Read as Amber Gustafson gets JobShadowed about her career as a wedding planner.  You can find her at www.amberevents.com and on her Twitter Feed in the sidebar of this interview.  

What do you do for a living?

I own my own company, Amber Events, Inc., where I produce beautiful and unique weddings and events for my clients.

How would you describe what you do?

Figuratively, I herd cats, tell the future, and read minds. Literally, I work with primarily brides and grooms to create weddings that reflect who they are as a couple. My clients are fairly non-traditional and they are getting married on beaches in Mexico, mountain tops in Malibu, and eclectic urban spaces in downtown Los Angeles.

What does your work entail?

Email, email, email, email, email, phone call, email, email, meeting with potential client, email, email, prep contract, email, email, refer vendors, email, email, email, attend a catering tasting, email, email, email, have a design meeting, email, email, email, go on a venue walkthrough, email, email, email, rental meeting, email, email, email, facilitate a vendor walk through, email, email, email, have a details meeting, email, email, email, email, email, email, run rehearsal, email, email, email, run wedding day.

Oh, and then I email a bit more.

What’s a typical work week like?

Multiply the above by however many weddings I am rotating at the moment (currently: 13, I’ve had as many as 19 in rotation at once) and add in there: try to have time to spend time with my husband, friends, work out, and sleep.

How did you get started?

I get asked weekly “how did you become a wedding planner?” and my usual answer is “a lot of hard work”. Unlike many careers where you get a degree, intern, then get a job in said career, there really is no regulated or set way to become a wedding coordinator/planner. Funnily enough, I did not go into this because I’m in love with weddings, I went into wedding planning because I’ve always wanted to own my own company and I believed (and still do) that I have the personality traits to be a good planner. I also love people.

I began by interning with about four different wedding planners and learning how they run the wedding day. I had a background in floral design, stationary design, and sewing, so I had some good skills already. I worked as a caterer server to understand the food service side of events and I’m a curious person, so I asked a lot of questions. I got my first wedding from one of my mentors who received a lead that could not afford her rates. I jumped at the chance to have a wedding of my own and that wedding began my portfolio.

What do you like about what you do?

I enjoy working with people from all walks of life and I like being able to figure out how to make them happy. I tend to get bored easily so the fact that I am in an industry where every job is new and exciting is pretty cool. I enjoy being creative but also being an psychological anchor for a couple that is in a very volatile point in their lives. Planning a wedding is intense.

What do you dislike?

Rude people. Whether potential clients, parents of the clients, vendors, or that bitchy bridesmaid, the rude people are the worst part.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

I charge a flat planning fee based on how complex the wedding is going to be, where it will be taking place, guest count, and how many events (rehearsal dinner, day after brunch, etc) that I will be producing. A wedding at the Hotel Bel Air where I am needed for just the wedding day is not as much work on my end as a wedding at a private estate in Malibu where we are planning an entire weekend of activities for our guests.  

How much money do Wedding Planners make?

A wedding planner can make as much as they ask for. Vague answer, yes, but the planner is the one selling them self and so it depends on how good of a salesperson they are. Many people get into this career because they love weddings. I think you should get into this career because you love owning your own business and you love people.

How much money did/do you make starting out as a Wedding Planner? 

My first wedding I was hired as a “day of coordinator” and I was paid $500 as I was hungry to build a portfolio. Five years later I can charge upwards of $10,000 to produce an elaborate wedding. Keep in mind though that my average rate is somewhere in the $5,000 range for a wedding. I average about 17 weddings per year. If you do the math that looks like a pretty good paycheck but my overhead is high: staffing, supplies, advertising, insurance, etc.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to become a Wedding Planner?

For education, I recommend a strong business background and killer written communication skills. My clients are doctors, lawyers, producers, directors, and scientists and they expect to interact with a person who knows the difference between there, their, and they’re.

For skills, you have to be a person who can learn how to be a chameleon but stay true to yourself. You have to juggle multiple clients who all have different personalities and ways that they need to be treated. You have work with the other vendors yet still make sure that your loyalties are with your client. You have to deal with family issues that pop up and know when to shut your mouth and when to give advice. You have to know your value and not accept less than you know you’re worth. You have to figure out a way to balance out your personal and family life in order to prevent burnout. You have to be ok with 16 hour days, intense manual labor, and the loss of weekends. You have to possess tact, speed, composure, grace, propriety, intelligence, a backbone, a sense of humor, and incredibly thick skin. You have to truly care about people and provide the type of support that they need. You have to know that nobody is going to build a business or a career for you. And you have to work very, very hard.

What is most challenging about what you do?

I say I do a psychological dance every day. So much of the interaction with each client is my attempt to figure out how they want to be spoken to, listened, to and interacted with. And once I figure my brides and grooms out, then I meet their parents and learn a whole new language. The psychology of what I do is intense.

What is most rewarding?

I would say that it is a tie between my clients telling me that they could not have done this with out me and my reputation amongst my peers in the wedding industry. It makes my day when a fellow vendor tells me that I’m one of their favorite planners to work with or when a new vendor I have not met yet tells me that they’re excited to work with me because they’ve heard such good things about my events, my clients, and  my work ethic.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

Besides telling them to become a photographer instead?! Well, I’d tell them: you have to get access to the wedding community. Just calling or emailing a wedding planner saying, “Weddings are my passion!!!!! Can I have a job?” will get you nowhere 99.99% of the time. I recommend joining an association, taking their certification courses, and finding out how and where the wedding industry networks. Courses and seminars are fine and dandy, but until you spend some time in the trenches getting dirty, you don’t know squat about weddings. I don’t care if you planned your own wedding: attending a wedding as a guest or a bride is nowhere near the reality of working as a planner. Trust me.

Once you find out where we planners network, you come network with us. Networking is crucial in this industry, so you better get used to and get good at it. Coming to network with us takes guts, and we recognize that, and so we’re open to talking with you just because of this. I don’t recommend coming in with a business card with your new company name on it though, because you need to be honest and tell us what experience you have. If you have zero to little experience, please please please don’t take on a bride and use her as your guinea pig. You could inadvertently ruin her wedding day and tarnish the respect that professional coordinators work so hard to obtain in this industry.

Once you have found a potential mentor, you intern until we trust you enough to start scheduling you as an assistant. Because our reputations are always on the line and our staff reflects us, we rarely give second chances. So if you show up dressed in a cocktail dress and heels when my intern agreement states to wear black pants and comfy shoes, you won’t be working with me again. All of this takes guts, time, and commitment, but when word starts to get around that you are smart AND hardworking you start to get paid to work weddings and you start to become seasoned.

Once you feel like you have trained enough and can start taking on your own clients, you have to start building your business: branding, website, portfolio, marketing, etc. I recommend working with a business coach in order to start up correctly and get your policies and procedures in order. Then you have to start finding clients. And if you find the magic answer to that question, let me know, will you? In my case it is a mixture of networking, advertising, blogging, and optimism. Be prepared to get turned down a lot—it’s part of the gig.

How much time off do you get/take?

During off season I work 6 days a week and during wedding season I barely get a day off at all. Many of my fellow wedding planners barely take off time as if one is not constantly hustling and looking at next year, the bank account suffers big time. I, however, value my sanity and quality of life, and so my husband and I usually take a majority of the month of January to travel somewhere insane and/or exotic (India, Colombia, etc). My associate runs my office while I’m gone and I check in periodically. I do lose money by doing this, but the memories I have from those trips are priceless.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

That I party all the time and play with pretty linens and flowers. They don’t think about the fact that I’m tearing those pretty linens, now dirty with food, off of a table at 1:30 AM and loading them in my car. Do you know what 30 dirty Alencon lace linens smell like? Not like the roses that were just sitting on them, that’s for sure.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I want to be known as an expert in my industry and I’d love to have more public speaking and television appearances.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

That this is a business. It’s not playing wedding with Barbie and Ken dolls. If you want to be a wedding planner then you will more than likely be building a company to do it and running a company is not for the faint of heart.  Oh, and that vendors in the wedding industry concur: wedding planners have the HARDEST job in the wedding world, so be prepared mentally & physically for the weight of the wedding to be on your shoulders. It’s a heavy weight to bear.