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A Private Affair: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Getting Married at a Private Estate

—by HCTG Staff Writer Linda Watanabe McFerrin

Liquid Sky Oceanfront Estate  Whether it’s on a faraway tropical island, at a secluded wine country villa or at a seaside manse, weddings at signature private properties top the charts for couples tying the knot—and we’re not just talking about the celebrity set.

When “Friends” and “Joey” star Matt Le Blanc and Melissa McKnight married, they did so at a private estate in Kauai, Hawaii. They exchanged vows in an open tent filled with gardenias and roses on a cliff top overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Kevin Costner wed his ladylove on his 165-acre ranch outside Aspen, and Sandra Bullock and Jesse James tied the knot in a top-secret ceremony held in the wooded grove of a private Solvang ranch, while bagpipers serenaded the star-studded gathering of well-wishers. 

The Privacy Factor

According to special events planner Gianna Provenzano, president of GP Events, a company that represents over 4,000 private estates, couples these days are increasingly drawn to unique wedding sites that offer both privacy and an opportunity for maximum personalization. They don’t want to suffer the hotel guest lounging poolside in his Speedo mere yards away from the reception, or vain attempts to add a special spin to the usual “off the rack” décor. “It’s a day when you want everything to be perfect,” says Gianna, whose experience has made her a favorite with location scouts as well as brides. “In an estate setting, you have that kind of control.”  (Click here to read Gianna’s article on how to protect yourself when renting a private estate.) Sylvia Schmidt of Locations Unlimited adds, “The privacy factor is also a big draw—at a private estate you can close the gate and have the location all to yourself. It’s almost like home.” 

Wedding planner Dolores Walsh, a.k.a. the Godmother of Malibu, who’s been in the business for over 25 years, agrees. But she also believes that the fantasy element exerts tremendous appeal. (One of the properties she manages is a coastal estate that looks like a castle.) She feels that that the grand estate wedding is, in some ways, iconic. “It’s the dream,” she explains, “an event that represents a first taste of the happily-ever-after bliss they aspire to, a first-class ticket to a world of sophistication and style.”

It also comes with a very big price tag—one that tends to swell well beyond the cost of renting the location. “Some people think they can save money by having a wedding at a private estate,” says Marcia Coleman-Joyner of Joyous Occasion, “so, the additional expense often comes as a surprise.” That cost can include everything from insurance to generators to portable restrooms (no, not the construction site kind!), items that you’d never have to worry about at a regular wedding venue.

Big Ticket Surprises

articles_alt  “It’s difficult for a bride to anticipate these expenses on her own,” says Steve Sarna of Wine Valley Catering. Steve thinks that a wedding planner should be a requirement for all estate weddings. He has a list of line items that he considers when matching his clients to exclusive properties generally designed for a single family. These include: swank restrooms built to accommodate large numbers of guests; whisper-quiet generators to handle the electrical needs of a party in full swing; heaters; sound systems and dance floors. He’s even brought in a Water Buffalo, a 400-gallon mobile tank unit that pipes water to a station with taps to fill pitchers with water suitable for mass consumption.

Of course, you also have to cover the usual rentals—not just cutlery, china and glasses (things usually included at a restaurant, hotel or country club setting)—but tables, chairs, couches, umbrellas, bars, even rugs. It’s almost like furnishing a Hollywood set, and indeed, many of the private estates available for rental have also been featured in magazine spreads, commercials and movies.

Speaking of movies, celebrations planned at private estates can end up involving a cast of thousands. In addition to the owners (yes, they’re often on site), the bride and groom, their entourage, their families, the guests, the officiant, the photographer and the usual catering and serving staff, suppliers have to be on hand for pickups and dropoffs scheduled to suit the property owner’s requirements. Depending on the location and layout of the grounds, valet parking or shuttle service for guests could be needed. Security guards might also be necessary, and not just to keep out the public or the paparazzi. Property owners require them if they’re worried about their possessions, and clients sometimes rely on them to identify gatecrashers who are, by the way, to be expected. One popular estate was “haunted” by a twosome who’d show up every week dressed for the party with gift in hand, and hungrily help themselves to the hors d’oeuvres. “People are very curious about exclusive events at exclusive locations,” says Marcia Coleman-Joyner. “They’re drawn to them like moths to a flame.”

Wait, There’s More

articles_alt  There’s also insurance to consider. Most estates require a certificate of property and liability insurance, a recommended investment to get the

50% security deposit back. The cost is around $400 for a certificate for up to $2 million in coverage. It protects the wedding couple and the homeowner, and hopefully holds both harmless when that obstreperous or inebriated guest knocks a marble statue into the pool.

And then there are the permits. Upscale communities tend to have lots of restrictions and plenty of people to uphold them. Some even limit the number of commercial events homeowners can host in a year (Malibu, for example, allows only four). Most have sound ordinances that will bring a sheriff to the door not long after dark with an order to turn down the music. It might not be a bad idea to have a string quartet or acoustic guitars standing by to play when the neighbors decide to turn in—you just need to factor that into the cost.

Add to this the cost of contingency planning, which is not built into the rental fee as it often is at more traditional venues. That means you’ll need a fund to accommodate acts of God, like a change in the weather—one tent: $6000—or exterminators to get rid of the beehive that popped up overnight just above the entryway, the mosquitoes on the pond or the fire ants tunneling up from under the grassy reception area. Even the grass can be a problem. One planner remembers a lawn that decided to die right before the reception. The solution? Either pay for sod or paint the lawn green. The bride opted for paint.

Get Professional Help

articles_alt  With so many things to consider, it’s comforting to have a pro orchestrating everything. At GP Events, Gianna Provenzano provides a five-page contract between clients and homeowners that spells out exactly what they should expect from each other. It’s a legal and binding document, and something along these lines is certainly in order when costs are high and risk is a factor. And yes, risk is a factor. One of the biggest, experts agree, is renting from someone who isn’t authorized to represent the estate. Cautionary tales abound about homes up for sale, rented without owner permission, or caretakers renting out properties for events when the owners are out of town. “Client and homeowner both need to be fully aware and informed as to the details of their agreement,” says Gianna. “It’s good to have someone knowledgeable to troubleshoot and work as the interface.”

Above all it’s important to remember that while having a wedding at a private estate is, in many ways, a personal commitment between homeowner and wedding couple, it’s primarily a business interaction and should be treated as such. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate the two. For example, you never, ever, want to treat the property owners like hired help. Steve Sarna suggests inviting and including property owners and neighbors if possible, and reminds his clients that having a wedding on a private estate is a privilege. Owners are proud of their properties, and they’re protective.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to enlist the services of a reputable and experienced planner for these events,” says Gianna Provenzano. “It can be a lifesaver, especially if the parties are nave about the nature of the transaction. It’s easy to let a dazzling property blind you to the expense, so make sure you have sufficient funds set aside for all the extras. Most of all, find someone who respects your budget, grasps your vision and can make it happen.”

Is it worth it? Many would say, YES! With the right planning and the right planner, a wedding at a private estate can be the event of a lifetime. When the band is playing softly, the lights twinkling brightly in the trees on the Gatsby-like grounds and you’re basking in the moment, surrounded by 250 of your closest family and friends, you’ll be glad you opted for such an exceptional place.

For more information on the specifics of planning your private estate wedding, and how to protect yourself, read this article.

Filed under Expert Advice, Locations, Planning, Receptions,

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