Master Planner

One of the Bay Area’s top wedding coordinators gives tips on surviving the big day.

Courtesy of Joyce Scardina Becker

To Joyce Scardina Becker, nothing is greater than a celebrated moment. “Nothing, nothing, nothing,” she says.

Becker is the author of Countdown to Your Perfect Wedding and owner of the San Francisco–based company Events of Distinction. She’s also director of the wedding planner certificate program at Cal State East Bay, where she uses her 30 years of experience to train others to produce flawless productions.

So what are Becker’s secrets to a no-stress nuptial? We talked to her to find out.

Q: He proposed. OMG! What do I do first?

A: Well, first you should start with a “yes,” and accept the proposal. [Laughs]

Then there should be some private moments between the couple: It’s almost like taking a deep breath. I would keep it private for a couple of days or a couple of weeks—whatever time you need to savor the moment. Because the moment that you announce it to the world, your situation will change tremendously.


Q: Then what?

A: If you are going to work with a planner, it’s time to contact them. A planner is an advocate and someone that can help you every step of the way. So if you’re going to hire a planner, let them do their 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.

Then, sit down with your fiancé and go through a written exercise. The bride and groom should separately take notes on what their wedding should look like or be like. If you need visuals, then at that point go online or start a little Pinterest board.


Q: What happens after you write that stuff down?

A: 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.

The next exercise—and people are very shortsighted about doing this—is writing down your guest list. Some couples 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 guests are really coming.

Once you have a pulse on your guest count—there’s usually a 20 percent decline on a wedding 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 wedding, 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 their mouths are, “How much is this going to cost?”

But if the couple goes through that exercise to understand what they want first, it’s really not about how much: It’s about prioritizing what they value most. They’ll make better decisions if they understand the value of what they’re getting for their money.


Q: What is the biggest mistake couples make?

A: Not understanding contracts. I’ve had very intelligent clients—some even attorneys themselves—who made 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 I saved the day. The venue agreed to do a brunch the following day to meet that $30,000 food-and-drink minimum. But it could have been a big problem.


Q: What should a couple never cut corners on?

A: Here is the phrase I use: “Consider the needs of your guests.”

A wedding 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 short-change food.

Also, don’t short-change 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 table if you have fine dining.


Q: How have sites such as Pinterest and The Knot changed the role of the wedding planner? Have they made your job easier or harder?

A: It’s bittersweet. Brides sometimes think they know everything.


Airline-themed touches at a wedding planned by Becker. / Lars Wanberg/Withers Wanberg Pictures

Q: Any awesome trends you’ve been seeing lately?

A: 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 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.”

We have also been doing a lot of custom design for food stations or hors d’oeuvres or desserts that fit a theme. We keep taking it up a notch. We’re building things. A florist is no longer just a florist: If my florist can’t build me a setting to execute a thematic design, then that’s not the florist for me.

And getaways [dramatic exits for the bride and groom] are coming back. We just did a wedding at the St. Francis Yacht Club [in San Francisco] where the bride and groom got on the groom’s sailboat and sailed away. We did another getaway for a couple that wanted to make a fabulous impact but also get to the airport on time for an overnight flight to Hawaii. So we had a helicopter pick them up on the golf course. The groom’s family paid for that. [Laughs]


Custom food stations for a couple that loves purple and green. / Arrowood Photography

Q: How important is a theme?

A: I think it’s very personal, and I think that guests really enjoy it. Do you have to have a theme? No. But you do want to make it personal. Otherwise, it’s generic.

But there is a major difference between themes and styles. A style is how you furnish something. Vintage is not a theme; vintage is a style. Contemporary is a style. Traditional is a style.

Themes can be anything. We’ve done a spice theme—“the spice of life”—for a couple that loved to cook. We’ve done “climbing pinnacles” for a couple that liked to hike and ski.


Q: Let’s talk about the big day. What do you see couples, especially brides, getting most hung up on? How can that drama be avoided?

A: To be honest with you, it’s the uncontrolled parts—a groomsman who goes down to the hotel coffee shop when he’s supposed to be at the pre-ceremony photos—that cause problems. It’s not the bride and groom; it’s the other people you’re relying on, and it’s usually your immediate family or your bridal party.


Q: How can a difficult bridal party be avoided?

A: Pick and choose carefully people that are incredibly near or dear to your heart—people that are mature and that you can count on, people that can afford it. If you know your girlfriend is high maintenance, then maybe that’s not the person to be in your bridal party on that day. Give her a different role.


Q: What do you love most about this business?

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.


Joyce’s Tips

Stay Organized
“When someone is unorganized—whether they’re planning a wedding or heading out to a job interview—the panic starts.”

Avoid Trends
“Trends have nothing to do with a bride and groom’s personality. It’s really about understanding the colors and other things that [they] love.”

Pick Your Wedding Party Wisely
“Go small and careful. There are some darling brides who have 12 bridesmaids. By that point I call it a conga line.”