feature story

wedding planning begins on the web
The Internet has become wedding and event planners’ most valuable resource.

by Chris Gigley

Don’t be fooled by the hands-on, personal service that bridal and event customers demand; while they may wind up investing plenty of face-to-face time with you, many of them start the process online. The Internet is the predominant research tool for today’s brides and corporate event planners. And florists who have been courting their business via Web sites have enjoyed immediate gratification.
In 1999, when Carolyn Shepard, AIFD launched a site for her Charlotte, N.C.-based weddings and events business, Carolyn Shepard Design Group (www.carolynshepard.com), she received leads almost instantly. “The initial response was electric,” she says. “I never had a Web site before and had no idea what to expect. From the beginning, we were getting thousands and thousands of hits per month.”

How web sites benefit florists
Web sites help connect florists with the right customers. In Ms. Shepard’s case, not enough people in her market knew all she had to offer, and the Internet helped her get the word out.
“The site has helped us explain what we do, because we don’t just sell flowers,” she says. “We have a wide range of rental props, linens and other things most florists don’t have.”
Web sites also overcome the challenge of doing business with nonlocal brides-to-be and corporate clients. Brides who have moved away from home but still want to get married there (33 percent of brides in 2004), or those who choose “destination” weddings (9 percent), for example, now simply browse local florists’ Web sites to get a feel for what is available.
Those figures are reported in “The American Wedding Study 2005,” which was recently completed by Fairchild Bridal Group, publisher of Bride’s, Modern Bride and Elegant Bride magazines. This study also reveals that 30 percent of all brides in 2004 planned their weddings “long distance” (more than 50 miles from home) as opposed to traveling to the wedding locales and working in person with product and service vendors. Additionally, it’s likely that many of those who did travel to their wedding locations to work in person with vendors, no doubt, began their initial planning via the Internet.
“A lot of our brides are from out of town, and our Web site gives us a place to send them to see some of the parties we’ve handled,” says Dan Meiners of Studio Dan Meiners (www.danmeiners.com) in Kansas City, Mo. “It’s so much easier than e-mailing photos.”
According to Alan Berg, vice president of local sales for The Knot, a bridal media company producing magazines, books, syndicated columns and a Web site, transience is the norm for today’s brides. A recent survey of the brides using The Knot’s Web site (www.theknot.com) shows that, in 2005, 40 percent of them are getting married somewhere other than where they live.
“It’s amazing, as we’ve become a more transient society, how many young ladies come home to get married,” says Michael Bourke of Jones the Florist (www.jonestheflorist.com) in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Many brides visit our site from out of town. They first look at the photos on the site, then call or e-mail us to set up appointments.”

today’s brides are web dependent
There is a general assumption among most consumers today that every business has a Web site, and today’s brides-to-be expect florists, caterers, musicians and any other business they research to have sites. The core age demographic of brides who log onto TheKnot.com ranges from 25 to 35. According to most florists, that’s also who’s visiting their sites.
“Our site draws two kinds of people—brides and corporate event planners—and both are women in their late 20s or early 30s,” says Ms. Shepard. “That’s exactly who we want to draw.”
Women in this age range, says Mr. Berg, are far more than computer literate. They’re computer dependent. “These women wouldn’t think of making any major decision without using the Internet to research it first,” he says.

weeding out the “lookey-loos”
Not all of this online research, however, ends in sales for florists. Mary Noriega, for instance, says she answers “a lot of e-mails from people who are just checking things out.” But the owner of Humphrey Florist in San Diego adds that the few browsers who become customers make her Web site, (www.humphreyflorist.com), valuable to her business.
Even with a plethora of e-mails from browsing brides, Web sites can save florists time. Susanne Lawrence, owner of Jardin del Sol Flowers in Glendale, Calif., says her site (www.jardindelsolflowers.com) helps screen out customers who can’t afford her work, which starts at $2,500. Brides with smaller budgets are less likely to contact Jardin del Sol Flowers after viewing the high-end designs shown on the Web site.
Sarah Cohen agrees. She’s the director of social sales and business development of M.E. Productions (www.meproductions.com), a Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based event planner that handled about 600 weddings and events in 2004. “A lot can be qualified by our Web site,” she says. “Weddings come in all shapes and sizes. If someone can’t meet our minimums, then our site is a good way for them to find out.”

Image is everything
Ms. Lawrence is fine with her site functioning as a gatekeeper. While she says it eliminates the delicate process of qualifying customers over the phone “without offending them,” it also underscores the importance of having a well-designed site.
“Web sites in this industry have gone from utilitarian tools for selling to very image-conscious customer awareness tools,” says Mr. Bourke. “We realize more and more that the image of the company can be built by the perception created by a Web site.”
Jones the Florist’s Web site reflects the split of bridal and corporate business from everyday business. While the home page is simple and functional, the Interactive Wedding Guide features stylized fonts, animation and elegant photography.
“The most important goal of the site is to make an emotional connection with the bride,” says Mr. Bourke. “We sell flowers, but, for weddings, we’re also selling emotion. We’re selling the way the bride wants to feel on her wedding day. If I can capture that with the photography, I can lead her through an experience similar to what she wants on her wedding day.”
Mr. Meiners, meanwhile, focuses on keeping his site new. “Brides and event planners are looking for something different, so we want our site to be ‘artsy’ and hip but elegant and sophisticated, too,” he says. “It has to be up to date, so we put new pictures on there all the time to give browsers fun things to look at.”

Images are everything
Most florists agree that photos are the most important parts of their Web sites. How your work comes across online ultimately determines a corporate event planner’s or bride-to-be’s response.
Ms. Shepard’s Web site is a perfect example. She bypassed Web design firms and created her site herself. As a result, it isn’t flashy, but it does feature portfolio-quality photography of her design work against a black background. On her site, the shots of her designs do all the talking.
“Showcase your work well, and a lot of it,” advises Theodore Zois, the owner of Ariston Florist (www.aristonflorist.com) in New York City, who has had a Web site since 1997. “That’s the bottom line. People have to be able to see what you have to offer.”
Ms. Shepard goes even further, questioning the need for anything but the most necessary information to accompany photographs. Five years of experience online has shown her how little people read on the Internet.
“Initially, we put a good bit of information on the site about us and how to set up a consultation, and we found that nobody read it,” she explains. “If we didn’t have a single word other than our contact information, I think we’d be just fine. The images tell the story for us. We’re getting ready to rebuild our Web site now, and we’ll probably streamline it to be almost strictly images with very little text.”

Where the brides are
With so many brides and corporate event planners researching bouquets and floral decorations via the Internet, Web-savvy florists are doing everything they can to get their sites noticed. They’re including their Web addresses on all letterhead, business cards and printed marketing and advertising materials. They’re linking with the sites of caterers, photographers and other local wedding-focused vendors. But the most effective thing they’re doing is buying listings on online wedding directories.
Bridal directory sites such as TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com have become havens for brides, who log on to search localized listings of florists, caterers and other vendors and browse content to learn everything from thank-you-card etiquette to the latest trends in honeymoons. The level of use on these sites is abnormally high for the Internet.
Tracy Day, publisher of WeddingChannel.com’s WeddingBells magazine, says WeddingChannel.com draws 2.3 million unique users per month, and the average bride-to-be begins logging onto the site 11 months before her wedding day. Ms. Day says there’s a difference between how brides use bridal magazines and wedding Web sites.
“Women tend to go to magazines first to get ideas and inspiration,” she explains. “Then, they go to the Web for more information and to get down to business.”
According to a representative from The Knot, its site also has more than 2 million unique viewers every month, and it averages 20 minutes per visit. That’s forever in Internet time. These viewers also come back about nine times a month. Mr. Berg explains why brides-to-be tend to linger online.
“[First-time] brides often don’t know what they want,” he says. “They’ve never planned a wedding before, and the only thing it compares to is building a new building from scratch. They want to look at absolutely everything, and that’s an involved process.”

online directories
Most florists interviewed for this article say they’re listed on The Knot’s Web site and/or WeddingChannel.com and have found their investments worthwhile. A regular listing on WeddingChannel.com costs $900 per year and includes 10 photos, a 100-word description, a link to the florist’s site and e-mail, company logo, contact information and a mapping function allowing brides to get driving directions. Rates for a listing on The Knot’s Web site, meanwhile, start at $75 to $85 per month.
“WeddingChannel.com and The Knot are hugely successful because they’re specific to weddings, and all the information is sorted out,” says M.E. Productions’ Ms. Cohen, who has a listing with WeddingChannel.com and is exploring a relationship with The Knot. “They offer businesses easy access to brides. The research we did before signing on [with WeddingChannel.com] showed the companies that were listed there were getting a lot of return on investment.”

no longer an option
The Web has staying power as a resource for brides and event planners. Perhaps The Knot’s Mr. Berg sums it up best when he explains how the Internet has become a technology for the masses. It seems that almost everyone has a computer. And even people who don’t have Internet access at home have it at work. Consider that the peak hours for The Knot’s site are between noon and 2 p.m. and again between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.—right under the boss’ nose.
“The Internet has changed the wedding planning process because it’s opened up all these options to so many women,” says Mr. Berg. For florists hoping to continue to be an option for brides and event planners, a well-organized, well-connected Web site with plenty of photos is a must.

Chris Gigley is an author, speaker, and freelance writer who has covered the giftware market for nine years as an industry editor-in-chief. He lives in Greensboro, N.C., with his wife and two daughters.

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