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Helping couples say 'I Do'
Wedding coordinators make dreams come true

LAWRENCEVILLE - Jan McBee began gathering ideas for her wedding at the age of 5 1/2 when watching the fairy tale wedding of England's Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.

"I watched intently with my mother and was in awe of it all," said McBee, who turned her fascination into a job as a wedding planner. "My parents loved to entertain, so it's kind of in me. I learned to coordinate food and decor from my mother and father.

"Whether it was folding napkins or greeting guests, I was involved and loved it. After attending my first wedding as a child, I was hooked on the romance and beauty of it all."

It was at those weddings as a child that McBee began collecting souvenirs of a sort.

"I know it sounds crazy and my cousin reminds me of it all of the time," McBee said, "but I used to save favors like bookmarks, the little favor boxes that wedding candy was in, definitely the programs."

Today, McBee is married and helping others realize their dream nuptials.

McBee founded LaFete Weddings and Special Events, based in Suwanee, in 2005 and plans weddings part time. She is currently coordinating a wedding for Snellville residents Gretchen Babbitt and Jimmy France, who started planning for their Oct. 3 nuptials this past September, enlisting McBee's help after the task became overwhelming for the bride. France had attended a wedding McBee had coordinated this past year at the Gwinnett Historic Courthouse.

Working with a $15,000 budget for the 200-guest wedding and reception, McBee appears to think of everything. During a consultation with the couple in March, she went through a checklist of to-dos:

· The location for the ceremony - the couple was trying to decide between a church and a country club, finally choosing the church.

· Welcome gifts for out-of-town guests - Babbitt is from Ohio.

· A theme for the wedding, including colors.

· An upcoming engagement photo shoot.

· Selecting save-the-date cards.

· Music for the ceremony.

Now, six months before their wedding date, all vendors are in place and McBee is working with the couple to get their save-the-date magnets mailed to their guests. Then it will be on to coordinating decorations, logging RSVPs and selecting favors.

Like McBee, Dawn Cowart said she got into the business of planning weddings and events the same way many people do: "You planned your own wedding, you planned everybody else's and every other event for free," she said. "I thought it was time I start making some money from it."

After planning events for about 14 years free of charge, Cowart opened Traditionally Modern Wedding & Event Planners Inc. of Lawrenceville, and has been doing business for six years.

How many weddings would she estimate she has planned in those 20 years?

"Oh, goodness, I don't know ... probably a couple hundred."

Cowart said she's done pretty much everything, from weddings with 40 to 300 guests on budgets ranging from $5,000 to more than $100,000.

Wedding recession?

Even if the country was not in a recession, McBee said she would still be looking for ways to save her clients' money, particularly by doing things herself rather than using a vendor. For the Babbitt-France wedding, she has looked at inexpensive ways to make a dramatic impact with decorations using carnations versus more expensive flowers so the couple can put the money saved toward another part of their wedding.

As a result of the recession, Cowart has seen couples scaling back on plans.

"The first thing people are cutting out is the wedding planner," Cowart said, "which is a huge, huge mistake. That is the biggest mistake you can make."

In addition to negotiating contracts with vendors, which can help couples save money, Cowart said wedding planners are indispensable when it comes to making sure things run smoothly the big day.

"What happens if something goes wrong?" she asked, following up the question with plenty of examples.

One wedding, a fuse blew in the catering company's truck and they had no way to cook the food. To make sure food was ready when the bride and groom arrived 30 minutes later to have cocktails with their guests, Cowart went across the street from the venue to a restaurant and begged to use the oven there. Cowart then called a friend and asked her to fire up her double oven. The catering company went there to prepare the rest of the food for the wedding reception.

"The bride and groom never knew," Cowart said. "They still don't know. That's a perfect example of, 'What would you do?'"

During a wedding last year, the couple had ordered an ice cream cake from a local Dairy Queen but neither had picked it up.

"He thought she took care of it, she thought he took care of it," said Cowart, who picked up the cake.

From a groomsman missing a bowtie five minutes before a ceremony to caterers showing up with linens in the wrong color, "There's just so many things that could happen," Cowart said.

McBee has seen her share of wedding day mishaps.

"I attended a wedding where a bride totally forgot to grab her bouquet when she started down the aisle," she said, "but (the bride) was so gorgeous I don't know if she really needed them."

At another wedding, the groom, minister and mother of the groom got stuck in the church elevator.

"It happened about an hour or 45 minutes prior to the wedding starting and we were able to get the Fire Department out quickly to help," McBee said. "It took a few minutes to calm the mother of the groom, but we started the wedding on time and the bride didn't know a thing about it until after everything was over."

McBee has even seen bridesmaids and a groomsman pass out during a ceremony.

"They were locking their legs and didn't eat before the wedding," McBee said. "I always make it a point to have snacks and bottled water in the dressing rooms for the bridal party before the ceremony."

At her own wedding, McBee had a particularly vital vendor cancel at the last minute: "The morning of my wedding," McBee said, "I got a call from the DJ ... and he advised that something had come up and he couldn't DJ at my reception."

McBee did have music that day, but several of the songs she wanted played were left out.

"That was one of the reasons I felt strongly about becoming a wedding coordinator," McBee said. "No bride, groom or family member should have to deal with things like that on the wedding day."