Listen To The Experts

Desert wedding pros reveal their best insider’s tips.

A coordinator ensures smart planning and a smooth wedding day. Gina Leslie planned this petal-perfect event at Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage.

Inspirational Photography by Kristy

Gina Leslie: Consider A Wedding Planner

Unsure whether you need a wedding planner? It costs nothing to interview one or two — and, in the long run, it could save you a bundle. While many couples begin planning with plenty of ideas and confidence, they often become overwhelmed under the weight of too many options, too much fine print, and not enough time. A skilled planner brings experience and knowledge, including shortcuts to savvy contract negotiations, ways to secure better vendor pricing, straight talk about your rights and possibilities, and big-picture insight into making the best decisions. “A good planner will walk you through it all and have your back at every turn — ensuring your vision is realized no matter when in the process she was hired,” says Gina Leslie of The Walk Down the Aisle. If you are planning from outside the region, that’s all the more reason to hire someone who knows local do’s and don’ts.

Find a planner who is flexible and who makes you feel comfortable and understood (you’re going to spend a lot of time with this person). Interview prospects about their background, why they became planners, how they work, their special style, services offered, and fees. (Typical rates range from 10 to 15 percent of your wedding budget.) Ask for references and use them!

Cathy O’Connell: Prioritize to Control Costs

“Couples do this once; we do it every weekend!” Cathy O’Connell says about the wedding planning process. Over the years, she has discovered many ways to infuse million-dollar touches into the most modest wedding budgets. “First, it’s definitely less expensive to have a wedding here than inLos Angeles or Orange County,” says O’Connell of La Quinta-based Celebrations of Joy.

Second, she says, put your money toward aspects that mean the most to you. “We help couples define what’s important before they spend too much money on the wrong things,” she says. Her firm has planned luxurious weddings with most of the music on an iPod, as well as elegant affairs on Fridays, Sundays, and Mondays when hotels will offer better deals.

Couples who have refused to let cost get the best of them love O’Connell’s mantra: “Candles, candles, candles!” She clusters them down the aisle or uses them in ballroom centerpieces.

Another idea: Host the ceremony, reception, rehearsal dinner, and post-party brunch at a hotel where you also reserve a block of guest rooms. “There’s more potential for value if you do everything in one place,” she says.

Her other best tips: Skip wedding programs and menu cards (this is also eco-friendly!); choose quality vendors, but cut back on hours (“Cut the cake early and ask yourself if you really need an hour and a half of getting-ready photos.”); don’t blow your budget on a ceremony site for the half-hour you’re there (“Choose an affordable site that’s so pretty it needs little more than petals on the aisle.”); and make a charitable donation (of any size) on your guests’ behalf in lieu of favors “that often get left behind.”

Joey Lizotte: Create a Floral Story

Working with flowers in an extreme climate isn’t easy, so find a floral designer with proper refrigeration and experience in desert extremes. Joey Lizotte of Artisan Event Floral and Decor — known for his signature use of native succulents, stylized grasses, and custom containers — creates a “floral story” for the wedding that results in a cohesive look. His choices for hearty flowers that can survive a wedding without water include orchids, roses, succulents, and calla lilies. Wispy, delicate flowers like dahlias and peonies can become impossible to work with because they will not open. “A lot of beautiful flowers will work here; you just have to be open-minded,” he says. “Everything has to be perfect for that day.”

Certain trends work better in the desert than others. Colorwise, he has had recent requests for lime, turquoise, yellow, and orange. “Chocolate brown is still popular, but gunmetal gray is growing, too,” he says. Not one to overdo, Lizotte enjoys helping couples maximize their floral budget. “More flowers do not make it look better,” he says. “Then again, you don’t want to skimp. Flowers will be in all your photos and will stay with you into the future.”

His tips for spending wisely: Allocate more toward the reception flowers (much less time is spent at the ceremony site), invest in pieces that can move from ceremony to reception, and limit the number of bridesmaids. “Bouquets are labor-intensive,” he says. “An army of 12 bridesmaids equals 12 bouquets, and that adds up.”

Patty Gleeson: Choose Cakes and Appetizers That Go the Distance

For a cake that will withstand a warm wedding day, steer clear of pastry cream, whipped cream, and custard. “Cream fillings, especially when paired with fruit, moisten into the cake layer and it has a hard time holding up,” says Gleeson, a catering manager who prefers, for example, Parker Palm Springs’ dark cocoa cake with a tangy pomegranate filling for its sumptuous flavor combination. Couples love it, too, along with dark cocoa cupcakes filled with a peanut mousse. As a cake alternative, she suggests “a sweets table with fruit tarts and cookies in jars — colorful treats that people can go back to and nosh on throughout the night.”

When planning the menu, avoid displaying seafood in outdoor areas. Choose appetizers that can be chilled well on a tray before passing. Popular appetizer at the Parker recently have been tuna tartar over watermelon, lamp lollipops, and a garlicky chicken cannoli.

Richard Cadieux: Find Your Officiant Early

Avoid being one of the 60 percent of couples who wish they had chosen a different officiant, advises the Rev. Richard Cadieux. The best officiants are booked far in advance, narrowing the pool available on your big day. An officiant hired with ample time can help you create a ceremony filled with meaning and personal expression. Like other wedding pros, they are familiar with many site locations and have developed relationships with other vendors along the way.

The busiest times to wed in the desert are late March to early May and early October through late November. Saturdays at sunset are popular for the moderate temperature and romantic lighting. “A good officiant knows where to place a couple and the wedding party for the best photography no matter what time of day or year,” Cadieux says. “He or she should also be willing and able to coordinate the musicians, photographer, videographer, and able to line up the processional.”

To find your officient, speak to three over the phone and two in person, maybe a male and a female. Get vendor names where they are an approved vendor. Above all, follow your instincts.


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