The Yale Outdoor Education Center (OEC) has opened its doors to weddings and is finding success in doing so.
“It has always offered facility rentals for non-Yale-affiliated events if groups qualify by meeting our policies and regulations, such as insurance coverage and other controls like a certified bartender if alcohol service is proposed,” said Tom Migdalski, the director of Club Sports, Undergrad Intramurals and OEC, at Yale University. “At one point, many years ago, I was approached by a couple who had visited with one of those groups and who said, ‘Wow, this would be an amazing and special place to have our wedding. Can we do that, and if so, how do we get started?’”
From those questions, hosting weddings at Yale’s OEC was born. Here Migdalski shares how they operate this offering and the lessons learned through the years.
Campus Rec Magazine: What does the space look like to host weddings?
TM: The wedding season at the OEC is around June 15 until the second weekend in September. Couples books weddings at least a year in advance, sometimes two.
We have either the open-air pavilion with picnic-table-style seating or the dining hall — a significant building with tables/chairs and fully operating kitchen — couples can choose from for the reception and/or ceremony. We do not offer food service, just the facility and programming. The event supplies and coordinates all foods and beverages.
We also have a lakeside gazebo as an option for ceremonies. It gives the photos a remarkable background of light and water. Historically, most weddings choose the dining hall for receptions. It’s is more private and has a stunning view overlooking the lake. And it’s also more protected in inclement weather.
CRM: Can you walk through the operations of hosting weddings at Yale’s OEC?
TM: The couple usually calls or emails the office first. After our initial conversation — unless they already know the OEC well — we arrange a tour. Often, parents accompany the couple.
It’s important the couple understands the situation. It’s not for everyone. The site is rustic and remote, with gravel roads/walkway and only port-a-potties for restroom facilities. But the backdrop of the lake and woodland is special and unique for the right people.
Most weddings occur when the facility is open to other guests. This means there will be day-use visitors as well as renters staying in the cabins and campsites on site.
There are one or two pre- and post-season weekends available when the OEC closes. However, there are additional out-of-season fees for that privacy privilege — i.e. toilet rentals, dumpsters, staff, etc.
Anywhere from three to six months ahead of time, Facility Use Agreements are created and signed off on by the Yale’s Office of the General Counsel and reviewed by Risk Management. An insurance certificate is also required and is obtained by the couple from outside sources like eventsured.com, wedsafe.com, etc.
The OEC was closed to all groups during the summers of 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19. The cost of a wedding in 2019 — the last time we offered them — was $500 to rent the pavilion or dining hall and additionally $8 per person ages six and over. The Gazebo — many times used for ceremonies — costs $150.
An average wedding generates about $1,500 to $2,000 for the facility rental. Typically, we have one to two weddings. June and September being the most popular option, and quieter than mid-summer. But we have had as many as three or four in a season.
Couples appreciate how unique and comparatively inexpensive the OEC is for a wedding. They also are happy not to have a typical “cookie-cutter” wedding at a normal and less-personal venue. Couples and their support team put a lot of thought and effort into enhancing the natural beauty of the setting with creative decorations. We often get feedback from guests that they’ve been to many weddings, and the OEC’s was the only one that was memorable.
CRM: What lessons have you learned in hosting weddings that other rec professionals could learn from?
TM: Over the years, many lessons were learned for how to protect the facility, the university and our customers, and to enhance everyone’s experience. Requirements now include rules for:
- Capacity limits.
- Strict conditional use for our waterfront — swimming and boating, which a few weddings opt to include.
- A certified bartender when alcohol is being served.
- Keeping a list of previously used caterers who have been successful in the past.
I encourage the couple to “think outside the box” for caterers so the food may go hand-and-hand with the outdoor facility, including perhaps a pizza truck or lobster/clam bake. A campfire with s’mores is always fun for the kids, but it needs to be supervised. We provide the firewood. I also tell the couple to, “Plan for rain, and if you get sun, it’s a bonus.” This strategy takes some of the stress away about weather worries.
I meet with the wedding couple — usually more than once — and caterers for a tour and to discuss the unique logistics involved. We have added time and noise curfews for rentals to make the event safer and more manageable. We also created a collection of photos from previous weddings at the Outdoor Center — especially including the setups and decorations — and posted them to a wedding photo gallery on our website to give couples ideas for how they might design their special event.
We allow a few people to come in the day before to decorate and bring in some food, supplies and ice for overnight storage. Thoughtful wedding couples/caterers give food leftovers to the OEC staff.
I have made the facility more appealing by purchasing a large, commercial capacity refrigerator for the dining hall and a full complement of circular banquet tables and folding chairs. Previously, couples had to arrange to rent tables and chairs themselves for their event. And, the refrigeration capacity was limited, necessitating large coolers with ice.
When I received my Master’s Degree in Recreation Management, I never thought I would also become a wedding planning consultant. However, it’s a very rewarding part of the job to see happy couples and astonished guests.