The wedding planners

This year, roughly 1,000 couples, spending between $25,000 and $35,000 each, retained the services of wedding planners, those hardy souls who organize, advise, coordinate and offer a shoulder to cry on. Essentially an American import, wedding planning has evolved from a few scattered operators into a lucrative $7 million niche sector, serviced by a dozen established names.

Planners argue that what they do is not a fad. Whether you are opting for a grand marriage or something a bit more restrained, hiring a wedding planner can often make sound financial sense. One of the main advantages of hiring a wedding planner is that they can provide their clients with discounts on everything from entertainment to flowers. “We can save our clients up to 20% in discounts on high quality items,” says Raya Zahlan, manager of Weddings 4 Life. “People are learning more and more that it is very hard to organize weddings and to remove the stress from the bride,” says Vivianne Ajini of Weddings “R” Us, “it a huge, huge thing.”

Nathalie Rahal Abou-Jaoudé, general manager and owner of Amareyn, another leading wedding planner, agrees. “Weddings for Lebanese people are very important,” she says, “they will spend money on a wedding, even if it means taking out a loan.”

Abou-Jaoudé estimates that about 40% of couples (or in 95% of the time their parents) spend more than they can actually afford. And with amounts of up to $35,000 being doled out, it’s no wonder that they have to go cap in hand to the bank. “But,” Abou-Jaoudé points out, “a small budget doesn’t mean that you can’t have a nice wedding.” Some planners see themselves as artists and Zahlan insists that planning a wedding is “not about the money” – well, not only about money. She and her business partner and cousin, Maya Zahlan, take into consideration a client’s background as well as their budget. “We prefer to plan weddings for clientele from a certain background so that our work is appreciated.”

It is an industry that attracts people from all professional backgrounds. Zahlan admits she fell into the job. “I majored in psychology and education, and my business partner studied interior design.” She points out that the paramount skill is the ability to communicate with people. But how much does good communication cost these days? Ajini explains that it is often difficult to give a clear picture of fees simply because they vary according to each wedding. “We could charge anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, depending on the client.” However, most charge either a fixed fee or take commission based on the client’s budget (the Weddings 4 Life team charges a fixed fee, while Amareyn’s costs range from $2,000 to $15,000 for what she calls ‘big’ weddings with budgets of $400,000 plus, which represent 10% to 15% of the high-end market).

According to Abou-Jaoudé, there are four main variables that affect the cost of any wedding: the number of people, the season, decorations and entertainment (music, dancers, fireworks, special effects etc.). When deciding on the venue, Abou-Jaoudé says that most halls and major hotels charge similar fees. Cocktail receptions can cost from $15 to $30 per person, whereas seated, or buffet dinners, about $30 to $150, depending on the quality of the menu (traditional Lebanese cuisine, for example, is cheaper than an all seafood menu). Bridal gowns, invitations, flowers and invitations all combine to send the bill into the stratosphere. Not surprisingly, it’s big business and this is good news for the fledgling sector. Abou-Jaoudé says that since starting Amareyn five years ago, her clientele has doubled so that her company now plans about 80 events per year. Weddings 4 Life boasts even higher figures, with 150 weddings per year, 70 to 80 of which are in the high season (May 15 to end of September and the entire month of December). Still, to survive, wedding planners have to be up to speed with current trends and ideas if they are to sell themselves as cutting edge. “We are here to create something new and different for every wedding,” says Abou-Jaoudé. “Our job equals details.” Some of the big trends hitting Lebanon’s weddings this year were splashes of big color and the use of special effects. According Zahlan, weddings no longer stick to a specific color theme, with vibrant hues making their way onto the scene in the form of flowers, tablecloths and other decorations. Becoming increasingly common is the not-so-white wedding gown, with champagne shades making the most waves. Special effects are also no longer limited to fireworks displays – which are not exactly unique here. Now even the first dance sequence can feature a fog machine, complete with falling confetti spread with the use of a giant fan. The end result is much like the couple’s very own music video.

In order to stay on top of her game, Abou-Jaoudé employs a team of 22 – interior and graphic designers and technicians etc – during the high season and admits annual operating costs of over $200,000 a year. “Our telephone expenses alone are a catastrophe!” she moans.

Removing stress was the key factor that prompted Nada Afeiche-Shehadi to hire a wedding planner for her 2002 nuptials at Sursock. “I only had a little time [two months] to plan everything and needed someone who could have everything done at short notice,” she says. She was especially pleased with the party favors suggested by Zahlan – a little cedar tree to represent Lebanon since many of the guests were coming from the United States. Afeiche-Shehadi was also comforted by the fact that the Weddings 4 Life team would be present at her wedding to orchestrate everything at the church and the reception. “For me, it was more about having peace of mind than anything else,” she says, adding that little unexpected perks from the planners, like a guest book and special decorations on her table were a nice touch. So, was it all worth it in the end? For Afeiche-Shehadi it certainly was but she was quick to point out that hiring a wedding planner is not necessarily the best route for everyone. “At the end, it’s really the couple that makes the wedding.”