This February, my company, Leslie-Manning Events, celebrates nine years in the wedding and event planning business. Where did the time go? It seems like yesterday that I was crafting and obsessing over our first ad, which I posted on Craigslist, and watched horror-stricken as another aspiring wedding planner promptly stole the material. It was my first lesson learned, but not my last. Some lessons were motivating, others almost made me quit, but there were three that I wish I had learned sooner because they are essential to success and longevity in the industry.
1. Be Picky About Where to Obtain Knowledge
Unlike many novice wedding planners, I already had four years of hands-on conference and event planning experience when I decided to break into weddings. However, I still felt as though I needed formal training in wedding planning before taking paying clients. I joined a national bridal association and signed up for training in the form of a correspondence course that was probably last updated in the early ‘80s. I did find value in the course — it's helpful to understand wedding traditions before you start breaking from them. However, that particular program only scratched the surface of starting and running a wedding planning business. I would later learn that areas like pricing, contracts, and promotion were as important as knowing the difference between a nosegay and a cascade bouquet. There was a gap in my education, but I had already invested hundreds in training, so I sought out wedding planning Internet forums. These provided some useful information along with a great deal of misinformation. Pricing advice such as “shop the competition” was doled out like the gospel truth. While it may be a good piece of advice, I learned that shopping the competition was only a small part of the pricing matrix. There were conditions unique to my business that had to be considered. Eventually, I learned about an online community for wedding planners, the now-defunct Coordinators Corner, where planners shared their best practices and failures. I learned from their experiences what I failed to learn in my training course — they saved me from making more costly mistakes. Coursework that accurately covers the business side of event and wedding planning is worth the investment because it prevents having to seek out more advice or learning the lessons the hard way.
2. Participation Matters
Industry events are great networking opportunities, and I had become a fixture at many. I cleared my calendar for the annual International Special Events Society's (ISES) Showcase, National Association for Catering and Events (NACE) expo, and many more. However, I never saw the value of spending hundreds on a membership at any of these organizations, especially when the difference in cost to attend their networking events as a non-member was negligible. I spent my time at these events shaking hands, exchanging business cards, and enjoying a free cocktail or two for my efforts. It netted nothing, save for a few morning-after headaches. I didn't realize that the real opportunity was in the membership. Beyond being listed in the directory, contributing to the industry was — and still is —instrumental to my growth as a planner. It is through participation that you build the contacts and win the contracts that will keep you in business for the long haul. Sadly, this is an ongoing lesson for me, as building contacts and getting clients usually means less time to participate.
3. How To Sell My Services
Most wedding planners offer three levels of service: full, partial, and day-of (or month-of) coordination. Some planners don't offer levels — they use verbiage along the lines of “no two weddings are alike and we would prefer to create a custom proposal.” In my experience, most engaged couples can't subjectively understand the value of our services, so they assign value to the various levels of service. Listing different package levels on our website, as much as it bothered me, increased interest in our company, but we still had to make the sale — the initial consultation. I had a mentor who firmly believed that no professional planner should work for free. She warned me that by offering a complimentary initial consultation to potential clients, legally, I would have to give advice — my product — for free. She recommended that I offer an initial meeting to potential clients, a “getting-to-know-you” session to see if our personalities matched. However, my mentor was unable to tell me which approach would help me book clients. For me, it wasn't spending thirty minutes inquiring about their love story or proposal. Rather, it was asking questions about their wedding to determine their needs, and giving advice. I'm a sucker for a good love story, and I enjoy hearing them from my clients as we get to know each other over the many months that we work closely together planning their wedding.