How To Survive Your Wedding
Three experts share their advice on making your nuptials memorable – for the right reasons.
For every wedding weekend that closes with a groggy glow of love for the sickeningly happy couple and the bar they so generously stocked, there are plenty that leave a hole in summers, livers and wallets that can never be filled. As wedding season grinds into gear again – and the world watches a prince and an actress get hitched – it behoves the modern groom-to-be to take a front-seat role in preparations, lest misstep, cockup or cliché leave guests with the wrong kind of hangover.
Three key names in the weddings game are lending MR PORTER their hands for the perilous journey towards holy matrimony. Mr Mark Niemierko is one of Britain’s leading luxury wedding planners. His clients have an average budget of £250,000 (up to £2.5m) and have included Mr James Corden. At just 24, Mr Matthew Shaw is a rising star – and the sole male planner – at Quintessentially Weddings, which, in 2011, staged lavish nuptials at the Catherine Palace near St Petersburg for the French oil tycoon Mr Pierre Andurand. Mr Oliver Lucas, meanwhile, is a serial best man and speech writer, who runs online consultancies iamthebestman.co.uk and speechmate.com.
How to survive it
Regardless of budgets or levels of professional support, weddings can result in stress levels rarely seen outside labour wards and battlefields. Getting through the planning and the day itself are a test of nerve – and of a relationship. “Most of my grooms are far more nervous than the bride on the day,” says Mr Niemierko. He offers two reasons, both of which serve as advice to a would-be groom.
First, the back-seat approach men often take, which can lead to shock at the expense and demands of the event as it draws near. “There comes a point in a flower meeting when a groom nods off, if he’s even there, but do go to the menu tasting, tour the venue and work on the seating plan so that nothing is a shock on the day,” he says. “It’s all about good communication and being involved throughout.”
The second source of groom anxiety is the speech. “We often put grooms in touch with speech coaches for a couple of sessions to help them relax,” says Mr Shaw. Mr Niemierko has watched dozens of men sweat all day in anticipation. “My best tip, which only three of my weddings have done, is to do all the speeches in the drinks reception before dinner,” he says. “Get them out of the way and get the party started.” Avoid using TV screens (“makes the room look corporate”), never joke about the cost of the wedding (“just tasteless”), keep it brief (10 minutes maximum), don’t forget to be personal if your only other public speaking is at work (“I’ve seen a lot of successful CEOs struggle… Lawyers are the best, unsurprisingly”) and “never copy something you’ve seen on YouTube”.
Add to this some stress-reducing logistics – arrive at the venue with at least 30 minutes to spare, have a spare shirt handy in case it’s a hot day, avoid an elaborate first dance – and the chances of unholy matrimonial rows on day one can easily be reduced. “It’s normally the parents who are fighting, rather than my couples, but there isn’t much we can do about that,” says Mr Niemierko.
Choose the location wisely
Once you’ve nailed the location, everything else is window dressing, but the rise of overseas ceremonies and international couples has only added to the dilemma facing the modern bride and groom: city, country or somewhere in between? “Right now, I’ve got a San Diego bride marrying a Yorkshireman at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, but not everywhere works for all couples,” says Mr Niemierko, who is based in London and finds a growing number of tech entrepreneurs among his five or so clients each year. “Sometimes a couple come to me and say they really want to do the Cotswolds thing, but she’s American and half the guests are travelling in. Are there enough hotels of a decent quality? How will they get there? Often we’ll end up settling on somewhere in London.”
As well as being more accessible for more people, a traditional ballroom wedding at Claridge’s or The Savoy can end up being cheaper because it’s more contained, says Mr Niemierko. But he has also noticed a rise in demand for unusual locations. For one couple, who were familiar with pretty much every hotel and club in London, he arranged the first and only wedding to have taken place inside the British Museum, with a dining table in the Egyptian galleries. “At the moment, it’s all about not bowing to peer pressure,” he says. “There’s a real backlash against just following what you see online, which is great.”
The venue hire is typically the biggest expense, but Mr Niemierko advises against haggling. “As soon as you do that, they’ll just do the job and won’t wait to get rid of you,” he says. Walk through a venue as if you are the guest to spot potential trouble spots, and be sure the room (not just the building) is licensed for ceremonies. If you are going to negotiate, do so over the space rather than the price. “A lot of venues sell the same space every weekend and don’t necessarily come with a fresh approach,” he says. “If they say, ‘We do the ceremony here,’ you can try somewhere else.”
Be ruthless with the guest list
The guest list is perhaps the most hard-to-navigate minefield of all. How many is too many? No ring, no bring? What to do about children? Is it acceptable to ban the mother-in-law’s old friends, even if she’s stumping up cash? “Everyone has their A, B and C lists when it comes to friends, but weddings often force couples to show their hand as to who is in which banding,” says Mr Lucas. “Lines have to be drawn somewhere and inevitably someone’s nose always gets put out of joint in the process.” He points to the plus-one as a fraught area. “There are decent arguments on both sides, but my advice is whichever side of the divide a couple fall, they need to make the policy very clear,” he says.
“I encourage couples not to invite people they’ve never met,” says Mr Niemierko. “If, say, a really good friend has just split up and has a new boyfriend, we often put that person on reserve, without telling them, and if my couple goes to a dinner party before the wedding and meets the person, we can always upgrade them.” Mr Niemierko is also in the no-kids camp. “Weddings are boring for children and if I do a whole thing for them, there’ll always be the odd parent who’s over-protective and joins their child and before you know it you’ve got two separate parties and the atmosphere is gone.”
Numbers vary wildly, often according to the nationality of the couple (Saudi weddings can include 1,000 people, Mr Niemierko says). “My favourite number in terms of being able to access good venues and really tailor a guest experience is between 120 and 150,” says Mr Shaw.
Think beyond the DJ
Entertainment is about a lot more than the DJ and the band. “It should be from the word go,” says Mr Niemierko. He is currently arranging a dinner aboard the Belmond British Pullman train for the Friday night before a wedding. “There’ll be actors on the train and the porters at London Victoria will all be male models,” he says. He has also put a drag queen in a coat check (“why not?”) and a tarot reader in the ladies’ loo. He advises against “awful singing waiters” or other novelty performers (never, ever dance down the aisle) and says, happily, that the photo booth has died a death. “Now it’s about having fashion illustrators doing quick sketches without you knowing,” he says.
Mr Shaw likes to arrange saxophonists to mingle on the dance floor, and says music festivals are inspiring couples to lay on a line-up of DJs through the night. The “carriages at midnight” convention is also dying, and many venues now allow later-running weddings. To keep people going, Mr Niemierko advises revealing a separate space after about 2.00am, perhaps with an energetic young pianist playing requests. “During planning with one couple, the bride said, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but I’m obsessed with Abba.’ So from 2.00am till 4.00am, we had a giant mirror ball drop from the ceiling and disco dancers come on for 10 minutes. The next morning when everyone was hungover, they were thinking, did that happen?”
Be liberal with the booze
A good bar will always be key to the success of any wedding and a worthwhile liquid investment. Mr Lucas says it’s OK to have a cash bar as long as wine is supplied for the meal and toasts. “Ironically, free bars can sometimes be a bad idea as people take advantage of it and get overly drunk,” he says. Mr Niemierko disagrees. “I’ve had people sit opposite me who are spending £250,000 on a wedding and they’re saying, ‘Shall we have a cash bar?’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ There is nothing more crass than asking people to put their hands in their pockets at a wedding. Unless it’s a city wedding, guests shouldn’t even have to pay for accommodation.”
Whoever is paying for the booze, Mr Shaw says personalised cocktails are popular, as is tailoring bar menus with cocktails named after the couple’s favourite things. “But don’t have more than three or four cocktails otherwise people end up waiting for the barmen to make new drinks every time,” says Mr Niemierko. He recommends one barman per 40 guests, and one wine waiter per two tables of 10 (and one food waiter per table). “My current obsession is ice,” he says. “A negroni with a massive great big square ice cube just looks really cool, or a perfect sphere of ice in a deep martini glass.” The most important thing: keep the bar near the dance floor.
What to wear
Bridegrooms in the Georgian era were often resplendent in furs, silks and vibrant velvets embellished with jewels. Thereafter, only military men routinely displayed flashes of colour as we entered the age of white dresses and sober morning suits. The tradition holds, but, short of upstaging the bride, there is room for men to shine. Just tread carefully.
“We had one groom years ago who wore a purple suit and that was just awful,” says Mr Niemierko. “And even the whole white suit trend early in my career was a bit cringey. But you do see the groom perhaps changing his jacket from dark to white for the evening. I always say, if you’ve already got a tailor, start there. Or I’ll often start in a department store, just to try lots on before taking a groom to Savile Row.”
Mr Shaw says grooms are taking more time to think about their outfits, and that designers are starting to respond. “I’ve seen some really great morning suits with a bit of flair or some interesting embroidery,” he says.
Wedding Day Essentials
Illustrations by Mr Joe McKendry