On March 8, 2021, Sacred Fire Creative explored another avenue in the conversation on diversity, equality, inclusion, and belonging with the forum “Diversity and Inclusion in Business: A Look at the Wedding Industry.” Writer-turned-wedding planner Elisabeth Kramer led this particular discussion.

About Elisabeth Kramer

Elisabeth Kramer is an award-winning journalist and former magazine editor. She stumbled into a career in wedding planning after helping a friend with her own. But beyond coordinating these dream events for couples, she has made it her mission to, in her own words, “tear down the wedding industrial complex.”

Elisabeth came up with this mission after talking to clients about their weddings and her own interactions with other wedding vendors. As a feminist, she often hears issues that to her seem like total red flags. These red flags often indicate that something is going on and is usually part of a larger issue—that couples are being actively harmed or attacked by the wedding industry.

Thus, she has made it her goal to change the wedding industry, and she does it in two ways with her business. One is through her work with couples as she plans their weddings. The other is by actively collaborating with other vendors.

Elisabeth has a podcast called “The Teardown,” where she interviews couples and vendors about their experiences within the wedding industry. In this podcast, she tackles how diversity, inclusion, Black Lives Matter, and other similar issues affect the industry.

Moreover, she is the co-founder of Altared, a Portland-based event for wedding vendors. Altared holds classes where wedding vendors can learn and share ideas on making the wedding industry a more inclusive, sustainable, and mindful place to work in.

Questions Raised during the Forum

What does “changing the wedding industry” actually mean?

Elisabeth explained that the term “wedding industrial complex” is a shorthand she uses. Still, it’s not a term that she invented. The phrase has been around for a while now. It refers to the many nasty “isms” we encounter in our lives as human beings, but specific to the wedding industry. These “isms” include racism and ageism, as well as non-isms like homophobia and fat-phobia. In other words, it pertains to the toxic things we deal with in society.

She feels that these isms manifest strongly in the wedding industry. However, in some ways, they are all wrapped up in tulle. That’s because weddings are supposed to be happy spaces—about the joy of the couple to be married and about making people feel good.

Elisabeth used race conversations as an example. The word “race” is loaded right now because it’s political. She said she really tries in her work to talk about it. That’s because she thinks the issue manifests a lot of stress, anger, and pain, not just for couples getting married but also vendors in the wedding industry.

She points out two resources that help address this issue. One is Vendors of Color, a Pacific Northwest-based community of exclusively BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color) wedding vendors. The other is Rad Wedding, a Slack group born out of Altared. The group has 150 members; they share leads and support fellow members who are part of the LGBTQ and BIPOC communities or attend classes on inclusivity.

Can the wedding industry change without the service industry changing first?

During the forum, a participant pointed out that the service industry, which covers hotels and restaurants, is not a very inclusive one. Given that the wedding industry is interdependent with the service industry, can the wedding industry change without the service industry change first?

Elisabeth thinks the wedding and service industries have to change together. She believes that changes in the wedding industry can affect the service industry. However, she stated that this is part of a much broader discussion. It’s part of a deeper systemic issue that needs to be addressed, not just in the service industry or the wedding industry but also in other elements of our society.

What steps has Elisabeth herself taken to make her business more inclusive?

Maricella Ehmann, a Vermont-based wedding planner, as well as Elisabeth’s friend and collaborator, shared that Elisabeth has done quite a bit to help small businesses over the years. She asked her to enumerate some of these steps.

Elisabeth replied that, because of capitalism, the first place to start helping others is with money. Thus, she:

  • Donates 5% of every booking to one of six non-profits, a model that she borrowed with permission from Portland-based photographer Marissa Solini.
  • During the pandemic crisis, put up a donation form on her website for wedding vendors in need. This project, however, was short-lived, and Elisabeth shifted back to donating part of her proceeds to non-profits.

Additionally, she put up an anti-racism action plan on her website that she constantly updates. She also takes classes outside of Altared and recommends the LGBTQ+ inclusivity course developed by Kirsten and Maria Palladino of Equally Wed.

What steps can wedding vendors take to make their businesses inclusive right now?

One of the forum participants asked Elisabeth for examples of steps wedding vendors can take to make their businesses more inclusive that they can do right after the forum. Elisabeth responded by demonstrating representation, which can be done by:

  • Being sensitive about language and pronouns. Not every couple who is getting married is a bride and a groom.
  • Making the vendor’s website less bride-centric. Many wedding vendor websites feature couples where one person is white, cis-hetero, and a woman.
  • Including more photos of POC and LGBTQ+ couples on the website.
  • Including the vendor’s own pronouns in their email signature.

Elisabeth reiterated taking classes on inclusivity, as well as mentioned making friends with other wedding vendors. She stated that businesses in the wedding industry run a lot on referrals—vendors referring other vendors, couples referring vendors. Having a referral list is common in the industry.

She shared that she has her own referral list on her website. But she actively makes sure that her list isn’t just a bunch of white people referring white people, with a few Asian-Americans she found off Google thrown into the mix. Instead, she tries to have conversations with them to find out their goals and how she can support these goals with her own business.

Elisabeth remarked that venues are potentially powerful when it comes to referring vendors. That’s because couples often have venues as their first touchpoint in the wedding industry. She thinks that there is a lot of power in venues being really thoughtful about directing people to places like vendors of color.

Elisabeth added that couples themselves have a lot of buying power. Thus, they should think about who they’re employing for their wedding. On average, couples spend $34,000 on their wedding, which is a huge amount of buying power.

What are things in the wedding industry that are considered or accepted as traditional but are actually discriminating?

Elisabeth mentioned walking a bride down the aisle is one that comes up a lot as traditional. However, rather than cherry-pick examples, she said she encourages couples and vendors to talk about prioritization. Prioritization answers the “why” of the wedding—why have a wedding, what parts of the wedding are meaningful to the couple. Those things have meaning, and they come from a place of inclusivity to begin with.

Elisabeth said she could have a whole list of all the “traditions” in a wedding, and all of them are kind of horrible in a way. But that’s because the way we think of weddings and marriages in the US is rooted in a very patriarchal system. She notes that it can seem a little funny when she talks about these topics because they sound so anti-wedding industrial complex.

Can wedding vendors reflect their inclusivity through their pricing?

One of the forum participants shared that, as a new wedding vendor, they’d like to make their decisions about pricing more inclusive. She asked Elisabeth how she would potentially see that happening.

Elisabeth responded that the question about money in the wedding industry is a totally loaded one. She shared that when she started her business, she made less than minimum wage. She does not recommend doing this today. But that’s what she offered because she had a full-time job and was only testing out wedding planning as a career. These days, however, she charges between $1,800 to $2,300 for her services. That’s about $50 an hour, an amount that can be entirely cost-prohibitive for many couples.

What can be done for couples in such a situation? Elisabeth shared the following suggestions:

  • Offering a discounted or free rate for fiscal for, like, every fourth couple booked. Elisabeth said she knows some vendors who do this.
  • Providing free wedding planner resources for couples who want to do it themselves or have a friend who can do it.
  • Making themselves accessible. Elisabeth says she tries not to put her information in an ivory tower that people can only get to if they pay her.
  • Offering straight-up discounts for couples in vulnerable communities.

Sacred Fire Creative continues the conversation on diversity, equality, inclusion, and belonging in its series of free online forums. Check out the schedule of these events here: https://bit.ly/3bC6fV7.