As a native Santa Barbaran and one who has been in the area as a Santa Barbara wedding planner for 15 years, we have seen our share of coordinators and planners come and go. With the downfall of the economy, suddenly those who had no experience were looking to supplement their income and because they attended , helped a friend plan or planned their own wedding, suddenly looked to this niche as an additional stream of income and proclaimed themselves a “wedding coordinator”.    We went from about 5 top notch, well-established professional Santa Barbara wedding planners to over 25 (at least, that are known) in the course of about a year.  Where most well-established, professional and experienced “month of”  (the minimum amount of work needed for “day-of”) coordinators charge roughly between $1200 and $2500, newby, well-intentioned amateurs who are hungry for money who are learning on the client’s dime are charging $300 to $500.  The inexperienced bride who is generally planning her wedding for the first time does not know the difference and is swept away by an attractive price tag.   The problem is, the old adage “you get what you pay for” is never more true than with hiring a professional event planner.  The reality is you are paying for experience.  I always tell those who train with me and to those who attend my speaking engagements:  “90% of an event’s success is determined by the communication, planning and prevention that goes on before the event day even happens.”  And the only way prevention and flawless events occur is by experience.

So how do you distinguish between the Santa Barbara Wedding Planners of Distinction and the Well-Intentioned Amateur that will end up costing you more money in the long -run?  Here are a few questions and items of consideration while you do your research and interview process with them:

1.  Is this your full-time job?  Any true professional will have their entire job dedicated to this profession and anything related to it.  If someone does this part time or on the side, how will your wedding and event be taken care of when all the other aspects to it (i.e. vendors , site meetings) need to be taken care of during normal business hours? How will you be able to meet with the coordinator  if they are working another job and not focusing on managing your special day?

2.  How long have you been doing this  full-time and how many weddings have you done?  In order to have a basic amount of experience to benefit you minimally, the answer should be a minimum of 3 years of full-time wedding & event production and approximately 30-40 weddings.  Again, these are bare minimums before one can even be nominally considered a professional wedding planner.

3.  Are you certified in wedding planning and/or hold any credentials for professional event planningThe answer should be yes. This shows a minimum level of professional training in the industry to know basic levels of etiquette, service standards, business practices, ethics and much more.

4. Do you accept kick-backs from vendors or venues ? The answer should be unequivocally no.  This is an ethics issue and seasoned professionals who have the best interest of their clients at heart do not accept kick-backs or incentives from vendors or venues.  What happens is a client will get referred to the vendor or venue that gives the wedding planner the biggest incentive rather than the vendor or venue that is best suited for the client based on their vision and budget. 

 5.  How long have you been in this area?  A seasoned wedding planner can certainly do events in areas outside where they live and travel – many do.  But few – very few- specialize in “all areas”.  Those professional wedding planners who are well-established in the area in which they live for a minimum of about 3 years will have a dedicated working knowledge of the vendors who are reputable and well -established.  Hiring locally whenever possible saves the client money. Further, the professional wedding planner will have his/her finger on the pulse of changes in the area – from contact changes at local venues to policy changes and much more.  They will be acutely aware and up to date in the minutiae to help the client benefit by saving them time and money with their local knowledge and expertise.

6.  In what publications have you been asked to contribute your expertise?  Blogs are all over the place these days and many wedding BLOGS such as Style Me Pretty and others, contributors are given priority if they are a paid advertiser on these sites.  So while Blogs can showcase a planner’s beautiful work and the vendors involved, it does not necessarily mean that the behind-the-scenes planning went off without a hitch – or that the client was happy. Some of the biggest disasters in wedding history were showcased beautifully in magazines and online BLOGS , but no one will ever know that the wedding planner in charge was an amateur and how the day was a disaster and the venue at which he/she worked will never have him/her back again because they did not know what they were doing.  Nor does it show that ultimately the other vendors picked up some of the slack to help out, the bride was in tears because the “planner” didn’t know how to prevent crises and see disaster before it happened.  But the photos submitted made it look like a dream wedding.  It’s hard to tell. That’s why it’s so important to make an educated decision that weighs all the components.

One of the greatest balancers is to ask if a coordinator has been approached by industry publications to write on their expertise in a certain field.  Or to speak at event industry functions as a trusted leader in their field.  If publications and industry colleagues are asking for their opinion and expertise (and the coordinator is not paying them to feature their expertise) then they probably know a thing or two and are true professionals because they are sought after strictly on their reputation and experience alone – something money cannot buy.

Here are some of the most commonly-asked questions of brides-to-be to me when having me give them advice on selecting  a professional Santa Barbara wedding planner of distinction and my responses to them.

Q: Are online reviews and features on BLOGS a good way to determine if a coordinator is reputable and professional?   A:  They can be a contributing factor to helping you decide if you wish to interview them further.  As mentioned above, anyone can have a BLOG today and feature gorgeous photos – but this does not mean that they were in fact the designer of the event or that the event went off smoothly;  further, many professional BLOGS only feature the work of those who pay to be on their site and not just who warranted it from having a “stellar event”.  Online reviews are similar:  they can be staged by the coordinators themselves or publicity agents.  You really have to watch online reviews carefully.

Q: Is being on a Preferred Vendor List for a wedding location indication a coordinator is professional and experienced?  A:  Being on a Preferred Vendor List for the most part means that the coordinator has worked there  and that they did not do anything to violate the venue’s polices.  However, there is one venue in Santa Barbara who requires the vendors to pay to be on their list.  Several of the listed vendors/coordinators don’t have top- notch reputations, but because they paid the venue to be on their list, the venue keeps them on there.  This is an ethical issue for all concerned.   It is suggested that you ask the Catering Events Manager at the venue who he/she has worked with on (or off) their list and demand their candid opinion and listen to who they recommend.  Then, write down these names and interview other vendors on the name of the coordinator given to you to hear their comments as well. This will give you a well-rounded view of the coordinator.

Q: So how do I know if someone is professional or not?  What steps do I take?  A: The reality is, it’s a careful blend of the following:   balancing review of their visual work (photos/BLOGS) , their online reviews, endorsements from venues, fellow vendors, previous clients, their industry accomplishments, if they hold professional certification and the years of experience and number of events that they have done.  Ask every vendor you meet with their opinion and what they think/know to be true about the coordinator.  Watch for a pattern.  Then intelligently put together your decision.

There are “coordinators” who have money to sink in every form of advertising possible so their name is out there but they do not have the skill and experience (or reputation) to back up their name because they believe that sinking money into as many advertising means as possible will automatically give them credibility.  And to some inexperienced clients, it may.  There are those who were fired from huge name high-end resorts for making so many mistakes on weddings, they cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, were fired, and now started their own “coordinator” business, still making the same mistakes  and violating ethics (and in some cases the law).  Again, the client would have no idea superficially.

The reality is, true branding is who you are. Not just a name that is paid for in advertising or to be on someone’s list.  Do your homework. Ask, ask , ask.  Ask everyone about the coordinator you are interviewing.  And most importantly, after you’ve done your homework and balanced all the factors carefully, how does your prospective coordinator “click” with you personally?  Do you like them and trust them?  Are they concerned for your well-being and happiness and those of your family and guests? What is their energy level like?  Planning a wedding should be joyful for the client as well as the professional wedding planner.

When you have interviewed your coordinator and were able to align their answers with the ones recommended in this post, you will be hiring a Santa Barbara Wedding Planner of Distinction and not a Well-Intentioned Amateur. You will be forearmed to know the difference and in doing so, will guarantee a wedding day that is sure to be everything (and more) than what you had dreamed of.

Happy “Ever After”!