Weddings – a hot topic of conversation at the PAII conference in Austin last month, and an ongoing question every innkeeper confronts.
The average cost of a wedding in the United States is $31,213, even though guest lists are shrinking, according to the most recent figures, released last March. The average wedding has 136 guests, down from 149 guests back in 2009. Most inns, don’t have the space for such a large guest count but that’s okay because that’s the average, which means there are also smaller weddings taken into account. Much smaller weddings, actually… there’s a growing trend toward elopement-style weddings with up to 20 guests, give or take, andmuch, much, smaller weddings where there’s not all the hoopla and zero guests. The biggest shift? Brides using their mobile phones to plan the Big Day. Wedding planning via smartphone has doubled in three years.
So, what’s it really like to host a wedding at a bed and breakfast? Bed & Brunch pr talks with Wendy Phillips, co-innkeeper and wedding/events director, at the Old Rittenhouse Inn in Bayfield, Wisconsin. The family-run establishment has been in business for more than 40 years. Wendy’s husband and father-in-law have become officiants to help marry their couples. Here she tells us all about weddings at the inn — Old Rittenhouse can accommodate up to 60 people for private events as is, more if the space is tented.
How many people pitch in with wedding coordination and prep work?
I predominantly do all logistical things then disseminate information to the staff to execute it. I’ll take all initial calls and estimates and I’m the go-to person for brides in terms of consultation and making sure we’re the right place for them. I also work with the brides to arrange all the little details for the ceremony, the officiant, music, flowers, photography, and typical things like that. I also go through the food and beverage menus and am their point of contact right down to the day of the wedding. There are a lot of people that help but I tend to be the only person the bride will interact with in terms of wedding preparations.
How do you juggle this with all the many other things that have to be done at the inn?
You just adapt. You just do what needs to be done. I never really think about it, it’s just a part of my every day craziness. Maybe there’s some kind of art to it but I don’t really think that much about it.
Does having the property in three separate buildings make it easier or harder?
Sometimes I think it’s easier that we have the three buildings (Old Rittenhouse Inn, which houses the restaurant, le Chateau, and Rittenhouse Cottage). It allows wedding parties to be here and receive personalized attention and also lets the other guests enjoy a relaxing stay.
Do the brides choose where they want to tie the knot?
I do definitely steer them where I want them to be. Our Chateau property is much better suited for events because it is separated a bit from the other property and has its own garden areas. We usually only have one wedding a day but on a rare occasion where we have an elopement or two events in one day I would talk with the bride about alternate locations. If I have an elopement I can be more flexible.
April through October we host many weddings and most have the food catered to Le Chateau from our restaurant at Old Rittenhouse Inn. If a bride wants a separate location for the reception, we suggest Le Chateau for the ceremony and the reception at the restaurant, which accommodates up to 60 seated guests. Most of our weddings average 45 people so they’re really manageable.
Must a guest rent the whole inn for their wedding?
I do have them rent the entire Chateau property, which has seven guest rooms. If you think about it, the bridal couple, his parents, your parents, your siblings and possibly a grandparent, it’s easy to sell that and that’s our goal — to fill rooms. If it’s a 10 person wedding or an elopement I can bend the rules on a case-by-case basis. Keep in mind, even 25-30 people for a short while can kind of take over things. If you’re not careful, and even if you are, they can spill over to common areas, improperly sit on rails, and such. It’s better for us, if it’s a wedding on the larger size, that the rooms are booked by the bridal party, and if possible their guests. We call the Chateau ‘wedding central’ since that’s where nearly all of our weddings and bridal party accommodations take place.
Is there a fee to host your wedding at the inn or do you just charge for the rooms?
In addition to renting rooms, there is a fee associated with use of the home and grounds for wedding festivities. I created some packages that wrap-in the site fee to cover preparation of the site, event coordination, which covers some of my time and the staff, electricity, etc.…The packages also contain other special touches like a bottle of champagne, sweets, dinner, gratuities and a keepsake. It makes it easy for them when presented as an all-inclusive deal.
How long in advance does wedding planning tend to begin?
Minimally brides are planning about 6 months to a year in advance. I do encourage people considering a weekend wedding in summer and fall to reserve the space quickly.
Is the whole Bride-zilla thing a myth or is it challenging working with brides?
For the most part, it’s a really good experience. I’m naturally a detailed person, so I ask all the questions early in the planning process. I’m on top of things so everything’s already done in advance and we just have to wait for the day to get here. The important part is having it all nailed down. I’m sure Bride-zilla is not a myth, but I have been really lucky. I have had a couple of situations where it’s been uncomfortable to work with someone, but you just have to smile. I have the benefit of having other things to do so as not being stuck with that person! I find people are reasonable. If something isn’t going as expected the day of, it’s my job not to let it show. They’re in the moment having a good time, so most don’t even notice.
There are a lot of packages in your weddings section. Do people tend to choose a package and go with it or are they more of a jumping off point?
I present it in ways that are tried and true for us, but we certainly customize things. We package a five-course meal but if they want two-courses, we adjust. I start at the top with what I think people want. But on somebody’s wedding day you have to do what they want, as long as you can do it well. With guests frequently planning from afar, they have to trust us and we have to deliver. I make it the best I can, as if it were my own wedding. I love doing this.
I noticed you have babysitting services under “other” wedding services. Were you getting a lot of requests for that?
No, I don’t often get requests for babysitting, but when I’m working with people who have kids or mention a number of guests/family who are bringing kids, I broach the subject. Not only is it a quick and easy revenue source, but it’s nice for the parents and easy to provide. Our staff is fantastic with children so I don’t have to go out and look for people. I’ve witnessed people not supervising their kids at weddings so while I present it as service for them, I’m protecting myself, too. We have a fountain on the property and antiques, so I think making a fun suggestion of something special for the kids makes it easier in the long run.
The wedding contact form has many options to choose from for the type of wedding and required services. How effective has that format been for you?
All of my online inquiries use that form. It’s a basic list so when I’m contacting the bride I can already customize my presentation to what they’re thinking, instead of starting with a broad overview that’s not as relevant. It saves them time and it saves me time too. Some brides just call, which I like, because you make a connection right away. I would love to have a wedding every weekend if I could.
Do you allow outside vendors of choice?
We request that brides use our restaurant, the main reason being insurance. When they’re on our property, say some caterer came in and they were awful, everyone who was at that party doesn’t know it wasn’t our cooking, so it’s a way of preserving our reputation. We have a unique reputation — we have a professional kitchen, not a little catering kitchen. While we make desserts and tortes but don’t do traditional tiered wedding cakes. For that reason, I do let people bring in their own cakes, for a small plating fee.
For the most part, brides can choose their own things but I try as much as I can to say‘Hey, let me do that for you.’ I do a little upcharge for my work on “extras”, but I like the peace of mind that it’s in my control and because of the relationships I’ve developed, I’m still able to save them money. For example, I always ask the florist for an alternative, yet similar look at a less expensive price. So that has worked out well. I’m lucky, or my florist is good, replicating things by photo. It works out well for us. I’m a control freak. It really helps me to relax to take on more of the wedding, not less.
As far as beverage, can guests bring their own bottles of wine?
We require the purchase of alcohol, champagne, and wine to be through us. In the state of Wisconsin a corkage fee is not permitted.
What would you tell another innkeeper who’s considering weddings at their inn?
Don’t close your mind to it. You don’t’ have to do 100 person wedding, or even 40 people, you could say it’s 20 or less. You can make it what you want. If you try it, and it’s great (or it’s terrible) you don’t do it again or make a change to make it better. Don’t be closed to it and don’t be afraid to hire people to help you pull it off. Even if you’re paying two of your girlfriends $10/hour each, it’s worth it for the potential for residual business…think vacations, anniversaries, etc. If you are a smaller inn, recognize that there are partnerships right in your community. If you don’t have restaurant, build a good relationship with restaurant that you like. Find a good photographer and build your wedding team, not your payroll! Find ways to link into services you have right around you.