One of the East Bay’s top event coordinators tells how to organize a stress-free soiree.
To Joyce Scardina Becker, there’s nothing greater in life than a celebrated moment. “Nothing, nothing, nothing,” she says.
Becker lives that philosophy every day, as the owner of Events of Distinction, director of Cal State East Bay’s wedding planner certificate program, and author of Countdown to Your Perfect Wedding. In a career spanning three decades, she has organized festivities for more than 500 special occasions and developed a reputation for throwing high-end bashes that go off without a hitch.
With wedding season in full swing and summer soirees filling up the calendar, we sat down with Becker to get her tips on planning a foolproof party.
Q: I need to throw a huge bash! What should I do first?
A: If you’re going to hire a planner, now is the time to do so. But let the planner do his or her job: There’s no need to look online, no need to start thinking about venues.
If you’re not going to hire a planner, you need to do some homework before you randomly start going out and looking for venues. You need to prepare some type of binder for yourself, with tabs. You can certainly do this on your computer, but sometimes, it’s nice to have something tangible.
Q: What’s the next step?
A: Writing down your guest list—and many people are shortsighted about this. People say, “Oh, we’ll have 200 people,” or “We’ll have 300 people.” But you need to write down everyone’s correct name and address because only then can you guesstimate how many guests are going to be invited versus how many are really coming.
Once you have a pulse on your guest count—there’s usually a 20 percent decline on an event that’s local and 30 percent if it’s a destination—you can go to the next step. What time of year do you want this party, and what are some dates that you want to consider? From there, you can start thinking about a site.
Q: What questions do you hear most often?
A: Budget is a real big concern. Sometimes, the first words out of my clients’ mouths are, “How much is this going to cost?”
But if they understand what they want first, it’s really not about how much: It’s about what they value most.
Q: What if I don’t have a clear vision?
A: If you’re planning a wedding, sit down with your fiancé and go through a written exercise. You should take notes separately on what the wedding should look like or be like. If you need visuals, then at that point, go online or start a little Pinterest board.
Then, come together over a bottle of wine or dinner, and start sharing. It’s really important not to shut the other person down: The rule is, you can’t say whether you like or dislike something until the other person is done talking.
After you go through this experience of sharing, you should come to the beginning of compromising together. This is going to be a life lesson: Not only are you going to have to compromise on the wedding, you’re going to have to compromise as a married couple.
Q: How can I avoid freak-outs during the planning process?
A: The best way to stay calm is to always be organized. When someone is unorganized, no matter what the situation—whether they’re planning a wedding or heading out to an interview—the panic starts.
Q: Aside from being unorganized, what is the biggest mistake you see people make?
A: Not understanding contracts. I’ve had very intelligent clients—some even attorneys themselves—who make very unintelligent decisions when it comes to contracts.
I recently had a destination bride who was getting married in Lake Tahoe. She signed a contract for a minimum of $30,000, plus tax and gratuity, for 150 guests. A month before the wedding, she did not have 150 guests—she had 100—and there was no way her 100 guests were going to meet the minimum.
She hired me after she signed it, and the venue agreed to do a brunch the following day to meet that $30,000 minimum. But it could have been a big problem.
Q: Wedding or not, what should I never cut corners on when planning an event?
A: Here is the phrase I use: “Consider the needs of your guests.”
An event is no different than company coming to your home. When people come to your home, you want to make it easy on parking. You don’t charge for beverages. You greet them lovingly. You accept their coats. You offer them a beverage and hors d’oeuvres. You have a lovely dinner and don’t shortchange food.
Also, don’t shortchange staffing. I often look at the food, and it’s reasonable, but what they’re missing is the right number of staff. It should be one person per wait table if you have fine dining.
Q: How have sites such as Pinterest and The Knot changed your role as a planner? Have these tools made your job easier or harder?
A: It’s bittersweet. Some people think they know everything.
Q: Let’s get down to the decor: Are there any awesome trends you’ve been seeing lately?
A: The trend is details, details, details.
Signage is just taking over. And I’m not talking about blackboard signs—we’re sick of those. We do the most darling hand-painted signs that are very dramatic.
We recently did an airline wedding theme for a couple that met on a Southwest flight. We had signs for the “nuptial terminal” when guests arrived. Where gifts were accepted was called “baggage claim.” And the dinner area was the “boarding zone.”
Q: Are there any trends to avoid? Are Mason jars passé?
A: Oh gosh, all that stuff is out. It’s been out—Mason jars, cupcakes, Gone With the Wind, mashed potato bars.
Q: So what’s in?
A: I stay away from trends because they have nothing to do with individuals.
For a wedding at St. Francis Yacht Club, [the bride] loved teal and sherbet orange. Were those colors popular and trendy? I couldn’t care less.
My message to you is: Stay away from trends.
Q: What about a theme?
A: I think it's very personal and guests really enjoy it. Do you have to have a theme? No. But you want to make it personal.
Themes can be anything. We’ve done “the spice of life” for a wedding for a couple that loved to cook. We’ve done “climbing pinnacles” for a couple that liked to hike and ski.
But there’s a difference between themes and styles. Vintage is not a theme; vintage is a style. Contemporary is a style. Traditional is a style. That’s how you furnish something.
Q: As a planner, what’s your biggest challenge on the day of the event?
A: Getting guests to cooperate. You have to recognize that this is a huge party and it will take on a life of its own, and you can’t herd groups of people quickly. If you want dinner at 6 o’clock, you should allow extra time for guests to be seated, for example.
Q: Have you ever seen a seamless event?
A: Have you ever seen a duck land on water? It looks very smooth. But you know that underneath the water, the duck is paddling like heck. That’s what an event planner does.
Q: What do you love about celebrations?
A: You think about life when you’re old, and you’re going to want to remember the good times. You’ll remember your wedding, your birthday parties, anniversaries, the birth of your child.
It’s a life moment, and nothing could be better than that. eventsofdistinction.com.