Charlyn Buchanan, 32, a software engineer from Jersey City, New Jersey, stood with a flute of Champagne in one hand, and in the other, her Bridelux’s itinerary that detailed upcoming speakers and showcased vendors.
This was Buchanan’s first wedding expo since becoming engaged in August. Her wedding is set to take place at the end of the year, so she was attending the expo “to gather ideas and create my own intangible vision board and see what’s out there,” she said.
She was gifted the $150 entrance ticket, an unheard-of fee for an expo, which typically costs a nominal $10 to $15.
In mid-January, Bridelux Atelier, a high-end bridal expo that started in London four years ago, came to the United States for the first time to showcase at the InterContinental hotel, on East 48th Street in Manhattan.
Promising the cognoscente of the wedding industry while capitalizing on royal wedding fever, Bridelux brought speakers like the florist Philippa Craddock, who was involved in the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Among the other vendors: Claire Ptak of Violet Cakes; celebrity event planner Bryan Rafanelli; stationers Ceci New York; and veil maker Monvieve Milano.
Wedding expos can be found in many cities around the country. They’re often held in chain hotels like the Marriott Marquis and Grand Hyatt, as well as event and convention spaces like Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Some rotate locales, others remain in the same space month after month. Wedding Salon hosts nine shows a year, setting up in Miami, Washington, Chicago and New York. The Long Island Bridal Expo does 36. Some expos are intimate, highlighting three dozen or so vendors for 150 attendees; others showcase 100 or more businesses to crowds of 600-plus.
In an Instagram world, where entire weddings are booked and created completely from sources found online — yes Zola and Etsy, we know — many people may wonder how and why expos still exist. The answer is simple: They offer brides and grooms in-person contacts, not to mention prizes and swag bags stuffed with wedding items and discounts.
“You’re meeting experts face to face but also are seeing their work, which can be overwhelming on the internet or misleading on someone’s website,” said Tatiana Byron Marx, who founded Wedding Salon 15 years ago. “Brides want to work with people they like. You’re hiring 15 to 40 vendors, each with their own contract. Meeting everyone at their studio is time-consuming.”
Like most expos, Wedding Salon offers photographers, videographers, cake makers, florists, DJs, wedding-gown designers, and specialists for hair and makeup, among others.
Tony Drago, who has run the Long Island Bridal Expo for 28 years, said he tries to showcase local professionals. “Brides can walk around and have true conversations without being harassed,” he said, “and there’s not 200 or 300 vendors so they don’t become numb and forget who they spoke to.”
Like others, Drago makes available transportation options like limousines, buses and trolleys, along with bridal consultants, florists, stationers, table designers and party favor creators.
Many expos also try to create experiences through live DJs and band performances, fashion shows, even spray tanners and makeup artists. Couples can envision their first dance or a cocktail hour with sample drinks and canapés. Travel representatives from dreamy destinations are also on hand, some providing giveaways, prizes and discounts.
Marx’s expos tend to skew to a more serious and higher-end consumer, with a $50 entrance fee. She said her shows now include plastic surgeons and teeth-whitening companies. “Expos are not about traditional categories anymore,” she said.
During a four-hour slot, Marx can draw 800 to 1,000 people at a New York show. “These are inspirational, girls’ night out — bring your girlfriend or matron of honor and have fun,” she said.
Mickael Georges, 35, a social worker from Queens, went to Bridelux with his fiancee, Alexandra Colas, 33, a nurse, for the experience. “I’ve never been to anything like this, but I wanted to get a visual of what she likes,” he said. “How can you know what something costs, and pay that much for something, when you’re not sure what’s out there? This lets you see everything.”
Industry professionals also attend. Julie Lindenman, 32, an event planner in Manhattan who is getting married in June, was spotted taking a lap at Bridelux.
“I came to see what everyone is doing, to support my friends in the industry, but also to explore new things for my own wedding,” Lindenman said. She especially enjoyed meeting fashion designer Reem Acra. “She inspires me in the wedding world. To meet her and see her collection in person was amazing.”
Some expo promoters tour their shows like rock concerts. Bill Heaton, who has run the Great Bridal Expo for the past 38 years, kicks off his tour in Boston or New York. He then spends September through April hitting 25 to 30 cities, moving steadily across the country and ending in California’s Silicon Valley.
“National vendors like Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s, Pottery Barn and Sandals, who are interested in meeting couples in every market, follow us for the entire trip,” he said. “Others, like a local wedding cake company in Dallas, will only go to that stop and not Houston because they don’t ship cakes there.”
Heaton estimates that 400 to 600 brides attend each show, where 50 to 80 exhibitors are presented. His charge is $10 or $12.
Over the years, he’s seen an increased sophistication among brides and grooms. “The idea of the personal marketplace has always been of interest to the consumer,” he said. “The difference is that couples used to be 19 or 20; now they’re getting married at 30. They have careers. And because they’re paying for the wedding, as opposed to having their parents do it, the groom is more involved.”
Expos seem great for the would-be wedded, but vendors can pay a chunk of change to be seen. Fees typically start at about $500 and can easily exceed $1,000. Marx said 50 to 60 percent of her vendors get work. “The match happens at the show, but the transaction happens after the connections and intros are made,” she said.
Rafanelli, a Manhattan-based event planner featured at Bridelux, got a new client within an hour after the expo started. His fees vary, though he says his clients’ budgets typically range from $350,000 to $500,000 for the total cost of a wedding for 200 guests.
“Weddings are a fairy-tale fantasy — people aren’t letting that go,” Rafanelli said. “That’s why they’re here. It boosts their confidence because they crave the, ‘How can I do that?’ information and visuals they learn at these events. It becomes obtainable, especially when you see everything all at once in one place. You’re drenched in it.”
And it was true. By 4:30 p.m., the Bridelux ice sculpture had melted.
And the model wearing a Reem Acra wedding dress was seated and taking a much-needed pause. What was left of the sushi looked a little sad. The crowd had thinned out considerably. One of the performers from the list of rotating bands was singing Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason To Stay Here.”
Many attendees had found several.
“This was exactly what I needed,” said Buchanan, the Jersey City software engineer, who at the end of the expo had switched from Champagne to a gin and tonic. “Now I’m looking at wedding planning with a completely different attitude. I come from humble beginnings and I’ve always been a minimalist. I don’t have to bring that approach to my wedding. I’m only going to have one. I deserve this. I worked really hard, we worked hard together, and I got to see all of that today.”
Making the Most of Your First Wedding Show
As with anything that has to do with wedding planning, preparation is key. Attending your first bridal show is no different. Bridal expos can be a great place to start while you’re on the hunt for inspiration, new trends and local vendors. Best of all, it’s all in one place and you have access to tons of freebies and discounts. However, when you factor in the large crowds and the hundreds of vendors vying for your business, it can also be overwhelming and mentally taxing. Here are a few tips to help you survive your first experience:
— Do your research before selecting a bridal show or expo. All shows are not created equally. Decide in advance if you want to attend a show that has more of a boutique feel with fewer vendors at a smaller venue or a mega show in a large venue with lots of vendors and activities.
— Plan ahead and take a look at the list of featured vendors and speakers in advance. Once you’ve created a list of potential favorites, plan to visit those vendors first. This will help you manage your time if you don’t plan on staying all day.
— Arrive early and bring your partner or a member of your wedding party. If crowds aren’t your thing, try to get to the show early or later in the afternoon. There will be tons of vendors vying for your attention and handing out literature, so having someone along means you can share the load and stay more sane in a frenzied environment.
— Take notes during breakout speaker sessions. Bridal shows often feature wedding experts and seasoned industry pros who offer great tips that can save you money and time during your planning process. This is also a great time to ask questions.
— Speak to the owner of the company that you are interested in or make sure you get the name and contact information of the professionals you spoke with at the show. You may have chemistry with the person at the booth, but he or she may not be the person you end up working with.
— Schedule a follow-up appointment before booking. You may fall in love with a vendor at the show, but you may not have had the time to ask all of your questions. A follow-up meeting outside of the excitement of the expo can help you make a sound decision.
— Take photos to share with vendors later. Most bridal shows will feature the latest trends that you may want to reproduce for your wedding. Having photos handy will spare you from trying to describe the centerpiece or tablescape that you fell in love with.