By Lindsay Rassmann
Web Production Assistant
The first step in walking down the aisle may be choosing New Jersey as the place to get married.
Those from New Jersey are all too familiar with its beauty. It offers everything from beautiful, wide beaches to picturesque Pocono mountains to urban cities with breathtaking views of New York City.
With the highest property taxes in the nation, it’s no surprise that New Jersey ranks as one of the most expensive states to get married. With the help of a few New Jersey wedding planners scattered throughout the state, NJTV News got their take on common pitfalls and smart ways to plan a wedding. They also let us in on some of the best places to get married, from Cape May to Jersey City. They talked about current trends, expectations for guests and how the Garden State is becoming a destination for weddings.
For this article a random sampling of wedding planners throughout the state were interviewed: Diane Kolanović-Šolaja of Dee Kay Events in Manalapan, Donna DeFrancesco of Majestic Moments Event Planning in East Hanover, Paige VanGombos of Gilded Lily Events in Red Bank and Kristin Barse from Bel Momento Weddings and Special Events in Ocean City.
It may not be a surprise but most of the couples that get married in the Garden State have roots here.
“People who were born here, or raised here or stayed here and then came back at some point like to get married in New Jersey,” Kolanović-Šolaja said.
“I have about four clients right now that live out of state in Wisconsin, Texas and Ohio. The bride or the groom in each one of them is from Jersey, but now they live out of state and they want to come back and get married here,” said DeFrancesco.
But are people from out of state coming here to get married? Not predominately. Some of the couples that are coming here are from surrounding states, and even then they generally have some tie to New Jersey. Maybe it’s where they spent summers as a kid or where they went to college. For some couples, they find the shore to be a destination much closer than the Caribbean or somewhere that would require much more travel for guests.
In fact, getting to New Jersey is one of the state’s biggest advantages. New Jersey’s convenience to major airports is a huge benefit in terms of convenience and flexibility. Flying into JFK or LaGuardia for instance can allow guests the opportunity to split their time while visiting other area destinations, like New York City, while traveling for a wedding. Flying into Trenton or Atlantic City can easily provide guests the opportunity to visit the shore.
“You can give them a New York City experience and a beach experience all in the same weekend. I think it’s the best of both worlds,” Kolanović-Šolaja said.
While a nice option for out-of-town guests, all the planners we talked to said that guests and couples get more bang for their buck outside of the Big Apple. Couples can get wedding packages that provide more food for what they pay per person and guests gain the benefit of having more options in where they stay and how they travel and get around.
Another area where New Jersey offers up some unique options for brides and grooms lies in the variety of photo opportunities that present themselves around the state.
For beach weddings, Kolanović-Šolaja says couples have the unique opportunity to take pictures at New Jersey icons, especially at the shore where couples can utilize the boardwalk or arcades. Parts of central and northern New Jersey on the other hand allow for stunning wedding photos with the New York skyline as a backdrop while still being on the water.
DeFrancisco adds that the options for pictures at most venues are also vast. Many properties have enough land and space that an area might be available for photos right where the ceremony and reception take place.
“You can take your pictures on site and utilize their grounds. You don’t have to worry about going to a park or somewhere else. It just makes your day so much easier because you don’t have to deal with squeezing in a location in the middle of everything,” she said.
Another convenience found in those same beautiful, manicured grounds is that many venues are often so large that they offer a variety of different areas to choose from when it comes to receptions and weddings.
The stereotype of a “Big Jersey Wedding” with an abundance of food proves true, according to planners. They said that many of the venues in the state (particularity those in North Jersey) provide couples with an abundance of food. This can especially be seen in cocktail hours, which DeFrancisco says are a “big thing for this area.”
Big here and on the rise everywhere else. The Knot‘s 2014 Real Weddings Study, which surveyed 16,000 U.S. brides that were married in 2014, found that national spending for cocktail hours rose to 76 percent from 69 percent in 2010.
Location, Location, Location
With venue and catering typically making up 40 to 50 percent of a wedding’s budget, where are people choosing to spend that money and get married?
The possibilities New Jersey offers are endless, according to Kolanović-Šolaja.
“You can get married on a beach, a vineyard. You can get married at a hotel or small inn, museums, barns, I mean it’s really endless. You could have a mountain view or a city view for your wedding,” she said. “I hope that people from New Jersey see and appreciate how beautiful a landscape that we have and how diverse it is,” she said.
VanGombos shared a similar sentiment.
“It is so hard to choose one favorite place since New Jersey has lots of great venues that attract different brides for different reasons,” she said.
Below are some of the locations the planners listed as some of their most popular (and unique) places where they’ve seen couples get married in New Jersey:
On The Water:
All of our planners agree: New Jersey has the feeling of a destination when it comes to weddings.
“Going down the shore is so convenient. It gives out-of-town friends the chance to see the New Jersey that everyone doesn’t have a really good opinion about. The Jersey Shore on TV is not the Jersey Shore of my heart,” Kolanović-Šolaja said.
Barse, located in South Jersey, finds that the couples she works with are looking for destinations, yet they still want the benefits that come with being close to home. Couples want where they choose to be accessible enough so their guests can afford to travel, and not necessarily have to fly. Finding a place that’s easy to travel to also allows for more people to attend. This makes New Jersey a very convenient destination for those with guests residing in the northeast.
She notes that an added bonus is that many times once guests travel here it opens their eyes to New Jersey as a place they want to come back and visit.
She has couples that are planning beach weddings from across the northeast — places like Boston, Connecticut, New York, the District of Columbia, Virginia and Pennsylvania. She also has couples from North Jersey who still want to come down to South Jersey for their weddings.
“I do find that my market is destination driven, and most of those couples are planning a wedding in a coastal town,” she said.
VanGombos adds that more and more people are trying to make a weekend out of a wedding. Couples are focusing more on providing their guests with a personalized experience, according to our planners. This makes the Jersey Shore a win-win for couples — a shore wedding allows guests beach time and “that’s a novelty that you don’t really get anywhere else,” VanGombos said.
Barse says that more and more couples are inviting only those that are nearest and dearest to them. Couples want their guests to be able to be a part of that wedding celebration, especially when they invite guests to travel and have a weekend away with them.
“Starting the weekend with a casual barbecue and ending with a brunch with weddings with smaller numbers allow couples to spend more quality time with those that are coming in,” she said.
Barse says that within the 38 miles from Atlantic City to Cape May there are over 35 to 40 wedding venues, many of those being in small shore towns. She said couples appreciate the charm associated with these small locales. “Within that radius there’s an opportunity for a couple to host a wedding of 40 to 60 people, and also groups as big as 300 guests,” she said.
One last area where the Jersey Shore presents unique wedding ideas comes in the form of wedding favors or welcome bags. Kolanović-Šolaja suggests salt water taffy in a gift bag for a shore wedding.
One Atlantic, Atlantic City
“One Atlantic is really cool because it’s not part of a casino, and it’s not part of the hotel but you’re actually out on the pier off the boardwalk so all of your guests get to see the water,” said Kolanović-Šolaja.
“A five star venue for those looking to get married in Atlantic City. They offer an elevated food and beverage service,” said Barse.
The Sunset Ballroom (Lobster Shanty), Point Pleasant
Avenue, Long Branch
Sandy Hook Chapel, Highlands
Congress Hall, Cape May
“Congress Hall is not only a wonderful place as a wedding but it’s probably one of those venues in Cape May that has a following of guests that come year after year that make a tradition of staying at that resort,” said Barse.
Stone Harbor Women’s Civic Club, Cape May
“Women’s clubs can sometimes be very close to the beach, if not on the beach, and you pay a rental fee for the club and you bring in your rentals and create your own space,” said Barse.
The Reeds at Shelter Haven, Stone Harbor
“It’s a boutique hotel property on the bay in stone harbor and it’s opened in the last two year and they’re definitely a wonderful locations for couples to look into,” said Barse.
Bonnet Island Estate, Manahawkin
A few of the planners we spoke to mentioned yacht clubs as a smart place to look for those looking to get married on the shore. Barse says you don’t always have to be a member to host an event, but that can vary from club to club.
“You have these really great yacht clubs in most of these coastal towns. They’re great because they’re always on the water, they normally have a deck component that is great for a cocktail hour, some of them can do ceremonies on site and they have that nautical feel to them,” Barse said. “Yacht clubs are definitely a part of [South Jersey’s] wedding business.”
Some of the Yacht clubs Barse recommends are: Avalon, Ocean City, Stone Harbor, The Corinthian Yacht Club of Cape May and Sea Isle. In the LBI area, she says to check out Brant Beach and Surf City. Other planners recommended Clarks Landing Yacht Club in Point Pleasant.
Rutgers Gardens, New Brunswick
“It’s really great when it gets warmer outside. It’s a really, really nice area to be in and it’s just really beautiful and you can stretch your dollar there.” said Kolanović-Šolaja.
Grounds For Sculpture, Hamilton
Wineries and Inns:
Barse says a lot of the trends are following a West Coast, outdoorsy, natural element trend. She says that there’s been a growing demand for wineries and areas that couples can do a tented wedding.
“The outdoors is something a lot of people are requesting, a more natural feel,” she said. “They’re stepping away from the requests for chandeliers and candelabras. They’re asking for more of a natural environment.”
Laurita Winery, Plumstead Township
Willow Creek Winery, Cape May
Isaac Smith Vineyard/Washington Inn, Cape May
Tomasello Winery, Hammonton
The Ryland Inn, Whitehouse Station
Inn at Fernbrook Farms, Chesterfield
Peter Shields Inn, Cape May
Eastlyn Golf Course & The Greenview Inn, Vineland
Valenzano Family Winery, Shamong
The Manor, West Orange
The Venetian, Garfield
Seasons Catering and Special Events, Washington Township
“They usually cater to really big weddings and sometimes when you have big weddings you know the chef might get overwhelmed or they don’t have enough people and you actually lose the quality of food per plate, but The Venetian, which is also part of Seasons Catering, I’ve done events there for 1,200 people and literally the meal served looked like it was prepared for just 10 people that’s how much detail they take and everything was to perfection.” said Kolanović-Šolaja.
The Brownstone, Paterson
“The price that you get for The Brownstone and the food — the food is literally hands down the two best for food in my opinion in New Jersey are The Brownstone and The Venetian. For the abundance of food and the quality it’s really, really good. It always blows my mind at how well they [cater events] and obviously they have an entire army doing it, but to nail it every time on the dot. I can talk about them all day because they’re awesome. I love them,” said Kolanović-Šolaja
Pleasantdale Chateau, West Orange
Outside the Box Locations:
The Landmark Loew’s, Jersey City
“I personally haven’t had an event there, but the going rental rates can definitely fit into a much lower budget than a big crazy New Jersey wedding. It’s a really very unique wedding venue — it’s an old theater so it looks beautiful and is really cool,” said Kolanović-Šolaja.
Parlay Studios, Jersey City
“The most unique wedding we did this year! A photography studio turned event space,” said VanGombos.
The Water Witch Club, Highlands
“It’s a unique venue and exclusive because they only do a few weddings a year. It’s gaining popularity but it’s hard to find because they don’t really advertise and it’s a really cool place. It’s an old house and it’s popular for people to have backyard weddings now but maybe they can’t really host it at their house or yard so this is the next best thing where it’s a house that is pretty much a blank slate with a great wraparound porch so you can host it there without having to have it at your house,” said VanGombos.
All the planners we spoke to confirmed that backyard weddings are on the rise. DeFrancesco said a lot of people are shying away from traditional venues and instead opting for a more alfresco, rustic themed wedding. National statistics back this up. The number of couples choosing to get married in a religious institution has declined from 41 percent in 2009 to 28 percent last year, according to The Knot.
“I think it’s gaining in popularity. More and more pictures are showing pictures of people in these outdoor, open air, California weddings. We have them here in New Jersey, but weather is more of an issue. I think people like the relaxed feel of having it in their backyard even though there’s a lot of things that you have to think about,” VanGombos said. “Weddings are going towards a more relaxed feel — farm to table and long tables and family style and you can get that in your backyard.”
All planners warned that while a backyard wedding can afford a couple certain luxuries with time limitations and freedom in planning, contrary to the relaxed feel they can easily become more expensive than a traditional wedding.
“You have a lot more flexibility [with a backyard wedding]. Nobody is breathing down your back to get out of the venue at 11 p.m. I think a lot of people want to do a backyard wedding because they saw it on Pinterest and think it’s awesome and rustic. But they don’t realize that it can get expensive,” Kolanović-Šolaja said. She suggests that if you’re planning it yourself to do your research first. “Google some guides online because depending on how many people it could be cheaper to go to a venue,” she said.
“People are very surprised at how much more backyard weddings can be,” DeFrancesco said. “Think about it: when you go to a venue everything is there for you. The place, the roof over your head, the tables and chairs, your flatware and dishes, your glasses, everything is there. When you have a blank slate like a backyard you have to bring everything in and a lot of couples don’t think about that.”
She says couples have to think about the following for a backyard wedding: a tent, a dance floor, a restroom, an area for the caterer, tables, chairs, all kinds of rentals, glasses, wait staff, beverages and alcohol. All of which can add up quickly.
“You have to think about if you need generator, what about a band, what’s the floor plan?” said DeFrancesco. “It’s more involved and really detailed. When you initially think about it you think, ‘Oh, I’ll just have it in my backyard, it’ll be so fun!’ But then there’s so many pieces that have to come together to make it happen.”
Barns have really gained in popularity as well. DeFrancisco said to accommodate the growing number of barn brides, a lot of venues are renovating previously unused barns. She says many venues are even offering catering to follow the growing trend.
The number of couples that chose a barn as their venue rose in 2014 to 6 percent, up from 3 percent in 2009, according to The Knot.
The Knot offers its own tips on planning a backyard wedding. First, make sure your backyard can hold the amount of people that you want to invite. Make sure your neighbors know that you’re having a wedding and be sure to check noise ordinances in your town. Other considerations include planting flowers early so they have time to come up. Also, have a Plan B that’s just as good as Plan A.
Kolanović-Šolaja says the first rule of guest etiquette is being timely.
“That begins with your RSVP and ends with your arrival to the ceremony. Don’t skip out on the ceremony just because there is a big gap of time to the reception. You were invited to witness a beautiful celebration. Be sure to make an effort to see the couple’s first kiss, and not be the first at the bar,” she said.
Other rules to follow: try not to outshine the bride and stick to one to two drinks an hour. She suggests that if you do plan to party it up, avoid the stage and a microphone at all costs.
With more and more couples choosing to live together before getting married it can sometimes make buying wedding presents difficult. Couples may already have essential housewares that are often seen on wedding registries.
“Many brides and grooms find that they have what they need to make a home,” VanGombos said. “I love the new trend of registering for experiences during a honeymoon such as a candlelight dinner, an excursion or a couple’s massage.”
Kolanović-Šolaja says honeymoon registries have gained in popularity over the past couple of years. But she says if there’s a registry to stick to it, and if unsure a cash gift is always best.
“No matter how much you want to give the couple something special and awesome, save it for their housewarming. Registries are beautiful because you are purchasing something the couple wants. Don’t stray,” she said.
Beware of Pinterest
Many of the wedding planners warned against going Pinterest crazy. The popular website where you “pin” interesting articles and pictures can be a great source of inspiration, but planners suggest maintaining a healthy balance between what’s possible and what’s not. The first step is keeping in mind that a Pinterest idea that you love may not happen. Keeping a level head and a realistic view of what’s going to be part of your wedding and what you can afford is important. For that reason, Kolanović-Šolaja suggests having knowledgeable planners and vendors that can keep you grounded.
“I love Pinterest and I actually use it as a source of inspiration with my clients, but that’s why having a planner is so important,” Kolanović-Šolaja says. “They’ll tell you, ‘Listen, those florals that you just pinned are beautiful but do you know how much that’s going to cost?'”
She says a lot of Pinterest photos are styled shoots and that an arrangement of flowers that you pin may cost $400 for only one table, not 10 tables.
The popularity of Pinterest and wedding blogs is a trend seen across the nation. The Knot’s Wedding Study reported that six out of every 10 brides are planning their wedding from a smartphone. This number has doubled from where it was in 2011 at 33 percent to 61 percent last year.
“Brides are savvy because of what they find online and Pinterest, so brides can essentially plan their weddings and what they want in their mind. When we have our consultation it’s like a reality check. The things you see on Pinterest cost a lot of money and if you want it you’re going to have to pay for it,” DeFrancesco said. “I’m finding a lot of couples are trying to keep their budgets down, trying to not be too extravagant. Some like to do DIY projects.”
Consider Using a Wedding Planner
While still considered a luxury item, hiring a wedding planner can be “the difference between waking up and having time to think about spending the rest of your life with the love of your life, and having to wake up and immediately having to worry about what time the limo is arriving,” according to Kolanović-Šolaja.
VanGombos says she’s seen an increase in the number of couples seeking the help of a professional wedding planner.
“As people’s lives get busier and busier, they love having the peace of mind that the wedding planning is running smoothly. For many couples, an event day coordinator is helpful,” she said.
DeFrancesco says that 90 percent of her clients start planning their wedding and find they’re overwhelmed.
“They just don’t have the time to sit on the phone with vendors for two hours and make appointments, so hiring a planner is becoming a necessity. They don’t have the time and they need the help, but it’s still a luxury expense,” she says.
Busier lives and hectic work schedules account for many people deciding to use wedding planners.
“There’s been a shift in people. Millennials value their time more. They value the fact that why am I going to spend all these hours doing something when I can hire someone who loves to do this and gets it and can get things done 1-2-3? Weddings are getting bigger and lives busier. It’s so important to have somebody on your side all the time,” Kolanović-Šolaja said.
Barse adds that just as important as hiring a wedding planner is hiring a local. Hiring someone that’s familiar with the area, especially for those planning from afar, can help tremendously.
“They know the ins and outs of that area and they can help you with knowing not only the vendors to go to, but about the city. They’ll know which business are seasonal and will be open, what beaches might be better than others for ceremonies and which have access to parking or are less frequented,” she said.
Kolanović-Šolaja says the main job of a wedding planner is to think of the most disastrous thing that could happen, and to never tell you about it while giving you the best day ever.
Keeping Costs in Check
Forty-five percent of couples went over their wedding budget in 2014. Trying to keep costs low? Our planners offered up some tips and tricks when it comes to staying on budget while getting what you want.
VanGombos says to keep your guest count low if you want to keep your costs low.
She also adds, “Be aware of the rentals and catering and checking your venue for hidden costs. Maybe you have to rent extra things that your venue doesn’t provide. Be clear about what you need to pay for and create a spreadsheet where you can input as you go. Getting your key vendors before you get the miscellaneous things is also important. Having those things first and filling in the rest of it is important.”
DeFrancesco suggests to “write down everything that you want to include in the budget. Focus on what you want so more money can be allocated to what you care about most.”
Kolanović-Šolaja says holding off on saying “I do” can sometimes be the answer. She says to not let anyone influence your guest list — even if they’re paying for it.
“Always put a tender foot down for your opinions. If your parents are putting in money and they think that should dictate the guest list and you don’t want to invite some people, then maybe you should think again about taking their money. Maybe put the nuptials on hold and pay for it yourself. It’s just going to cause you extra stress and you don’t want to be held accountable for your day and have to please someone else.”
Barse says a way to save comes at certain locations that allow you to bring in your own liquor. It can sometimes be a big cost saver, but it also varies from venue to venue, so be sure to ask as it can save you in the end.
Everything will be OK
Kolanović-Šolaja says staying true to who you are is the most important piece of advice for those planning a wedding.
“People get too crazed over the whole wedding and why they’re getting married. When I consult my couples I say, ‘I’m here to give you a joyful beginning.’ Sometimes girls are like ‘this is the end all be all because I’ve met my prince charming’ but people forget that marriage is not one day, it’s not a wedding. You have to go into it as a celebration — a kickoff — and not like it’s the last one that you’re ever going to have,” she said. “If you go into it with positive thoughts and good energy and remember that you guys are always going to be two individuals coming into one marriage, if you can remember that, the whole planning process is easy as pie,” she said.
DeFrancesco says take a break from the planning and be careful not to let your relationship become all about the wedding. She suggests choosing one night a week to go out on a date and not talk about the wedding.
Barse says to really enjoy the process.
“One of the things that I see stresses my couples sometimes is hearing all the opinions around you. You start to feel like you have to keep everyone’s opinions in mind. Sometimes the couple can be so focused on keeping other people happy that they lose the whole purpose of what they’re celebrating — becoming a married couple,” she said.
Have any tips or places you want to share? Leave them in the comments below!