At eventjuice we love weddings, and in a rabid fan like way we wanted to feel a bit closer to the brains behind some of Britain’s most luxurious weddings. So we’ve used the run up to Valentine’s Day as an excuse to talk with one of the world’s leading wedding planners and best-selling bridal author – Sarah Haywood.
Sarah has earned a world-famous reputation in the wedding and event industrys, sought by celebrities and public figures, as well as couples looking for that extra special day. Sarah has built and runs Sarahhaywood.com a luxury wedding planning and design consultancy and is author of Wedding Bible and Wedding Bible Planner (second-edition published today).
If hadn’t heard of Sarah until now, you’ve probably seen her. Throughout the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, Sarah was the go-to international commentator on the event, featuring on most major television networks (CNN, BBC, NBC, ABC etc).
Mike Chidzey talks to Sarah…
MC: So Sarah, how have you built such an excellent reputation in the wedding industry?
SH: I never set out to run what I do, it evolved. My first career was in television. I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the ITV News graduate trainee scheme some 20 years ago and gained a lot of experience in all aspects of creating TV news – reporting, presenting and producing. The skill set was easily transferable into what I do now. I had planned dozens of events for the station where I worked, friends and then a few paying clients before I really admitted to myself that I had become an event planner.
At around the same time I wrote my first book, the Wedding Bible; that first edition drew on both my journalistic skills and event planning know how. It was definitely the first milestone in my event career and our best marketing tool to date. But the story of how it came to be published involved me and my then business partners having to put ourselves on the line financially (our publisher would not take the financial risk and wanted us to fund it). So we started a separate publishing business: the good news was that we had a successful venture on our hands, but the bad news was that we did not know what we were doing – to the extent that we eventually parted company.
It was a very difficult time for all of us and I did lose focus, but I learned a whole new set of business skills that have proved invaluable in moving the businesses (now one business) forward and establishing a very clear and identifiable luxury wedding brand.
MC: And what advice would you give to aspiring event planners hoping to follow a similar path?
SH: Above all else, I have learned to be flexible and work with the skills that I have, and when I identify strengths that are lacking I either acquire them or buy them in.
One must also be constantly re-assessing the market, your position within it and the direction you are taking. Being an event planner and running a successful business are two entirely different things. You could be a very talented event planner, but if you do not have the skills or interest to run a business, work for someone else!
MC: You’re well-known for organising fairytale weddings at a fraction of the cost, is that really possible?
SH: Now we exclusively work in the luxury events arena and only with large budgets; that is now where our expertise lies. But early on definitely I managed to build a reputation for delivering stylish events on more modest budgets. The strategy was not one that could work long-term for a viable business, but was one that gave me a lot of hands-on experience quickly and allowed us to build a decent portfolio. And I believe the best, and probably only way to build a business like ours, is experience. And to access the luxury market you have to have relevant experience but you also need to know what luxury is – instinctively. If you cannot recognize it then you cannot replicate it!
And yes, it is possible to plan a fairytale wedding for a reasonable cost; it is about focusing the resources, on the guest experience and dispensing with the ‘bells and whistles’. So a design vision that is clean, simple and structured, with uncluttered spaces, clean and crisp linens and tableware and beautiful centerpieces. Then serve the very best food and beverages the budget will allow.
MC: What tips can you share to anybody about to organise an event to take it to the next level?
SH: When you are designing an event all you are really doing is creating the backdrop. As important to an event as how it looks is how it feels to be the hosts or a guest. People make great parties, so my mantra is that ‘happy guests make happy weddings’. As I’ve said, focus on the guest experience; even when we are planning events with generous budgets – the million + weddings – it is all about the guest experience.
Keep them well fed, well ‘watered’ and keep the event flowing. No one likes hanging about at weddings or parties uncertain of what exactly is happening, or what will occur next. So as important and the venue and design is how the event will flow and who will manage it. The person in charge must have the ability and flexibility to reign something in if it is not working, or allow a particular part of a party to breathe if it is going well (so do not rush dinner service if this particular group of people is enjoying it – allow it to run over and build into your overall event plan the flexibility for this to happen – and of course the opposite.).
Don’t be too prescriptive; because people are different, every party will be different and what works for one group of people might not work for another.
MC: I was wondering about the vast amount of weddings that you’ve organised and delivered for couples, what have been the challenges?
SH: Because we focus predominantly on weddings we have gained valuable expertise. The biggest challenge and learning has been to accept that planning weddings really is different to planning any other kind of event or party; it just is.
That’s because every wedding, large or small is loaded with expectation. And there may be more than one set of expectations (!) the bride and groom and anyone financially or emotionally invested in the day. You ignore this fact at your financial peril as if you do not address it you will waste time. I see part of my job as being to manage those expectations and get everyone to the same page.
Everything takes longer because of this ‘expectation’ and the fact that those you are working with, whatever they say, see this wedding as a huge milestone, right of passage and the one day when they enjoy the equivalent of a ‘Hollywood red carpet moment’. This is of course an overly simplistic view, but it does explain why every single decision from flowers to food, where the reception will be and how you will get there takes a long time to make and with everyone wanting their say. And you must ensure that everyone is heard or it will come back at you later – most probably the week of the event itself.
It can also be difficult to ascertain who the client is when two sets of parents and the couple are contributing financially to the day. Most people would reasonably like a say in how their money is spent. So striking the right balance when being part of this process is challenging – and we do not like to encourage a lot of time wasting, but equally we know we do need to allow time for people to be heard so that the eventual decisions are informed ones.
One lesson I keep having to learn over and over is that when a parent is paying (which is generally the case with the super-rich) and they tell you it is their son or daughter’s wedding and they must have what they want, what they really mean is: “They can have what they want so long as it is what we want”! The knots I have got myself tied into on this one – and more than once – I could write a book about!
MC: And toughest decisions…
SH: Among the toughest decisions to make are when we have to turn business away because we know we are, for whatever reason, not a good fit. That does happen from time to time, but at this level and this stage in my life and my career I prefer to work with people who contribute to making the experience a pleasurable one. It is miserable working for people who demonstrate a lack of trust or a lack respect – and I also want everyone we work with to enjoy working with us. I believe you can only excel in the right conditions, so it is risky to just work for the money alone.
To create an exceptional wedding you have to like the clients and they have to like and trust you. If a potential client does not buy into our business and the way we work, there are plenty of alterative planners they can hire!
MC: If you woke up tomorrow at the beginning of your career, but with the event knowledge you have now, what actions would you make a priority when starting again?
SH: The single thing I’d do differently is my homework; I’d be more thorough a second time around. The world and how a business like ours operates is very different to the one of a decade ago. Anyone starting out now has a brain wired entirely differently to mine and that is where I’d be looking to take advantage as they are of the same generation as the potential client. A generation that grew up looking at computer screens, with the internet and communicating on mobile devices. This has a two-fold benefit: it enables anyone looking at accessing a career in the events industry to thoroughly investigate all the options as well as valuable advice. And when you are ready to go it gives you direct marketing access to potential clients. But that also means there are no excuses for not developing a realistic business plan or acquiring the relevant advice and skills. I’d also be in less of a hurry to go out on my own and let soneone else foot the bill whist I was learning!
MC: And what is the event industry’s biggest problem today?
Aside from the financial climate, one of biggest problems I believe we face is the proliferation of badly curated and mediocre advice given to our clients from people who never actually work on events – at all. Yet we let them speak to both our clients and for us as though they do…
Second, from the outside looking in we are regarded as being an industry that lacks professionalism and fails to deliver value for money. I believe this is harsh, but I do feel that a lack of respect for one another is beginning to infect our industry – especially in the wedding sector. I find this perplexing – especially when the polar opposite is also often true. And if you factor in the influence blogs and magazines have on the perception of our industry and the fact that we do not question how we are presented by them (perhaps because we feel powerless or are too nervous to question what they state) one is left wondering how we change perceptions. I know very few event millionaires and know how hard it has been and how long it has taken to build my business (and how much we have ploughed back in every time we want to grow it).
As an industry I think we could be more supportive of one another; if the really good and experienced among us foster a culture of respect and professionalism as well as passing on what we know, it will weed out those who shouldn’t be in our business (and for whatever reason).
The culture of ‘entrepreneurship’ is also having a detrimental effect across all businesses: it suggests that anyone who runs a business is an entrepreneur and that all entrepreneurs are by nature risk-takers. I do not hold this view. And neither do I subscribe to the view that it is simple as following a dream and that you will achieve your goal just because you “really, really want it”. We have stopped reminding young people that there are rarely short cuts to success. To be really good at anything you have to work at it and keep moving to the next level.
If your dream is to be a wedding planner, then go out and try it for a year working for an events team getting experience across every area and at venue that does this week in and week out. Then tell me it is your ‘dream’ (and I do not need to tell any of you that this business is never about the champagne and parties)!
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