The first year as a wedding planner might be the most stressful. But you can survive it with a healthy dose of grit.
If there’s one American city known for its tough, blue-collar, hard-working people, it’s got to be Tacoma, Washington. Dubbed the “City of Destiny,” the urban port city is famous for its hardscrabble transformation from a 19th-century railroad town to an industrial metropolis rising up from the decline of the mid-20th century. Many people who live there and know it well prefer its other nickname – Grit City.
Included in this group of proud Tacomans is Ashley Griffith, who founded Grit City Weddings in July of 2019. Griffith says she chose the name Grit City Weddings because she thinks the town’s working-class roots is something to celebrate. On her website, she proudly declares, “We are blue-collar and strong and unique and ridiculously beautiful,” and it’s a sentiment she repeated to me in our interview.
“People in Tacoma are a little bit different – they’re a little grittier. There’s a phrase for Austin, Texas, that’s sometimes used for Portland, Oregon, as well and says, ‘Keep Austin Weird.’ Well, the phrase for Tacoma is ‘Keep Tacoma Feared,'” Griffith explains with a laugh. “When you live in Tacoma, you almost don’t want to tell anyone else how cool this town is. This is a hard-working, middle-class town. Everyone has some sort of day job. When COVID-19 struck, and everyone was told to work from home, most people in Tacoma didn’t have that luxury. It’s not as privileged as Seattle, where everyone has a tech job and can just work from home.”
From Saving the Day to Becoming a Wedding Planner
I asked Ashley how she ended up being a wedding planner in such a dynamic city. She said it was a mix of opportunity, serendipity, and being in the right place at the right time.
“I’ve always been that person who just sort of stepped into that role of wedding coordinator whenever it needed to be filled. I had it happen a few times where we were at a wedding, and everything was just falling apart. One time, we had flown across the world to get to Thailand. We’d spent a week or two traveling around, and then we arrived at the wedding. The coordinator that the couple had hired was at the bar getting drunk! People were trying to bring out the cake, and they were asking the bride if she wanted to serve it. I told them not to bother her and that I’d handle it.”
When Ashley coordinated her friend’s wedding last June, her husband told her she should think about seriously getting into the wedding planning scene.
“I said, ‘I hear what you’re saying; I should quit my job and start a business and just do this, right?’ And he was like, ‘No, no! I meant as a side gig!’ But I did,” Ashley affirms. “I didn’t quit my day job, but I did start this little business.”
A Big Decision
It was when she took a twelve-hour road trip from Tacoma to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that Ashley says she made the decision to get into wedding planning in a real way.
“On both legs of the drive, I had time to think through whether this might be a good fit. I stopped halfway to sleep at an Airbnb, and I was looking up what might be available. I found out that the web domains ‘Grit City Events’ and ‘Grit City Weddings’ were both available, and I thought it must be a sign. So right there, in that Airbnb with its really crappy WiFi, I created a shell of a website and signed up for a business license. It was so fun!”
The First Year: Getting Down to Business in Grit City
Ashley’s next step was to do some research to find out what was available for people from Tacoma who wanted help planning a wedding.
“There’s a big leap in what Tacoma needs and what some Seattle planners can provide,” Ashley told me. “I’m sure some would be willing to come down to Tacoma, but it’s that phrase – ‘I’m willing to come down to Tacoma,’ that comes off as if Tacoma isn’t worthy. At least, that’s how I felt when I was doing some of that research.”
And it wasn’t just the distance between Tacoma and Seattle, but the disconnect in the aesthetic and personality of the two cities that Ashley picked up on as well.
“When I was doing the research, the planners I found in this area just didn’t speak to my aesthetic. It felt more like lilies and lace. And while I think that lilies and lace are beautiful and have a place, that’s not the sort of thing that drives me,” Ashley recalls.
What really inspired Ashley to get into wedding planning was the idea that no matter what someone’s budget looks like, they should be able to have the wedding of their dreams.
“Even if your wedding is going to be in someone’s backyard, I believe that those people – the ones who aren’t necessarily the traditional lilies and lace sort – should be able to have a really beautiful wedding, too. And a really great celebration, regardless of what that looks like to them.”
The First Year: Bumps Along The Road
Even with the right inspiration and planning, as any event planner knows, things can always hit a snag. I asked Ashley if there was anything that caught her by surprise during her first year of business, or if there was anything that she wished she’d known before launching Grit City Weddings.
One thing she’s learned in the first year setting up her wedding planning business is the role marketing plays in promoting her event planning business. It is essential to know what kind of marketing will be of value and what will fall flat.
“I made a three-month commitment with a local magazine right before the holiday season, and I got zero hits off that,” Ashley remembers. “I was trying to go with my gut, and it turned out in that case that my gut was wrong, and what I should have done was conduct some more research about what magazines might have been the best fit for my clientele. You really need to consider where you’re going to spend your marketing money while taking out advertisements. For me, I’ve found that theknot.com and WeddingWire have been my best sources of leads.”
Thankfully, Ashley was able to hearken back to some past business ventures and used that experience to help her as she brought Grit City Weddings to life.
“I think one of the most important things I did this time around was to set up a separate bank account for the business. When it comes time to actually do your taxes and understand your business and whether it’s profitable, you need to be able to separate your expenses and income from your daily stuff,” Ashley explains.
The Sweet Spot: How Being a Day-of Coordinator Is The Perfect Fit
Ashley says that most of her time with Grit City Weddings is spent being a day-of wedding coordinator rather than a full-time wedding planner, which is what most people in Tacoma are looking for.
“The idea of a wedding planner is intimidating to a lot of people, especially maybe people who resonate with Grit City, because they realize they can do a lot of that stuff themselves. But then if you show someone that a day-of wedding coordinator can come in and bring value to all of these other vendors that you’ve spent such good money on and just tie the whole day together, they really see the value in that,” Ashley tells me.
The best part of having a day-of wedding planner is that Ashley can be what she calls a “second brain” for the couple. A week or so before the wedding, the couple gives her a spreadsheet or binder. Then she takes on their responsibilities, so they can host their party and not have to work the day that they get married.
Related article: Why You Need To Hire A Wedding Planner
Building Trust With Your Clients
To gain that level of trust with her clients, Ashley puts a lot of work in before the actual wedding day, and that all starts, she says, with getting to know the couple. People book her about a year to a year and a half in advance, and then Ashley will set up a casual meet-and-greet to get to know them and make sure they’re a good fit.
“I love to take them to coffee, that’s always my favorite. We have some awesome coffee shops around this area, and so we usually just walk down there. When we’re talking, I want to get to know who they are,” Ashley explains.
Her one requirement, she tells me, is that the couple she is working with cares more about the marriage, in the end than the wedding itself.
The Marriage Matters More Than The Wedding
“Of course the wedding day is a very important celebration and a rite of passage, but it’s not as important as the rest of your life together. If the couple understands that, I know two things. One, they’re going to last. And two, they’re not going to be too stressed out. We all have different personalities, and when there are stressful moments, I need to be able to remind them that this is just one day. Yes, it’s important, but more important is the fact that whatever it looks like, they’re getting married. If all the other things have fallen apart, who cares?”
Although she’s been doing most of her work as a day-of coordinator in this first year as a wedding planner, Ashley still does take on clients where she acts as a wedding planner. Then there’s a middle-of-the-road package she offers where the couple gives her some options and ideas, and she uses that as a platform to build their wedding around.
“After that, we meet before the wedding and walk through what it’s going to look like. That’s when I’m solidifying the minute by minute timeline as well. Then I’ll show up to the rehearsal beforehand and run it along with the officiant. Then everything is in my hands for the next day, and that’s when I’m super excited,” Ashley enthused. “That’s when I wake up at the crack of dawn, and I just have this immense amount of energy, and then I crash that night at about one in the morning.”
First Year As A Wedding Planner In The Era of COVID-19
At the start of the year, almost no one knew or could have predicted that we’d be living and working in a worldwide pandemic. And yet Ashley’s business has managed not just to survive and thrive. I asked her to share a little bit of the ups and downs of bringing Grit City Weddings to life in this challenging time.
“There have been a lot of highs and a lot of lows. Before COVID hit, I had 20 weddings booked for 2020, and my goal was actually 24. But I was booked solid every single weekend from August through October, and then there were also some weddings in July. That was definitely a high, and that tells me that Grit City is resonating with people and that there’s an actual need for it, for someone who’s priced well in the market, someone who’s going to work really hard and is well-connected within the community,”
Things started changing, Ashley says, in spring, when people were starting to cancel their weddings.
“The lows did start happening in spring when weddings were starting to be canceled. I’m watching people put lots of time and energy into thinking about and planning for their weddings, emotionally and then also financially and physically. They’re planning things for this day to celebrate, and they’ve worked it up in their mind – they have this vision in their mind of what it’s going to look like. Watching them have to change that makes me really sad for them. It’s a bummer.”
The First Year As A Wedding Planner Requires An Optimistic Outlook
Despite all the changes and setbacks wedding planners have had to endure, Ashley says there is still a lot in the event planning world to get excited about. One of the things that she’s most looking forward to is the role technology plays in events.
“Tech is really revolutionizing things,” she affirms. “I’m excited about the tech that’s coming out that’s specifically designed with creatives in mind, and specifically designed with the wedding or event space in mind.”
If she had one piece of advice to share with someone starting out in the industry, or really anyone looking to start a business at this time, it’s to embrace the spirit of Grit City, the hard-working ethos of Tacoma, and just get it done.
“Just go for it! Just do it! Pull the trigger, whatever that looks like.