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It’s Your Party

Professional wedding planners can save time and sometimes even money 

Wedding planner Lori Stephenson admits that true Chicagoans would have known better. But this couple hailed from California, and they wanted an outdoor wedding. The pair booked the 63rd Street Beach House along the lakefront and discounted pleas by Stephenson, an owner of LOLA Event Productions, to create a Plan B.

On the September morning of the wedding, 45-mile-an-hour winds whipped along the lakefront, and two inches of water filled the beach house. “It was the only time I’ve had tears at a wedding,” admits Stephenson, who was able to maneuver a ceremony in the beach house and then bus guests to Bluprint, the restaurant in the Merchandise Mart (thanks to a strong working relationship with the Blue Plate catering company, which owns the place). Stephenson tweaked the décor just enough to delight the bride and groom, who had never been to the restaurant.

Those moments prove why an expert wedding planner, even in this economy, can be invaluable. With that in mind, Chicago magazine compiled a list of some of the city’s strongest wedding consultants, those who can orchestrate the wedding of your dreams, avert catastrophe, and save time and sometimes even money.

THE DYNAMIC DUO
Lori Stephenson and Lauren Lehman Carter
LOLA Event Productions
1616 North Damen Avenue; 773-942-6172, info@lolaeventproductions.com

Our tale involving the California couple is one of a number of wedding-day dilemmas these two planners, who lead LOLA Event Productions, have endured and conquered. There was the time a spider crawled out of a centerpiece at Café Brauer, and the time Stephenson’s hair caught fire when it brushed the candles behind the church door as she opened it for a bride. “We have a sense of humor,” says Stephenson, 35. “You have to.

“We’re part MacGyver and part Dr. Phil,” explains Stephenson, who put herself through college at the Parsons School of Design and the University of Wisconsin at Madison by crafting custom wedding gowns and accessories. Stephenson and Carter, 28, formed LOLA in 2006 after working together at a start-up, wedding points.com, and they also know how to stretch a dollar. Stephenson and Carter spent less than $30,000 on their own weddings. “We’re not wedding snobs,” Stephenson says. “It isn’t about how much money you spend; it’s about the personalized little touches.” At her wedding, friends brought desserts, Carter sang, and a friend’s husband took the photos.

Favorite wedding: An eco-friendly affair with beeswax candles, invitations printed with soy ink on plantable paper (with basil seeds inside), and centerpieces of coleus plants with roots intact (to be planted later). The most effective eco-conscious move, however, is enticing caterers to recycle. “Insist on it,” Stephenson says. “When there’s a big piece of business at stake, they’ll find a way.”
Most unusual: A bride and groom who wanted a red carpet and fake paparazzi. They reconsidered.
Best way to save: If you don’t have money for an open bar, do a wedding brunch with mimosas or a cocktail party instead of a buffet. “Do whatever you can afford,” Stephenson says, “but do it really well.”
Rates: Day-of planning, which involves consulting that begins 60 to 90 days in advance, starts at $1,200, and full planning begins at $3,000.

 

THE BFF
Ali Phillips
Engaging Events by Ali
2045 West North Avenue; 773-777-2299, ali@engagingevents.com

Ali Phillips’s energetic, gregarious personality must be one of the best assets of her business. Phillips, 37, who runs Engaging Events by Ali, has won such awards as best Chicago wedding consultant by The Knot magazine and best wedding under $25,000 from a national catering and special-events group, of which she is a member. If someone is going to delve into your finances and your family dynamics, plan your biggest party, and fluff your dress right before you stroll down the aisle, it ought to be a person you enjoy and trust.

Amiability aside, Phillips, who has been invited to the baby showers of more than a few former clients, adores routines and structure. “I love making schedules and thinking about the timing and having it all flow seamlessly together,” she says. In a wedding, “there are so many details involved and so many emotions.” And in these difficult economic times, the stress surrounding money can turn emotional, as well, says Phillips, who notes that she works with couples of all budgets.

Favorite wedding: After marrying at Bond Chapel at the University of Chicago, a couple celebrated in the backyard of the bride’s brother. The bride wore flip-flops, the DJ played until 1 a.m., and the groom, a scientist, provided inspiration for the favors—candy-filled glass beakers. The event won Phillips that award for best wedding under $25,000.
Most unusual: A Monday-night, all-vegetarian affair at A New Leaf, where guests drank cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and donned party hats and boas on the dance floor. “The bride was all about not overdoing it,” Phillips recalls. But the party that ensued was another matter. “It was rockin’,” she says. “At one point, a guy had on some girl’s heels.”
Best party tip: Make a list of things that are most important to you, Phillips says. Ask yourself what you want guests to say when they walk out the door, then focus on that facet.
Most intense conflict resolution: Handling differences between the mother of the bride and her daughter. “Sometimes both names are on the contract, so I’m being paid to listen to both,” says Phillips, who refuses requests to refrain from telling the other party about decisions. Phillips knows how to appease the mother who demands a traditional receiving line and the bride who scoffs at such ideas. Have an informal receiving line after cocktails are served, Phillips suggests. Then guests aren’t obligated to participate, allowing for less contrived interactions.
Best way to save: Get real with your guest list. Food and beverages account for the largest percentage of the wedding costs, Phillips says. Ask yourself if this is someone you’ve had dinner with in the past year or you will have dinner with in the next year. “Will these people be part of your lives in the future?”
Rates: Begin at $950, with a $2,200 wedding-weekend package; full planning services average $5,500 to $7,500.

 

THE SOPHISTICATE
Marina Birch
Birch Design Studio
65 East Oak Street 2D; 312-280-6811, studio@birchdesignstudio.com

With a pedigree not unlike that of the well-heeled clients she serves, Marina Birch is not your typical wedding planner. A graduate in art history from Princeton University, Birch, 33, grew up traveling the world speaking fluent Italian, French, and Spanish. Her Oak Street office, complete with a dramatic tented ceiling, crystal chandelier, and Horchow zebra-print chair, provides a taste of the upscale weddings she orchestrates—elegant, rich with details, knowing.

Relocating to Chicago from Manhattan in 1998, Birch started planning events through her board positions at the Field Museum and Steppenwolf Theatre. While some women were there for purely social reasons, she loved to delve into the details. “If there was a geek in the room, it was me,” she says. “I really did my homework.” After studying interior design at the Harrington Institute, she launched her Birch Design Studio, first as an interior design firm and then as an event-planning business in 2003. Modern Bride named Birch one of the 25 top trendsetters in 2008, and The Knot has also recognized her. Today, her work may entail spending three weeks researching Moroccan servingware or putting the final touches on a wedding that involved creating brown leather ottomans for the cocktail party, bringing in yards of drapery with floral tiebacks for the reception, and designing an illuminated circular leather bar for the celebration’s after party. The budget? “We didn’t really have one,” Birch says.

Favorite wedding: The aforementioned custom wedding, in which the colors of pink, purple, and gold were inspired by the pearl necklace of one of the bride’s grandmothers. “She and her mom gave me carte blanche,” says Birch, who told vendors, “We can do anything, so let’s do anything. It was a pivotal experience for me.”  
Most unusual: At one wedding, everyone got so inebriated, she says, that the groomsmen made inappropriate comments to seemingly any woman within sight, and bread rolls took flight during dinner. After Birch and her staff members surrounded the perimeter, she says, “no one knocked over a centerpiece, and no one did anything illegal.”
Best way to save: Reduce the number of courses at dinner. Ditch the favors. “I’m not a favor person,” Birch says. “Nobody needs more stuff.”
Best party tip: For ten dollars, you can create a festive mood by changing the light bulbs. “Lighting has this transformational quality,” says Birch, who recommends amber, red, or pink bulbs. “They make people look great, and that puts them in a good mood.”
Best conflict resolution: Dealing with the police, who were responding to complaints about an event’s noise level. “It was kind of funny,” Birch says. “The cops are here. What am I going to do? Maybe flirt with them and make it go away.” In the end, “we turned down the bass.”
Rates: Start at about $25,000.

 

THE VETERAN
Renny Pedersen
Bliss Weddings & Events
312-927-6090, info@blissweddingsandevents.com

If anyone understands all the moving pieces involved in planning a large-scale event, it’s Renny Pedersen, the owner of Bliss Weddings & Events. Pedersen, 36, received a degree in hospitality management, attended culinary school, and spent four years working in catering and seven in event planning, all before launching her own business in wedding planning in 2001. Now her reputation and Web site attract clients who hire her over the phone and led to an invitation to participate in Mark Burnett’s new TNT reality show Wedding Day (in which a deserving couple are surprised with the wedding of their dreams) when it comes to Chicago.

Little fazes this industry veteran, who recently took only two months to orchestrate a distinctive wedding at the Museum of Contemporary Art, complete with guests’ names appliquéd in mirrored lettering on the chargers (to coordinate with the tin-foil-lined walls of the room’s art installation). At another reception, it took Pedersen only minutes to remove a red-wine stain from the bride’s wedding gown with OxiClean. “You’d never know,” Pedersen says. “Her mom couldn’t believe it.” When a bride forgot her shoes, Pedersen’s assistant ran to Nordstrom; when the caterers forgot coffee, Pedersen bought ten gallons from a nearby Starbucks; and when one guest indicated he couldn’t eat solid food, Pedersen sent one of her crew out for a blender. “Our job is to go above and beyond,” she says.

Pedersen, who works out of her Park Ridge home and from an office in Wicker Park, also does a fair amount of prep work, visiting clients in their homes to get a feel for their style, or conducting meetings in a bowling alley or over manicures if they so choose. After asking clients, who on average spend $120,000 on their weddings, to mark favorite images in magazines, Pedersen creates vision boards that she gives to vendors along with detailed requests, ensuring that when clients first meet with a photographer, caterer, or florist, they know exactly what the couple want. “I really understand people’s time,” Pedersen says, “and I try to make it as easy as possible so they can enjoy the experience.”

Favorite wedding: The aforementioned event at the MCA.
Most unusual: When a bride wanted to pattern her wedding after an Andy Warhol painting called Flowers, Pedersen devised a menu that mirrored the painting.
Best party tip: Be in the moment. Relax and have fun. If the hosts are relaxed, the guests are relaxed. “That’s what makes a great party,” she says.
Best way to save: If you don’t care whether you have a band or a DJ, get a DJ. Make your own save-the-date cards or ask a friend in graphic design for help with invitations.
Rates: Full planning begins at $7,000.

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