Bernadette Coveney Smith is the nation’s leading same-sex wedding expert. Setting up her company 14 Stories in 2004, following Massachusetts’s legalization of marriage equality, for the last decade Smith has been devoted to improving how the wedding industry works with same-sex couples.
14 Stories is always looking for “really cool couples to work with,” whether it’s local east coasters or people from other states wanting to come over for the perfect wedding.
Having been featured on the Today Show, New York Times and Washington Post (amongst others), developing the first gay wedding planning app and writing a total of three books, Smith’s work has not gone unnoticed.
She is no stranger to the ins and outs of the wedding industry, which is why she’s due to speak at the CMI (Community Marketing & Insights) Conference on April 24 at the New York Times Conference Center, to share her personal business and marketing insights in her talk on “Lessons Learned in a Decade of Same-Sex Weddings.”
Smith took some time out of her busy schedule to speak with 429Magazine to discuss why she started her company, what 14 Stories’ intentions are, and where it’s headed.
429Magazine: Firstly, could you tell us a little about 14 Stories’ main goal across the US?
Bernadette Coveney Smith: The main goal of 14 Stories is to eliminate heterosexism and homophobia in the wedding industry and create a more inclusive place that’s welcoming for all couples.
429Mag: Why and when was it that you decided to set up the company?
BCS: My main reason for starting 14 Stories, which I started ten years ago, was because I wanted to be an advocate for same-sex couples who are navigating a very traditional industry. But I also wanted to support other LGBTI businesses if I could.
Ultimately, it was because we have the ability to create new traditions, to reinvent what a wedding can and should be and to redefine what a wedding looks like for us. I wanted to create a company that was really going to help couples feel like they had an advocate and a guide.
Wedding planning is not rocket science. But, I wanted to do it in a way that was a little different, actually a lot different, than other wedding planners.
429Mag: How many weddings have you helped coordinate/produce since starting the company? And what kind of weddings are you personally involved with?
BCS: Somewhere around four hundred. A lot.
We have two different types of weddings we sell. Our number one is the small weddings, which are elopement packages. These are especially for couples that travel in through New York, Boston or Provincetown and they bring a small group of guests, maybe five, twenty, or forty people. We sell them a package that includes photography, cake, flowers, the wedding officiate, all of that stuff. We do about forty or 50 of those a year. That is something I do not do, I’m not involved in those packages at all.
But I do plan the big weddings. Higher budgets, bigger number of guests, more details, I personally plan all of those.
429Mag: When the Kansas discrimination bill was introduced, did it worry you in any way personally or with regards to your business?
BCS: No. I actually had clients in Kansas at the time. In twenty-nine states it’s already legal to discriminate against LGBT couples because the states don’t include gender discrimination and sexual identity in their anti-discrimination policy. The Kansas bill and the Arizona bill, essentially they’re already redundant.
For religious grounds or whatever…a wedding photographer can already say to a same-sex couple ‘I’m not going to photograph your wedding because you’re gay,’ and that couple has no grounds for a lawsuit.
429Mag: Are you hopeful for a change in these discrimination policies to broaden 14 Stories’ work in some of the states that are currently discriminatory against LGBT couples?
BCS: There’s always more work to be done. Even with states where it’s legal, the wedding industry is just so traditional. It’s mostly because it’s full of small businesses that have been doing the same thing, the same way for a couple of dozen years. And they are just stuck in a rut.
In the big cities it’s different, we’re doing things a little bit more progressively but as far as the industry goes, it’s mostly small companies. Whether they’re in Kansas or Virginia or anywhere, LA even.
I actually had an email a few weeks ago from a couple in LA wanting to know if I planned weddings there because they were looking for a wedding planner and all they kept finding were websites with lots of brides and grooms. The websites were talking about the bride, bridal, bridal party, bridal suite.
429Mag: So do you also help businesses expand their websites to include same-sex couples?
BCS: Absolutely, if that’s something they feel ready for. It kind of depends on what their current situation is. If their business is in a conservative area it might be a little bit risky to put a photo of two guys kissing on their website. And I understand that. That might not be the best approach. But at least they can change the word “bridal” to “wedding,” or “bride” to “couple.”
429Mag: You look at most sides of the wedding industry, helping produce weddings, fashion sales and also working with businesses to improve their work on LGBTQ weddings. Are there any other areas of the business you would like to branch into that you haven’t tackled yet?
BCS: Well, that’s an awful lot already. There’s not really anything I want to do that I’m not already doing. I guess we want to keep doing more training. We’re getting more and more inquiries about that every day especially wedding caterers who want to bring me in to train their staff. There are a lot of people who feel they’re accidentally being insensitive to same-sex couples.
429Mag: Is that quite a frequent request then?
BCS: Very much so. I’m hearing from businesses every day. I heard from a company earlier today in California that wants me to train all these different country clubs in California and put everyone in one room to take my certification course.
So there’s definitely a lot of demand for that because businesses realize this is a largely growing market and they know that their employees might have a very heterosexist way of thinking because the wedding industry has always been one bride and one groom. Some businesses need help figuring out how to shift their thinking to be more inclusive.
429Mag: You’re speaking at CMI’s Marketing Conference on April 24 in NYC this year. Have you spoken at a CMI marketing conference before?
BCS: I spoke at the Tourism [and Hospitality]Conference in November at Fort Lauderdale. That was my first time speaking at the Marketing Conference. And community marketing and I did a study in September of engaged and married same-sex couples.
We were able to survey about nine hundred people last year. We’re able to really get a sense of what they’re doing that’s different, what trends they’re following, what traditions they’re following. If they’re having a wedding party, if their parents are involved, who’s paying for the wedding? So I’m going to be sharing all that information and data at the conference in April.
429Mag: Do you think the results of the survey are changing or will change the way that you’re conducting your business?
BCS: No, they don’t really change how I plan weddings or my approach. The survey results are preaching to the choir because I’m fully immersed in this. I predicted a lot of those results based on my own experience.
But they are really valuable in terms of how I treat businesses. If I can tell other wedding planners, wedding venues and caterers that about 70 percent of same-sex couples are looking for LGBT-inclusive language in photos on websites, then it helps change marketing practices for wedding businesses.
429Mag: You’ve also written three books about the LGBT wedding industry.
BCS: Yes, the first was, “Gay Wedding Confidential: Adventures and Advice from America’s #1 Gay Wedding Planner.” The second, “The Lesbian Couple’s Guide to Wedding Planning.” And the third was, “The Business of Gay Weddings: A Guide for Wedding Professionals.”
429Mag: Do you have any more books in the making?
Well, “The Business of Gay Weddings” just came out in January so I’m kind of done for now. If someone wants to pay me to write another book, I will, but writing a book is really, really exhausting.
429Mag: Lastly, what’s your top piece of advice for a couple in preparations for their wedding?
BCS: My top advice for couples is that they need to realize that this is their wedding. Not their mother’s wedding, not their sister’s wedding, not their best friend’s wedding. It’s their wedding and they should have the wedding that they want; whether that’s a small dinner party for ten or whether that’s a wedding at a theatre with a drag queen, they should have the wedding that they envisioned.
I get lesbian brides who come to me and they say “my mom said I should do this” or “my sister said I should do this” and I’m like, “so what, they’re straight, they have rules. You don’t have any rules. Make your own rules.”
So, tune out the noise, tune out the expectations of friends and family and do what you want.