By Josette Keelor
As much as a bride and groom plan for the special day that will unite the two in wedded bliss, something on their wedding day will, for better or for worse, surprise them. The best wedding planners expect the unexpected and learn to handle what comes at them.
"My venue lost power because a vehicle hit a power pole," said Winchester wedding planner Amy VanMeter. Luckily it happened on a sunny day after the food had been made. The deejay ran power off of his vehicle, she said, and the bride and groom made do until the power came back.
"Some things you cannot plan for," she said. What's most important to her is keeping everyone calm and doing the best she can.
With more and more couples hiring professional consultants to help them reduce the stress that comes with their big day, area organizers have some tips for what to look for in a wedding planner.
For Terrie Dean, owner of The Wishing Well in Harrisonburg, "It evolves yearly."
Trends can stay their course for several years, or they can change instantly, like they did with the wedding of Prince William of Wales to Kate Middleton two years ago.
"Trends change based on whatever's happening, usually socially," Dean said. "There's a huge trend right now based on the Downton Abbey look." The TV show on PBS takes place initially in pre-WWI England.
Wedding shows also have an impact on what brides choose for their own weddings, Dean said.
Despite the many trends, Front Royal event planner Sandy Beach, of Elegant Events, has noticed primarily how brides and grooms try to make their weddings stand out among the rest -- "Putting their own stamp on the wedding and doing a lot of the work themselves," she said.
Dean and VanMeter have noticed an influx in couples hiring wedding planners over the last several years, but Beach has seen the market waver.
"When the economy went down, it definitely trickled down," she said. At the moment, "It's definitely on the rise."
Wedding planning website The Knot rates professional wedding planning a part of only 19 percent of weddings nationally, Beach said. Yet according to Dean, regionally the percentage is much higher.
It varies, she said, but the majority do. In the southern and northern areas of the Shenandoah Valley, she said, about 50 percent use a wedding planner; east of the Blue Ridge, it's more like 60 percent.
But in Northern Virginia, "I would say it's even higher, about 75 to 80 percent of brides are going to trust their wedding to a wedding planner," Dean said.
So why the discrepancy? The separation could have to do with education level and age.
"Brides today are a more educated and career-minded," Dean said. Many that she has worked with are either in college or in graduate school, simultaneously preparing their walk down the aisle and their walk toward a degree.
"[They] don't feel that they can do both well," she said. So they hand off the reigns to someone they trust to organize the big event for them.
Many of VanMeter's clients, however, are marrying at later ages, a trend she has noticed increasing. They tend to have less free time and fewer resources than they did when they were younger, she said.
With more couples planning wedding destinations not only for their guests and for themselves, they find that friends and family live too far away to help with planning.
Dean agreed, "Family members tell them 'I'll be happy to do this for you.' That doesn't necessarily equate to 'I'll do it right.'"
But then again, Beach's brides do much of the planning themselves, requiring her only on the day of their wedding to make sure their plans run smoothly.
"I personally have four different packages that I offer, but none of them are set in stone," said Beach, who has a background in communication and has been a wedding planner since 2006.
"I would think that most brides and grooms would look for someone that could help them with their vision ... and orchestrate the whole day for them," she said.
Whatever you need your planner to do, all three agree to do your homework before making a decision.
Credentials are the most important part of being a wedding planner, said Dean, who explained that trusting a wedding to a hobbiest would be unwise.
"The second thing is to look for references," said Dean, a business etiquette and protocol consultant who also coordinates a full travel agency through The Wishing Well.
"I think the certification process is an ongoing process," she said.
According to VanMeter, a degree in event planning is not necessary -- hers is in public relations and marketing -- but education in the field is still a must.
A planner who belongs to a professional association not only benefits from networking with other professionals but also is encouraged to continue her education, which VanMeter said she does every year.
"I do a lot of networking," she said. "It's always good to meet bridal professionals of every kind."
"The next thing," Dean said, "would be to get references from other vendors in the areas. ... Who do they think is a good reference for wedding planning?"
"And the importance of that reference is that it comes from one professional ... about another," she said.
VanMeter estimates about half of the brides she works with locally live outside of the area. They choose Winchester or other parts of the Shenandoah Valley for its beauty and because they can get more for their money, she said.
Winchester especially, she said, is convenient for weddings because of the downtown area that includes hotels and restaurants that offer wedding guests something to do before and after the celebration.
"They come to me to help find their venue and wedding vendors," VanMeter said. Typically she has a long correspondence online with new clients, exchanging ideas for flowers, cakes and other decorations on sites like Pinterest -- which is like an online cork board used for sharing ideas with friends and family -- and social networking sites or blogs.
The wedding industry, VanMeter said, is likely a huge segment of Pinterest's continued success.
She's seen boards filled with wedding photos by women who aren't even engaged -- "My someday wedding," VanMeter explained.
She recommends couples visit wedding blogs that feature real weddings so they can read about what others have done, as well as what worked and what didn't.
"A lot of brides are using Etsy," she said. The website, which features homemade or do-it-yourself crafts that people buy and sell online, has "become a huge player."
But with popularity comes other problems.
"One of the drawbacks," she said, "...they get overwhelmed. There's so much inspiration."
After moving here from Atlanta 3 1/2 years ago, she said she restarted her Georgia business in Winchester, becoming one of only a handful of wedding planners in the area she knows of.
Dean agreed: "There's very few of us who are credentialed, in this area." Northern Virginia and Washington are a different story, she said.
Even after 30 years in the business, she said with each wedding, any number of things could go wrong.
"Always the unexpected," she said. "You never like to think about it."
Because trends affect weddings, Dean said, "I have had some brides begin planning with one theme in mind ... and they'll say 'Let's switch gears, I want to go with this new trend.'"
VanMeter recommends brides and grooms give themselves plenty of time for the wedding planning process.
"If they're going to hire me, to do it before they book their venue," she said.
When she hears that potential clients have already booked their venue and spent more on it than she would recommend for a reception spot, she said it's much more difficult to figure out how to make the rest of the budget work.
The reception, she said, should cost about 50 to 60 percent of the total wedding budget.
What she does first when meeting with clients is ask what the three most important aspects of the wedding are to the couple.
That way, if they have to readjust later to stay within the budget, she will know to leave those three aspects alone.
"We don't want those three to suffer."
Also consider the time of year you want to get married and how popular the season will be with other couples.
"Every vendor I know," VanMeter said, "October is the biggest month."
Dean's complete turnkey wedding package lets the bride hand over every part of wedding to the planner - the bride literally does nothing but hold the bouquet and walk down the aisle.
"What they want is a beautiful day," she said. "What they don't want is the stress"
Beach said she'll always remember when one of her groomsmen tried on his tux for the first time on the day of the wedding, just to learn that the pants were too short.
"The pants fit everywhere, but they were like capris," she said. "They were halfway up his legs." They were able to get a replacement from the tailor in time, Beach said, but the funny situation became funnier later in the photos, when the groomsmen all posed with their pants rolled up to the knees.
"It ended up really, really cute," Beach said, "but from that point on I tell all my grooms, try their tuxes on."
Their experiences have been vastly varied, but all three wedding planners agree on one recommendation: Enjoy the day.
If Dean could counsel every bride, "I would say don't overstress the wedding process, even if you're doing it yourself, don't overstress it."
"Part of the beauty in planning a wedding is enjoying the process," she said. You should factor that in."
To contact Amy VanMeter Events in Winchester, call 550-7336 or visit www.amyvanmeterevents.com. To contact Elegant Events in Front Royal, call 635-8629 or 664-1545, or visit eleganteventsva.com. To contact The Wishing Well in Harrisonburg, call 908-2333 or visit www.thewishingwell.biz.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org