Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Long Distance Wedding: Surrogate Planners

Surrogate Planners

It was a dark and stormy night. You know, we've always wanted to start a post like that. But the truth is, planning a long-distance or destination wedding without some help can be a stormy affair. The good news is you don't have to plan this whole she-bang alone.

That's where surrogate planners come in. For a long-distance wedding, a friend or relative at the wed-ding location may offer to help you tie the knot. Or you can turn your wedding over to a professional bridal consultant. Destination weddings add a different twist: you need one person who's both a bridal consultant and an experienced travel agent. Fortunately, we found several companies that fit both bills. Well tell you about these later, but first lets talk about the one unpredictable (but lovable) element that most weddings have: Mom.



Did you realize that there are four types of Moms? At least there are four types as far as wedding planning goes. See which one of these categories fits your Mom:

MOMS WHO WORK OUTSIDE THE HOME. She probably doesn't have any more time to plan than you do. Find out Mom's schedule and how much time she can realistically devote to helping you plan. You may have to rely on other friends and relatives to some degree if Mom is very busy with her job.

MOMS WHO DON'T WORK OUTSIDE OF HOME. Don't be fooled—she works for a living too, she just doesn't punch a time clock. Commitments to various projects could limit her time. Often, however, this Mom will have more holes in her schedule throughout the day and may be more flexible with her time. Be realistic with her about how much planning your wedding will take. The average wedding takes about one hundred hours to plan—that's a major commitment for any Mom.

PROCRASTINATING MOMS. Perhaps the trickiest Mom to deal with, the procrastinator puts off decisions, fails to make timely deposits with bridal merchants, and creates other minor disasters. If your mom is like this and you don't like bugging her, you may want to make any arrangements and deposits directly with the businesses. Give this Mom a detailed schedule to help her stay on track with your plans.

OVER-ACHIEVING MOMS. Occasionally we run into Moms who end up running the whole show without deferring to your (and your fiance's) desires. If you fear your Mom is like this, consider keeping up constant communication. Send magazine pictures, photos, and detailed letters at every step to make sure your tastes are accommodated. You may need to sit this Mom down for a long talk before conflicts occur. One tip: make sure that all contracts are in the bride's name and that any changes must be made with your approval, saving you from any unauthorized changes by well-meaning parents.


Are they reliable? Remember when Sue promised to style your hair for senior prom but never showed up, leaving you in the lurch (you had to call the neighbor who curled your hair in an imitation of Shirley Temple)? Before you choose a friend to be your surrogate, consider how reliable he or she has been in the past.

Do they have the time?
Planning a wedding is time-consuming. Crucial to successful planning is being honest with, them about-how much work this will involve and what-your expectations are.


How do you help mom or your friend accomplish all the tasks you need to have done to plan your wedding? Consider developing an 'Action Plan" that specifically outlines not only the goals, but also steps and deadlines to be met to achieve these goals.

For example, our sample action plan details hiring a photographer. Having your mother or friend visit with one photographer may require travel time, actual meeting time, and follow up visits or phone calls. In other words, each prospective visit could require one to two hours of your surrogate's time. If your surrogate only has a couple of hours a week to devote to your wedding, don't expect them to visit four photographers in one week.

The secret to good goal setting is to consult extensively with the person who is actually doing the work. Nothing kills a good action plan faster than unrealistic completion dates. On the other hand, time is of the essence if you want to hire the best services. Create an action plan for every major project (the florist, the photographer, the baker, and so on.)

GOAL Hire a Photographer
STRATEGY Visit three photographers from the "hot prospect list".
* Make appointments with each prospect (the actual photographer who is available for the wedding date—not a "marketing representative")
—Target Completion Date: April 15
* Confirm with bride regarding key questions to ask photographer (package sizes, shooting schedule, etc.)
* Visit photographers A, B, and C
—Target Completion Date: April 30
* After each visit, fax or mail materials to bride
—Decision Date: May 10
* Contact photographer chosen, mail deposit check
—Completion Date: May 11
Action plans to book other merchants might include visits to other weddings to preview entertainers, see floral set-ups, etc. Taste testings with bakers and caterers should be arranged in advance, by phone.


Hidden Agendas

Most hidden agendas are benign conflicts of priorities. These occur, for example, when the surrogate planner wants you to choose a live band rather than a DJ because of their personal preference. Hence you tend to only get information on several great live bands and nothing about DJs.

Another kind of interference is blatantly instructing the vendors to change the wedding to what the surrogate planner prefers. One bride's mother didn't like the color scheme the bride picked, so she contacted the florist and tried to have the flowers changed to her tastes without the bride's knowledge. Avoid these conflicts by making sure that all the contracts detail that the bride and groom will make all final decisions. No changes can be made without your written approval.


Weddings are often used as a battleground for divorced parents who want to "get back" at each other by using your wedding.

Regional "Traditions"

These traditions may also be a source of potential conflict with the surrogate planner. One Florida bride called us about a conflict she had with her surrogate planner (her future mother-in-law). The wedding was planned for Pennsylvania, the groom's home state. Apparently, at every wedding the surrogate planner had attended in this locale, a keyboardist played standards during the sit-down dinner. The bride, however, preferred to have a string quartet rather than "Frank Sinatra with a drum machine," as she put it. This disagreement erupted into a major argument with the mother-in-law, who claimed that this was just the way things were done there and the bride shouldn't rock the boat.

This story points up an important lesson: in every town, "experts" will tell you the wedding and reception must be done this way or else. No exceptions. In the South, nearly every reception has a groom's cake. In the East, receptions must be sit-down dinners or else you have no class. In the West, cocktail receptions with hors d'oeuvres (or a buffet) are the only civilized thing to do. In rural parts of the United States, small weddings with an equally small "cake and punch" reception held in the church hall are common. No dancing. No fancy dinner.

Sometimes brides planning a wedding in another part of the country feel like an alien who has landed on Mars. The point is: don't sweat it. Recognize that every part of this country has different ideas about throwing a party—which is what a wedding is anyway.

Listen to the local "etiquette experts." Nod your head in agreement. And then do exactly what you want to do anyway. Go ahead—have a groom's cake for your New Hampshire wedding. Go for an Italian buffet in New Orleans. This is your day, and your money—so it's your call.

What if the wedding is being planned in the city the bride lives in, and the mother is the out-of-towner? In this case, there seems to be a big emotional tug for the mother to try to help out with the wedding. A lot of the planning is going to have to be approximated by mail or by fax. For example, magazine pages of different gowns or invitation samples can be mailed back and forth.
If the mother can make a pre-wedding trip, see our next posts about on-site visits for tips on the best use of her time. If Mom can't visit the wedding location, consider having the bride and groom rent a video camera to shoot the reception site or the florist setting up a wedding. Many bands and DJs are now offering either tapes or videos of their music which could be exchanged as well.

Borrowing a photograph of the wedding cake design or a caterer s spread is another possibility. If this is an option, be sure to return these photos to the baker or caterer m a timely fashion.
In one extreme case, a mom m North Carolina was planning to go to her daughter's Ohio wedding site an entire month in advance of the wedding date to help with the plans. Not everyone can manage this (she was a teacher with the summer oft), but perhaps some moms would be able to make it in a week or two prior to the event.

We urge moms to try to be a calming influence on these visits and over the phone. Constantly boost the bride's confidence during this extremely stressful time. The goal is to try to help, not hinder the proceedings.

Bridal "consultants" are the darlings of bridal magazines—but are they really necessary? When Modern Bride magazine published an article on "50 Ways to Stretch Your Wedding Dollars," in October 1991, we couldn't stop laughing after reading their number one tip: "hire a professional wedding planner."

Based on our research, the last thing a bridal consultant does is save you money. That's because they generally aren't free. True, there are some shrewd negotiators out there who can dicker with vendors to slightly lower your wedding bills. However, in our research, we found the extra fee for a wedding planner tends to negate any savings.

So why hire one? Consultants can be valuable in helping plan two types of weddings: exceedingly large weddings (two hundred guests or more) and long-distance events.

For the long-distance bride who cannot visit the wedding location or whose mother or friends can't spare the time, a bridal consultant may be a wise investment. The key is finding an experienced planner who will listen to your ideas and desires and follow your directions. This sounds easier than it is in reality.

Finding an experienced bridal consultant

Ask for referrals from recent brides and bridal, merchants. An established consultant will have a track record and a word-of-mouth following. A good rule of thumb is to look for a consultant who has at least fifty weddings under her belt.

Contact professional organizations for local members. The Association of Bridal Consultants (ABC) is a nationwide group. One caution: The ABC does not screen members for experience level, so you'll have to do this on your own. Another group is the Association of Certified Professional Wedding Planners. Last, but not least, check the yellow pages under Wedding Consultants.

Screening bridal consultants
Have a face-to-face meeting with the consultant if possible. Even if you can't meet in person, prepare a list of your expectations and goals for your wedding. Ask them who are their recommended vendors. How did they select these businesses? How did they evaluate the merchant's work? Why does the consultant trust them?

Ask the consultant for a list of references. Make sure these are the last three or four weddings the consultant has planned. Inexperienced planners will not be able to give you many references. See if the consultant listens to what you say. Your wedding planner should be an excellent communicator, especially since most of your contact will be via the telephone. Ask if the consultant has a fax machine for immediate communication.

The number one problem that afflicts bridal consultants is "controlitis," a strange disease in which the planner molds the wedding in her tastes, instead of the bride's. Telltale signs of this problem are usually apparent at the initial meeting. For example, one Georgia bride told us she was shocked when her consultant ignored her desire for an hors d'oeuvre reception, instead suggesting that a sit-down dinner was the only "proper" way to go. In other cases, the consultant may suggest superfluous add-ons (like a cake-knife corsage) that indicate that they're not really understanding what you want this party to be.

What do professional planners really do for you?

If you plan to hire a bridal planner, be explicit about the services you want him or her to perform. Here are examples of the levels of service available from professional bridal consultants:

REHEARSAL AND CEREMONY COORDINATION. These consultants only show up for the rehearsal and ceremony to help see you through the initial steps. Since this requires the least amount of work for the planner, the fee should be commensurate (perhaps $50
to $200)

COMPLETE WEDDING DAY COORDINATION. These consultants run the whole day, from rehearsal the night before through the end of the reception. Their job is to coordinate all the vendors at your wedding and reception, making sure they show up and perform their jobs correctly. This level of service is more expensive than just ceremony-only coordination but is often less than the full-sendee option described next. Possible fees can run $100 to $500.

FULL-SERVICE. Here, consultants do all the research for your wedding from the day you walk into their office. While the other consultants mentioned above may offer suggestions of businesses to use, the full-service coordinator basically does all the shopping for you.
In other words, she finds businesses that are right for your wedding and hires them on your behalf (hopefully with your written approval). As a result, this bridal consultant has the most control over the outcome of your wedding. She should be at the rehearsal, the ceremony, and the reception, overseeing every last detail.

Fees for "full-service" wedding planning vary widely from planner to planner. Some charge a percentage of the wedding costs (say, 10 to 15 fifteen of your wedding budget). Others work on an hourly basis (perhaps $25 to $100 per hour). Therefore, the consultant's tab for an average $15,000 wedding could run $1500 to $2500.

Many professional planners claim to be able to save the bride money when planning a wedding. The pitch is "we have negotiating power since we represent repeat business for the vendor." If the merchant expects to get future referrals, they better do a good job for the planner. While a few very good consultants may save you money, in reality, their fee negates any savings they may accomplish.

Nonetheless, consultants may be a godsend for couples who don't have time and/or can't visit the wedding location themselves. The key is to carefully screen the planner to make sure this all-powerful player in your wedding is on the right team.
Did you know that many other merchants offer free or low-cost wedding coordination services?

Here are some examples.

CHURCH COORDINATORS. These are folks (usually volunteers) who will coordinate just the rehearsal and ceremony for you. Their services are usually free and may even include pinning on corsages and boutonnières the day of the wedding.

FLORISTS. Occasionally we run across florists who are willing to hang out at the wedding to pin on corsages and boutonni√®res and fluff the bride's train before she heads down the aisle. Not all florists offer this and those who do may charge a fee. Be sure to ask if there is an extra fee—get it in writing !

CATERERS. Caterers, on the other hand, usually only offer to coordinate the reception. Many caterers will guide you through all the necessary events of the evening: opening the buffet (or serving the food), calling for the cake cutting, arranging with the band for the first dance, timing the toast and scheduling the bouquet and garter toss. If you are on a tight budget, caterers can be very helpful in this regard and often do the cooroonating for free. Again, get any promises in writing.

The country's economy may be going to hell in a handbasket, but there is one bright spot: savvy entrepreneurs who find untapped consumer demand and, against all the odds, create a business to fill it. Take the destination wedding. It may sound like fun to run away and marry on a secluded tropical beach, but how does one actually do this? In steps the destination wedding planner, a relatively recent genetic mutation from the standard wedding consultant. Combining the sawy of a travel agent and the moxie of a bridal consultant, the destination wedding planner slashes though red tape, finds the romantic ceremony sites, and puts together the whole she-bang. Of course, there are not many of these folks. In fact, we found just a handful. Here's a run-down of the best of the bunch.

Another helpful surrogate planner is the concierge at a hotel or resort. What would a concierge know about weddings? A lot, as it turns out. When we visited Maui to research this book, our concierge at the Kaanapali Alii condo complex was an experienced wedding planner—they do at least a dozen weddings a year. It turns out that many resorts now offer wedding packages and have specially trained concierges or wedding planners to handle all the details.
Of course, there are a few pros and cons to going with a concierge to help plan your wedding. Here's a run-down:

LOW-COST. Many concierges offer wedding planning as a free or low-cost service—as long as you book a stay at that resort or hotel. Furthermore, there is no mark-up of the services (photographer, florist) that you might book.

HANDLING THE HASSLES. Of course, a concierge should be able to walk you through the marriage license process. He or she may have "special contacts" at the marriage license bureau to speed the process along.

WEDDING EXPERIENCE CAN VARY. Turnover of these positions at resorts may mean you get an inexperienced concierge. We'd ask how long the concierge has planned weddings at the location, as well as questions about tire marriage license process. If you get the feeling this person is too new to the job, you might as well go with a professional planner instead.

LIMITED CHOICES OF CEREMONY SITES. Typically, concierges will only help set a wedding "on-site" of the property. This is fine if the resort or hotel has a dramatic vista, gazebo, or some other amenity to hold a wedding by. However, if you want a secluded beach, the concierge may not be able to help.

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