This week we chatted with Charlene Liang, who is the owner and lead planner of Sweetchic Events in Chicago. This wedding expert is the lady to talk to if you want to know how to plan a big-city wedding, incorporate your favorite metropolis into your nuptials or set a wedding budget that’s not the size of a skyscraper. Read on to learn more about Charlene and get some expert advice.
Tell me about yourself and your experience in the wedding industry. How did you come up with the idea for Sweetchic Events?
I’ve been in the industry for a little over six years. I started Sweetchic Events in 2008. I’d always loved planning events in college, and then I always loved weddings, so it kind of seemed like the perfect merge of my interests. But then it wasn’t until about 2008 when I decided to just dive in head-first without interning for anyone, without really getting my feet wet. I just jumped in.
And it’s been great! It’s been a great six years. I feel like we’ve got a great name recognition in the Chicago area as well as a great reputation.
How can couples incorporate Chicago or any other big city into their wedding themes?
Well a lot of our couples love to use the skyline, or the outline of the skyline in either their invitations, escort cards, menus, and sprinkling it in here and there. I’ve even seen it used on a gobo, which is a lighting projection on the wall. There are a lot of different places that you can use the skyline.
And then even little things like naming their tables after their favorite streets in the city, like Michigan Avenue or State Street or Clark Street, or handing out favors that are very Chicago-specific, like Garrett’s Popcorn (which is super popcorn), or doing welcome bags for their guests at the hotel, which include very Chicago-centric treats like Fannie May or Frango or even Wrigley Gum and Jay’s Potato Chips. There are so many local treats that people have been incorporating into welcome bags and favors.
Would you say that more of your couples are Chicago couples, or are they coming from other cities and planning weddings in Chicago?
That’s a tough question. I think a majority of our couples are local, maybe at least 70, 75 percent. But we do get a fair amount of couples planning from California and New York and North Carolina, so that’s maybe a quarter to one-third of our couples every year.
What are some of the differences between planning an urban wedding in the big city compared to planning a rural wedding in a smaller town?
I don’t have much experience planning in a smaller town. I will say that the price tag, obviously. And I think for brides coming from small towns to Chicago to plan a wedding is probably a huge amount of sticker shock. So I don’t come across that too often, usually my brides are from larger cities, or at least have been living in Chicago for a while, even if they are from a smaller town.
How do you recommend a bride in a larger city make vendor decisions when there are so many options at their disposal?
If they don’t have a wedding planner – which is always the easiest way to get the best recommendations – then word of mouth and doing their due diligence, starting with their caterers. That’s the biggest shock of the wedding budget. Talk to people that have planned city weddings, talking to their venue to see who’s on the venue’s list, and then from there, a lot of vendors are happy to provide at least other names of other trusted vendors that they recommend. It’s hard to just Google “Chicago wedding photographer” and get 500,000 results, and it’s like where do you even start?
So it’s really about word of mouth and asking around. People ask co-workers, family friends … there are a lot of resources out there.
What are some of the challenges and obstacles that you’ve seen when planning Chicago weddings?
Part of that is the overabundance of vendors. Even though that is definitely a pro in most cases, it’s also a con because they’re overwhelming. My job is really helping figure out what is the client’s budget, what is their personality, what is the look and feel that they’re going for, and then matching them with the correct vendor, instead of finding a super high-priced vendor and trying to match them with a client who can’t afford them, it’s finding them the right one who’s the right fit in all aspects.
So it can be tough. Sometimes clients will come to me with unrealistic budgets and you have to have a “come to Jesus conversation,” [saying] this just won’t work in a big city. That’s always an awkward conversation.
Well, it’s one that has to happen. It can be expensive to plan a wedding in a big city!
And you really have to have that budget conversation and decision solid up front so there aren’t too many surprises. I always try to tell my clients a good, realistic number, and if they choose to splurge in certain areas then it’s up to them. But at least they know the minimum amount they should expect to spend.
Do you recommend your clients set a budget before they even get too deep into the planning?
They should set a budget up front, because that affects the venues and the vendors that they select, but they should do their research before setting the budget. Call around to venues and caterers and get a sense of what things cost instead of setting an arbitrary number, like I want to spend $20,000 and not knowing what all the factors are or what goes into the budget.
That makes a lot of sense. Speaking of budgets, I know that some budgeted weddings in Chicago are possible if you work hard, but it can be really difficult. What advice would you give budget-minded brides and grooms who hope to plan a Chicago wedding?
Well I would say that they should consider a Friday or Sunday, even though every couple wants a Saturday. But realistically Fridays and Sundays, there will be a little bit of cost-savings, at least from a vendor or venue standpoint. Some vendors are willing to extend a slight discount, but that really depends.
And then possibly considering not having a formal sit-down dinner, but having more of a reception-style [with] passed hors d’oeuvres, heavy hors d’oeuvres, wine and beer instead of a full open bar, because that adds up for five hours. And not getting too hung-up on having the perfect floral arrangements and sticking to minimal decor, like lots of candles can create a lot of ambiance.
Budget weddings are hard in Chicago, so have a smaller guest count. That’s the biggest one. If you want to have a budget wedding in Chicago and want to invite 200 people, that just doesn’t add up. If you can keep it to under 100, then that definitely helps.
Those are awesome tips, I think that really covers a lot of it, too. Can you tell me any other reasons why brides and grooms should hire a wedding coordinator?
It’s a very stressful time in their lives, even though it’s exciting. But it’s overwhelming, so having someone who can guide you step by step and say OK, let’s pick a caterer and then the photographer, and then the DJ, then they don’t have to worry about missing anything. And having a planner or coordinator toward the end, especially – to discuss logistics and think through the entire day from getting ready to the end of the night when they’re packing up all of the stuff, taking you from A to Z – that really helps. A lot of times, brides don’t know all the little things that go into it.
What about on the day-of? What are some of the reasons a day-of coordinator is really beneficial on the actual wedding day?
It creates a very seamless experience for the couple, so that they’re not freaking out about are the escort cards set up properly, is the card box out, are the favors set in place – so it’s all of those details.
But we’re also helping to manage the wedding party and make sure people are where they’re supposed to be and lining people up, and so the bride’s not yelling at her bridesmaids to get in line. We really take on that role, and then the bride and groom don’t have to watch the clock and say, well is it time for cake-cutting or is it time for toasts – we really help manage that and help manage the flow of all the vendors and the caterers to make sure the photographer and videographer are in the room and they’re not off in the bathroom or eating their vendor meal when we’re about to start toasts.
Or when the father and daughter dance is coming up that dad’s in the room and mom’s in the room too, so all of these little considerations that other people won’t think about if you ask your best friend’s mom to try to do this, this is not stuff they would necessarily think about.
I think those are a lot of things people don’t consider – maybe they make the timeline and don’t realize they would be the ones having to enforce it on the day-of!
And if you don’t have someone, then your photographer usually ends up having to do a lot of the wrangling, and that takes away from the time they have to do their job, which is taking beautiful photos. Instead, they’re trying to watch the clock and shuttle people around.