I met a lady who was a professional event planner. She invited me to her house, which was huge. I then realized you could make a lot of money as a professional event planner. These people know a lot of things and they have more leeway than you might realize. From the years of the dot-com boom ’til the housing bust, Americans went on a huge party spree. From 1999 to 2007, the average cost of an event climbed from $18,900 to nearly $30,000, according to research firm The Wedding Report. But it wasn’t just about nuptials—more people hired planners for sweet 16s, bar mitzvahs, reunions, and anniversaries. But in the wake of the recession, with many folks still struggling to right their finances, the party may be over. In 2009, the cost of the average wedding cratered at $19,500; in early 2010, it rose to $23,867—still far off its high. “The last 24 months have been very challenging,” says David M. Wood, president of the Association of Bridal Consultants. Today’s world is one of compounding complexity and digital speed. Markets and technology are becoming globalized. A new kind of terrorism, one with potentially worldwide devastating consequences, is creating fear in most every heart. Think this might affect how people spend on events? Just walk into any florist and ask, “Do you do weddings” and watch him salivate like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Communities are experiencing confusion and vertigo in values. Families are being stressed as never before. As a result, many event planners have had to adapt by bending over backward for today’s cost-conscious customer. Meredith Park, director of sales and event management at Central Park Events in Portland, OR, offers a range of services and prices, from coordinating on just the day of an event for $750 to full wedding planning, starting at $1,500. In fact, today’s clients can ask for just about any level of service they want. “Everything is negotiable,” Park says.
If I don’t like you, I’ll charge you more… – Most planners offer a free consult to give you a chance to get to know them and what they offer. But they’re also sizing you up. For planners, time is money; clients who change their mind a lot or lack a clear vision can eat up profit. Planners want to find out whether you’ll be easy to work with; if the first meeting doesn’t go well, it’s a red flag, says Andrea Lyons, owner of All About Presentation, in Richmond, VA.
And if you come off as someone who will be tough to work with? Lyons knows planners who charge a “headache fee” of up to 20 percent to help absorb the extra cost of such clients. Others build limits into their contract. After working with one needy bride, Sonya Scott, owner of A Perfect Day, in Knoxville, TN, decided to cap the number of meetings with all her clients. Planner Steve DeAngelo of DeAngelo’s Catering and Events in Tigard, OR, says he and others in the area sometimes limit the number of hours spent on an event, above which the client pays extra. “You have to protect yourself from a high-maintenance client,” he says.
…But if I like you, I’ll go the extra mile – Planners often work with people at their worst; reality shows that celebrate pathologically demanding brides haven’t made it any easier. “WEtv’s Bridezilla does a disservice to the profession,” says Lyons. Candice Benson, owner of The Finishing Touch in Millburn, NJ, says she and the planners she knows have seen clients become increasingly rude in recent years. In some cases, says Fetu Escoto, owner of Starstruck Event Planning, in Prescott, AZ, “I can’t even fathom where the disrespect comes from.” As a result, planners really appreciate respectful clients and will often go out of their way to make their event special. Fred Fogg, venue manager at the Crystal Plaza in Livingston, NJ, says when planners ask for something for a good client, he’ll throw in an extra cocktail station, ice carving or even a raw bar free of charge.
Read the fine print—no, really – When planning a big event, you’re likely to sign multiple contracts: with the planner, caterers, venue operator and florists. In each case, it’s important to take time to really understand what these contracts say. For starters, make sure you know your deadlines. For example, many firms that do custom invitations will stop work if you miss a payment. “You always have to ask when things are due, what is the last possible date you can get something to a vendor and what happens if you are late,” says Lyons. Also, know the upshot of making changes. How much more will it cost to add 50 guests? If the event runs over by an hour?
Same goes for your planner’s contract. Some charge a percentage of total costs; others charge a flat fee. If your event involves travel, find out what the planner charges for travel or lodging. Some may build in a gratuity; are you okay with the amount? And think worst-case scenario: Confirm your planner has insurance and a backup plan in case he can’t make your event. “Just about anything can go wrong,” says DeAngelo.
I could actually help you save money – Saving money on a big event isn’t easy without looking like you’ve skimped. We’ve covered this in my other blogs. This is where planners can come in. Nicole Parks won a contest to have her wedding on a tall ship in New Jersey, but she still had to pay for the reception. She says her planner, Benson, helped her save on centerpieces, which she rented from Benson rather than having them made. Benson also found her a deal on a groom’s cake and got flowers donated. “She saved me a lot of money,” says Parks.
Planners know which vendors offer the best prices, and they know how to negotiate a good deal. For example, venue operators are often willing to negotiate price, since so many of their costs are fixed. Planners can also help you save by using vendors that bundle services, like a venue that offers catering, and helping you allocate your budget. Lyons tells clients to forgo expensive accessories and spend on lighting, which is cheaper, since it has a big impact. With good lighting, no one will think twice about where the fancy linens or centerpieces went, she says.
Chemistry is everything – People start planning weddings a year or more in advance, so if you’re using a planner, you’re going to be seeing an awful lot of that person. Couples should be smart about whom they choose. For starters, she needs to be able to listen. “If you meet a planner, and they talk 99 percent of the time, that is not the right person,” Benson says. Couples should take time to shop around, reading reviews online and checking references. How well did the planner get what the client wanted and execute that vision? A great planner is someone who can turn clients’ ideas into reality, not mold them to her own tastes. Another key measure, says DeAngelo, is how smoothly events run and how the planner handles problems. Bottom line: If it just doesn’t feel right, keep looking.
The Internet is your friend, not mine – When Roopa Kalyanaraman Marcello got engaged, the 31-year-old New Yorker knew she wanted to plan her own wedding. “I have pretty particular tastes, and I wanted full control,” she says. She became a devoted reader of wedding blogs like Brooklyn Bride and Weddingbee.com, where she found cool ways to do her invitations and table numbers. When it came time to look for a venue, caterer and DJ, she turned to online forums, mostly on Indiebride.com, for reviews of vendors and to connect with other brides, who e-mailed her about their experiences. “Thanks to all of the online resources, I could pull it off myself,” says Kalyanaraman Marcello. It’s no surprise wedding planners aren’t exactly fans of sites like The Knot, Indiebride and Weddingforums.com, where couples can sometimes get bad information and develop overblown expectations of what a planner can deliver. In fact, for some brides, planners may get cut out of the picture completely.
I can get you a huge break on a venue—not that you’ll ever see it – Some planners claim the discounts they can get you with vendors—the venue, caterer, florist, band—will make their services essentially pay for themselves. Be skeptical. “I’ve never done an event where the discounts were so high that the client didn’t need to pay additional money out of pocket,” says Lyons. Some vendors will indeed extend discounts, as much as 10 percent off the top. Escoto says she can get a hotel’s bridal suite comped for a night or a 10 percent discount from some vendors. “When you have a relationship with someone, you are going to give them the best possible price,” says Scott Hornak, CEO of Craig Scott Entertainment, which provides musicians and DJs for parties. But not all planners pass on these discounts to clients. Benson says it’s important to ask whether your payment is the only income from your event. Otherwise, those discounts—which can really add up—will end up in your planner’s pocket.
You’ll want to check my references – Event planning is a business with almost no barrier to entry, and in the current hiring climate, plenty are giving it a try, says Shane McMurry, founder of The Wedding Report. Inexperienced planners may not have many vendor contacts or understand how to keep costs in line with the budget. And they can get in the way at an event, says Hornak, since they may not have a feel for timing or adapt well if something goes wrong. So how do you know a planner has enough experience? For one, those who have worked for other planners before starting their own business are likely well trained. You can also look for membership in industry groups like the Association of Bridal Consultants, which has multiple levels of membership based on experience and ongoing training.
If I work for the venue, it means I don’t work for you – These days, many venues and caterers offer in-house planning services. And it can often be a great deal. The planners at Crystal Plaza, for example, handle everything from décor to catering, theme coordination and music. “There’s no charge for it; we offer it as a service,” says venue manager Fogg. Lisa Hopkins, director of catering at the Houstonian hotel in Houston, has two full-time staff who help with event coordination, and DeAngelo says he has long offered planning services through his catering business. But look before you leap. Often planners provided by a venue aren’t just working for you; they may also be there to protect the venue and make sure you follow the rules. If you want to use the planning services of a venue or caterer, DeAngelo says, make sure you fully understand their role—and their loyalties—first.