Saying ‘I do,’ with some helpNo matter what country you’re in, weddings make for big business. In modern Korea, wedding halls dominate the industry, taking care of everything from the dress to the makeup to the food.
But now, as more couples are willing to pay for a more personal touch, wedding planners are becoming an alternative to the monolithic wedding halls, which have only a limited number of choices among a limited range of services. The planners offer not only more services but often act as counselors, confidantes and arbitrators during a time that can strain even the closest of family ties.
The profession is fairly new, with planners popping up about six years ago, according to Lee Jin-ah, a planner at Duo Wed. The term “wedding planner” came into popular use after the American movie by the same name came out in 2001, said Her Eun-mi, a member of the Korea Wedding & Party Planner Association, which estimates that there are 8,000 planners working for 400 wedding-related companies in Korea.
“Tens of new wedding planners are coming out every month,” said Hwang Jin-ryoung of the Korea Wedding & Party Planner Association. Three to six months of training and apprenticeship is all that is needed to start a career as a wedding planner.
“In most cases, both the groom and bride have jobs. They just don’t have time to do things for themselves,” Ms. Hwang said.
In addition, wedding planners can lower the costs for couples by offering a package of services at special rates that are charged only to businesses, Ms. Hwang said.
Wedding planners receive 5 to 10 percent of the total expenditures as their commission, and most couples spend 20 million to 30 million won ($26,086) for their wedding and buying household goods such as furniture, Ms. Hwang said.
Ms. Her, whose salary is based entirely on commissions, said she has earned as much as 500 million won during a peak season. However, weddings are often concentrated in October and May. During the slow summer season, there are only two or three weddings a month for each wedding planner, she said.
Wedding planners earn their pay by being at the couple’s beck and call. They make numerous phone calls to wedding halls and travel agencies to make reservations; they even look up English- or Japanese-speaking officiators for international couples.
But the most important unofficial service planners offer is facilitating delicate issues between families, mostly financial ones, such as exchanging wedding gifts and purchasing household goods.
“One time, a bride’s mother was a little upset because the groom’s family gave the bride a 0.3-carat diamond ring instead of a 0.5-carat diamond ring,” Ms. Her said.
After hearing the complaints, Ms. Her quietly suggested to the groom’s side that they give the bride a bigger ring, without letting them know that the bride’s family was disappointed with the wedding gift. The bride’s family got what they wanted.
“The bride’s mother firmly held my hands and thanked me,” Ms. Her said, adding that if the bride had told the groom directly, it could have led to family disputes between the in-laws. “If it weren’t for us, the bitterness could have lasted for a long time.”
Ms. Her said it is often difficult for the in-laws to discuss issues regarding wedding gifts among themselves, which is why future in-laws need a middleman like wedding planners.
Another wedding planner said her mediation skills are often put to the test. “Indeed, each side of the family calls me separately,” Ms. Lee said, “in most cases to ask questions such as how expensive a gift they should give to their future in-laws.”
One of most frequent questions they field from their clients is whether some requests for wedding gifts from in-laws are appropriate, she said. “Usually, I tell them what’s most commonly done in weddings,” Ms. Lee said.
Money is one of the main reasons her clients will split up before the wedding.
“Each season, at least one couple per wedding planner will break up because of feuds resulting from disappointment about wedding presents and how much both sides contribute to the marriage,” Ms. Lee said. She said these unhappy couples are mostly from wealthy families, or involve grooms who are doctors or lawyers, whose brides are expected to buy costly gifts for the groom’s family, according to custom, Ms. Lee said.
In one case, she recalled, a bride’s family received a box of wedding gifts a week before the wedding, but they were so dissatisfied with the offerings that they called the whole thing off the morning of the wedding day.
In another case, a groom’s family demanded that the bride’s family buy him a luxury-brand winter coat, even though it was summer. The wedding planner heard both sides and tried to explain to the groom’s family that the wedding gifts from the bride’s side were in line with “the standard.”
As the wedding planners become deeply involved with their clients, trust between them develops, even to the point where the couples will reveal their secrets. “Once a couple starts to trust us, they will entrust everything to us,” Ms. Her said.
Ms. Hwang said, “They trust us so much that they tell us everything, such as premarital pregnancies,” which are still taboo in Korea. She said one-fifth of her female clients are pregnant when they come to her.
With all the responsibilities, the job of a wedding planner is nothing like the glamorous portrayal it got in the Jennifer Lopez movie.
“The amount of stress we have is enormous because we are dealing with people,” Ms. Her said.
The planners feel the burden of making sure everyone is happy. “If we make a single mistake, it is irreversible for a lifetime, assuming that people get married only once. I am on edge for several months not to upset a bride,” Ms. Hwang said.
One of the difficulties that Ms. Her did not expect from her job as a wedding planner was the doubts she had about her own life after helping a couple put together a lavish wedding. Compared to the wealth so conspicuously on display, she felt so insignificant.
“A recent client of mine wanted to buy a 30-million-won watch, a well-known designer brand,” Ms. Her said. “Some domestic watches are priced at only 350,000 won. She even wanted to buy her own wedding dress,” something unusual in Korea, where most brides rent their dresses.
The staggering amounts of money unnerved her, even though it meant a lot of money in commissions. “My hands were shaking,” she said.
Asked about the most rewarding part of her career, Ms. Hwang said, “It is very touching to see a bride whom I’ve helped out in a wedding ceremony. I feel like it is my own sister who is getting married.”
Sometimes the bond developed before the wedding lasts well after the ceremony. Ms. Her said some couples have even brought her gifts after their honeymoon.
So with all the expertise and information at their fingertips, what kind of weddings do wedding planners hold for themselves?
“I have seen wedding planners have a simple wedding,” Ms. Hwang said. “They just don’t have enough time for themselves.”
by Limb Jae-un