Robert Dula has witnessed 293 proposals from the perch of his gondola in New Orleans City Park and has never heard a "no." In the Bella Mae, a boat built in Venice that he tours around the lake, he sees about a proposal a week, but Dula says each one is different.
"Every one is unique," Dula says. "I never know what to expect when I see the guy getting ready to pop the question. The reactions are numerous. Sometimes I believe they're expecting to get proposed to, and other times they're completely blown away by the experience and they get excited and cry and all that kind of fun stuff."
For Lulu Alexander, a wedding planner who divides her time between New Orleans and New York, surprise is key. "Normally I say keep it simple," she says. "You probably don't want too many things. If he does too much, she's probably going to get suspicious. So pick one simple thing. Go to a specific location, like a restaurant or a courtyard, or have someone serenade you." After the excitement, the most important thing is preserving the moment. "What's the point if you don't have a photographer?" Alexander says.
Though it might seem extravagant to hire a planner for a moment defined by its spontaneity, Alexander says most of her clients contact her about proposals because they're often on either end of a spectrum of organization: There are the ones who are really put together and want to hire someone to help smooth it out, and there are those who aren't organized at all and need a lot of help and coaching.
What does coaching entail? Mostly ways to keep the secret. Alexander says she's seen grooms-to-be pull out the ring box while they're saying something sweet, and before they can finish, the future fiancee knows what's about to happen, because she's eyed the box. On the subject of rings, Lulu says that's another way to make sure a proposal goes smoothly: Make sure you pick the ring with your significant other's taste in mind.
"If a guy doesn't have a direct line on exactly what kind of ring his fiancee would like, he should probably propose and then let her pick out the ring," Alexander advises.
Tiffany and Co. lets brides-to-be try on engagement rings. Many clients propose while standing in the case line, says vice president Diane Brown. "Tell us about your girlfriend: How did you meet: What is her name? What does she do? And as soon as you propose please bring her here," Brown says. "For us it is the beginning of a special, long-term relationship with a client, and it is an honor to us and a serious responsibility to assist with an engagement ring."
For those hoping to keep the proposal a surprise, get the right ring and have it handy at the proposal, Alexander suggests asking the intended fiancee's best friend, "because every girl tells her best friend what kind of ring she wants."
Dula has become a kind of proposal planner simply because he rows a big, beautiful, romantic boat and he's embraced the role, even if it's just by default.
"Generally, they set something up with me," he says. The gondolier offers what he calls a "Proposal in a Bottle," an elaborate setup in which he has the proposer write some sweet sentiment or poem that Dula prints on parchment paper. He burns the edges to make it look antique, then rolls the paper up, puts it in an empty wine bottle and puts a cork in it.
"I slip the bottle into the water without anybody seeing me," he says. "Then I spin around and go back toward the bottle and say something to the proposer like, 'Hey, we're trying to keep the park clean, how about grabbing that bottle for me?'" When the proposer grabs the bottle, he opens it and hands the note to his betrothed. While she's reading, he gets down on one knee.
"That works like a charm," Dula says. "It's fantastic. Like I said, 293, all yeses. I've yet to see anyone say no."
Dula attributes the success of proposers in his boat not just to the romantic venue but also to careful planning. "I guess they know their partner pretty well and have just given it a lot of thought," he says. "I see some of my couples come back a year or two later for anniversary rides and things like that."
Dula and Alexander agree that knowing what your intended spouse wants is of the utmost importance. Though details like the venue are important — Dula recommends anywhere in City Park, especially in front of the LOVE statue in the sculpture garden, while Lulu suggests a cute French Quarter courtyard to set the scene — Dula's primary advice is clear and concise:
"Make sure this is the move you want to make, because it's a big-time commitment. Don't just jump into it at the spur of the moment. Give it lots of thought."