Editor's note: This article was excerpted from our Wedding Consultant start-up guide, available from Entrepreneur Bookstore.

Once upon a time on a perfect summer day, guests in colorful wedding finery filled an old cathedral. The fragrance of dew-kissed blossoms wafted through the air as soft organ music played. A radiant bride walked up the aisle at the arm of her father to meet the handsome groom waiting at the altar . . .

Fairy tales like this do come true. Now more than ever, wedding consultants are making them happen. In the last decade, the need for professional wedding consultants has grown exponentially. Today, women are often simply too busy juggling the demands of their professional and personal lives to oversee the details necessary to create the wedding of their dreams. This has created an enormous opportunity for people like you considering going into the wedding consulting business.

Although it's difficult to put an exact number on how many wedding consultant businesses there are nationwide, the best guess is approximately 10,000, according to Gerard Monaghan, president of the Association of Bridal Consultants (ABC). Monaghan says that although no one formally tracks these figures, his estimate is based on the number of people who pay for memberships to the various professional associations as well as the number of people on mailing lists available from list brokers.

According to Monaghan, one out of every eight retail dollars is spent on wedding-related products and services. That makes the wedding industry a $42 billion business, although some estimates put that figure as high as $70 billion. Part of the reason for the big bucks spent on a dream wedding is that there are often six wage earners funding the event: the bridal couple, the bride's parents and the groom's parents. This has driven the cost of the average wedding up over the years. Robbi G.W. Ernst III, president of June Wedding Inc., an association for event professionals, says the average cost of a wedding in the United States is now around $17,500 for 125 to150 guests. However, the average cost of a wedding can be $35,000 or more in larger metropolitan areas, where incomes are higher and services are more expensive.

This industry outlook sets the stage for success for both new and established wedding consultants. According to Ernst, a novice consultant who coordinates 10 weddings a year and charges the industry's standard fee of 10 to15 percent per event can expect to gross $17,500 to $26,250 in sales. A more experienced consultant who handles 40 weddings a year can earn $70,000 or more.

"The earnings potential for wedding consultants is awesome," says Richard Martel of the Association for Wedding Professionals International. "Those who are better-connected and better-educated will do the best in this business, as will those who network as a way to build their reputations."

The Personality of a Good Wedding Consultant

So what does it take to be a successful wedding consultant? Loreen C., who owns a wedding consultant business in Ypsilanti, Michigan, says emphatically, "A sense of humor." And she's not kidding.

In a business where you're depending on the professionalism and reliability of a dozen or more people to create a bride's dream wedding, there's always the possibility that something will go askew or bomb out completely. That's why having a sense of humor and the ability to think on your feet are key to keeping things on track or fixing the problems that will inevitably crop up.

In fact, being a people person is pretty much a requirement for this job. You'll be dealing constantly with weepy brides, demanding mothers, cranky suppliers and others who will vie for your attention. You'll be bargaining with vendors, overseeing the activities of hordes of hired helpers, and mingling with the guests at wedding receptions. So it helps if you really love working with people and have an upbeat, positive outlook to help you weather the inevitable problems that arise when you're coordinating countless details.

There are approximately 2.4 million marriages per year, according to American Demographics magazine.

On the more practical side, it also helps to have a strong business background. While it's not impossible to make a go of a wedding consultant business if you've never balanced a checkbook, previous experience with handling finances (even household budgets) as well as managing day-to-day office details is certainly valuable. After all, you'll be coordinating budgets and overseeing finances for your clients. Plus you'll be taking care of the details of running your own business, which will include taxes, billing and other financial matters. You may even have to deal with personnel administration at some point in your career. So business experience (or barring that, at least a good head for numbers and details) is very important.

Professional Certification

Wedding consultants need many of the same business skills that other professionals routinely acquire at universities and colleges. These are skills they use every day for project management, personnel administration, financial planning, even logistics. That's why, over the years, the wedding consultant industry has created its own professional certification and training programs.

Here are some of the programs available:

  • Founded in 1981, the Association of Bridal Consultants (ABC) is an international trade association with 2,400 members worldwide. It offers members three professional designations (these are not certifications): Professional Bridal Consultant, Accredited Bridal Consultant and Master Bridal Consultant. It takes at least six years to reach the senior level.

    Training begins with a five-part home study program with coursework in etiquette, sales, marketing, the wedding day, related services, planning and consulting. The cost of the five-part program is $340; it's also possible to take each course individually at a cost of $85 apiece (plus $90 for the start-up manual). Membership dues are $215 annually (with a $30 one-time application fee), although most new consultants can qualify for the $140 novice rate.

  • Based in San Jose, California, the Association of Certified Professional Wedding Consultants (ACPWC) offers a personalized five-day course and a home correspondence course. The personalized course is presented by certified instructors and is held three times a year in Los Gatos and West Hollywood, California, and in Atlanta, while the home study program is self-directed. The program covers everything from setting up a wedding consulting business to specifics like selecting vendors and proper wedding protocol. The fee is $795 for the five-day program or $650 for the home study program. You become eligible for membership in the organization after successful completion of one of the programs.

    ACPWC certification is awarded after completing the coursework, working for two years as a consultant, coordinating 12 weddings and obtaining 14 letters of recommendation. A certification project is also required.

  • June Wedding Inc. , an association for event professionals, is a Las Vegas-based organization that awards the "JWIC" (June Wedding Inc. Certification) to consultants who complete the two-part JWI Consultant Training & Certification Home Study Course. The home study components include "Designing and Running a Successful Wedding Consultant/Event Coordination Company," and "Continuing Education for the Advanced Wedding Consultant." The tuition for each seminar is $1,000. Annual JWI dues are $150 for small businesses/sole proprietors.

    "We've done surveys that show that wedding consultants who are formally trained and certified can get higher fees from the onset of their business if they're professional and know what they're doing," says Robbi Ernst, founder of JWI.

  • The National Bridal Association is an organization of more than 1,200 independently owned businesses, including wedding consultants. It offers the Weddings Beautiful Worldwide home-study training program for consultants who are interested in starting a business or who wish to augment their knowledge. The program consists of 18 specialized assignments. Upon completion of the coursework, students receive a certified wedding specialist certificate. The course costs $495 and includes review and grading of assignments by a Weddings Beautiful specialist.

How to Become a Wedding Consultant

Target Market

As the song says, "love makes the world go 'round," which means there should be plenty of people who will need your services, right? In theory, yes. But you'll be much more successful if you study the demographics of the area you wish to do business in, then tailor your services to a specific group within that market.

Demographics are defined as the characteristics of the people in your target audience that make them more likely to use your services or products. These characteristics may include age, education and income levels, gender, type of residence and geographical location.

Probably the most significant demographic for wedding consultants to consider is age. According to The Knot, an online source of wedding information, the average age of today's bride is 26, while the average age of the groom is 28. So while you certainly can serve people of any age group, you'll probably have the best success and garner the most business if you target brides in their mid-20s. This means that if the population base in your business's area doesn't have brides in this age group, you must either reconsider your market or adjust your marketing strategy.

Case in point: Brides may be the ultimate consumer for your services, but who often foots the bills for those dream weddings? Mom and Dad, of course. So a viable way to adjust your strategy if you aren't based where twentysomething consumers live is to target their parents instead. That's what Julia K. of suburban Dallas did when her market research showed that the communities around her were populated by couples that were long-time residents and were likely to have children of marriageable age. As a result, she concentrates her advertising efforts in those communities and now coordinates an average of 30 weddings per year.

This is not to say there's no market for your services among older brides. According to the Stepfamily Association of America, 43 percent of all marriages are remarriages for at least one of the adults. These brides are usually older (early 30s and up) and also are prime candidates for your services given the demands of their careers--and their children.

Yet another factor to consider is where your prospective clients live versus where they work. Julia says that brides may look for information, use bridal registries or purchase their invitations in the area where they work, but they'll go home to get married. That means the wedding consultant may have to travel if he or she wishes to serve the brides who work in the local business community.

Targeting Professional Women

One demographic segment which many wedding consultants serve successfully is professional women. These corporate executives or business owners often hold advanced college degrees and have high incomes. Because they don't have time to plan their own weddings, they're more likely to favor full-service packages that make it possible for them to turn all the details over to an experienced planner. Since full-service packages are usually a consultant's highest priced offering, this can translate into significant profits.

Marsha F. and Jenny C., Dallas-based wedding consultants, found their niche by targeting professional women. Originally, they intended to coordinate high profile and celebrity weddings, but found the market was very difficult to break into. By refocusing their efforts on serving professional women, they now book weddings for fees averaging $30,000.

Economic Environment

Before we move on, there's one more very important factor to consider in your market research efforts. That's the economic base in your prospective market area.

Obviously, a wedding consultant is not an absolute necessity when it comes to coordinating a wedding. People get married all the time without ever using consultants' services. What you offer is experience, convenience, and the ability to step in when the details become too time-consuming or overwhelming for a busy bride to manage. So your task not only becomes making your services irresistible to brides, but making sure the people who will pay the bills are financially able to afford your services.

How to Become a Wedding Consultant

Startup Costs

There aren't many viable businesses around that eager entrepreneurs can jump into, backed by just a modest amount of capital, a vision and lots of enthusiasm. Fortunately, wedding consulting is one of them.

Because most wedding consultant businesses begin as homebased businesses, startup costs are relatively low. You don't have the overhead associated with renting an office space. You may be able to use equipment you already own, such as a computer or a fax machine. Your dining room table will suffice as a desk, at least initially, and your home telephone can pinch hit as your business line during regular business hours. Initially, you won't have any inventory to pay for. (A word of warning: Don't even think about investing in retail merchandise or props that can be used at weddings until you've been in business for a while. You don't need the extra financial burden when you start out.) You don't even have to invest in an extensive business wardrobe as long as you already own attire that would be appropriate for business meetings, bridal consultations and on-site wedding coordination.

Office Equipment and Supplies

Below are the office equipment and supplies costs for two hypothetical wedding consulting businesses: "Weddings by Jamie," a homebased company, and "Cherished Moments in Time," a startup based in a commercial office space. The owner of "Weddings by Jamie" already had a basic computer system (not including a printer) and selected items to fit a limited startup budget. The owner of "Cherished Moments in Time" decided to go with top-of-line equipment and furniture to outfit her office.

 

  Weddings by Jamie Cherished Moments
Office Equipment:
Computer, printer $500 $4000
Scanner $0 $300
Microsoft Office $600 $600
Intuit QuickBooks $250 $250
Wedding Software $0 $30
Zip Drive $100 $200
Surge protector/UPS $0 $160
Digital Camera $0 $500
Fax Machine $0 $250
Copy Machine $0 $800
Phone/voice mail/answering machine $76 $320
Postage meter/scale $0 $25
Calculator $15 $50
Office Furniture:
Desk, chair, file cabinet(s), bookcase $400 $1,120
Office Supplies:
Letterhead, envelopes, business card $200 $300
Miscellaneous supplies (pens, folders, etc.) $50 $50
Computer/copier paper $25 $50
Extra printer cartridges $25 $80
Extra fax cartridge $0 $80
Zip Disks $25 $50
3.5-inch floppy disks $7 $12
Mouse Pad $0 $10
Total $2,273 $9,237

How to Become a Wedding Consultant

Operations

No matter where you decide to conduct the majority of your business or what your personal management style may be, there are certain tasks common to all wedding consultants. Among them are day-to-day business administration, bridal consultations, wedding-day organization, and vendor and service coordination. Here's a look at each of these activities.

Day-to-Day Administration

Even though no two days tend to be alike for wedding consultants, because the tastes and needs of their clients vary so widely, there are certain tasks you can expect to do on a regular basis. To begin with, you'll spend lots of time on the telephone every day, fielding inquiries from interested brides, following up on vendor leads and checking on the status of wedding preparations. If you employ contract or temporary help during weddings, you'll have to meet with them on a regular basis to provide instructions and go over details. You'll also spend a significant amount of time with the brides themselves, either conducting consultations or accompanying them to appointments with suppliers.

Then there's the paperwork. You'll have contracts to review, tax forms to file and other business-related papers to shuffle. You'll also have to keep meticulous records on the choices your brides make, the status of wedding day plans and other details. A word of advice: No matter how good your memory is, you should always jot down every appointment and activity. The number of details you'll have to attend to as a wedding consultant will be truly mind-boggling, and when you're busy and short of time, it will be too easy for something to fall through the cracks--possibly with disastrous results.

Consultations

To determine what a bride wants and how much she wants to turn over to you, you'll have to schedule consultations. Although some planners offer free one-hour consultations, it makes sense to charge at least a nominal fee--say, $50 an hour--for your time. In his book, Great Wedding Tips from the Experts, Robbi Ernst writes, "A genuinely professional wedding consultant isn't going to talk with [anyone] for free, unless it is simply an introductory meeting . . . to determine if you are a good match for each other."

According to Ernst, the fee for a single consultation typically ranges from $175 in smaller communities to as much as $500 in metropolitan areas. Charging a fee will help to cut down on the number of women who are just "shopping around" for services without making a commitment.

The Wedding Day

All the wedding consultants said they act as the bride's advocate on the happy day, running interference with suppliers, making sure the wedding party is dressed and where they're supposed to be on time, and so on. Some consultants, like Julia K. in Oak Point, Texas, and Packy B. in Broadview Heights, Ohio, prepare snacks and drinks for the wedding party to nibble on before the wedding so they don't go up the aisle with rumbling stomachs. To make sure all these tasks run like clockwork, most wedding planners create a detailed wedding day schedule for each member of the wedding party, the parents and other relatives as well as vendors who are responsible for providing various services.

Consultants often hire extra help on a contract basis to assist with wedding day activities. Their duties may range from greeting guests to taking care of the wedding party and families (refilling drinks, assisting the bride in the powder room and so on). These contractors are hired on an as-needed basis, and are paid either by the hour (around $10 to $15 an hour) or by the function ($100 to $150 per day).

Working with Vendors

One of the things that will make you invaluable to customers is your knowledge of the bridal industry. As a consultant, you're expected to be the font from which all knowledge about the industry flows. That means knowing things like which wedding gown styles or decorating schemes are in vogue and which are pass�, or whether it's inspired or gauche to use silk flowers in the bride's bouquet.

But perhaps even more importantly, your clients will count on you to recommend reliable suppliers that offer the best quality and value for their money. So it's your job to research bridal service providers in your target market to find the best possible sources for the products or services you'll require. From this research you should compile a list of preferred vendors you can either share with the bride during a consultation or use yourself if you're in charge of all the planning.

The easiest way to identify potential service providers is by asking friends and business acquaintances for recommendations. Other useful sources of information include the Internet, and your local Yellow Pages and Chamber of Commerce. The Better Business Bureau can also be useful for helping you steer clear of businesses whose reputations are less than sterling.

In this initial fact-finding stage, don't limit yourself to locating a certain number of vendors. Rather, identify as many potential sources as possible so you'll have several to choose from when the time comes to make a recommendation to the bride. Keep in mind, too, that you should locate vendors in the low, medium and high price ranges to accommodate all budgets.

Then once you've compiled your list of sources, pick up the phone and make appointments to see their facilities and products in person. Since business owners are generally pleased to grant you a personal interview and show off their services as a way to secure future business, those who balk should be removed from your list.

Who Will Your Major Suppliers Be?

  • Reception halls and banquet sites
  • Caterers
  • Florists
  • Entertainment consultants and DJs
  • Photographers and videographers
  • Wedding cake bakery
  • Limousine service

How to Become a Wedding Consultant

Income and Billing

Charges for wedding consulting services vary widely. Typically, consultants charge by the hour or by the package. Some consultants will charge up to 15 percent of the total wedding cost, but this is a more common practice in larger cities where disposable income is higher and there are more top-level female executives footing the bill.

According to Ernst, preparation-planning fees, which include everything except wedding day coordination, usually range between $2,000 and $4,500, depending on whether your business is in a rural or metropolitan area. Full production coordination, which includes everything from early planning and budgeting to wedding day activity coordination, will cost an additional $1,500 to $3,000 on average.

According to the wedding consultants interviewed for Entrepreneur's Bridal Consultant Startup Guide, full production package rates ranged from $1,000 to $5,000. The higher prices were found in the largest metropolitan areas, where one consultant even offered a $10,000 "concierge" package for the bride who wants to do nothing more than verbally approve the consultant's selections and write checks to pay the suppliers.

To arrive at a price for your wedding packages, Gerard J. Monaghan of the Association of Bridal Consultants suggests using this formula to come up with an hourly rate:

(amount you want to net annually) � 50 weeks � 5 days a week x (factor of 2.5 for expenses) = per diem � 8 hours = hourly rate

The SBA says the average service industry pay rate is $25 to $125 per hour. Where you price your services in this range depends on what your local market will bear.

Billing

Of course, to obtain all that lovely remuneration, you have to bill your clients regularly. Most of the wedding consultants we spoke to bill incrementally. Typically, they require payment for the consultation on the spot, then expect monthly payments for weddings that are planned over a very long period of time (like 9 months to a year). Weddings that have a shorter lead-time may be billed in two installments: one at the time of the contract, and a second final payment no later than 30 days after the event.

Cancellations aren't uncommon in this business, and Loreen C., the consultant in Michigan, tries to keep hers to a minimum by refunding just half of the deposit if the cancellation occurs within seven days. After that, the deposit is forfeited. "I have to do that because I might have turned someone else down for the same date," she explains.

Some of the wedding consultants we spoke to have merchant accounts, which allow them to bill their clients' Visa or MasterCard accounts. Julia K., the wedding consultant in Texas, points out that credit card fees can be very high for the merchant (that's you), but they're a necessary expense if you want to be paid on a timely basis. But if you haven't been in business very long, a merchant account probably isn't necessary just yet.

Smart Tip
Always provide a written contract that spells out your responsibilities and payment terms, since under the Uniform Commercial Code, contracts for the sale of services or goods in excess of $500 must be in writing to be legally enforceable. Even if your bill will be under $500, it's a good idea to have a written contract just in case a dispute arises.

How to Become a Wedding Consultant

Marketing

Before you start dropping dollars on advertising of any kind, it's wise to create a basic marketing plan. This plan doesn't have to be complicated, but it should be detailed enough to serve as a roadmap that keeps your business on track and your marketing efforts on target. In addition, it should be updated periodically as market conditions change so you're always in touch with the needs of your customers.

Your marketing plan can be a part of the business plan you've already written. It should describe your target market and the competitive environment you're operating in (this is where your market research comes in) as well as address how you're going to make your customers aware of your business. Information relating to pricing, industry trends and advertising also has a place in your marketing plan.

Read All About It

Another important part of your marketing plan is your promotion strategy. Every wedding consultant, from the "one-man band" who coordinates just a handful of weddings annually to the person who needs a large staff to help handle the workload, must advertise to get new business.

The types of advertising that are most effective for wedding consultants include Yellow Pages advertising, magazine ads, brochures, business cards and word-of-mouth. Each method is discussed below.

Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

Without exception, the wedding consultants we spoke to said that their Yellow Pages ads were low-maintenance, low-cost workhorses that returned great value for their advertising dollar. There are two types of ads to choose from. The first is the line ad, which is the basic listing that's published under a heading like "Wedding Consultants" or "Wedding Services." Line ads normally contain only the business name, address and telephone number, and are provided to you free of charge when you turn on your phone service.

The second type of ad is the display ad. It's usually boxed and is much larger than a line ad. As a result, a display ad can contain far more copy, including details about the services you offer, your hours of operation and even a piece of clip art that relates to your business. Display ads are sold by the column width and the depth in inches. Most directories have their own standard sizes, so you'll have to inquire about both the size and the cost.

Magazine Display Ads

It's best to advertise only in consumer publications that cater specifically to brides since at any given time, only 1 percent of the population is considering marriage. The "biggies" in the bridal industry are Bride's and Modern Bride, but there are many others in the field. In addition, many cities have their own monthly bridal magazines, which are excellent vehicles for your ad. (One to try: Modern Bride, which publishes a regional magazine in numerous U.S. markets.)

Advertising in these publications can be expensive. To get the best possible rate, you should run a what's known as a schedule of ads, since the per-insertion rate is reduced when you repeat the ad over a set period of time. Another bonus: Studies show that ads that are repeated regularly tend to generate the most interest among consumers. It's really not beneficial to advertise only when you need business, so save your money if you can only afford one or two insertions.

Brochures

A brochure is a great tool for reaching brides-to-be in the places they're likely to frequent, like bridal shops, bakeries that specialize in wedding cakes and so on. The cover should prominently feature your company name and have a meaningful graphic that represents your business (such as a happy bride, a bridal bouquet or entwined wedding rings). Other elements the brochure should include are:

  • A detailed list of your services
  • Testimonials from satisfied customers ("XYZ Bridal made my wedding a wonderful day to remember!"--Jane Smith, Anytown, Minnesota)
  • Contact information (your address, phone number, fax number, e-mail address and website address)

You'll also want to consider mailing your brochure to prospective brides in the geographical area you serve. Many publications sell their mailing lists and can segment the names by ZIP Code or other criteria you choose. Regional bridal shows often compile their own mailing lists and make them available for sale. These are extremely effective lists because they're "hot lists," or compilations of likely buyers. A few weeks after a particular show, contact its public relations office to determine whether you'll be allowed to buy its list.

Business Cards

Here's a great way to advertise at a very low cost. Your business card is not only your calling card; it reminds a prospective bride or her parent(s) that you're only a phone call or an e-mail away. As a result, you should distribute your card freely wherever you go. The sole exception: Don't ever give out business cards at a wedding you are coordinating unless you are specifically asked for one. There's nothing less professional or tackier than placing a neat little pile of business cards on the cake table or--horrors!--handing out unsolicited cards to the unmarried guests in attendance.

Word-of-Mouth Advertisting

Whoever said there's no such thing as a free lunch must have overlooked word-of-mouth (WOM) advertising. Not only is the price right, but WOM praise is one of the most powerful advertising vehicles you have at your disposal. One of its major advantages is that you often don't have to do anything special to garner this kind of freebie publicity. All you must do is perform your job to the best of your ability, and people will talk favorably about you and your willingness to do whatever it takes to satisfy the customer.

Alexander Hiam, author of Marketing for Dummies, says the key to getting good WOM is influencing what your customers say about you. You can do this a number of ways. Some wedding consultants call their clients a few weeks after the wedding to get feedback and verify their satisfaction. During that conversation, you can also get a referral or two from the satisfied bride, which you can turn then into a WOM opportunity by using her name when you call the person to whom she referred you.

Another way to influence WOM is by becoming involved in local business organizations, like Rotary International or the chamber of commerce. As you may know, many people have the perception that wedding consultants are "dabblers" who like to attend weddings and have turned that interest into a little side business. Although this perception is changing, you can establish yourself as a professional by networking at meetings of these local organizations. The members, in turn, are likely to use your services themselves or recommend you to others in need of a wedding coordinator.

How to Become a Wedding Consultant

Resources

Associations

Bridal Shows

Publications

Wedding Planning Software
Note: Much of the wedding software available on the market is geared toward the bride. The package listed here have features that are useful for wedding consultants.

How to Become a Wedding Consultant