—by Here Comes The Guide Staff Writer Linda Watanabe McFerrin
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 celebrities.
When reality TV star Scheana Marie of Vanderpump Rules married her longtime boyfriend Michael Shay, they did so at the 140-acre Hummingbird Nest Ranch in Santa Susana, California, where meandering garden pathways and bubbling fountains play against an earthy mountain backdrop. Brangelina made it legal at a luxurious 1,000-acre chateau in the south of France, complete with a historic chapel, vineyard and moat.
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. Sylvia Schmidt of Locations Unlimited in Palm Springs adds, “The privacy factor is definitely a big draw—at a private estate you can close the gate and have the location all to yourself. It’s almost like home.” For couples who want every element to sing in perfect harmony, a private estate makes that possible.
“The fantasy element also exerts tremendous appeal,” says wedding planner Dolores Walsh, who’s been in the business for over 30 years. (One of the properties she has managed is a coastal estate that looks like a castle.) “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.”
But that dream 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 A 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 you’d never have to worry about at a regular wedding venue.
“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 a large number 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 normally 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 quite a cast. 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 drop-offs scheduled to suit the property owner’s requirements. 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.”
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 $500 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.
And don’t forget 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: $6,000—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.
With so many details to consider, it’s comforting to have a pro orchestrating everything. Top event planners provide extensive contracts between clients and homeowners that spell out exactly what they should expect from each other. This might seem like overkill, but experience has taught the event pros that when both the wedding couple and the homeowner have all the details nailed down in advance, there’s less opportunity for misunderstandings—and costly mistakes. These contracts are legal and binding, 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. Thus a contract between the renter and the homeowner is mutually beneficial.
Having an expert you can rely on is vital to helping balance both your vision and the reality. A dazzling property and the high emotion of wedding planning can often blind a couple to the more pragmatic elements involved, so it’s reassuring to know you’ve got a trusted event specialist on your side.
Having a wedding at a private estate is, in many ways, a personal commitment between the homeowner and wedding couple, but 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.
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, lights are 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.