grace under fire
Why you need a wedding planner. (From the Winter 2010 issue of SONOMA)
The words "perfect" and "wedding" are all but synonymous in the imagination of a bride-like petits fours and high tea, Christmas and cookies, chocolate and red
wine, the two concepts meld naturally in the nuptial ideal. Generations of brides have imagined the fairy tale, saucer-sized eyes aglow, and exclaimed, "I just want everything to be perfect!"
But in the real world, a truly perfect event is about as likely as finding Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and a yeti lead-footing a school bus through the cornfields of Kansas while singing "Hava Nagila"-it simply ain't going to happen. Every wedding has its flubs, its mishaps, its little snafus. The real trick is to keep the guests from noticing.
Take my wedding, for example, so wrought with error that I'm still wondering how we made it out alive. First, there was the postal incompetence. Half our invitations were lost in the mail, and with no reliable way of determining which half had gone missing, I had to personally call every single guest to ensure no one was left out.
I'd like nothing better than to lay the next mini-disaster at the feet of my beloved, but in fact, I have no one but myself to blame. Every bride knows that her groom-to-be, while perfect in his own way, really should not be left to handle any significant wedding details. Every bride but me, that is. This memo, my fax machine somehow missed.
So while I did the heavy lifting for our rehearsal dinner-selecting the venue, picking each menu item (with dietary restrictions in mind) and finalizing the guest list, I left it to my groom-to-be to make the reservations and put down the deposit. BIG mistake.
Cut to the night before the wedding: two hours away from 70 of our closest friends and relatives descending on The Red Grape for the rehearsal dinner, my brother informs me the restaurant has us booked for the following night. My heart drops into my stomach. I call my groom, tears already pooling. He assures me everything was properly booked.
Fiery rage sets in. I morph into Bridezilla. I call the venue and let rip the tongue-lashing of a lifetime, a verbal flogging so severe I'm still amazed the guy on the other end didn't simply hang up. Only an overstressed bride the night her rehearsal dinner goes sideways is genetically capable of such a display. The poor employee on the other end promises me everything will come together before any guests arrive. Still irked, I begin reviewing the e-mail communication between my groom and the venue. That's when I see it, right there in black and white: My groom had booked it, but on the wrong day! Overwhelming guilt replaces rage. The Red Grape, God bless them, pulls every detail together flawlessly-in TWO hours-and I tell my groom he'd better leave the tip of a lifetime if he wants to marry me in the morning.
Terrible, no? A disaster, yes? But wait: the crown jewel of wedding mishaps occurs on the drive to the Depot Hotel where I am to be married. After spending hours in hair and make-up, I am the flawless depiction of a bride: bouquet in hand, ready to walk down the aisle and into my future. As we make our way there in my mother's car, I feel what I think are butterflies in my stomach. The butterflies quickly turn into vampire bats flapping to get out.
"Mom, I think I'm gonna be sick," I say.
"What? Is it nerves?" she asks.
"Mom, PULL OVER!" I shriek, covering my mouth as the acid burn of bile creeps up my throat.
My soon-to-be mother-in-law throws a blue plastic tarp on my lap and there I am, in my wedding gown, hair coiffed, make-up expertly applied, blowing chunks into a tarp as my mother screams, "Watch out for the dress!"
We arrive at the venue and toss the tarp. I sip some Coca-Cola and pop a piece of gum. It's time to get married. At that point adrenaline sets in and I make it through the entire event without incident. But as my husband and I depart through a shower of flower petals, snug in our limo and off into the sunset, the sickly sensation hits us both. We spend the whole drive throwing up into the ice bucket, setting the tone for a wedding night spent suffering the worst stomach flu either of us has ever experienced. Mazel tov!
I know now, of course, my major mistake was not hiring a wedding planner-someone who could help me avoid the pitfalls. Wedding planners are like ultrafeminine outdoor survivalists, equipped with the knowledge, Rolodex and tool belt needed to get a bride through just about anything. Even when faced with a situation that seems impossible, good planners do what it takes to ensure the couple has the day of their dreams, from navigating family politics to replacing lost shoes. It's all about being prepared.
"That's part of the challenge, you only have one chance and you have to do it perfectly," says Julie Atwood, founder of Julie Atwood Events, which orchestrates 12 to 16 exclusive, high-end weddings a year in Sonoma Valley. "I'm a control freak. You have to be to do it well. Stuff happens all the time, that's life. But we will make everything perfect." In her years of planning weddings and events, Julie has seen it all: overbearing mothers, brides with wine-stained dresses, guests going into labor during the reception. And she has shown delicate poise dealing with it all: gently reminding mothers it's not really their day, collecting a small army of stain-removers and keeping emergency services on speed dial. "We're big supporters of the ER at Sonoma Valley Hospital," she jokes.
Wedding planners have backup plans for their backup plans. Atwood's motto, like that of the Boy Scouts, is "Be prepared." She considers every detail-reminding brides to eat a proper breakfast, to enjoy the little, irreplaceable moments, and, most important of all, to select shoes with consideration for the terrain to be trod. "You're Manolos may not be the best choice for a winery wedding," she says.
While Atwood is organized enough to keep three fix-it kits of essentials, each stocked with a pharmacopeia of wedding detritus from every color of button that could possibly appear on a man's shirt to relaxing herbal mists to calm the nervous bride, there will always be situations for which no one can plan. "Sometimes there's things that happen that you don't expect," she says. "The crazier things get, the more I get into the zone."
When asked for specifics, Atwood recalls a high-profile Hollywood couple who flew to Wine Country for their nuptials with a private security force. On the day of the wedding, one of the guards, a former pro-football player, met his match in the form of a tiny bumble bee. "He was highly allergic," she recalls. "This guy was maybe 300 pounds and he went down like a boulder."
- Kristen Miller
Atwood jumped into action, aware she had to remove his coat and tie to open his airway. But she knew she was in trouble as soon as she pulled back his coat.
"He was packing heat from head-to-toe," Atwood laughs, adding that she had never handled a gun before. "I didn't know what to do, I mean what do you touch? What do you not touch?" Luckily, the guard's wife was handy with a firearm and was able to quickly get the guns off his chest. And the bride was never the wiser.
A massive mishap is often a wedding planner's shining moment; it's a chance to prove they're actually worth the 10 percent they charge of the total event budget. Their assistance can mean the difference between that elusive perfection and a hot mess.
For event coordinator Brooke Altman, who oversees more than 100 weddings a year at Viansa Winery, it's all about grace under fire. "You have to love it, you have to be 100 percent passionate," Altman says, before revealing a somewhat masochistic side. "I kind of secretly like it when small things go wrong-cause it's a challenge."
She, too, has aced moments of mishap. During set-up for one wedding, the cake, which featured grapes painstakingly handcrafted out of buttercream, was delivered a few hours earlier than expected and left in the reception tent. The next thing Altman knew, the grapes fell victim to summer's heat, sliding down the cake like a bright purple luge. Unable to reach the baker, Altman instead sent a staff member across the street to a fruit stand to purchase a bunch of table grapes, which they expertly arranged after gently scraping off the melted mess. "The picture of that cake actually got published in a wedding magazine," Altman says. "I don't think the bride ever knew."
A wedding planner's bag of tricks and list of resources is a mile long. "We have a laundry department and a seamstress on staff and we definitely use them. If you tell me you have 150 guests and 200 show up, we'll seat every one of them," said Kristen Miller, who oversees up to 60 weddings a year at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. "It's unlike any other event. There's nothing as personal. It's a feel-good job."
(From the Winter 2010 issue of SONOMA)