Venues Learn Same-Sex Wedding Dos and Don'ts

by Matthew S. Bajko

Bay Area Reporter

Tuesday February 17, 2015

Same-sex marriage is now legal in more than three-dozen states and counting. Yet, many in the wedding industry are ill prepared to meet the needs of an onslaught of gays and lesbians looking to say "I do." Even in liberal areas of the country, such as California, wedding professionals are still trying to master the dos and don'ts when it comes to planning that special day for two grooms or two brides.

"The wedding industry is very traditional and very bridal," said Bernadette Smith, 38, a lesbian and founder of 14 Stories/Gay Wedding Institute. "Our certification program was developed to help wedding professionals to understand it is not just all about the bride."

Smith, the author of "The Business of Gay Weddings: A Guide for Wedding Professionals" (Goodnow Flow Publishing, 2014), has helped same-sex couples plan their weddings since 2001 when she started her business in Massachusetts. Now based in New York, Smith began teaching webinars and conducting daylong seminars for other wedding planners in 2011.

"I think people have started to realize that marriage equality has been in effect for two years now and their phone isn't ringing," she said. "They are asking, 'What am I doing wrong here?' The answer is, a lot of people are doing things wrong."

More than 700 people from 14 different countries have signed up for her tutorials on gay nuptials. Last year was her most successful to date.

"When working with same-sex couples lots of nuances come up, not only in terms of language and family dynamics but the lack of tradition," said Smith, who noted that "weddings are so steeped in gender and gender roles" that often don't apply to same-sex couples.

"It really allows us a lot of freedom for how we plan our weddings and reinvent traditions," said Smith. "It can be really mind blowing for students who take my course to realize that."

Unintentional errors can be off-putting to same-sex couples, she noted, and result in lost business for wedding planners.

"Simply understanding that it can be a very expensive mistake if a form or wedding contract says bride and groom or a website says bride's fairytale dream wedding," Smith said.

It was a lesson not lost on Cristina Thomas, the event coordinator at Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California. The state park, operated by the private company Aramark, is famous for its beachside setting and collection of nearly 100 buildings designed by the celebrated architect Julia Morgan.

After completing one of Smith's webinars last year, Thomas updated the forms she uses, switching to "contact" for "bride" and "groom." For her homework, she contacted outside vendors for cakes and flowers that she recommends to ensure they would work with same-sex couples.

"We wanted to get a better grasp of that market in the most appropriate way," said Thomas on why she sought out Smith's guidance.

Last summer Rachel Lawton, 36, who is working on earning a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, and Monica Ball, 33, a physician assistant, worked with Thomas to plan their sunset wedding and reception for 75 people at Asilomar. The couple, who live nearby in Sand City, said they appreciated knowing that Thomas had sought to learn more about working with same-sex couples.

"I was tickled when she told me she had taken that training. I am happy she went that extra mile to be affirming," said Lawton. "She didn't need that training because she was already welcoming and open. But it is nice to see people make that extra effort. That says something about her commitment to making that space open and welcoming for everybody."

Asilomar usually hosts between 30 to 40 weddings a year and is looking to double its wedding business to host up to 80 ceremonies per year. While it has worked with just a handful of same-sex couples to date, the venue hopes more will consider it as a preferred location for their wedding.

The lessons Thomas learned through the Gay Wedding Institute certification course are being shared among Asilomar's staff so they can provide all couples with a "special day" free of stress.

"For us to do it successfully, we had to know all the nuances and make sure we do it correctly," said Tim McGill, director of sales and marketing at Asilomar, about targeting the gay wedding market.

For more information about Asilomar, go to

To enroll in a Gay Wedding Institute course, visit

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