Believe me when I tell you that we tried to have a backyard wedding. We really wanted a semi-potluck get together, but neither of our parents' houses had backyards and setting up an affordable backyard wedding in or around NYC proved to be difficult. The primary problem with planning weddings in NYC is that every spot has a fee attached to it and party planner who has arranged some A-list event there ahead of you.
There are no ingenious low cost weddings-on-top-of-parking-garages here.....because even the parking garages have been priced up. Campgrounds and B&Bs outside of NYC are pretty pricey as well. We looked into renting someone's barn in the Hudson River Valley and found a $5K fee attached to it before chairs, tables, food, wine - you named. One very disappointing attempt to get space at a Long Island vineyard came with a $300K site rental fee before food and wine!!!
When we realized that planning a backyard wedding in any other location would prove to be either financially, or logically very difficult we settled on finding a restaurant in the city (we were very lucky to find a fantastic restaurant with a backyard)......alas, this ruled out our bonfire plan. We settled for option 2 - fantastic after party at an activity-based bar.
Neither H nor I are huge karaoke fans. It's fun, but we don't actively seek it out all that often. It turns out to be a pretty cheap entertainment option in the city. Most of our friends have asked or joined us in ad hoc karaoking around town. While, in the lead up to the wedding we ended up going out to quite a few karaoke bars, it isn't a serious activity for us....so why do it?
Well, three reasons
1) we wanted our guests to get to know one another
2) it mimicked the sing-a-longs of my family
3) it's cheap. Buying out a karaoke bar is really, really inexpensive.
Our guests had a blast. Everyone loosened up and had a turn with the mic. It was really cool to see so many people dressed in fancy clothes dancing and having large sing-a-longs. It made our wedding
Buying the alcohol and not the bar = cheap
Here is how we did it. I found all of the karaoke bars within reasonable walking distance of the restaurant. I contacted the management and made an offer - not to buy out the bar or a private room, but to buy a fixed about of alcohol for my guests. We guaranteed the bars $500 worth of business in a 3 hour period and to prepay it in alcohol sales. The bars responded very positively. Had I known that I would get this sort of a response, I might have held my wedding in a bar :)
We asked for bar access during the early evening
We asked for a few hours at the beginning of the night, when business is dead anyway. Bars responded very positively to this suggestion. We were basically permitted to make any arrangements we wanted - bring in outside food, choose any brand of wine or beer, song fees waived. The most conveniently located bar was on board immediately, so I left the other bars in dust and made the agreement with them.
We chose a karaoke bar with a big public bar area
It was really important to us that our guests not feel pressured to sing and getting a private room would put that kind of pressure on people. This meant choosing a bar with a large public area. To avoid a buy-out fee we allowed other patrons in on our party - which was cool because many friendly strangers offered congratulations. We marked out guests's hands with a little red sharpie so that they could access the alcohol we purchased.
We brought in outside and low cost food
Everyone had a very fancy brunch, so it seemed just fine to provide little sub sandwiches as a snack at the bar. We pre-ordered a plate of of sandwiches from the Subway around the corner just in case anyone was hungry. H picked them up with a friend while I ran down the street with half our guests to throw my bouquet down 7th avenue. The low cost food and the fun bar really made for a laid back, relaxing atmospher - ties came undone, shoes came off. Everyone started dancing and singing. It was a fantastic night.
Six pieces of advice I have for someone who wants to arrange this sort of event
a) offer an alcohol buy in place of a bar buy out. This will likely mean letting other patrons in the bar while you are there, but if you do it early enough you may not see anyone. Five patrons might have come in while we were there and they took private rooms and general avoided our party
b) choose a bar with a friendly atmosphere where your guests can hang out at the bar or choose to sing, but are not pressured to choose a song.
c) find a place that is easily accessed from your wedding site (you could even set up karaoke at your wedding site. The cost for a machine rental in the city is almost as much as the alcohol purchase I made
d) make sure the bar has a good book of songs - meaning highly varied. Survey your friends for songs they might want to sing and make sure they are in the book. It makes it a lot easier for your guests to cut loose.
e) make sure the management is consistent. Be sure to meet the people who will staff the bar that night in person. I met one manager but not the next shift manager. The staff turned over in towards the end of the event and this caused a lot of confusion. I spent the last hour in the event in a back office being shaken down by the second manager. I can think of dozens of businesses in the immediate area where this would never have happened.
f) get an agreement in writing - or at the very least a clearly stated email. I had copies of an email agreement with me at the time of the shake down and it helped.