Wedding planner Isabel Smith shares her trade secrets with us….

I love sitting down with the country’s top wedding planners to pick their brains and ask them to spill the beans on all their tips and secrets. Today I interviewed the lovely Isabel Smith of Isabel Smith Wedding Designs.

What are the first things a bride should think about when starting to plan her wedding?
When right at the beginning of the planning process, where do you start? With the Theme? The Date? The Venue? The Budget?

The truth is that all these factors are tied together. You can’t really set a budget without knowing roughly what things cost, so you start to see some venues but their prices vary depending on the date, but the date can influence the theme as your favourite flower might not be available at certain times of year– its no wonder that couples get completely overwhelmed!

At this point, it is vital to take a step back.

Make a list of your absolute top priorities for the day, trying to keep it to no more than 5. You may well find that this gives you an obvious place to start from which everything else follows.

For example, if you want to get married in a church, you should start in your own parish since you are entitled to marry there. If you decide to book that church, your search area for a reception venue can then be limited to no more than about 30 minutes from the church. Venues you look at can first be narrowed by size depending on your guest list, then by style depending on your taste, and finally by budget.

Alternatively, there may be one definitive feature that you want to include – if you’ve already found the perfect bridesmaid’s dresses, work the colour theme around that. You may know exactly which photographer you want to use and they may have some great ideas of venues they have worked with before.

The important thing is to stay calm and try not to get too involved in the details too early on.

What is the most common thing that brides forget to consider when planning their wedding?
Because most bride’s don’t plan large scale events very often, it is often the logistical details that get overlooked – will you need a microphone for the speeches in order to be heard?  How much time will it take for everyone to take their seats for the wedding breakfast?  These details are important as they can affect the running of the day and the budget, however, your wedding planner, venue or caterer can help.

What is the best way to start your day when you wake up on the morning of the wedding?
Remember that Kellogg’s Cornflakes ad where the father of bride brings her a bowl?  Bride’s always laugh at me when I advise them to eat a good breakfast on the morning of the wedding – they think that they’ll be too nervous.  But remember, it is a long day, and depending on when your ceremony is booked, you might not get any lunch.

What are your best tips to ensure the big day runs smoothly?
1. Seek advice from your suppliers
Once most of your decisions have been made, ask each supplier to be honest about how long they think each element of the day will take. Averages may not apply to you if you are having more readings than usual, or a particularly high number of formal photographs taken.

2. Keep your guests, informed, fed and entertained
Ask your ushers to pass around directions from the church/registry office to avoid guests getting lost. Equally, why not produce a brief schedule of the day outlining catering and entertainment plans – guests won’t mind a longer drinks reception if they feel informed and looked after.

3. Assign somebody outside of the bridal party to do the ferrying
Whether it is your wedding planner, the venue’s banqueting manager or a formal toastmaster in a red jacket, there needs to be a professional keeping an eye on the time rather than one of the guests as they won’t be distracted by the day’s festivities. A professional will often also be more experienced at striking the balance between encouraging guests to take their seats and behaving like a drill sergeant.

4. Build in a contingency
Never underestimate how long it takes for people to get from A to B, or take their seats for the meal, or eat dessert. Building in an extra hour within the day will prevent your evening guests from arriving before the formalities are finished and therefore feel like they are gate-crashing a party in full swing.

5. Don’t wear a watch yourself
The best laid plans of mice and men…sometimes things simply do run late. The important thing is that your friends and family are with you to celebrate your union so relax and enjoy being with them.

What is the most common thing to go wrong on a wedding day?

The most common things to look out for relate to the comfort of your guests. Make sure that you have allowed enough time for all the formalities on the day so that they don’t feel rushed and you are not stressed.  Make sure the ushers are responsible enough to guide guests to the reception venue/show them to their seats/help them find the loos.  Equally, nothing can ruin a wedding more than hungry guests so try to offer canapés if the drinks reception is going to take longer than an hour, and have some evening catering if your party won’t end until midnight.
I have also very occasionally seen suppliers fail to turn up, or deliver short.  Using reliable, tried and tested suppliers, backed up with a simple phone call on the week of the wedding to double check their arrival times and responsibilities will prevent this. Once these things are effectively planned for, the smaller things, like needing to grab an extra chair for the ceremony, or the best man’s speech not being quite as funny as you had hoped will pale into insignificance.

When things get stressful what is your best advice to stay calm?
Stress usually relates to not feeling in control of things.  I always find taking 10 minutes to re-write my to do list will help.  Start with the bigger picture – the suppliers you need to find, and then work downwards.  Highlight the priorities in one colour and the quick jobs you can get out of the way that day in another and work on those.  It is really important not to get too bogged down with the tiny details too early on as this will just leave you feeling overwhelmed.
Weddings are emotional affairs and very much family ones so this can also cause a lot of stress.  As with any relationship, the key is open communication so that you can get to the bottom of the problem and find a suitable compromise sooner rather than later.

Is it important to have a theme or colour scheme for your wedding?
I think it is really important that your wedding is a reflection of you as a couple.  This may mean that a particular style, colour or theme comes to the fore within your planning, or it may not and that is ok too – a little bit of mixing and matching can look really effective.  All I would say is not to mix it up too much – hay bale seating is better left at a barn and ultra modern table arrangements will jar with a Georgian townhouse hotel.

Couples can sometimes feel like their wedding day goes by in a blur. What advice can you give a couple to avoid this and for them to have wonderful memories they can look back on?
I always recommend that a couple take 15 minutes or so at some point in the day to slip away and have some time together.  The day really does go by quickly when you are anxious to make sure you have said hello to everyone, so having a little time to reflect on the vows you have just taken and share a quick kiss will mean a lot to you afterwards.

Any tips for a bride to look gorgeous on her big day?

I think that all the day to day beauty tips apply – getting some regular exercise, eating well and drinking lots of water will all help to give you energy and a good glow.  With regards to your look for the day itself, make sure that you have tried it all out before – practice with your fake tan, get any highlights done far enough in advance that you have time to change it if you don’t like it and have a good trial with your hair stylist and make-up artist.  Above all, you want to feel like you, but on your best day, so make sure you choose a dress and style that truly reflects you so that you feel your most confident.

How can a couple ensure they stick to their budget?
The key to sticking to your budget starts right at the beginning.  First, you need to know what you are prepared to spend so talk to any family members who offer to contribute about how much they are offering and what it is to be spent on, and look at what you can realistically afford to save each month.  Next you need to write a list of all the things that you will need to pay for (or download one – there are some excellent spreadsheets available for free on the internet).  Make some preliminary calls to suppliers so that you can allocate your budget realistically (making sure you leave a contingency fund of about 15% for extras or unknown costs).  Finally, be firm with yourself – don’t overspend on anything unless you know that you can make up the shortfall elsewhere.

For couples with a small budget, what are your top tricks for making the day appear as fabulous as possible?
I think that a lot of brides rush out when they get engaged to buy a million magazines and fall in love with things they see without really understanding what the look costs to achieve.  Instead, I recommend buying one or two and taking the ideas that can be re-created yourself:  Re-use your old coffee jars and fill them with traditional sweets for the drinks reception; buying your vases on e-bay might end up being cheaper than hiring them if you are not too fussed about them matching.
In order to maximise the budget for the pretty, personal details, why not host your wedding later in the day so that you need only feed your guests once.
The bottom line is that what you can’t afford in money, you’ll have to make up for in creativity and effort, whether that means making your own invitations, trawling the internet to find the best possible prices or negotiating much harder with your suppliers.

If a bride has lots of close girlfriends how does she pick a maid of honour without hurting peoples feelings?
2010 is all about throwing the rule book out of the window so if you have lots of close friends, why bother having a maid of honour at all – why not just have lots of bridesmaids?  Alternatively, if you are a traditionalist, or don’t have space in the budget for lots of bridesmaids, pick the person who you really think will be the most supportive to you.  Your friend who recently had a baby is unlikely to be able to make you a priority all the time and a younger, more carefree friend might not understand why the wedding is so important to you.  To help keep the peace, explain to the others why you made your choice and ask them to get involved in other ways – perhaps to make a reading during the ceremony.

What should a bride take in to consideration when choosing a caterer?
Think about the style of food that you want and make calls to 10 or more so as to get a clear shortlist of those you feel specialise in this type of food.  Then, it is worth meeting with at least two of them.  In addition to an accurate quote, you also need to ask them how many staff they are offering, whether they are staff they use regularly or whether they are from an agency.   Speak to them about what needs they have as well as exactly what is included in their service as some charge extra for clearing away empty bottles etc after the event.

Is it always necessary to serve a dessert with the meal or can the wedding cake be served as dessert?

Whilst I think it is important to offer something sweet to your guests, two courses, followed by dessert, followed by coffee and cake might be a bit much for people so serving the wedding cake as dessert can be a great way of satisfying the sweet toothed guests and saving money.   However, if your wedding breakfast is to take place early in the day and you are having some evening catering, you may wish to save the cake for then, so I would strongly recommend serving a dessert with the main meal.

Is it ok to ask for money as a wedding present?
Traditions and etiquette are constantly evolving so it is becoming more and more acceptable to ask for money rather than a gift.  All I would say is that older, more traditional members of the family might still think this terribly rude, so ask them instead for something for the home, or make a small registry list that they can refer to.

What are your top tips for saving money when planning a wedding?
Saving money is a lot like dieting – whenever you want the doughnut, ask yourself whether you want it more than fitting into your jeans.  Do you want the new shoes or do you want the wedding cake your saw at that wedding fair?  The trick is not to get too obsessive, and to set yourself realistic targets as to what you can save each month – otherwise you’ll start overspending on the wedding and get more stressed as the payment deadlines approach.  Above all, I NEVER recommend getting into any debt that you can’t manage for your wedding.

What makes a truly memorable wedding?
Whilst the comfort of your guests is really important as this is what will make them enjoy the day as it happens, a memorable wedding has very little to do with the meal served, or any lavish, expensive decorations.  It is more about the people who attend, the jokes that are told, the crazy dancing – these are the things that people will talk about for years to come.

What is your favourite thing about weddings?
As a planner, it is impossible to say.  I really enjoy the logistical and budget planning, and the feeling of satisfaction at the end when it all comes together.  I love the design process and the fashion but also the sentiment and the fact that it all boils down to two people making a commitment to each other.  As a guest, I am all about the cake!

To find out more about Isabel Smith’s wedding planning services visit her website www.isabelsmithweddings.co.uk or contact her directly on 01494 444877  –  07815 131576 or enquiries@isabelsmithweddings.co.uk

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