Wednesday, September 2, 2009

5 secrets you can learn from wedding photographers (and that don't even involve aperture)

I'm not planning to hire a wedding photographer... so why am I looking at their portfolios?

Because wedding photographs represent the very essence of what you get to keep from that "very special day", your "dream come true" (or not), to see what actually gets remembered, and what gets tossed in the giant confusion that is that very busy day.

Here's what I gather from photographers' pics...

1. Things that get remembered
The wedding dress, the bouquet, the rings, the bridesmaids' dresses, the groom's tie, the groom's boutonniere, the bridesmaids' bouquets, the shoes, the aisle, the centerpieces (which can be doubled up from the bridesmaids' bouquets, that's cool), the official wedding cake (versus what gets served).

2. Moments that get remembered
Putting makeup on, having that look of impatience and serenity, laughing with the girls one last time, breathing out every ounce of air while your dress is being tightly squeezed on, walking down the aisle, saying "I do", the exchange of the rings, the official kiss, walking back down on the aisle, a few tears from the guests, hugging the parents, the lineup with bridesmaids, the lineup with parents, a kiss with the groom, the first dance as mister and misses, feeding the cake to each other, dancing and laughing.

3. Things that do not get remembered
The flowers everywhere else, the backdrop before you get to the aisle, the rehearsal dinner, the food you served (and, in fact, most of the partying, because it's way dark), the drinks you drank (so long as it's alcohol), if the chairs at the ceremony were comfortable, the decor where you ate (apart from the few details listed above), the ways the tables were arranged, who was seated where, what was inside the favor boxes, what your guests are wearing, the music, the actual desserts being consumed (if any).

From that, I deduct that what you think you'll remember ("oh, I need that dream castle") is wildly different from what will be remembered. The devil is in certain details, the keyword here being "certain".

Hence, key learnings:

1. Don't spend that much on the venue
As I've experienced so far, most venues overcharge because it's the W word. In fact, the best way to put it was in the email I just received from La Venta Inn, which read "I would be happy to give you a tour of the venue and grounds as soon as you are available. We will go over detailed pricing at that time."
It's clear: venues are like time shares. Come in for a few hours, get brainwashed on getting sold a piece of the dream, just like the other thousands of people that buy that piece of dream every year. You can't blame them - at menu prices that "start at $97+", and rental of the space that's at least $1,500-$3,000, every bride is 4 hours worth thousands... and that's worth spending a couple hours brainwashing you, don't you think?

2. Don't overthink the food
Okay, you want to avoid the feeling that guests are critiquing the food. Or that your mom will make comments for the next 10 years about that hors d'oeuvre that didn't look so fresh. That doesn't mean that you should pay the $100+ per person that many caterers try to squeeze out of you when they hear the W word. It doesn't have to be 4 entrees. 1 or 2 may be just fine. It doesn't have to be a dessert buffet - from my experience and what I've heard, you get stuffed wayyy before dessert comes around. And lobster would be awesome, but if it's not in your budget, shrimp is an inexpensive alternative (and prepared right, quite delicious). Better yet, think local foods. In Fremont, we have a large Indian community. I'm thinking of a delicious + inexpensive Indian buffet would be great. Filling. Flavorful. Fun!

3. Don't hire a DJ/band
There again, the cello at the ceremony would be great, but if it's not in the budget, a nice sound system with an iPod will come in at half the price, and with the same effect. Same goes for the reception. And, bonus: if it's your iPod that's getting played, you're guaranteed to love the songs.

4. Don't overspend on flowers
It's easy to get carried away by the vision of flowers everywhere, just like the cliche rose petals on the bed for your honeymoon. The reality of it is, you'll be so focused on your husband-to-be, on what's *really* happening (yes, OMG, it's really happening!!!), that you won't notice the flowers everywhere but in your hands. Your guests may just glance at it once, if at all. And you'll hope your photographer will spend more time on people than on walls. So you can find cheaper alternatives if you want splashes of color: think big drapes that you can get on sale somewhere; just laid out as 2 curtains to where you'll pronounce your vows - that can make a big impact at a small cost. For bouquets, try to get flowers that are in season, vs what's trendy in magazines; and reuse the flowers from the bridesmaid's bouquets as centerpieces. I'm thinking of getting $2 vases at Walmart, put some water beads bought at the chinese market, and drop the flowers from the bridesmaids' bouquets. And voila, a centerpiece.

I probably won't do a venue (more on that later too), but even if I do, I'll bring my own booze. The corkage fees tend to be $15/ 750ml bottle in California at least, but that's surprisingly cheaper than buying the booze at the venue. They're trying to make money, remember? So they'll charge $60 for champagne, and over $40 for very average wine. Get your favorite wine (mine is a $4.99 wine at Trader Joe's) and BYOB. I've heard you can also talk to the sommelier at Costco's and get emails when discount prices are available. Worth investigating and a great way to have better quality booze for cheaper.

Want to learn more about wedding planning? Need to know what to do when it's not just expensive, but offensive? Subscribe to this blog and keep tuned to come with me on this insane journey... I'm hoping my sacrifice will help you learn the caveats, smart tips and good resources when your "big day planning" sucks up a year of your time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The "W" word

That's right. Let's put it out there. We're getting married!!

I hadn't even taken a few inhales after the "Yes, of course!" that the "W" word was uttered. And in the last 3 weeks, it's been uttered a few gazillion times - and my contribution may have been 10.

So, what's next?

I've been trying to look at venues. What an education I've gotten. While magazines like "The Knot" want to say all brides-to-be are paranoid about being overcharged, and that weddings are just so much work it's ok to charge more, I've been floored at the pricing I've been given.

Well, when I'm given pricing. None of the places in Kauai have returned my emails. That's ok - I've Googled Kauai wedding prices, and quickly discarded the thought. Oh well, that'll have to be a honeymoon item.

The few places that have answered back have made me choke on my evening tea. Wine Roses in Lodi, CA (where the hell is that?) wants $10,000 without alcohol, for 4 hours on the premise, no music no flowers no taxes no gratuity included, pack up at 10:30pm, and, hold your thoughts, wants $300 per room per night. That's right. $300 per night for Lodi. And that's for the 50 people wedding in the courtyard. Difference between a Monday wedding and a Saturday wedding? $500.
Riiiiight. Next!

I've started looking at Sonoma, but there I've seen a lot of $10K-$15K numbers being thrown out, and that's not including food... which leaves me to wonder.
In this economy, who can afford overpriced catering and jacked up motel prices? And even if you can still afford it, why would you want to?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Getting a lift in the Alps

We went skiing last week-end at the Alpe d'Huez in the French Alps. The resort offers a variety of runs in amazing settings. The view from any run is breathtaking...

Something I really liked about the resort, and that not many travelers or snow sport aficionados think about, is the variety of lifts the resort offered. This is about the 4 different kinds I saw.

In the majority of resorts I've been to during my childhood, there is only one type of lifts, not that commonly found in the United States: the "tire-fesses", or "pull-butt", translated literally. Quite an appropriate name, since it's a pole at the end of which is a disk. You take the pole when it's your turn, and place it between your legs. The pole pulls you forward at varying speeds, up the slope.

The difficulty is that the speed of pull is not constant, and that the skis/snowboard remain in contact with an uneven slope at all times, which means a lot of beginners fall, in snowboard even more than in ski, especially at the very beginning of the pull, where the pull of the pole tends to be the strongest and most sudden.

The Alpe d'Huez offered the faster "tire-fesses" for the more experienced skiers and snowboarders, but it also offered alternative lifts for pedestrians and beginners.

For the first leg, a slow and rather narrow lift I'd never seen before takes travelers from the "Maison du Tourisme" (Visitors' Bureau), where you can purchase day passes, to the actual foot of the main runs. These lifts are made out of metal, look like cages, and hold about 4 batches of 3-4 people (standing) at a time, provided they didn't have too much gear to haul. My brother-in-law found that for that portion of the resort, it's actually faster to walk than to take the lift, but if you want to stare at the landscape on your way to the first run, it's a great way to do it.

A more common type of lift was offered after the first leg of the resort, in direction of more advanced runs. The open-air "telesiege", or "bench lift", scoops up to 3 people up onto a metal bench, off the ground. This lift is pretty good for beginners as well, because the only challenge in using it comes at the exit, when you have to stand up and glide out of the lift's way. For beginners, it's recommended to stay away of the middle spot in this bench-lift, as it's usually harder to get out of the lift's way - there are people on either side of you trying to get out, in addition to the continuous movement of the lift.

The fourth type of lift offered at the Alpe d'Huez came in 3 flavors - small, medium and large. The small "cabine telepherique" or "cabin" is seen here. In these lifts, you actually gets to sit. In the small ones, about 4 people gets to sit across from each other, 2 on each bench. In the medium (up to 15 passengers) and big (up to 40 passengers) versions, the edge of the "cabine" has half-size benches, at bar-stool height, while the middle of the "cabine" has poles. About 25% of the passengers get to sit, while the others stand. The average lift ride was about 20mn, but could extend to 30mn when going to the top-level runs, which got you to the very top of the mountain. The high level runs actually started very steep, but you enjoyed a panoramic view of the chains of mountains around you.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dashing through the snow....

Ever thought of skiing by night? In the French Alps, it's possible. The Alpe d'Huez offers night rides, and every night of the week is just a different theme. Saturday happens to be sled night...

Where to rent good gear in the French Alps

I spent this week-end skiing at the Alpe d'Huez resort, a beautiful resort in Northern Isere, in the French Alps.
We were blessed with incredible weather and perfect snow - and bonus, not a lot of people on the slopes.

Although we had free lodging (my brother-in-law's parents owning an apartment there), we did not have any skiing or snowboarding gear. I started skiing at the age of 2, so that's what I was going for. B., on the other hand, had barely snowboarded 4 times in his life, and hadn't skied. The easiest solution was for me to go skiing with my sister, and for him to snowboard.

My sister recommended Alain Sports as being a great rental place. The shop is small, but the selection is wide, and the owners were very nice. I leave in the morning with a pair of skiing shoes (my sister lent me a pair of skis), and B. got a pair of snowboarding shoes, and a board.
Off we went to wonderful snow and weather. After a long morning of enjoyment, we came back for lunch (cold cuts, bread, wine). In the afternoon I decided it would be nicer if I tried snowboarding too - this way I wouldn't mind being on beginner runs, and be with B. a little more. We went back to Alain Sports, and the owner was very accommodating - I switched to a pair of snowboarding shoes and a board.

Come the evening, we got back at 5:30pm, and returned the gear. The owners asked how the day went, and if we'd want to keep the gear for tomorrow. Hearing B. in pain for an afternoon made the decision simple: we'd just be walking around tomorrow. The weather forecast wasn't so good anyway.

Came time for the bill - and both of us were floored: 39 euros. Yes, that was the total for a day. The owners didn't count my using ski gear for half a day, and just smiled. So if you're ever at this great resort - the runs are 38 euros a day (very cheap considering how large the resort it). It provides for an amazing variety of runs for all levels, and covers a very large space (the longest run we did was 25mn, but the average skier would take about 45mn), and is very beginner friendly. There are beginners-only slopes, and lifts that make it easy to just hop in and out, even if it's your first time on a snowboard.