edding planner Nikki Khan knows a little something about grace under pressure. Khan, who runs Exquisite Events in Los Angeles and has been featured in several bridal magazines, has coordinated dozens of beautiful South Asian and American weddings, and they usually go off without a hitch. But there’s always the occasional hiccup that tests her strengths as a creative coordinator—like the time her lighting and stage décor vendor got in a truck accident just hours before a wedding Khan was planning.
“I had to keep my cool and come up with a plan fast,” says Khan. Instead of panicking, she improvised: “I asked the DJ if he had any fabric and props in his van. Luckily, he had done an event the night before and had some stuff in his car. We made use of it and were able to do something decent. The actual vendor showed up a few minutes before we opened the ballroom floor,” she says. “The client did not even know it until after the event, when we refunded his money.”
It’s this poise and professionalism that is required in the wedding planning business—and when you’re dealing with South Asian weddings, there’s even more pressure. Four planners who specialize in desi weddings talked to Nirali about what it takes to work in the ever-expanding wedding industry and what they’ve learned about planning a successful shaadi.
So you wanna be a wedding planner? Don’t expect that you can jump right in without ponying up a pretty penny. “You have to have a lot of capital,” says Sonal Shah of Manhattan’s Sonal J. Shah Event Consultants. “You can’t just wake up one day and think, I’m going to be a wedding planner.” Shah estimates that you need about $100,000 to start your business—and don’t bank on turning a profit right way.
Know Your Stuff
Getting into the wedding industry requires more than just the experience of coordinating your own wedding, though that is what sparked Shah’s interest in the field. “When I got married, I planned to perfection and then turned it over the an ‘experienced’ American wedding planner who was no help whatsoever. She was a nice lady, but she didn’t know how to negotiate or handle an Indian crowd.”
Since Shah had an extensive background in hotel management and sales, she coupled that knowledge with her Indian culture to become one of the first planners of her kind. Shena Cherian, who runs the Houston-based Indian event planning company Design, also knew a little something about events and running a business: She studied in a University of Houston program on entrepreneurship and coordinated corporate events before jumping into the wedding business.
Be Prepared to Work Hard—And Long
“It is not at all as glamorous as it seems,” says Khan. “It’s a very good career if your heart and soul is in it, but it is very stressful. In the end, the coordinator becomes the client’s friend, mediator and psychiatrist.”
Shah, whose day often starts at 4 a.m. so she can liaise with vendors in India, agrees. She says that 100-hour work weeks are not uncommon for her. Shobha Rao, one of the three founders of Elegant Affairs, an event decoration company specializing in South Asian weddings, says that her business has gotten so big that one person can’t handle it all. So she works with her sisters to decorate around 500 weddings each year all over the country.
Good Teyaari Is Key
Sisters Antara and Geetika Prasad are not wedding planners—but they can certainly help you plan your wedding. In 2005, they founded Teyaari (which means “preparation”), a company that offers anyone planning a South Asian event with customized reports on hard-to-find details on vendors you need. Their database contains information on 7,800 vendors in 13 categories across the country. To get a report—which costs $10—just complete a brief form with information about their event. You’ll receive a customized list of professionals you can consider for your wedding or private event.
“This service can be used to jump-start your research and help you make better decisions.” Says Antara. “Since no two events are the same, each report is carefully matched to the unique requirements of the customer, including size, date, budget and location.” For more information, visit www.teyaari.com.
South Asian Weddings Bring Special Challenges
“Wedding planning in the South Asian community is not the same as planning for mainstream clients. You must understand the demands in this industry are far higher since you work not just with the bride but with her entire family,” says Cherian. The planner who is working with a desi family must be skilled at putting both the parents and their children at ease. “I try to make the parents feel very comfortable with me. We’re very respectful of the fact that in India, brides don’t plan their weddings, the parents do. So I try to make sure they understand I’m not taking over,” says Shah. At the same time, Shah tries to advocate for brides who have a hard time getting their parents to agree to certain compromises. “If someone else is telling them, besides the bride, because you’re a paid professional, they really do tend to listen to you.”
Be A Master of Organization
“It’s relatively easy to become a wedding consultant but quite difficult to say tin the industry,” says Cherian. “You must not only be detail-oriented and extremely organized, you must be a tremendous multi-tasker who can handle stress gracefully.” Khan adds that a good planner is constantly making lists to stay on top of everything.
Stay Current With Industry Trends
There isn’t a lot of time off, even when you’re not planning a wedding. To remain successful, wedding planners must know what it takes to be on the cutting edge. “I go to industry events all the time,” says Khan, “To find out what’s new, what’s innovative. You have to constantly educate yourself.”
Planners Share Their Top Tips
After years of experience and hundreds of weddings, Khan, Shah, Rao and Cherian certainly know their trade. So we asked them what every South Asian bride needs to know:
Create a budget. Cherian suggest that it should be one of the first things you do. Once that’s set, don’t accept pressure to go beyond it, and find vendors who are willing to work with you. “Décor is very customizable,” says Rao. “We don’t push our clients to do anything they can’t afford.” If you have limited funds, focus on the overall look and spend on a few key elements. “You don’t have to have an over-the-top wedding, but each component should complement each other,” says Khan. But do spend your money on lighting, which Khan insists is crucial. Adds Shah, “You don’t have to go overboard with your centerpieces, but you can do uplighting around the room. It creates that wow factor you’re looking for.” Shah also reminds brides to be realistic about their budget. “Look at bridal magazines for inspiration and color palettes, but don’t necessarily expect that what you see there will fit your budget.”
Showcase your own personality. “Don’t try to copy what others did,” says Rao. “Focus on what you want.” Shah encourages her brides to think about what’s important to them when determining their themes. “I have a bride who loves yoga,” she says. “After researching that, we based the theme on the seven charkas with seven different colors.”
Book vendors early. “Decide immediately which vendors you want to work with. Otherwise you might not get the best ones in the market,” says Rao. Shah says that’s especially true for venues, which she suggests searching for one or one-and-a-half years in advance. Reasonably priced venues get snapped up quickly, and getting a head start will give you the luxury of having your planner be able to negotiate prices.
Choose the right planner. “A good one will make your life easy, set up appointments and give you a timeline,” says Khan. She’ll also be easily accessible: “I have my cell phone attached to my hip!” Shah suggests making sure your planner does not collect commissions from vendors (get that in writing) and asking your planner how many brides she works with and how often you’ll hear from here. “Trust your instincts,” she adds. And when you’re explaining to your planner what you want, be specific. Don’t just say you want “something different.” Think about what you liked and didn’t like at other weddings you’ve been to and how you can use that knowledge to make yours better.
Pick great vendors. Don’t choose them blindly, recommends Shah. Check vendor references and make sure they are registered with the Better Business Bureau. Spend time interviewing them before signing a contract. Finally, don’t’ be afraid to choose non-desi professionals. “There’s this huge misconception that you have to work with someone Indian in order to have them do the teeka and the dupatta,” says Shah. “But I can show you some Indian brides [for whom you'd think], ‘Oh, this was a great job by an Indian woman,’ and it’s not.”