Meet the Planners

Martha Stewart Weddings, Fall 2008

Jessie Morris and Brian Adams knew that planning their wedding would take more than picking a date, showing up, and strolling down the aisle. For one thing, the two were living in Boston but wanted to marry in her hometown of Nashville. For another, she was about to start a Ph.D. program; he was in the thick of law school. Furthermore, while her mother wanted to help, she couldn't do everything. And then there was that pesky, not-so-small detail: They were expecting some 300 guests.

Enter Nashville event coordinator Elizabeth James, who held their hands through every part of the process, from achieving the mood the couple sought to supervising the reception-tent setup to making sure there were enough forks for all the guests. "She ended up saving our sanity," says Morris, whose May 2008 event went off with nary a fumble -- at least none she was aware of. "I'm sure some things went wrong," she says. But thanks to their planner, "we never knew."

There was a time when wedding planners were an extravagance reserved for the mega-rich and famous, and most brides (along with their mothers) accepted the reality that they would have to shoulder every task themselves. These days, hiring a coordinator is, if not commonplace, increasingly popular. Why? Women are marrying later in life, often have jobs that don't leave them a lot of free time, and may well be trying to plan their event from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Having a cool-headed, organized professional around to take on some of the burden is still a luxury, but many brides feel that the payoff -- less time focused on the little details, more time focused on the big day -- is priceless.

What will a good planner do for you? He or she will suggest vendors and negotiate with them for the best price and service; take care of the responsibilities you'd prefer not to tackle; be there the day of the event to make sure everything runs smoothly; and serve occasionally as an impromptu therapist when mounting wedding stress turns you into a crazed, tulle-obsessed mess. Many of the best planners even have backgrounds in areas such as catering or floral design and will work with you to come up with color schemes and decor elements to make your day as unique as you are.

But just how do you find a reliable planner, someone you can trust to car-ry out your wishes (and to do it with a smile)? And what, exactly, are they expected to do? Hiring a planner isn't as daunting as you think. All you need to do is, ironically, plan ahead.

Is Hiring a Planner Right for You?
A coordinator's fee averages about $1,500 across the country, according to market-research firm The Wedding Report. Depending on where you're located, whom you're using, and how much work your wedding entails, that fee can soar into the five figures (especially if your consultant is based in a metropolitan area). So before you decide you simply must have one, be sure you'll really benefit from one.

"No one needs a planner," says Steve Moore, of Steven Moore Designs in Seattle. That said, in certain cases the service makes good sense. Larger events, for example -- those with more than 150 guests, Moore says -- automatically come with a great deal of envelope-stuffing and escort-card calligraphing that a planner can help with. Anyone having a destination wedding should also seriously consider professional help, someone who'll check out the location beforehand and make sure you're getting exactly what you want. And if you're throwing a last-minute wedding, a planner can be a lifesaver. Moore had one client who called him on a Monday and said her wedding was that Sunday. "She'd booked a venue and sent invitations, but she didn't have a dress, a cake, a photographer, anything," he says. "We sat down for about three and a half hours and made phone calls right there." (Keep in mind: That kind of last-minute service does not come cheap.)

You may want a planner even if the event you're envisioning is simple and small. Part of a planner's job is to deliver your wedding within budget and to utilize her relationships with vendors to save you money. So, if you're a bride who gets hives just thinking about negotiating costs with vendors, you may appreciate having an unabashed and experienced third party around to talk numbers.

What Do You Need?
Not every bride requires a full-service planner. If you've already done most of the work yourself, you may want a "day-of" coordinator who will attend your wedding and resolve any snafus that may occur. You can also hire someone for the final weeks leading up to the event. New York bride Polly Blitzer Wolkstein chose this option; her planner stepped in three months before her August 2008 wedding. "It had become a full-time job I didn't have time for," says Blitzer Wolkstein, founder of BeautyBlitz.com, an online beauty magazine. "My planner would check in and ask things like, 'Did you reserve hotel rooms?' and she handled the little tasks that were taking up huge portions of my day."

What Does the Planner Need?
Before you start your search, gather a few basic details. The most important, by far, is how much you can spend. "Knowing what your budget is from day one is really important," says Ann Nola, director of the Association of Certified Professional Wedding Consultants, an organization that grants certification to planners who have met its standards of training and experience. You'll need to relay your budget to potential planners when you first approach them. If someone is out of your price range, he can tell you so right away, over the phone, so you don't get your heart set on a person you can't afford. (Planners you interview will also want to get a sense of the framework with-in which they'll be working. If your budget is modest, for example, they shouldn't be suggesting outrageously priced venues and multicourse sit-down dinners by five-star chefs.)

It's also good to know approximately how many guests you hope to invite, the general tone of your wedding (whether urban black tie or beachside casual), and the approximate date of the event. If you've already chosen a specific day, that's fine. Just keep in mind that this may narrow down your choice of planners, as some may be already booked.

How Do You Find a Planner?
Once you're ready to start looking for a planner, "a referral is your first line of attack," says Joe St. Cyr, owner of Joseph Todd Events in New York City and New Hampshire. Make a list of everyone you know who's gotten married in the past five years -- especially those whose weddings you attended and loved -- and ask if they used planners. (Don't worry, by the way, that you'll end up with a copycat wedding. "A really good planner doesn't want to re-peat the same thing," St. Cyr says.) If that doesn't pan out, groups such as the Association of Certified Professional Wedding Consultants (acpwc.com) or the Association of Bridal Consultants (bridalassn.com) can point you toward planners in your area. (You can also check out our vendor search tool at marthastewart.com/wedding-planning.) Before you contact any coordinator, make sure to visit her website for a photo gallery of her past weddings. Finally, St. Cyr advises, narrow your choices to about three whose work speaks to you. "Five is the maximum," he says. "You don't need to look at 20 planners and interview 10 of them."

What Questions Should You Ask?
Your first meeting with a planner should take place over the phone. You'll want to ask each some basic questions: How much does she charge? And how does she figure out the amount (planners generally charge clients either a percentage of the overall wedding budget, a flat sum, an hourly amount, or some combo of the three)? Ask about availability, background, and experience; if she says she's certified by a professional association, contact the organization to double-check.

How Do You Know She's the One?
If you'd like to move forward, set up an in-person consultation to view more samples of the planner's work and talk about your own vision for your wedding. But before you plunk down any money, ask for references. A reputable planner should be able to supply letters of recommendation and put you in touch with other clients she's worked with. (It's not enough to just see that she has references; make sure you actually speak with those clients.)

Finally, be sure that your personalities click. Two different wedding planners may be able to yield the same beautiful results, but you could have a vastly more positive experience with one than you would with the other. "You should always look forward to seeing your planner," says St. Cyr. "He or she is there to make sure that coordinating your wedding is an enjoyable process -- one you can look back on with fond remembrance."

Help Them Help You

You've got your sights set on the perfect planner; now make sure you're the perfect client. Most brides don't realize, pros say, that over the phone and at the initial consultation, planners are sizing you up as much as you're sizing them up. If you seem unpleasant, there's a good chance the planner will charge you more -- or decide not to work with you at all. (One clue that you're not coming across well: Three or more planners tell you, over the phone, that they're already booked the weekend of your wedding . . . two years from now.) Also, keep in mind, if you turn into a banshee bride once you've hired a planner, she may be able to back out of
the contract. So it pays to treat her with courtesy and respect, and not to be overly high-maintenance. Instead of peppering her with questions a dozen times a day, try to group your questions and concerns into one phone call or e-mail. Listen to your planner if she tells you something can't be done, and trust her choices and opinions.

Above all, if something is really bothering you, express it honestly but politely so you can figure things out together. Says Ann Nola of the Association of Certified Professional Wedding Consultants, "There's always a solution to a problem."

To find a wedding planner in your area -- and read customer feedback -- go to
marthastewart.com/wedding-planning.

Text by Lauren Lipton

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