For Bernadette Smith, the business of planning weddings isn’t just about helping the happy couple deal with the stressful process of selecting a venue or cake.
It’s about advocacy.
Eleven years ago, when Smith was working for a nonprofit, marriage equality arrived in Massachusetts–the first U.S. state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Smith witnessed the surge of support for LGBT couples to legally marry and the steady flow of same-sex couples tying the knot. A Boston Globe survey found that half of the couples who applied for licenses on the first day had been partners for a decade or more. Two-thirds were women and 30 were raising children. In the first week, 2,468 same-sex couples applied for licenses, including at least 164 from 27 other states and the District of Columbia.
“Someone’s got to plan these weddings,” Smith tells Fast Company. “It might as well be me.” Beyond just helping find a photographer and musicians, Smith says she wanted to help same-sex couples break out of the gender roles that define traditional weddings. “I want to help my clients reinvent and redefine their [ceremonies],” she explains, pointing out that some of them have been together for 20 years and have accumulated a lifetime’s worth of their own traditions. “I also want to make them feel safe,” she says. “It’s become a mission in life.”
With that goal, she started 14 Stories, the first U.S. firm specializing in planning legal same-sex weddings. In 2009, she launched the Gay Wedding Institute, which provides research, thought leadership, and education on gay and lesbian weddings.
Though the wedding market is a big one, with U.S. couples spend an average of $29,000 on their special day, she is quick to point out that those numbers have been called into question, and not just because they are usually based on receptions for 150 or more people. Same-sex couples typically have about 80 guests, and are willing to spend lavishly.
Additionally, “the LGBT consumer is very loyal, and the ideal in many ways,” she maintains, so the business case for planners becomes quite compelling, she believes. According to data compiled by the Gay Wedding Institute, $259 million was spent in New York City during the first year of same-sex marriage alone. The most recent U.S. Census data found that married same-sex couples had an average household income of $103,980, while unmarried heterosexual couples had an average household income of $62,857.
Smith posits that because same-sex weddings are nontraditional, they have the ability to reenergize and inspire the planner who might be languishing amid cookie-cutter trends of design and the flow of events. Above all, Smith believes, these clients are not taking the right to marry for granted. “It’s a breath of fresh air,” she says.
Investing in their own education to learn to plan same-sex weddings could only help boost a wedding planner’s revenue stream. Unfortunately, Smith says, some planners could actually be losing business without even knowing it. For example, the language or photos they use on their websites could be offputting to a same-sex couple.
“Same-sex couples don’t have to follow the rules,” she says, “so don’t make assumptions.” This is a challenge since the wedding industry has historically skewed heavily toward the bride. That starts from the first conversation with a member of a newly engaged couple. “Asking, ‘Is one of you the bride?’ is disheartening,” Smith says. Likewise, if a woman calls, she advises planners not to automatically ask the name of the groom, which illustrates how far we as a culture still have to go to incorporate same-sex marriages into our collective consciousness. In the meantime, partner, spouse, or other gender-neutral terminology is better. And if a person has a unisex name, Smith says, “Keep asking questions so you don’t end up making a mistake.”
When she was building her business, Smith was also careful to quiz the photographers, caterers, florists, and limousine companies about their teams, especially in light of the fact that there are no state laws in 29 states that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Whereas a small business owner might be supportive of gay weddings, members of their staff could have different values. It was Smith’s job to make sure they understood everyone on site at the wedding was onboard when she started 14 Stories. “I still have those conversations,” says Smith. “I don’t want my clients’ experience marred by a team member who wasn’t totally supportive.”
As both 14 Stories and the Gay Wedding Institute have mined a virtually untapped market, Smith has gotten busier. Being in demand as a speaker and thought leader, she plans only five to six weddings for high-end clients per year herself, and farms out the rest to her team.
Smith does admit to having the same challenges any small business owner has, including managing cash flow and sales cycles–she says each has grown year over year, but did not provide revenue numbers. She did say the two used to be an even 50/50 revenue split, but Smith projects that the Institute will grow to encompass two-thirds of the total business now that it is licensed in Mexico and there are people there teaching her coursework in Spanish throughout Latin America. She’s also in talks with others to license 14 Stories and open offices across the U.S.
If the Supreme Court does rule in favor of marriage equality in June, which it may as public support is strong and continues to grow, 14 Stories and the Gay Wedding Institute could profit. “I’m not obsessed with the numbers,” Smith underscores. “Even 10% growth is good.” Nor is Smith too concerned about competition in her space. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” she says.
For now, she’s focused on bringing the right partners onboard. Smith says future licensees need to be in complete alignment with the brand she’s built. “I don’t want just anyone to be a licensee,” she says. “If someone thinks that opening a 14 Stories office means putting a giant rainbow on their site and getting all cheesy, that’s not a good fit for me,” she says.
Ultimately, the alignment is necessary to manifest her vision. “When I talk about being an advocate, it is not just about the wedding,” she explains. “I do feel like my messaging is building an army of LGBT advocates under the veil of a wedding,” says Smith. Pun completely intended.