Fairfield Interview #7: Shayna Walker of Williamsburg Wedding Design

This is the seventh interview in our Fairfield Small Business Challenge series.

Wedding planning isn’t for the faint of heart. Shayna Walker, who has run her own wedding planning business for the past six years and worked in hospitality for more than a decade, is intimately familiar with the challenges of being a professional wedding planner.

To help wedding planners succeed, Shayna is developing information products and self-training programs for wedding professionals. This way, they can find the best approaches to running their businesses, work on their sales skills, and cultivate a variety of other abilities that will make them professional standouts.

To promote her business development products and services, Shayna is on a 14-month, 50-state bridal show tour. I caught up with her to learn more about her company and how the wedding business works.

BP: From a business perspective, what do wedding planners have the most trouble with in their jobs?

From a business perspective, one of our biggest challenges is that we have a really appealing-sounding job. People will say, “Wow, this is really cool. You get to see pretty dresses, make pretty things happen and eat cake every weekend.”

We truly do eat a lot of cake. But it is an extremely challenging profession to be in. We are like psychologists operating without a license, helping people through one of the most emotionally charged states of their lives. Our success is based more on whether our clients are happy or thinking clearly enough to recognize that we did a good job than whether or not we actually performed well.

You have to have the right ethics for it, the right approach. And if you don’t, you could be ruining someone’s most important day.

Unfortunately, there’s a thing that happens after you get married. Right after your wedding, brides go through withdrawal. Oftentimes they experience this because they focused on this one day for a whole year, and it was really intense. Partially because of that withdrawal, a relatively huge percentage of brides go, “Wow! Wouldn’t it be cool to be a wedding planner?” Many of them do this, buy business cards and set up shop.

It happens all the time. We’re competing not only against each other, but against a massive regular influx of amateurs who just think the job sounds like fun. There are few other professions that experience this phenomenon.

BP: A lot of people must drop out pretty quickly when they realize how stressful it is.

They do. Unfortunately, when they come in, they usually start with a price point that’s unreasonably low. Oftentimes they’ll have another income or they’ll have a spouse with an income, so it’s more of a hobby. Making $300 a week sounds really great.

But, they don’t have all the business expenses associated with a real wedding businesses. And they are inexperienced. When they don’t know how to do the job, their clients are their victims, along with the reputations of serious wedding professionals.

It’s the same thing with DJs, photographers and others service providers. Those just seem like cool jobs and there is no barrier to entry. We don’t have a universally recognized certification or a license. Parts of our industry have developed a bad reputation, some of which has been earned by amateurs, and by their bad behavior. It makes it really hard to be treated as a professional and to charge fair prices.

You’re right, they don’t usually make it past the first five years.

BP: But they drag everyone else down with them, I guess.

They do. For example, they may go to a venue and demand everyone act as their servant. Or they make demands of a DJ, not understanding the he has a performance to put on. They act unreasonably and without knowledge or experience. It causes people to become jaded about the rest of us.

That’s why I want to launch these training products. One of the programs I’m working on is intended to spark a reunion of venue managers and wedding planners.

Venue managers always get the blame for what happens in the venue whether or not it’s their fault. As a result, they’ve become very protective of their product, and some have co-opted the roles of planners. Not all of them are able to play both roles. They have their own really hard job to do. A healthy partnership based on mutual respect benefits both the venue and the wedding planner. That’s the kind of cooperation I’m trying to encourage.

Wedding professionals are perceived as the stepchildren of the events industry. I’d like to get them all back into a room and say, “Listen, you can be sales partners, and you can grow together with education and communication.” Other people will accept us as equal colleagues when we approach them and each other with professionalism.

BP: How do you plan on bridging that rift between wedding planners and other professionals?

Through education. That’s why I write about weddings and why I write the way I do: with honesty and a first-hand perspective. We’ve got a lot of people coming to the industry from other sectors, as consultants, to tell us how to be successful and how to make a million dollars. They say we should “market like this” and “act like that” but they don’t understand our dynamics or what we experience.

Life in Weddings is simply a wedding professional talking about what this job is really like; talking about strategies that have worked, those that didn’t, the ethics behind the business, the different choices that we have to face, and my take on it. It’s about building a rapport with other wedding professionals and taking my training products to my colleagues to demonstrate that working together is the way to change this industry.

With the venues and planners, for example, it’s beneficial. We start by sending the message to our colleagues that “We are not all amateurs. We have experience and value professionalism just like you do.” Next we create a forum for listening to each other’s concerns. Then we can help them identify the quality planners, and give them tools for working most effectively with them.

If we could get one tenth of venues to take independent planners back into the fold, and to start working with us as partners, we would start a healing and profitable trend. When you open up a dialogue, you find that many in the industry feel the same frustrations and are looking for solutions. It’s not an easy road because we were preceded by so much unprofessionalism.

BP: What’s your favorite kind of client to plan a wedding for?

My favorite kind of client is the one who is getting married for the right reasons and has total perspective on the day. I just had one of these clients, someone who had strong preferences, communicated effectively and asked for what she wanted. Ultimately, though she knew that the “stuff” didn’t really matter. That even if the whole thing fell to pieces (which it didn’t!), she was marrying the man who she loved and that there was going to be a great party.

That kind of client is just happy the whole time. There’s always stress, but it doesn’t affect them – they’re just doing it for all the right reasons. I like brides with perspective. If I could only take brides with a healthy perspective I would somehow screen for them. But weddings are stressful, so there aren’t too many who are quite that mature, unfortunately.

Those are the happiest people and the ones you feel grateful for; grateful to have been part of their day. I just had that client recently, and of course it kills me to “lose” them because I love them like family and have to send them out into the world. It is so rewarding when you make something magical happen for couples like that.

BP: That sounds like one of the best parts of your job.

That is. That’s absolutely the best part of the job. I love when all the family members hug me at the end of the wedding like I’m one of them. It’s rewarding to be invited by the bride to attend the post-wedding brunch as a guest. It feels like you’ve done something that’s dramatically important to them. You know you just made an impact on someone’s life and they kind of take you into their family.

My other favorite clients are the skeptical ones like the groom or father of the bride who didn’t want a wedding planner. It’s gratifying when he comes up to you and sheepishly says “I was wrong” or “You’re worth ten times as much as we paid you. I’m sorry I ever doubted you.” That’s a delightful feeling.

BP: I bet it can really be a beautiful thing sometimes.

It can be, but it doesn’t always go that way. Sometimes we make mistakes and sometimes things go wrong that are not our fault. As the planner, you take on the burden for what’s going on from the beginning of the day until the end, whether you have any control over a specific situation or not.

It looks pretty glamorous, but it’s a job like any other job. It has its frustrations. It doesn’t always feel rewarding and sometimes it’s really hard to do. But when it goes right, it goes really, really right. It’s like magic.

Follow Shayna’s contest progress on her Fairfield blog.

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