As planners, the prospect of opening a new office can be both super exciting and semi-frightening at once. In fact, we often get asked about the ins-and-outs of expanding planning businesses and growing successful teams along the way, so we decided to sit down with some of our favorite planning pros to help Aisle Planners everywhere get to the bottom of this small business challenge: Sarah Chancey is the founder of Chancey Charm, one of the nation’s leading luxury wedding planning and design studios, and Skylar Caitlin serves as the associate planner at Chancey Charm Houston--both women have agreed to share their unprecedented knowledge and unparalleled insight with us today, and we couldn’t be more grateful.
With an impressive 14 locations all across The States (everywhere from San Diego to Boston), this coast-to-coast team of wedding planning pros knows a thing or two about successfully growing your business and developing the right team to help you do so. Read on for helpful advice and anecdotes from some of the industry’s leading expansion pros.
Can you provide some insight on building your team from within versus hiring out?
Skylar: I joined the Chancey Charm team as one of the very first interns in 2013. We were given a lot of responsibility to help us grow—first based on our previous knowledge (for example, I worked as a church wedding director previously, so I was often given charge of directing parts of the ceremony) and then as we grew and became more comfortable with the “Chancey Charm way,” we were given more to do outside of our comfort zones. For me, this usually had to do with design-related tasks, like setting up a display.
I’ve always had a pretty simple belief when it comes to work: I believe that if you show up, show you have value, and continue to do those two things over and over again consistently, you’ll be able to set yourself apart. I’m always the one asking if there’s something else I can do and posing questions to understand why we’re doing something. For those of us who do these things, Sarah has added a special step for interns who prove themselves as valuable. On of our mentors, Marilisa of Martel Event, leads a small group of carefully selected interns from each of our locations through a distance learning program by The Apprentice Program. I was a part of the very first group to get this training.
My turning point was when I was thrown into the water. I was assisting—along with another long-time CC intern—with a wedding when the planner was involved in an accident that resulted in a concussion. With Sarah’s house full of guests for her son’s first birthday and the rest of the Atlanta team working their own events, we had to step up as the lead coordinators. It boosted my confidence and prepared me like no other wedding before.
Sarah: After 5+ years in the wedding industry and over 40 women in and out of Chancey Charm, I am a firm believer in building your team from within instead of hiring out. Now, of course, the exception to this is often building a new location. But, for me, hiring within or connecting with vendors I worked with previously on client events has always been a win when building my team.
Skylar is a great example of this, since she started with us as an intern and worked her way into the Associate Planner position in Houston. It was such a joy to see her earn her current position, and it feels so great to know that she’s going to knock her clients socks off with our proven planning and design practices. I also think it’s always best case when a position is earned rather than handed to someone. I’ve seen that play out so vividly with so many of my planners.
Can you provide others who might be thinking of expanding some insight on successfully choosing new locations and learning new markets?
Skylar: I’ll let Sarah cover most of this. I’m in Houston, because that’s where my fiancé got a job. Sarah is the one who analyzed the location and made the decision to offer me this opportunity. She’ll probably have a lot to say because she’s learned a lot about locations and has had to make some tough cuts recently.
Sarah: Wow, this is something I’ve learned the hard way. When I first started expanding, I thought that all we needed was to rank well in a city to get things rolling. But, I’ve learned quickly that you have to be firing on all cylinders (PR, marketing, styled shoots, vendor networking, partnerships and Google) in a city that also has enough of a market to sustain you full time. Even some larger capital cities don’t fit the bill, and it’s been tough to come to terms with.
Our strategy is sticking to destination cities where out-of-state clients almost HAVE to use a planner to pull it all together from afar. Once a new city is chosen, learning the market is a whole new adventure. Each city’s vendor/wedding industry scene is vastly different and has a unique personality all it’s own. Meshing with your city’s feel and network can be a challenge, but it’s certainly a part of growing a successful location. If you don’t connect and adapt, you won’t make it. It’s also important to start having heart-to-hearts with other planners so you can gauge pricing. Our pricing varies from market to market.
Regarding training programs, are there any tricks of the trade? How many times do you suggest employees/interns shadow you at events before setting them loose to run their own event? Are there any tips you can offer for training people on Aisle Planner?
Skylar: I think that, while our resources guide is fantastic at teaching us the basics, reminding us of the company values (a benefit of being raised through the team from intern to associate planner is that I already knew all of these), and providing us with templates, what has helped me the most is communication and connection with the other planners. Our group text is always a place where we feel comfortable venting, asking questions, and sharing pictures we’re proud of. It connects all of our spread-out locations and reassures me that I have a place to go when I need help—I seriously don’t know how people do solo-prenuership!
Our mentorship program is also invaluable. We set goals and talk monthly about progress, questions that have come up, or anything we might need to bounce off someone with more experience. A great example is that I was recently dealing with a potential client I needed to tell didn’t have a large enough budget for her wish-list. I was able to sit down with my mentor, discuss wording of emails, work through the proposed budget changes, and prepare a great packet to send back to the bride-to-be.
Sarah: As far as Assistant/Intern training, we LOVE The Apprentice Program, and highly recommend it. We also enjoy sharing the backend of Aisle Planner with our Assistants, allowing them to dive in with us and see the process behind the scenes, as well as take the AP training courses. Chancey Charm has a Best Practices Guide for its Associate Planners, and a shorter version for their team, which includes everything from Sales strategy to design tips!
As far as recruiting and selecting the right people, what tips can you offer on structuring the interview process? Any sample interview questions you’d recommend?
Sarah: Interviewing has always been a weak spot for me personally. I’m an eternal optimist, encourager and very achievement oriented. So, I tend to see the best in every candidate and want to fly through the “interview process.” This caused me some very difficult situations early on, so now I run candidates through a series of interviews, one with myself, one with my husband (aka my first business consultant—haha), and a Chancey Charm mentor, Katie Werkin or Marilisa Sachinger.
This series of interviews slows down the process and gives me insight from people I trust who are MUCH more discerning than I am. As far as questions, I encourage you to dive into past experience and their resume as much as possible, with questions like: “What’s the most difficult client conflict you’ve had? How did you handle it? Would you change anything if you could go back? What did you learn from that experience?”
Any additional thoughts and/or pieces of advice before we let you get back to planning all of those unforgettable affairs?
Skylar: New locations aren’t easy. They take time to build and it can be months before you start booking consistently. I’d suggest creating a very clear and specific goals list that the planner in your new location can follow. There are times during this start-up process where you aren’t sure what you should be working on. Developing a game plan or even a ‘rainy day’ list you can come back to every time things seem to slow down will help you use the time you have to prepare for future clients. I would spent a lot of time working on detailed email templates for all stages of planning and even for styled shoots. These are already saving me time and I probably won’t have time to batch these out when I’m busier.
Sarah: Opening a new office is fun and exciting. It opens new doors as an entrepreneur and new revenue streams. But it also comes with a lot of responsibility and unexpected challenges. You need to see it as an investment, which may cost you money the first few years just like your original location probably did. This mindset will help set yourself up for a huge win if it turns a profit earlier, and keep your expectations in check if it doesn’t.
Hero photo courtesy Jennings King Photography