With their blank-slate ballrooms, turnkey services and perks such as free couples' suites, major hotels are tailor-made for weddings, especially when budgets are tight. But do they suit wedding planners? In our feature story, independent wedding experts share best practices and practical advice for working with hotels to make wedding magic.

HOUSE SPECIALS

For guest groups large or small, nothing beats the sheer convenience of the hotel wedding.

Veteran wedding planner Jo Ann Schwartz-Woodward, who with her husband helms Houston-based Schwartz & Woodward, ticks off the many conveniences of the hotel as wedding venue, including “total packing of food and beverage,” “ease for guests traveling from out of town,” and graceful flow between rooms for ceremony, cocktails, reception and after-party.

All this, and the wedding couple can expect to save money, too. “Having the wedding in a hotel saves on the cost of transportation — taking guests from the church to the reception site, then back to the hotel,” Schwartz-Woodward says. She adds that the hotels her firm works with typically offer her clients room blocks at very favorable rates. “There is no financial commitment, but rooms at a certain date are released back into the inventory,” she says.

Planner Tracey Kumer-Moore — whose firm Your Las Vegas Wedding Concierge operates in yet another town where hotels are huge (in both popularity and size) — loves that her local properties are “so full-service.” “You have pool, spa, hair and makeup, in-house floral service, clubs, restaurants, catering — guests don't even have to leave the hotel,” she explains.

OUTSIDE THE BOX

Of course, along with hotel convenience comes the problem of the cookie-cutter hotel wedding. Which is exactly where the services — and creative ingenuity — of the independent wedding planner come in.

Master Bridal Consultant Frank Andonoplas, of Chicago-based Frank Event Design, makes sure custom cuisine is part of the wedding picture. “I personally work with the chef to be more adventurous and personal with the menu, instead of doing the printed menu packages they do every week,” he notes. The collaboration isn't just a benefit to brides, grooms and their guests; it's also welcomed by hotel chefs, who are “bored to death of doing menu A, menu B, menu C,” Andonoplas says. His advice to fellow planners? “Don't be afraid of the chef. Some are temperamental, but they're also your best friends. Don't dictate to the chefs, but tap into their creativity. Say, ‘Here's what I'm thinking … How can we make this work?’”

Transforming the physical space of the hotel is as important as customizing the wedding menu, and it's a talent for which Colette Lopez of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based La Fête Weddings is known. Even when she's working in some of the country's most magnificent properties — such as the Four Seasons Biltmore and Bacara Resort, both in Santa Barbara — Lopez focuses her efforts on undoing a property's hotel feel. For one recent wedding, Lopez and her team “built” three large trees in a hotel ballroom. “They were made of magnolia branches, and we hung tons of votive candles from them,” she explains. “We rented banquettes and made lounge seating for dinner around the tree. This created a warm environment, bringing the outdoors into the ballroom.”

In Las Vegas, where “even the most exquisite hotel ballrooms can be ‘box,’” Kumer-Moore says she likes to take advantage of alternate hotel event space when possible. On the Fountain Terrace of the non-gaming Four Seasons Las Vegas, she has used the space's inherent allure — lush foliage, waterfalls and a “Balinese look that carries over from [adjacent] Mandalay Bay Resort” — to breathtaking effect. For one Terrace wedding, her team brought in striking black-and-white linens, black lacquer trays filled with green and white orchids, touches of rock and horsetails, and a geometric, wrought-iron chuppah (later reconfigured as a sweetheart-table canopy), which combined to create a look that both embraced and transformed the tropical setting.

Meanwhile, Chicago-based planner Ali Phillips of Engaging Events by Ali capitalizes on the versatility of hotel function space to turn a single room into two strikingly different environments. She cites the example of one recent wedding at downtown Chicago's Palmer House Hilton, where she left a perfectly pretty ballroom relatively untouched for the pre-dinner cocktail hour. Then, while the event's 400 guests reveled at the reception in the main ballroom, her crew turned the cocktail space into a chic, sleek after-dinner lounge, with four individual cabana-like seating areas and an off-center white dance floor, along with two large, custom damask-patterned bars. “With the lighting, you had no idea you were in a hotel ballroom,” she notes.

PLAY NICE

For all their charms, hotels aren't always quite as welcoming to wedding professionals as they are to wedding couples. The smartest wedding pros know, though, how to contend with challenges when they need to, and avoid them if they can.

Schwartz-Woodward notes that one particular Chicago luxury hotel simply does not recommend planners — in fact, it advises couples to forgo them and instead rely on its in-house staff. What couples don't know, however, is that the in-house coordinator “leaves after cake-cutting,” Schwartz-Woodward says. She notes she will not work at that particular property, and will refrain from working with couples who insist upon it as a venue.

According to Kumer-Moore, it's often a matter of “educating the client” about what a hotel's policy will allow in terms of off-site vendors and alteration of packaged event services. “I will say to my clients, ‘This is an amazing property, I have a wonderful relationship with them, but these are the things that you have to know about if you're going to do your wedding here.’”

And Phillips offers this advice for working well with the hotel team: “It's really important for the independent consultant and catering manager to establish whose role is what, and who the main contact will be. Are you going to drive everything through the consultant or the bride? Have a dialogue about it. Get everyone on the same page.”

RESOURCES

ENGAGING EVENTS BY ALI
www.engagingeventsbyali.com

FRANK EVENT DESIGN
www.frankeventdesign.com

LA FÊTE WEDDINGS
www.lafeteweddings.com

SCHWARTZ & WOODWARD
www.schwartzwoodward.com

YOUR LAS VEGAS WEDDING CONCIERGE
www.lvweddingconcierge.com