Why selecting your reception venue is absolutely the FIRST thing you must do
When starting to plan your wedding, it is important to find your reception venue first.
Once you find your "anchor points" for the day, your vendors will be able to quote precise prices based on delivery locations, you will be able to start thinking about specific details, etc.
Most couples choose to get married in the summer, and almost everyone wants to get married on a Saturday. Of course, given that a typical Northwest summer really only starts in July and that each month typically has 4 Saturdays... well, odds are you will have to compete for some of the more traditional reception venues (such as hotels, golf clubs, etc.).
That said, it is possible to find a great reception site even if you don't have a lot of time to plan, but the sooner you start, the more choices you will have and the better prices you will be able to negotiate. Often, the choice of the reception venue will also dictate the date of your wedding.
Unless you are attached to a specific date (like 12.12.12), choose a range of dates that would work for you, your closest friends and family, and then decide on the exact date based on the reception venue availability.
For example, some receptions sites will allow for you to bring in your own caterer, while others will only allow for you to order from them directly. Some reception sites will include all required furniture for free, while others will give you the option to rent furniture from them or to provide your own.
Those "mandatory" fees
Generally, the more 'included' services your reception venue forces you to order, the more expensive your wedding will be as there will be less room for negotiation (and no other optins to choose from).
The whole is definitely more than a sum of its parts here, and not in a good sense :). On the other hand, the more "mandatory" services yoou reception venue includes, the less planning you will need to do.
From our perspective, the venues we talked to when looking for our wedding that required using their own pre-defined vendors were by far inferior to the custom wedding you could build for yourself - ironically, with much less hassle than dealing with "convenience" rules and requirements.