Preston Bailey, Designer

Weddings designed by Preston Baily evoke elegance, beauty, and a centered calm.  One has an immediate response to a venue transformed by his team.  Design like this requires a keen understanding and passion for people, in my opinion.  Designing beautiful spaces is a gift, but designing spaces that bring about a gasp, a smile, and sometimes even a tear, mean that the designer has struck a universal note.  Touching people like this enhances an event and is always appreciated and memorable.

We have many examples of this lovely and inspirational work by other notable designers like David Tutera, Mindy Weiss, Karen Tran, Sasha Souza, Bryan Rafenelli and many more. They employ techniques engaging all the senses to transport the lucky guest into a world of love and joy.

As an event planner, we endeavor to create these wonderful spaces to delight our clients and create opportunities for honored friends and families to meet and share meaningful moments.

So how can we do better?

What more could possibly be required?  We provide the perfect palette, visual experience, heady fragrances and sumptuous meals, along with lovely music and flattering light?  We direct every detail, manage the timeline to perfection and even remember the perfect little bench in the powder room upon which guests place their handbag.

I honestly couldn’t have imagined that hosts and event planners needed anything further until I read The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker.

Ms. Parker addresses the real concern of guests who attend weddings, dinner parties, and the like and come away feeling empty or somehow confused at the unsettled emotions at the conclusion of an event.

For the last few years, I’ve avoided social gatherings because I find them meaningless and banal…”

—Deepak Chopra

How often have many of us walked away from an event that we had greatly anticipated only to feel disappointment as it had not met our expectations which usually involve making a real connection with others as opposed to small talk and conversation that does not advance any intimacy or knowledge.

Ms. Parker’s book has wonderful anecdotes and ideas to enhance the guest experience, along with making hosting duties far more interesting.

mother at wedding
Photography: JP Portrait Studio

Here are six key ideas you may wish to employ to engage your guests more fully in your wedding events.

  1. More from the ordinary to unforgettable and meaningful. For example, a couple may wish to create a very real barrier to entry to the event with a hallway filled with family photos or a waterfall flowing into a pool with floating florals.  Greeting guests with a glass of champagne or a special crystal to hold during the ceremony tells the guest that they are entering a special and even sacred space.  It gives them the opportunity to forget about the argument on the way to the wedding, or any other irritation they may be bringing into the space. It provides a new focus and gives them a reset.  More powerfully, perhaps, it gives them permission to enter and engage with a new experience free from the burdens of the day.
  2. Understand that providing a quality experience for your guests means being courageous enough to exclude those that would diminish the event. This is truly the difficult task of the couple when working on the guest list.  Protecting the event and giving it a chance of being the type of gathering you want to create requires that those individuals who would seek to disrupt it must be off the invitation list. In a bizarre way, the pandemic has enabled couples to trim their list in a meaningful way. Again, the exclusion is for the invited guests benefit and not a punitive action.
  3. Venue selection is a critical component to planning the event as it is the ‘house’ in which you are creating your event world.  It must suit the goal of the event and not simply be seen as a convenient empty room.  Consider a small intimate wedding being hosted in a large ballroom.  If the décor is not lush and full, it is unsettling for guests as boundaries are ill defined.  We desire to feel cozy and enclosed in our emotional experiences and not left out on the edge of a cliff, either figuratively or literally! No edge of canyon weddings for me, thank you! Your logistical choices should absolutely support the goal of the event. Consider the ‘kitchen effect’ where all the guests huddle around the kitchen island!
  4. Structure the event so that guests understand what is happening and when.  There is security in knowing the sequence of events.Having an event that is free form and without boundaries leads to chaos guests feeling unsettled.  We’ve all been to events where we weren’t sure when it was actually ‘over’. Provide a couple of ‘exit’ times so that guests feel alright about stepping out should they need to. This is easily accomplished by completing the traditions and final toasts before the entertainment begins.  Some will slip out then.  Provide another ‘exit’ post dancing and before the ‘after party’ or ‘wind down’. Lastly, for those that are still engaged, a final ‘call’ will be at the conclusion of the after party.
  5. To encourage full engagement, some couples may wish to limit technology at the event. This is a popular option so that guests interact in real time and multiple phones/screens are not blocking sightlines. However, we completely understand that technology is a major force for some groups and the utilization of screens and live posting/hashtags is a form of wedding entertainment.
  6. Advance communication. We love the idea of communicating to the final guest list a few weeks before the wedding to either solicit information, photos or provide additional information.  For example, a couple could ask guests to submit a photo of a ‘proud moment’ or rite of passage.  Imagine using these images to create personalized place cards! Or you could request guests bring a favorite natural material – a rock, stick, potted plant, etc. to create a wonderful garden area at the event and then take home to incorporate at the couple’s home. This level of engagement with the attendee prior to the event increases their feeling of inclusion and additionally heightens their anticipation of the event.  One suggestion was to solicit music suggestions for the dancing which is a great idea as well.

Ms. Parker states that guests remember most the first and last 5% of the event!  She states that we often react to a piece of music in the first few bars and decide if we are inclined to like or dislike it.  There are always ways to get back on track but it’s best to begin well.

The first words and the first acts carry enormous weight and her contention that starting anything with ‘housekeeping’ truly wastes the initial moments of everyone’s attention.

I want to be sure to highlight the fact that successful events can actually involve some epic fails

As event planners, we know that things break, cakes melt, the flower girls throw things at each other…This does not make or break the event, however! Understanding ‘fails’ and responding with humor and grace will enable the guests to breathe and chuckle and treasure a fond memory. Think of the Instagram feed that only shows what went well…we like it but how much more do we love the talented designers that reveal a true horror story of an installation that fell down an hour prior to the ceremony or the ‘ring dog’ that got into the charcuterie board!

Please consider reading this wonderful book before planning your wedding or planning your next dinner party or book group!  It is filled with lovely ideas that will lead to greater connection to friends and family.

Blue Iris Weddings is happy to explore creative options to engage your guests to elevate the gathering.

I encourage you to watch Ms. Parker’s Ted Talk (3 Steps to Turn Our Everyday Get-Togethers into Transformative Gatherings, and check out her podcast, Together Apart

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