Marriage for the Millennium: What every couple needs: love, compatibili ty, the fixer ...

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Indy Lifestyle Online
In the first of a series on the state of marriage and the family as we approach the year 2000, Glenda Cooper looks at the wedding industry.

Philippa Thomas is a fixer. For a few hundred pounds she will sort out every hitch, glitch and nuance of a wedding - from a stately home venue to personalised matchboxes. For the busy professional who cannot spare hours to pore over bridal gowns, or the harried young woman who has never organised more than a house party, Mrs Thomas will make sure that their big day goes without a snag.

She is one of a fast-growing new breed of professional - that of wedding organiser - who is now an accepted part of the big business of marriage. Wedding days are supposed to be the happiest days of our lives, but such happiness doesn't come cheap, and any prospective bride and groom should expect to take around 18 months to organise it, should they opt to tackle the daunting task themselves.

Despite the rising divorce rate and growth in the number of single parents, most people still dream of a permanent partnership and want to celebrate in style. The venue, the reception, the clothes, the guests - it all needs organising, and for those who succeed, it can be successful - but at a price.

For the 322,000 couples who will get married every year, they will have to spend, on average, more than pounds 12,500 - which means that as a nation we spend at least pounds 4,025,000,000 on getting hitched every year. With that amount of money being spent, the wedding business has become one of the most lucrative sectors of the economy. Hotels, caterers, photographers, stationers, travel agents (8 per cent of weddings now take place abroad and agents now have specific wedding services), the florists, the car hire and the personalised napkin maker all depend on weddings. For pounds 12 you can even buy your own lucky silver sixpence to put in the bridal shoe.

"There is a huge industry," says Carol Hamilton, editor of You & Your Wedding. "There is a very specific bridal market - there are 16,000 wedding dress shops alone. And if people stopped getting married then hotels and catering business would receive a huge shock. It's an enormous part of their business. You'll find most places are booked up every Saturday for four to five months a year in advance for weddings. And at pounds 5,500 for a reception it's very important to the trade."

"We're seeing the amount of money we spend on weddings go up again," says Chris Prunty, editor of Wedding and Home. "We find that people are still wanting big traditional weddings.

"Most people are getting married later and can afford to spend more money, yet most girls have never done more than organise a party in their life. You become very reliant on experts who can tell you things such as how many bottles of champagne to buy." says Ms Hamilton.

"Women may also live hundreds of miles from their families, which is one problem," agrees Mrs Thomas. "Organising a wedding can take hours and hours of work. And people tend to get married when they are much further up the career ladder. They're used to buying in services for many other parts of their life, so why not buy a service here."

The recent liberalisation of the law which means that couples can now get married in hotels or stately homes with special licences has become enormously popular. There are 1,600 of these, performing more and more weddings, and picking the one that suits a particular couple most is where people like Mrs Thomas are the most help.

While wedding organisers have been common in society weddings for years, the last decade has seen a growth in smaller businesses. "They tend to be people doing it on a small scale. Most of them are women working from home with kids. They are not actually that expensive, what they charge is in the hundreds rather than the thousands and the work they do ranges from finding a suitable venue to organising the whole works," adds Ms Hamilton.

Mrs Thomas, who works with one assistant, says she offers a personalised service.(She is married herself but didn't have any say in her wedding "My mother did it all - that's how it happened in those days.") She started out in corporate entertainment but then decided to concentrate on weddings because she found it more creative and more rewarding.

"The couples and I, we get to know each other from the months before the wedding right up to the wedding day," she says. "It's essential if the service is to work properly, otherwise it will all go haywire. By the end of it they see me as part of the family."

At the first meeting between her and the happy couple, she says, "they usually have some ideas, such as the area in which they want to get married, whether they want a stately home or a hotel. I'll come back with a budget.

How it proceeds from there is up to the couple: "There are all sorts of variables and we will have a succession of meetings. Some couples are very definite and know exactly what they want and leave me to get on with it. Some brides are terribly indecisive and that can push the time we spend up considerably. Sometimes the couples don't agree and it can be difficult to satisfy both of them.

"I'll often go to the dress rehearsal as people are often ignorant of what actually goes on, so that I can tell everyone what to do on the big day, where to stand and where to walk, what the bridesmaids do."

The most popular weddings today are themed weddings. "For example, if the wedding is taking place in a medieval stately home then the bride may want medieval style embroidery on her dress," says Chris Prunty. Such ideas may result in amazing details.

"One of my clients wanted a stately home for a whole weekend and for it to appear as if it were their own," says Mrs Thomas. "They wanted to use all the facilities of the estate so we had to make sure there were billiards and guests were able to ride. They even wanted cars - Ferraris - hired for the weekend. they received their guests in all this rural luxury and we even put photographs of them on the tables mixed in with the family that actually owned the place."

"What people always say they want is that they want their wedding to be different - they don't want it to be the same as the last three weddings they've been to," says Chris Prunty. "They want it to be special and so this is the sort of thing that makes people spend money on personalised napkins and matchboxes. Or when they go to the reception it's very trendy to have fish and chips or bangers and mash - but it never works out any cheaper."

This is the sort of thing that traditionally makes the bride's father grow pale when he thinks how he is ever going to afford giving his daughter the big day he will want. Relax Daddy. One of the other big changes is that traditional etiquette has been eroded and couples are much more likely to pay for their bash themselves.

Half of all weddings are now paid for by the bride and groom, whereas the bride's father only coughs up in 30 per cent of cases. The rest of us share the cost between everyone.

"People are quite sensible about this. They don't think they can shove it all on their Access card. They will save for quite a long time. But they do want to spend a lot of money because it is a big occasion- they're making the most important decision of their life," says Ms Prunty.

And if the day does go horribly wrong? The other growth area is wedding insurance. The only thing it doesn't cover is disinclination to marry. For the groom jilted at the altar, there is no comepensation, pecuniary or otherwise.