommend Greenway Transit.

One of the most memorable moments of a wedding is the first dance.

Whether you are a nervous nelly or a diva, dance lessons are a great idea (and also a fun date night during your engagement!) Check out wedding classes at Fred Astaire Dance Studio and Arthur Murray Dance Studio.

2 Months

Take a time-out from wedding details to think about all of the people in your life who helped make this day possible. Scout out gifts for parents, wedding party and your fiance. It’s also good to start planning welcome baskets for out-of-town guests. Shop local at amazing gift stores like Chet Miller or Tre Bella Boutique. When it comes to welcome baskets, if you are feeling overwhelmed, give the DCVB a ring – they offer a complimentary service of assembling Durham-themed baggies complete with downtown maps and gifts. You can also assemble your own with gifts like Bee Downtown honey straws and Bowerbird’s apothecary vials!

Hopefully, if you planned everything out right, your wedding dress is rolling in now, and alterations begin. Thu’s Tailor Shop in North Durham has altered and remade hundreds of gowns over its many years in business.

Last Month

Marriage license
Finish up bridal fittings
Finish your vows
Soak it all in!

There will be lots of last minute coordination with guests about RSVPs and vendors about timeline details. Let your wedding planner handle as much as you can, and try to focus on yourself! Schedule in your last pre-wedding haircut, spa treatments, nails, exercise or whatever else you need to make yourself feel
your best.

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