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Nuptials from Cyberspace 

Internet Web sites are making wedding planning as easy as point and click.

There's little argument that the easiest way to plan a wedding is to let someone else (i.e. a party planner) do it. Just tell the planner what you want your wedding to be, how many people you want to invite, how much you can spend, and let them do the fairy godmother routine and make it happen. Some will even set up hotel accommodations for guests and plan your honeymoon.

Such an arrangement isn't ideal or practical for every bridal couple, however, due to money constraints or because they don't know exactly what they want until they see all the options in venues and services that are available to them. Still others consider that planning the wedding is an important part of the experience.

For these people, cyberspace can be a godsend in terms of gathering information. By investing a little time and initiating a few well-placed key strokes, a seemingly endless array of information about wedding and reception sites, music possibilities, transportation, cake options, catering, invitations, officiants and even wedding dresses can be obtained in less time than it takes to call a couple of locations on the telephone. Plus, many will give you estimates of cost along with date availabilities. You'll also find a host of wedding planners online as well.

The wedding business is a finely honed, $50 billion-a-year industry that gets lots of practice with estimates, as about 2.5 million couples get married in the United States each year and only about one-third of those use a wedding consultant/event planner, according to Top Wedding Links. On average, couples spend between $10,000 and $25,000 for a traditional wedding. Seeking out your own sources and comparing a variety of estimates can potentially save you money without requiring compromises in the quality of the wedding experience.

Typing "New Orleans weddings" into a search engine such as Google will yield literally hundreds (for me, 547) of possible sites, including individual hotels, event planners, bands and more. There also are sites that represent groups of wedding services providers, such as www.theknot.com, www.experienceneworleans.com, www.aweddingforyou.com, www.weddings.respond.com, and many others. One of the most popular and comprehensive is The Knot, which sends a couple's criteria to a multitude of vendors that respond in one to three weeks with offers and suggestions. I took about a minute to fill out forms at www.weddingsolutions.com and www.fireyourweddingplanner.com and began receiving information the next day.

An equally easy source, and one that provides options as varied as the city itself, is the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOCVB). You can either call 566-5095 or log onto www.neworleanscvb.com and have the vast resources of the city's tourism industry at your fingertips.

"Absolutely we can plan a wedding online, or it's just a phone call away," Says NOCVB's tourism sales manager Leslie Straughan. "We're here to assist people in getting married. We find out the date, the bride's specifics of what she's looking for, parts of the city (she favors for events and lodging), price ranges, and send that out to our members and they will respond back to the [bridal couple] directly. We also can send them visitor information (about attractions and events in town) to distribute to the guests, or they can send us a guest list and we'll mail the information right to their guests."

Because most of the businesses who deal with weddings in the city also are members of the NOCVB, bridal couples often find they have a wider range of options for venues, parties, accommodations and entertainment than they realized was available. Straughan says she enters the pertinent information into a database and invites bureau members to contact the bridal couple with bids and estimates if they have openings on the days the couple needs.

"Members are anything tourism-related, so there are very few [businesses] who aren't members," she says. "When we send [a bridal couple's request] out, it goes to a lot of people. The lead goes to large hotels as well as quaint bed and breakfasts -- places these people would never find on their own.

"We hope to be making it easy for brides who live here or those who want to have destination weddings here. New Orleans is a wonderful, romantic city and a wonderful place to get married. We have people (call) who plan their wedding in New Orleans and have never been here. They just envision it would be a magical place to get married."

The bureau does not recommend one venue or business over another, she says. It just sends the requests to bureau members and the wedding couple decides. Someone at the NOCVB does, however, check back with the couple to determine whether the process was helpful and if the experience was a good one.

"There is no top venue and no Œusual' wedding," Straughan says. "It's as wide a range as you can imagine, from couples just getting married in Jackson Square to the most elaborate thing you can imagine -- from just the couple coming in to get married, to several hundred people coming in."

The bureau's Web site, as well as most others dealing with wedding planning, includes pertinent information about where to get a marriage license, what documents are necessary and any waiting periods that are required. In New Orleans, for instance, there is a 72-hour waiting period for couples who live in the city, but it is waived for those who come here from out of town.

Some of the nuptial-focused Web sites not only give couples information about places and services available to them for their wedding, but also include ideas about party themes, attendant gifts and even maintain chat rooms where brides and grooms can post questions and ask for advice from other couples who are planning weddings or have already been through the process. There are sites that include rules of etiquette for various wedding-related situations and even specific tips for how to save money on your wedding without going batty.

Individual sites, such as www.bluefrogchocolates.com, can supply specific ideas for unique favors such as chocolate coins covered in foil that has wedding-inspired designs or words imprinted on them or bouquets that look like flowers but are made out of various types of candy. Other ideas can be obtained from Web sites maintained by your other favorite businesses.

Other sites will help you plan "cheap" wedding trips, inspire ideas about getting married at City Park or on a New Orleans paddlewheeler or steamboat, in a Victorian inn or anywhere else you can imagine, including a voodoo ceremony. The site www.walkerpub.com offers Bob Walker's directory of wedding-related businesses and services, including such details as veils, accessories, timetables for planning the wedding six months to a year out, and a complete directory of local service providers. There's even a site, www.topweddinglinks.com, which links you with the Web sites of other businesses in the area where you will have your wedding. Be aware when using the directory-type services that their listings of the businesses and service providers in your area are limited to those who pay for being linked with the site. In addition, not all will offer automatic estimates and responses from the vendors they list and require you to contact each vendor you are interested in individually either by phone or by clicking their hyperlink.

As with any transaction in which money changes hands, make sure you practice the same sound business judgment you would if buying something in a store or contracting someone's services face-to-face. Make sure you have the necessary guarantees and protections you would expect if buying, for instance, a refrigerator, for though it may not last as long as this venerable appliance, your wedding day is no less important and much more memorable.

Stephi Stewart of Stephi Stewart Weddings Inc., which operates the Web site fireyourweddingplanner.com and has published a book detailing how she saved $10,000 on her own wedding, offers advice about how to take control of plans for your big day and protect your investments. First and foremost, she says, you must approach all plans as a business person instead of a gullible, "nice" bride, stipulate deadlines and expectations in writing and avoid vendors who want to dictate standard operations for all instead of trying to accommodate your individual desires. For instance, if you're having a wedding dress custom made, put the deposit on a credit card instead of in cash and dictate that the deposit is returnable if deadlines for purchase of fabrics, first fitting and final delivery are not met. She also urges brides to look closely at packages offered by photographers and stipulate that after purchasing the initial package, the bridal couple gets to keep the negatives and control expenses for reprints. Her Web site offers a multitude of suggestions, and bridal couples are able to solicit her advice about specific situations by sending her questions.

Still other sites offer discounts for items such as unusual wedding cake toppers, party favors and other items. There's even a software package available online from KitBiz ($39.95) that allows you to put your guest list into a database, print addresses on envelopes, track RSVPs and things such as what the guests choose to eat if it's a dinner reception, and stay current on gifts and thank-you notes. After the wedding, it can be used for baby showers, parties, holiday card lists, etc.

In the end, the question of whether to hire a wedding planner or make some or all of the arrangements yourself depends on your budget, the time you have to devote to the millions of details involved, how much help you will receive from friends and family, and your personal temperament. The bottom line is to avoid as much stress as possible, enjoy the process, make your wedding an enjoyable memory, and get your money's worth.

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