By Bonnie Pickett

While the fragile U.S. economy seems to be improving and the outlook for the wedding industry in 2011 appears more positive, professionals recommend that planners be alert and develop creativity.

“2011 certainly looks better than 2009 and 2010,” says Shane McMurray, CEO and founder of The Wedding Report, Inc.  “If the economy holds up, we should see improvement; however, if gas prices continue to increase, expect higher costs, which will cause couples to begin to think about cost-cutting measures.”

Trend swings upward, but watch out for variables
The recession’s effect on the wedding business was adverse. McMurray reports that the average amount spent on a wedding went from almost $29,000 in 2007 to just under $20,000 in 2009, and the average number of guests went from 166 to 129. The demand for professional services decreased, while many consumers resorted to do-it-yourself and reconsidered how they were spending and how many people they were inviting to the wedding. That trend swung upward in 2010, according to The Knot’s 2010 Real Wedding Survey results. “Less than a third (31 percent) of brides said the economy affected their wedding budget—a decrease from 34 percent in 2009.”

Continued improvement could depend on the economy. “In 2011 spending should see only moderate increases, if any, as consumer confidence improves and the number of guests increase,” McMurray states in the “2011 Wedding Market Insight Report” from The Wedding Report. “If the economy continues to stabilize, couples will feel more comfortable about spending, and we should see the average amount spent on a wedding come in between $23,000 and $25,000. If the economy worsens, expect couples to pull back.”

John Rudy, director of sales and marketing, Classic Party Rentals, is optimistic. “The worst of the sinking sales seems to be behind us.  Though the economy is not robust, entertaining is back on the rise and business is up from two years ago.  Cuts in labor and studies in efficiencies are helping companies be more productive and profitable,” he says.

Re-invention and innovation are keys to survival
The upturn is shaky, however, with multiple influences on the economy ever present and unpredictable. Thus, it is vital that those in the wedding industry remain alert. Rebecca Grinnals, president of Engaging Concepts, a consultant to the wedding industry, advises knowledge and ingenuity. “In today’s incredibly competitive and in many cases, totally over-saturated marketplace, there is not a business out there that does not need to continue to re-invent and innovate in order to be in this game.”

Knowledge will be a vital tool, so it is essential to be as informed as possible.  “Diversify and educate yourself,” says McMurray. One way to do that is to explore opportunities in the industry. Elise Enloe, MBC™, director of education for the Association of Bridal Consultants (ABC), says, “Many wedding professionals have used the recent economic situation to update or upgrade their educational and professional credentials.” The ABC is a resource for foundational programming, networking, business skill development, and wedding trend ideas from industry leaders.

Keeping track of what’s happening in your market as far as consumer spending, trends, and competitive threats is important as well, says McMurray. “Look at how much consumers are spending, not how much your competitors are charging.” People are looking at their events more critically and spending their money in areas that are most important to them and have the biggest impact on the event, Rudy says.  “Smart vendors are investing heavily in training to differentiate themselves with service and creativity.” He suggests more Internet-based marketing and increased use of face-to-face meetings to establish relationships.

Take advantage of technology and media Wise use of available media can help you stay in the game. “Brides are savvier than ever and have shifted their priorities,” Grinnals says, explaining that their access to information and inspiration is vast. “They can pull together a ‘vendor dream team’ in a few quick clicks—something that a few short years ago was one of a wedding planner’s biggest assets.”

The Knot survey emphasizes the importance of technology. “From using social media to communicate wedding details (a 78 percent increase since 2008) and creating/sending save-the-dates or invitations online (a 40 percent increase since 2008) to using an online RSVP service (a 31 percent increase since 2008), or setting up personal wedding websites (a 23 percent increase since 2008), brides are increasingly using online wedding tools to prepare for the big day.”

Think outside of the box
Changing social trends are also influential. “Learn more about the space outside of your box,” advises McMurray. “It’s the changing generation; they want different things.” Couples are choosing less traditional and formal affairs. They want casual and unique weddings. He predicts that couples will look for more a la carte, day-of, month-of services instead of full service.  “It’s less expensive and helps give them the direction they need. Consumers are smart; they are demanding more for their money.”

Today, it is important to focus on the couple’s individuality, to help them spend their budget so that it will result in a unique, fun wedding that reflects them personally, Grinnals suggests. “What wedding planners can provide that resonates powerfully with today’s consumer is the luxury of time to enjoy the wedding planning process and help minimize stress.”

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