The Performer: Cynthia Martyn, wedding planner

A mega-wedding planner talks about wrangling elephants, turning down clients and the value of having a backup plan.

(Photo: John Cullen)

Most expensive wedding planned: $350,000
Biggest wedding (by attendance): 700
Smallest wedding: 19
Number of weddings planned per year: 20–25
Average planning time per wedding: 1 year
Shortest planning time: 5 weeks

When Cynthia Martyn takes on a client, the former Bay Street event planner begins a process she describes as “project managing the wedding.” It starts with a five-page questionnaire asking brides- and grooms-to-be about everything from their hobbies to their favourite movies. “We’re planning their wedding, but we’re also telling a story on the wedding day,” says Martyn, whose creativity—and flawless execution—have made her services among the most sought after in the business. Since starting her own firm in Toronto in 2004, Martyn has been the brains behind some 200 weddings. Her most recent A-list client: Calgary Flames star Matt Stajan. She spoke with Canadian Business staff writer Rachel Mendleson.

Wedding stress is legendary. How do you cope?
I’m a very calm person. It doesn’t mean that I’m sitting on the sidelines, not being very active in controlling what happens. But I’m not getting stressed and letting people know that there’s something challenging going on, because that just makes everyone else amp up their reactions. I’m there to make them relaxed. I’m dealing with any challenges as they’re happening, but you would never know that by looking at me.

It’s something I was not even aware of until I starting doing weddings, and people kept telling me, “You’re so calm.” It sort of became a selling feature.

How do you handle conflicts between the bride and groom and their families?
Every couple is going to have those moments where they become overwhelmed or stressed out. I very much try to act as a buffer. I try to step in and sort of diffuse the situation, try to talk them through it.

You’re almost part psychologist as a planner because you really need to go in and be really aware of where people are coming from, and what their little buzz points are, what’s going to irritate them, what’s going to make them happy.

Do you ever turn away difficult clients?
I do, because let’s face it, I don’t want to have a stressful experience either. If I sort of get the sense during our meeting that their expectations are not quite jibing with how I work or my style, then I will be very up-front and honest with them, and say, “I don’t know if this is the best fit, but here are a couple of other planners that might be a good option for you.”

You have a very distinct style. What do you do when clients propose an idea you don’t like?
I’m very honest with them. I say, “Don’t be offended, but I’m not too sure this works with the overall plan that we have. Is there any way we can incorporate this or change the design?” It’s never done from a place of saying, “No, that’s the tackiest thing I’ve ever seen.” It’s more a way of just discreetly getting them to see alternatives that might also work, and getting them to come around to those ideas.

Are your opinions ever overruled?
I hate to say it, but not really.

I think they come to me because they respect me and they respect my ideas, so if I do suggest an alternative, most of the time they will actually go with that. They want to have a beautiful event, so they know if I’m telling them they should do this a certain way, then there’s probably a good reason.

What’s the craziest request you’ve ever received as a wedding planner?
For some of our Indian weddings, it is traditional for a groom to be brought to the ceremony in a procession on a ceremonial horse. Some grooms want to go big, and get a live elephant to bring them in. Elephants are a little trickier, but we make it happen for them. The thought in the back of my mind is always “Please don’t let this elephant decide to go mad and stampede the crowd.”

A few years ago, a bride and groom loved musician and singer Jeff Healey, and wanted to dance to his famous song “Angel Eyes” for their first dance. We got in touch with Jeff’s people, and were able to make a live performance at their wedding happen. It is all the more special now, because not too long after that, Jeff passed away from cancer.

You must have your share of demanding clients. How do you set your personal boundaries?
I don’t give out my cellphone number until the rehearsal. That sort of helps a bit. I’d never give out my home telephone number because you do need to be guaranteed that if you’re gonna go and relax for a couple of hours that you’re not going to be disturbed. But the reality is that if there are any emergencies the night of the wedding, if it’s two in the morning, I’m totally OK with them calling me, because if there’s an issue, we need to deal with it.

There are not a lot of boundaries, because working with weddings is very demanding, and I think you do need to be accessible to your clients.

What do you do when something doesn’t go according to plan?
The goal of having a planner is trying to deal with every possible scenario before it actually happens so that there is no stress. If we know that we have an outdoor wedding, two or three days before the wedding, if [there’s] a 40% or 50% chance of rain, I’m on the phone with the tent company, or coming up with a backup spot inside the venue. I can wait until 10 minutes before the ceremony and, if it looks like its going to rain, instantly put that backup plan into place so that everything is smooth and seamless.

On the wedding day, I’m constantly walking around, looking for possible issues. I’m looking to see that everything is set up properly. I’m looking for tripping hazards. I’m looking for any possible problem that could come up. I try to be one step ahead and try to make sure we’re not going to be having any surprises.

Does there come a point during the wedding when you can breathe a sigh of relief?
As soon as we get everyone seated for dinner, that’s when we can sort of take a breather a little bit. All of the decor, everything has been set up. The ceremony has happened. The couple is happy. It’s at that point where we’re really just counting down the last few hours. As long as the dinner is coming out and we get the last course on the table, at that point it’s just an open bar and a dance floor, so not too much can go wrong.

A dance floor and an open bar? That sounds like a recipe for everything going wrong.
[Laughing] Yeah, that’s true.