“If the band stops abruptly, the lights come on while some of your guests are still eating dessert and the party doesn’t have a smooth ending, this last impression will overshadow the beautiful decor and heartfelt moments of your wedding. My job is to make sure this doesn’t happen.” Before starting his company Stillwell Events, Jeff Stillwell’s invaluable training was obtained by being the Director at some of New York City’s most luxurious venues. Thanks to the hospitality learned from a Southern upbringing coupled with a drive to continually cultivate new skills and knowledge, Jeff quickly established himself as one of the best in the industry. Stillwell Events plans and executes life’s most important events – anniversaries, birthdays, bar/bat mitzvahs, and of course weddings. “I love doing weddings,” Jeff says. “Tailoring every detail so the day of is expressed as an authentic signature of a couple is really rewarding.”
The holidays are a time of diamond rings and proposals. Once the excitement of becoming engaged settles, many couples will be thinking about making that first step toward planning their wedding. For this reason, we couldn’t think of anyone better to interview for our Industry Influencer series than Jeff. Here, he talks about how his event experience prepared him for heading his own company, the importance of being willing to step out of the box and take risks, and how he stays creatively inspired.
We always like to start from the beginning. When did you first realize that you had a real talent for planning events?
For over 20 years, I was involved in the execution of events working as Director at some of the top catering venues in New York City. These experiences gave me a great foundation for event planning. I always had a love for design and would volunteer for any major design-related project that came up. This provided the opportunity to reinvent myself and keep my work creative and fresh, ultimately increasing my skill set for a future as an event planner.
The Rainbow Room, Russian Tea House, Windows on the World… Your resume reads like a highlight reel of New York City’s top luxury venues! How do your past professional experiences inform your work as an event planner?
I am so fortunate to have played a large role in molding and making a difference in several of these venues. I gained such a vast knowledge of events, which directly affects my working thought process today. I look at events differently than most other planners. I know this industry from the ground up. I’m aware of every single element that makes an event successful from the load in to set up to turning a room, which in the event world means transitioning a space from the ceremony to dinner in an hour or less. The timeline is another critical aspect of event planning and execution. Wedding party photos or a speech going too long, or the food taking extra time to come out of the kitchen can make an impact. I’ve mastered the timeline over the years so that that there is a seamless flow to the event, from beginning to end.
And with experience, I learned many tricks of the trade and have a good understanding of what works and doesn’t work. I communicate this when meeting with not only my clients, but also the venue and other vendors to ensure that we are on the same page and that all expectations are met come the big day.
When did you know that it was the right time to break out on your own and start Stillwell Events?
After working 20 plus years at these crown jewel institutions, I wasn’t sure what the next step would be other than starting my own event planning business. These experiences provided an incredible training ground that allowed me to continually take advantage of new opportunities and develop myself professionally. I reached a point where I really wanted to challenge myself and knew it was time.
Not all planners decide to go into weddings. What made you want to do weddings? How does planning a wedding differ from the other types of events you oversee?
I’ve always loved weddings and being a part of such an important day in two peoples’ lives. The romance, beautiful décor, and personal touches that really reflect a client’s personality and style is very inspiring and drives my work. I love being the ringmaster of what sometimes feels like a 3-ring circus. I love to be right in the middle of this very organized chaos so to speak and involved in every detail of the event.
You’re known for your impeccable attention to detail on both a logistical and aesthetic level. How has using a creative/practical approach to event planning attributed to Stillwell Events’ success?
As a Director, I always enjoyed the creative aspect of my work. At the same time, there were some weekends where I had up to seven weddings or social events, which gave me a thorough understanding of the practical side of the business. With Stillwell Events, I’ve been able to merge the creative with the practical. Being able to look through both lenses has been imperative to creating unique and beautiful one-of-a-kind events, which the clients and their friends will be talking about long after the last dance has finished.
Looking back, do you wish you had done anything differently when you were just starting your business? Do you have any advice for aspiring event planners?
I would have taken the leap earlier, but we get comfortable and become afraid of change. I am a firm believer that things happen for a reason though. Everything prior to starting Stillwell Events were steppingstones to get me where I am today.
From the start, I knew I wanted to stay in luxury events. So, a main focus was to not grow my business too quickly. I learned this working with Abigail Kirsch Catering. They had the strong belief of opening slowly and only taking what you can handle. After being open a few years, I still follow this philosophy. My big advice to aspiring event planners is to know the business from all ends. Study and work in as many areas of the business as possible. Connect and build relationships with the vendors you want to work with so when the time comes, you are recommending only the best of the best to your clients.
You offer clients service packages at different levels. Can you tell us about your various packages? What should a client consider when choosing which package is best for them?
I have a wide range of packages that are tailored to the individual client’s needs. The Month-of Service caters to couples that have done a lot of planning on their own. Then about two months before their wedding, they realize that they should hand everything over to someone else. I come in and gather the venue and vendor information and start coordinating a network of communication. At this point, I’ll work with the client on everything from vendor walk-throughs, food tastings, to designing the floor plan and creating the event timeline.
The Full-Service package is more involved and for clients who want to be taken through the full event planning process. I help them with the logistics, budgets and creative aspects of their wedding. I find them the perfect venue and match them with the ideal vendors, invitations & RSVP management. Then we pick up where the month-of begins, compiling deadlines, coordinating a team, and managing the smallest of details. The full-service clients are my favorite jobs, because I really get to know the couple and tailor the wedding, so it brings their style and personality to life. I also offer an A La Carte option where clients can add additional services or months of service to their package.
One thing I will say is that there is a misconception that it’s better to do most of the planning yourself. However, because a planner has working relationships with venues and vendors, you not only get the best vendors in the industry but are also more likely to get a better value. Also, a planner can sometimes get things thrown in because of the relationship with the vendor or venue.
A major part of your job is tailoring to each client and making sure all expectations are met. What personal touches do you include to make sure your clients are happy?
Everyone has a different vision of how they want their wedding to be. The most important thing is to listen to each client. Some of my most unforgettable weddings have been out-of-the-box. For example, one couple didn’t want a traditional wedding at all. They had met in a bar in Bushwick Brooklyn and wanted to have their wedding there. We did a walk-through of the ‘venue’ and realized there wasn’t a kitchen, not even a large refrigerator! I’m thinking, “How are we going to do this?” But I could see this is what the couple really wanted, so I was going to make this work. I just had to figure out a way to bring high end catering into this Brooklyn Beer Bar. For the ceremony, we used the bar’s giant colorful graffiti wall as the backdrop. We brought in mismatched chairs in several different bright colors and styles. It ended up looking amazing. Also, the bride wanted a burlesque dancer to perform during the reception. My first reaction is “What’s Grandma going to think of this?!” So, we found the best burlesque dancer in New York City, who performed this really romantic song to the couple. I was so relieved when I saw everyone loved it! The whole experience showed me how important it is to have an honest and clear communication with my clients. At the same time, it is my job give my opinion and explain the reasons as to why I would do things a certain way. We have to remember that the couple has never done this before.
Can you take us through your process of planning for a wedding? What can a couple look forward to when working with Stillwell Events?
After an introduction phone call and face-to-face meeting, they get a questionnaire with questions like “What are your favorite pastimes?” “What are your favorite colors?” Some of these questions have nothing to do with weddings. I just want to get to know the couple better. Then they get a bulleted outline and checklists of the different tasks and deadlines, walking them through the entire planning process. I am transparent with every detail, what has already been done and what still has to be done. This way we are all on the same page and stay on schedule leading up to the big day.
Bride & Blossom had the pleasure of working with you on two weddings at The Metropolitan Club. Each wedding evoked that classic New York style, but was different in look and feel. Can you tell us about the work that went into making each wedding unique and picture-perfect?
The Metropolitan Club is a very special place and one of my favorite venues. It was founded in 1891 and exudes that old New York feel in its design and architecture. I love that period of time when people would have dinner in one room and then move out to the Great Hall for dancing and cocktails. The Metropolitan club allows you to do this. Having multiple spaces to utilize during an event provides for more interesting set ups.
The last wedding, I did there with Bride & Blossom was a Persian wedding. The culture is already very vibrant and festive. When it comes to events, they like a big celebration. To merge it with a classic New York style was really exciting. I had been pushing for an X-table setup for dinner, which was in fashion during the 1920s and 1930s. A magnificent centerpiece is placed right where the X crosses and the tabletop is decorated with beautiful flowers and elegant candelabras. The couple went for the idea. They were ecstatic with the styling and design and you guys really did an amazing job with flowers and decor. Everyone agreed that the event was truly magical.
For the first wedding I did with Bride and Blossom, the couple was a little hesitant about not doing the dancing in the main dinner room. So we compromised and did an abbreviated version of the X-table. We cut the center out of the X and put the dance floor there. The set-up still had dramatic impact because the tablescape was still decorated with tall crystal candelabras centerpieces and tapered candles. The reception still had that Old-World New York feel and the couple was really happy with how everything turned out.
How does it feel knowing that you are helping two people bring their wedding vision to life? What do you like most about your job?
There are two moments during the wedding planning process that I love most. The reveal of the main room to the couple usually happens about ten minutes before the guests move from cocktail hour into dinner. It’s really rewarding to see their reaction to how all the ideas, planning, and design that we have been working on for months came together. The second moment can’t really be defined. It’s just seeing the couple finally let go, enjoy the evening, and have fun with family and friends. When this happens, I know I have done my job.
Have you noticed any major wedding trends from 2018? Which trends are your favorites?
White flowers with greenery accents is still a very popular wedding design color palette. But this past year, I’ve seen more dark colors like deep purples being used, which is refreshing. For décor, I also really like mismatched table settings. We did a tented wedding that used various antique chargers and bread and butter plates, serving ware, and colored water glasses. Another trend is video mapping where decorative textures and images are projected on the dance floor and walls, or possibly the outside walls of a venue. It totally transforms a space. Drones are being used at wedding venues outside of the city to capture the landscape and beautiful scenery. At the other end of the spectrum, some couples are having an unplugged ceremony and request that guests put away their cell phones. And another trend I love is the silicone covering that is put over an existing dance floor to create a custom and overall finished look to an event.
Do you have a favorite celebrity wedding of all time?
Admittedly, I’m not really impressed by celebrity weddings. But a recent one that really touched me was Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. From an event planning perspective, everything was choreographed to the mark. Then I also loved how it mixed tradition and ceremonial grandeur with a very modern sentiment. Meghan’s veil had embroidery flowers of all the common wealth countries around the trim. The veil also contained her ‘something blue.’ A piece of the blue dress she wore on her first date with Harry was sewn inside. And of course, there’s the fact that she’s American, bi-racial, and has a voice on issues that matter to her. Meghan was a royal bride like we have never seen before.
How do you stay creatively inspired?
I go to a lot of industry events. I’m interested in and continually learning from what my peers are doing. Event planning and design is very much like fashion in that you see something that has been done before that inspires you. You then take this inspiration and set out to do something similar but make it your own through a modern update, creative details, and execution.
You finally have a day off. How do you spend it?
I decompress as much as possible. There are days when I’ll reconnect with friends by going to dinner. I also like to relax at home, order in and watch a movie. I have around thirty unfinished projects going on in my apartment right now. If I have the energy, I work on them – great therapy. It’s really just about taking time for myself, loved ones and simply get myself mentally prepared for the next wave of events!
Categories:Blog, Bride & Blossom Weddings, Featured Venue, Industry Insider, Luxury Wedding Expertise, Your Inspiration Fix