Could a “Surprise” Wedding be your stress-free solution?

Could a “Surprise” Wedding be your stress-free solution?

Could a “Surprise” Wedding be your stress-free solution?
By Jeanne Sommer

Fifteen plus years ago, I was the general contractor for my own home. It took me two years to build. In the process, I secured every “vendor:” plumbers, framers, finish carpenters, electricians, painters, roofers, on and on. With each “vendor” I had to discover their pricing, sometimes like pulling teeth, because it seemed that each professional had his/her job specific pricing. More than 75% of the time when the final price came in, it was much higher than what had been initially quoted. I learned from that experience, that I should demand written contracts from the vendors. I had hoped to save upwards of 30% by this DIY method of home building. Once completed, I probably saved about 20%; but that did not account for the extra year it took me to build, that extra years’ worth of payments on the home I was living in at the time, and it did not come close to any equivalent in the amount of stress, time away from my family, etc. Looking back on it, I would say that it was a wash or, when counting in the emotional stress and loss of time with family, a huge loss. If someone could have told me in advance what the true price would have been, I would have never gone that route of DIY homebuilding.

Planning a wedding as a DIY event, or even with an Event Planner, can be very similar. You begin with a budget that you think is realistic. Pretty soon, you realize it needs to be higher than you thought. You find someone you think you can trust to help you plan. In the best case scenario, they can vet the vendors for you, saving you time and head ache. It is not unusual, however, for prices to change. As in building your own home, vendors sometimes think: this is a one shot deal, as they will not be working with the customer again. There is little to no incentive for them to give great pricing because they are not looking for you to come back to them for services. This is especially the case if you are from out of town. If you are a local, then you may return for other parties, refer friends, etc. On the whole, however, there is little to no incentive for anyone to save you money on a wedding. Add to this the strong market for weddings, especially in Asheville, and prices automatically rise compared to offering similar products or services for other events.

From this experience with home building and from my years of officiating weddings, I have learned a great bit about the industry and now feel confident that I can offer alternatives to people who do not want to have the negative experiences I have had or witnessed. For twenty years, I taught Philosophy and Religion at the college level and, in that capacity befriended numerous students who, after graduation, would ask me to officiate their weddings. Prior to forming Hidden River Events, I had officiated 100’s of weddings all over the country for good hearted young people with very reasonable values and a social conscience. Without exception, not one of these people would have been the type of person or couple who wished to blow their family’s fortune or more limited means on a onetime event. Without exception, I would meet with each couple at the time of their engagement and they would be bright eyed and hopeful. By the time I arrived for their weddings, however, it was a different story. Without exception, I found couples who were “over it.” The sum total of all the decisions they had to make in the previous months, including:

  • An outlay of capital that far exceeded their initial budget or honest financial capacity, leading them to unexpected or greater debt;
  • The physical fatigue that set in the day of the wedding due to undertaking a lot of the leg work themselves, from setting up tables and chairs, to hanging decorations, to making a standard frame tent look festive, and more;
  • The stress that had been placed on their relationships with parents, partners, and friends,

all added up to this “can we just get this over with?” attitude I would encounter upon arrival. Is this how they imagined their wedding day would feel?

On June 24, 2019, I turned on CBS and saw a segment on the growing trend of “surprise” weddings. Evidently, some couples are planning a party, inviting their guests under the guise of some other reason than a wedding and, once at the party, the guests experience: “Surprise! We’re getting married!”

Seeing this segment prompted me to return to my analogies between home building and wedding planning. Since I had the pretty terrible experience a few decades ago, I have been pondering what I will do the next time I want or need to move. It has been a real dilemma for me because I have had the good fortune of purchasing, five years ago, a piece of land had my eye on for 17 years. It is just a tiny plot on an old urban lake in Asheville. It only stayed on the market for a few days, with multiple people placing offers, but the owners selected my offer instead of others, even others that were cash and full-price, because they liked the person I am and my commitment to building a tasteful, small more environmentally friendly home on the lot instead of something huge and looming over the neighborhood. But here I am almost six year later and I still haven’t built a house. I do NOT wish to go through what I went through before. It reminds me of couples who tell me about their love: how they had liked the other for years then discovered that the other person felt the same way; they started dating and knew quickly they wanted marriage; but the thought of planning a wedding has squelched a lot of that desire. Creating a life together is truly building a home together.

Here’s what I want: I want someone to build a house for me the way I offer weddings at Hidden River: I want a detailed contract with everything that is included from the very beginning, before we get started, and with a guaranteed price for the complete home. That is what I do with a wedding. In no way do I wish to participate in an experience with couples that comes even close to what I was witnessing among my friends/former students who were getting married. No surprises. Guaranteed excellence. Certainly someone can do more and upgrade and customize and expand their budget to meet those very unique additions. You could build a castle if you wanted. But most of us just want something that is beautiful, safe, and feels like us, with a strong foundation for a life that goes beyond just that one day. You can use your own creative resources and use the time you save with planning to add those fun accents yourself, at little to no cost, because you are doing this more limited project yourself and they are aspects of the planning process that are actually FUN to undertake: making gifts for bridal party, table décor, etc. Or you can take the money you save and put it toward a home, or a more experiential honeymoon, etc.

I have been looking for someone to build a house this way for me and so far I have had no luck. The market is hot and saturated in the Asheville area for home builders, so there is no incentive for them to work with me, if they know I am a smart consumer and know what a reasonable charge for a home would be, comparatively and relatively speaking. This is very similar to the wedding market in our area. But I am not giving up and I am actually taking it a step further. Now I’m looking for someone to build me a surprise house!

Yes. That’s correct. A SURPRISE house. What does that mean? I am looking at different builders whose work I really like. I am making a list of the qualities I want to have present in my home: natural lighting, a certain square footage, the number of bedrooms, the general feel I want to have when I live there and what guests experience when they enter, and finally the bottom line amount of money I am willing and able to spend on the home. I would like to go to these builders I am researching and say to them: “Will you build a house for me, with the same integrity and quality you have offered in these other homes you have built, and do it under X-Y-Z parameters of design, size, and budget, during a projected period of X number of months and, when you are finished, please call me and I will come over and move in! All that matters to me is that I have a safe, well-built, aesthetically pleasing (along certain design parameters) home that is absolutely within my budget. I have no interest in stressing for 12-24 months over the whole building process. I love beauty, and if I find a builder whose quality and aesthetic matches my own values and that builder has a little bit of an adventurous and creative side, I would like to trust that builder to build the home of my dreams.

Would you consider this for your wedding? If you found an all-inclusive venue whose values and aesthetic match your own could you trust that venue to do the work for you so you could spend the months leading up to your wedding, just being engaged and living/loving your life? Could you answer a few questions about what you envision/hope for, show the venue some photos of what you envision, talk about the kind of food you love and colors that make you happy, and then trust the venue to bring it to life for you?

We’ve done this once before for a couple who simply wanted to get married and did not want any of the hassle related to wedding planning. In this instance, their whole theme was surprise. They even went to a company that sold packages of guest gifts wrapped in opaque packaging that the couple then took and wrapped in gift boxes and put on a table as a kind of grab-bag give-away. They were guaranteed to have at least two high end gifts, such as a go pro camera, etc. Other gifts were tasteful and fun. For a moment, when this couple arrived at the farm, I thought they had really taken it to a new level. The bride even introduced me to her fiancé with a name different than what was on the contract! “Oh my, this is a surprise,” I thought. It turned out that the name on the contract was his legal name, but he actually went by a totally different childhood nickname. Phew…. Immediately, upon arrival, they went and sat down in lawn chairs on the field and started talking to people as they arrived. They had NOTHING to do that weekend other than be together and be with family and friends and, surprise surprise: GET MARRIED! This is what has made me the saddest over the years of watching couples get married: They get so wrapped up in their wedding planning that they forget they are getting married. I will never forget the numerous times when I, as an officiant, have stood next to a groom who is waiting for the bride to arrive and he has leaned over to me, sometimes shaking and said, “Oh my. This is what it is about. I am GETTING MARRIED.” “Yep…you sure are,” I would say. At that point, there is little that can be done to prepare him for what is happening other than to say, allegorically speaking, “Buckle your seatbelt and get ready for a wild ride.” He would likely have benefited from thinking more about this during the engagement process.

Here is what we are envisioning as we look toward the creation of this kind of surprise wedding package:

  • Option #1 is less expensive than our current offerings but no less lovely. The couple will simply have a handful of decisions to make and they will be finished with their planning and ready to go. We will see them on their wedding weekend.
  • Option #2 provides a few tiers of elegance/refinement and pricing, along with 2-3 wedding themes, from which you can choose. Pricing and inclusions for these will be standard and guaranteed on the website.
  • Option #3 will be in the “dream wedding category. You meet with us, tell us our vision and budget and we tell you if we can offer you what you desire within that price range, or not. If not, we come up with the actual cost for you, before contract signing, and then you can decide if this option is truly what you would like to do or if one of the other options is best suited for your needs.

In any of these cases you can have the following outcomes guaranteed:

  1. There will be only one to two meetings, depending upon the options, in person or via facetime, where you present the items needed to convey your aesthetic to our team.
  2. The total price of your event will be guaranteed from the get go, based on which option, aesthetic “theme” and/or “tier” you choose.
  3. The only thing additional that you will be required to do is to purchase and provide your alcohol, as we do not have anything to do with alcohol, for liability purposes and to save you money.

I have a feeling these options will be something that many couples will truly cherish: the opportunity to have a beautiful wedding that fits their overall vision without having to sweat any of the details.

If you are interested in having a surprise wedding, please send us an email by clicking this link tell us what you like and do not like about this trend and which of the wedding package options listed above interests you most. If you like it, give us a sense of the kind of feel you would be looking for upon your arrival to your venue and wedding day.


Vow Renewals
We Specialize in All-Inclusive

At first, we thought all-inclusive meant just having all the infrastructure ready to go for the couple, so what looks like such a simply beautiful, largely outdoor wedding could be as clean and simple as the lines of the tent.  There should be no hassles about getting in all the infrastructure and having it ready for your wedding. We did not want to witness a rental truck showing up at the last minute and a mom or bridesmaid, or the couple themselves, setting up chairs and tables–even mowing the yard–on the morning of the wedding.  These were all things Jeanne witnessed repeatedly over the years. No wonder people were exhausted before their wedding even began…