I’m often asked how I started in the wedding business and I usually joke that I tripped and fell into wedding planning, which is pretty close to the truth. But I tell you this story to show you that anyone can be a success as a wedding planner no matter how or where you start. Because my first wedding was about as big of a disaster as you can imagine and I think I’ve done pretty well since then.
Let me say right off the bat that I wasn’t the type of girl who dreamed about her own wedding from the time she got her first Barbie or flipped through wedding magazines as a teenager or read the wedding announcements in the Post when I arrived as a twenty-three year old in D.C. So if you did any of these things, you’re already one step ahead of me. As a matter of fact, I never saw a wedding planning career coming until it had mowed me over.
I didn’t intend to plan weddings and I didn’t start out in D.C. I had been working in publishing after obtaining the ever-so-useful college English degree (with the even more practical back-up degree in Women’s Studies). I had worked my way up to the middle of a highly respected small publishing house but there was nowhere else to go unless I knocked off someone above me (and that was before my mystery-writing days so I was iffy on how to kill people and get away with it) so I made the bold but incredibly boneheaded move into government editing. Truth be told, my boyfriend at the time convinced me that moving to D.C. to take a job at a government editing/contracting firm (and be closer to him) was a stellar idea. Wrongo.
It only took me a few months to realize that editing HUD documents was the intellectual equivalent of being water-boarded for eight hours a day and that distance hadn’t been the issue with my boyfriend. I just didn’t like him anymore. So I quit my job with no fall-back plan in place (not my best decision but, it turns out, not my worst) and ditched the boyfriend. My parents were slightly panicked (and probably a bit distressed that they’d just put me through Duke).
But it was 1995 and things were looking up. Cathy, my best friend from college, was also experiencing career “malaise” so we put our heads together and came up with the wiz-bang idea to start a company. We just had to decide which kind. Well, we’d just planned her big-ass wedding a few months earlier and that hadn’t been too hard. Martha Stewart had just come out with her first issue of her “Weddings” magazine so we figured wedding planning was a thing now. Anyway, how hard could planning weddings for other people be? Ha. Ha. Double Ha.
Fast forward to a few months later, after we have incorporated as Engaging Affairs, Inc. and spent hours upon hours agonizing over our business and marketing plans. We are standing on what can best be described as a grassy knoll preparing for our first ever paid wedding. We are heady with the thrill of a few hundred dollars (remember, this is the 90s and we are really new).
If we turn ever-so-slightly to the left, we can see active prison guard towers–fully staffed with armed guards–that happen to overlook the park the bride has chosen (I’m assuming it was a steal) so we try to focus on the gazebo where our groom is simultaneously chain smoking and hanging up paper bells. That’s right. Paper bells. The kind that unfold like an accordion.
We’re rubbing our red and callused hands after dragging 150 white wooden folding chairs across the park and setting them up in front of the gazebo for the ceremony. The bride didn’t hire any staff for her wedding and had assured us that her family would be bringing the food and helping with set-up. So far, only the groom and his paper bells have shown up. The flowers are in a bucket alongside some boxes of bubble bowls and I’m starting to suspect that no one is coming back to arrange them.
But we only have a moment to pause and cringe at the bells because the DJ has arrived. The good news is that this means we actually have a someone other than us to pull off this wedding. The bad news is that he is wearing a fish tie. The kind that looks like an actual full size trout hanging down the front of your shirt and was popular in the 90s in places where people didn’t have eyes. He does mention that he’ll be changing soon so we breathe a sigh of relief and show him where he can back up his van to side of the tent. The bride has also decided to forgo a generator so the DJ has to power himself (and the cake fountain with colored lights–please don’t ask) with his van.
There isn’t much time to be distressed by all of this because it is now thirty minutes before the wedding and we have only a handful of people out of the 150 expected guests. So far we have a completed ceremony site but no minister, a reception tent with tables and chairs but no food, and a DJ wearing a fish tie hooked up to a wedding cake that features a colored fountain and two flights of stairs holding a miniature plastic bridal party. To say that this is not the kind of wedding we had envisioned presiding over would be a colossal understatement. But my business partner reminds me that we are only “day-of” and didn’t plan any of the fabulousness around us and I remind her that she booked the client sight unseen and we would be having a chat about her judgment if we ever survived the day.
Five minutes past the ceremony start time we finally have a minister but he has informed us that an oil tanker overturned on 95 and he suspects the guests (and bride and bridal party) are stuck in the same traffic he was. The DJ has changed but only his pants and shoes and we realize that the fish tie is with us for the duration. We aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry when he informs us that he has a gig after this and if the wedding starts much later, he’ll have to leave before the reception is over.
Finally, the bride and bridal party arrive along with a few cars filled with family and aluminum trays of food. We’re so thrilled to be able to start the ceremony that we don’t even blink twice at the white full-tail tuxedos with peach bow-ties and cummerbunds that the groomsmen are sporting. Nor are we too hampered by the fact that the bride has mascara running down her face from crying and is wearing a dress so shiny we have to shade our eyes from the glare.
We cue the DJ for our ceremony music then run up to the tent to appraise the food situation. Since the family is busy watching the ceremony, it is left to us to set up the buffet. There is no amount of tweaking we can do to make aluminum pans pretty so we start uncorking the wine. Since we still only have about 50 guests, we don’t have to uncork them all and we get wine poured by the time the ceremony ends and the guests make their way to the tent.
At this point we are sucking air behind the tent but we manage to cue the introductions and first dance before we need to start opening the champagne for the toasts. Just when we think we may make it out alive, the DJ reminds us that he has to leave for his next gig. I think I might cry as he turns off the music and unplugs the wedding cake fountain, currently spouting pink water, which gurgles to a stop.
Our family “staff” never materializes so we pour and pass the champagne and, after the fountainless cake is cut, we serve the wedding cake. Since the bride only hired a photographer for three hours and he spent one waiting for the wedding to start, he drives off and we use disposable cameras to take reception photos for the rest of the night between clearing plates and refilling glasses.
The final indignity comes when there are not enough women to vie for the bouquet and my business partner pushes me out on the dance floor to add an extra body to the bouquet toss. Since I never move my arms, I don’t come anywhere close to catching the bouquet and I vow never to speak to my wedding planning partner for as long as I live. I also vow to quit first thing Monday morning. As soon as I can walk again.
We drive home in silence, so shell-shocked that we can’t speak. We sit in the parking lot to our office for a few minutes until I turn to her.
“Do you know what the worst part of that was?”
She shakes her head.
“They were wearing white tuxedos with peach cummerbunds. I mean, really.” Then we laugh until we can’t breathe.
And that, my friends, was the beginning of something truly beautiful. And also proof that even if you have really big bumps on the road to success, you’ll still get there. Even if you have to stomach a few fish ties or peach cummerbunds along the way.