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How I Started My Wedding Planning Company

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Nicole Hensley

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January 18, 2021

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How I Started a Wedding Planning Company with Little Experience – and How You Can Too!

Today I thought I would share with you, the story of how I became a wedding planner and how you could become one too if you don’t yet have any experience. 

I’ve had many of you ask about my story and wondered if it was completely planned out (or if it wasn’t) and how we came to climb the ranks amongst other top planning companies in Chicago in addition to expanding world wide with our destination brand, Storybook Abroad.

After sharing my story, I am going to end with my top recommendations on what you should do if you want to open up a wedding planning company yourself, but don’t have experience. So stick around to the end. 

How It Started

Disney’s Doorway to Dreams

My events experience began in 2010. I was working for a company called Disney Doorway to Dreams in Schaumburg Illinois. Disney Doorway to Dreams was a division of the Walt Disney World Company and Disney Vacation Club. So it was Disney’s super branded way of saying. “Time Share”. 

I’m on the bottom row, three from the right

I began as an Advance Sales Associate and learned from incredible Sales Leaders who really instilled life long practices. I learned the value of visualization and integrity selling, which is the foundation of my sales strategy today. 

Me listening intently lol to our Sales Teacher, Travis Cary (not pictured)

About a year in, moved into an Operational Role and assisted the leadership team with the smaller events we were hosting. I believe they could tell I was loving it, because shortly after I was offered the opportunity to plan the company’s holiday party. This is what initially fueled my excitement for event planning. Although I have been a meticulous planner my entire life. 

Krystal Rose (a friend and Former ASA), Minnie Mouse and I during a Holiday Event at our Schaumburg Store

After a couple years of hard work and networking, I was offered a role at the main hub and moved to Orlando, Florida. It was there where I expanded my knowledge on logistical planning for larger scale events for Disney Vacation Club. I also did scheduling for hundreds of employees. That alone has made a huge educational impact to my knowledge with planning and wedding day timeline creation. 

Berghoff Catering & Restaurant Group

In the summer of 2013, I made my way back to Chicago and took on a role at a Catering Company.  The Catering Company was called Berghoff Catering & Restaurant Group which I sadly don’t have many pictures of .

It was at this catering company that I learned the ins and outs of the wedding day and received my first hand experience of the hectic-ness that goes on behind the scenes. During my time as a catering manager I learned details that I never would have otherwise known to consider. 

It was because of my catering job that I now know exactly how many pounds of ice that we need to order per person – in both the summer and the fall – for water cups and cocktails throughout an entire evening. I know the consumption statistics of liquor, beer and wine by the hour, per individual, and dependent on the type of event. I have practiced and perfected dozens of napkin folds. I mean… the creativity is endless, although I do have my favorite few. 

One of my responsibilities was to lead food and beverage tastings with engaged couples. It was during many of these three hour long dining experiences that I’d learn the frustrations and stressors that couple’s encountered during their wedding planning. 

I was always asked, “Now it is you who puts out all my place cards?” “Who will hang some of the decor I want that doesn’t fall under the umbrella of my florist’s responsibilities?” I would ask them if they had a Wedding Coordinator. This is the person who would take care of this in most cases, because it defenitly wasn’t the caterer. 

My role as a Food and Beverage Manager was food and beverage, in addition to other responsibilities as a full service caterer. I had to make sure that all of our ordered inventory arrived on time and in perfect shape. If we received crates of broken charges (which happens more often than not) I needed to call in back up. I was responsible for accounting for all of our service staff. I assigned them tasks like the table and chair set up, followed by placing linen glassware, china and silverware. 

Because we were as accommodating as possible to our Client’s budget, we didn’t bill them for extra staff to do place setting personalization like place cards, escort cards and favors. We heavily relied on a great team of vendors who were each responsible for their own role. Coordinators took care of place setting personalization and florists tucked in the olive branch to each napkin fold, etc. 

This is something that I hold close to my heart even to this day. I learned the value of each vendor’s role and it’s a foundational function of our process when it comes to hiring good vendors and staffing a big enough team for myself for all of our day-of responsibilities. 

Well, as things tend to happen…. I ended up doing work that wasn’t on my job description. I felt for my couples who couldn’t hire a coordinator and I just couldn’t let mother of the bride arrive early to hang the Chinese lanterns in their ceremony space.

So, as most newbies do, I did a lot of work that I wasn’t compensated for. 

Making The Transition to Wedding Planning

Over time, I fell in love with being a part of the entirety of my couple’s wedding day and not just what their guests were getting served. So I began reaching out to wedding planners in my city to learn more about how they started and also began attending networking events where I could learn more about becoming an event planner. 

I find this part of my journey to be the most impactful for my transition to wedding planning. Not only was it an opportunity to learn straight from the pro’s themselves but it’s also where I met my future “business partner”.

Meeting Lisa

It was through these networking events that I met an entrepreneur named Lisa Jaroscak. In the fall of 2014, Lisa Jaroscak was working for an Entertainment Booking Agency. She had snagged a ticket for an Event Planner Association Meeting. I happened to attend that same evening. Lisa and I ended up sitting on the same couch together and talked for hours.

If I remember correctly, we were still chatting hours after the event ended. We connected on our passion of fast paced work and our excitement for the hectic-ness that wedding days bring. But most of all we connected on the love we had for our couples (in both our respected avenues) and the ideas we had on how to make the engagement experience that much more memorable for them.

Over the coming months we became fast friends spending time together at other networking events and hanging out outside of work – (Which meant that the friendship was real right? 🙂 We also started referring each other and worked our first event together as collaborating vendors (I, the catering Manager and her, the entertainment agent) in December. 

Our First Event Together was at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago, Illinois.

It was at this event that something sparked in me. It was the feeling that I was capable of so much more than catering and that what I was learning at the events and the passion I had would lead to something bigger.

But what stuck out most to me that evening was the realization that Lisa was such instrumental help at this corporate event.  In my experience, the Entertainment Agent literally books the event and confirms with me the week-of that the entertainment will arrive and when. Lisa was ACTUALLY THERE at the event. She was on top of ladders helping the client hang her DIY decor and stayed late with me to make sure the entertainment was exceeding expectations. 

She reminded me of myself. Going above and beyond when she absolutely did not have to. It was just a part of who she was. It was then that I made a very serious note that Lisa was someone I wanted to work with on all my events in the future. 

Becoming Real

Around December of 2014 I started talking to Lisa about my idea of opening up a business. I wanted to manage my own time, take on a new and exciting challenge and jump head on into wedding planning. I asked her if she was interested in joining me as my first hire and by the end of the conversation, Storybook didn’t have a website…but it had a wedding planning team.

It was on my mom’s living room couch that Lisa and I agreed on our first logo. It was made by a friend. And by another friend, our first team pictures were taken. 

Our First Branding Photos

The next few weeks and months were a whirlwind. I gave a two weeks notice to my boss and the owner of the catering company. My notice was received with a request for me to stay on the team a little longer. However, I  was given her blessing to start my company at the same time. – Honestly, I need to give the biggest shoutout to Carlyn Berghoff because I am not sure many other business owners who would be so gracious to allow an employee to do the same. 

By February, we were booking events for the summer and needed another planner because I still had a commitment to the catering company. Very quickly, we found the most perfect match. Her name is Lindsay Gaeta and although she has moved on to growing another wedding planning company, we will be so forever grateful to have had her on our team. 

Growth and Learning

In the years to come we learned a lot. What we loved, what we didn’t. We took on new challenges and hired actual employees, let some go and have continued to ride the merry go round of ups and downs. 

In early 2020, we did launched our current brand after a full rebrand experience with Katherine Joachim of Creme Brands. Our goal was to take all of our learnings and self discovery and even further pinpoint our message to clients and this one we feel is just as timeless as our mission.

It also showcases our sister brand, Storybook Abroad which was conceptualized and built by Lisa. Lisa is our sole Destination Planner providing our couples local to the US, the opportunity to plan a wedding abroad. We have a Storybook Team member, Lucy Rugby who is our onsite planner in Italy to help us create a seamless experience for our couples when we are so many miles apart. 

It was in the early years that we learned so much and got way in over our heads. We took on weddings at too low of a cost, booked so many that it was hard to keep up with – although we never showed it to our clients. Lisa and I are two unique souls that simply cannot sleep if we don’t feel that we’ve done our best. So although we were overworked – we still pushed on.

How It’s Going

Since then, we reworked our business model to give us greater balance of our equal passions of work and life. We no longer book until the calendar is full. Instead, we take on a limited number of weddings a year which benefits back to our clients with an even more in depth and detailed wedding planning experience and we have an incredible dedicated Wedding Coordinator, Joni Taylor. 

It’s been six years since Storybook opened and we wouldn’t have changed a thing. Together we’ve planned and worked hundreds of weddings. We’ve tested the boundaries, taken risks and have always come back to realize that the priorities and passions we began this company with are the same that ring true today.

Storybook was built upon our passion of beautiful weddings, the love we have for our couples and the integrity of or work. These values remain true and radiate just as strong, today.

How Can You Start Your Own Wedding Planning Company With Little to No Experience

Now what about you? What is your story? And if you haven’t started? What is your story going to be?

If you haven’t had any professional experience but want to become a wedding planner, I do want to encourage you and say that you do not need to have a degree in hospitality or in the events industry to be successful. You do however, need to know your “stuff” when it comes to planning a wedding so I always suggest you get involved and learns the ins and outs before you go off on your own. We need to hold the wedding industry accountable to a standard that all couples can rely on. Regardless if you are new or seasoned, the goal is to uphold the values and knowledge for executing a flawless wedding day. 

Steps to Take

Here are four things that you can take action on now to point you in the right direction for opening up your own wedding planning company.

  1. Join Associations and Community Groups in the Wedding Industry. Attend meetings (which may be virtual for now) and start making a name for yourself. Others in the events industry will respect you for wanting to learn. Join the board of the associations that you can and try to get elected as a cochair on events. 

I’ve been a member of NACE, the national association for catering and events and I owe many of my valued and deeper vendor relationships that I built. I was also a CoChair on the 2018 NICE Award which was a joint industry award ceremony for both NACE and ILEA and in 2016 I won the award for the NACE Rising Star. 

Receiving my Rising Star Award in 2016

2. Sign up for serving shifts with a catering company.

Most Importantly, I think this will give you incredible respect for the serving staff and bartenders who attend to you at the events that you’re attending. It’s an incredibly tiring job that needs the physical energy of the staff to be on their feet all day and night for set up, serving and tear down. Not only does the serving staff have to have physical energy but definitely mental as well. They have to deal with guests coming to them with all the questions or telling guests that they can no longer be served to their alcohol consumption and much more. 

Serving shifts were where I learned how to love each and every person that works for me. I can’t execute a wedding day without them and I rely on them for so much. I always think it’s beneficial to put yourself in other’s shoes. But aside from the respect, you will also gain a whole bunch of knowledge. 

  • You will understand the concept of how much time it takes to set a table, toss linen, set up chairs and transform a ceremony room into the reception room in 60 minutes.
  • You’ll learn how quickly the kitchen runs through horsdourves and which are more popular than others. 
  • You will understand the level your stress can hit when you realize that introductions are about to be held and there is a missing seat and place setting at a table (or two).
  • Plus countless more

Getting yourself in a very detailed hands on role at a non-committal and hourly pay is such a great way for growing your experience and if there is an actual Sales Manager Role available at any of these catering companies, go a step above and apply for it!

3. Invite wedding planners out for coffee – and pay them for their time. 

If you really want to get insight into what it takes to be a wedding planner, you can hire a coach that focuses on growing a wedding planning business like myself or you can invite your local wedding planner bosses out for drinks or coffee. Of course, always state your intention, that you would one day like to own your own company. 

But don’t just take them for coffee, compensate them for their time. They have worked for years and not to just hand it all over to you at the price of a $7.00 coffee and scone. Ask them if they would mentor you and that you would be willing to pay for their knowledge. Some planners may be open to having you on as a shadow where you will trade your time for hands on experience. 

Remember, each planner before you had to do the work and had to put in the time and effort to get to where you eventually want to be. And one day, when you have others knocking on your door for the same, you will want to be valued and respected just as much.

4. Fill your mind with education. 

I love the value that a good book brings. Go to your local library or hit up amazon and order some books to get you inspired for your business journey and hone in on the details of how to plan a wedding. Even if you’ve planned your own wedding, I promise…that’s not enough. 

Some of my favorite business and wedding planning books are below:

Million Dollar Women by Julia Pimsleur: https://amzn.to/39DXitX

Profit First by Mike Michalowicz: https://amzn.to/2XRfOJG

Dare to Lead by Brene Brown: https://amzn.to/39KthbO

The Knot Book of Wedding Planning Lists: https://amzn.to/2XNFc3h

Emily Post’s Wedding Etiquette: https://amzn.to/2XLY7LM

Martha Stewart Weddings: https://amzn.to/38SDTWT

We all Start Somewhere

Overall, I want to remind you that you too can have a successful and thriving wedding planning business. 

We all start somewhere. 

It’s taken me six years to get Storybook to where it’s at and four years before that to even prepare me for the work that Storybook was going to take me. and I am still learning EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Grow slow. You will appreciate the slowness when the time starts to move all too quickly.

Now like always, if you have any questions, please share them in the comments below or contact me via email. 

I have all my contact information in the description below. And If you are interested in working with a coach 1:1, I may be your girl, you can learn more about my short term and long term mentorship programs below. 

Lastly, another great read may be my blog post on what I wish I knew before I became a wedding planner.

Until next time, happy planning.

Nicole

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