When we met with wedding planner José Rolón at his Brooklyn Heights office, he was coming down from a wedding that took place just days before. Working with twenty-four different vendors on this particular event, he recalls, “Not kidding, I walked into the venue and had five vendors simultaneously circle around me with questions.” Most would have buckled in the situation, but José is grace under pressure personified. It’s particularly incredible considering that he started his company José Rolón Events just five years ago. Since then, José has established himself as a major player in New York City’s wedding scene. For much of this time, he’s juggled work with being a single father to his three children. “After my husband passed away unexpectedly, I learned to never let myself get too comfortable. I am not a pessimist by any means, but you just never know what life will throw at you, good or bad.”
During our conversation, we got to know a lot more about the charismatic (and hilarious) man that we see on Instagram. Here, José talks about what it takes to be a successful wedding planner in NYC, the art of cultivating professional relationships, and how he maintains a work/life balance.
We always like to start from the beginning. When did you first know that you wanted to be a wedding planner?
I first realized I wanted to be a wedding planner when my husband and I got married in 2010. I know it sounds cliché, but I just really enjoyed the process of preparing for our wedding. I used to work as a video editor and would take people’s old home movies from outdated reels and VHS tapes collecting dust in the attic to make short films. I loved the process of creating memories for others and telling a story in thirty minutes. Then technology started to change and I wanted to get away from the computer. I also have a background in hospitality managing high volume NYC restaurants so an interest in event planning and execution was already there.
You worked on the events team at The Foundry, an amazing venue in Long Island City. How did your experiences there inform you professionally?
The Foundry was actually where Tim, my late husband, and I had our wedding. It’s one of the top venues to get married in New York City. So I thought if I worked there, I would be able to cultivate relationships with all the leading vendors that came through. At thirty-three years old, I walked into The Foundry and said, “I’ll revamp your website and do X,Y, and Z if you let me to intern for a year for free!” Crazy, right? But once I was on the floor and my restaurant background kicked in, they saw the value of my experience. Within a few weeks I was getting paid and within a couple of months I was negotiating a salary. Coming into contact with so many caterers, florists, and other vendors, I was able to see people’s different styles and work ethics. Firsthand experience allowed me to determine what works and what doesn’t work in the wedding industry. I ended up staying there for two and half years because I really loved it and fell in love with the family who owns it—The Du Vals, who are still like second family to me.
When did you know that it was the right time to break out on your own and start José Rolón Events?
After two and half years, I was ready to try something different. Around this time, my husband and I decided to get pregnant through surrogacy. I had a decision to make – do I want to be a stay-at-home dad or do I want to continue at The Foundry where I’m working really long hours, but may have peaked professionally. After some consideration, I realized that having the best of both worlds was possible. I left The Foundry and launched my business in March 2013. My son was born at the end of that same month. Thanks to my time at The Foundry, I had this great network of people who were happy to collaborate with and support me.
Looking back, what qualities do you feel attributed to your company’s success during those first couple of years? Do you wish you had done anything differently?
There isn’t anything that I wish that I had done differently. What attributed to my success during those first couple of years was maintaining great relationships with vendors. Wedding planners often get a bad reputation, and for good reason. Some, not all, have a God-like complex and come into the situation saying, “This is my event and this is how things are going to run.” I never operated that way. Planners will often take more credit than needed without giving enough love to their clients and vendors. Florists in particular. As planners we work our asses off, but it’s important to not forget that vendors are half the reason (if not more) we look so damn good! From day one, it’s been a collaboration with all of the vendors. Everyone is heard. We are all on the same team striving for the same goal, which is to make this event successful.
I put processes in place to ensure success. For example, I send out an email with a tentative timeline to all the vendors. It’s based on contracts and what I think will work best after talking with everyone. Each vendor has a week to respond with corrections, revisions, or suggestions. A week later, I send out the updated timeline so everyone is on the same page. Additionally, I usually call all the vendors the night before to ask, “How are you feeling, where’s your head at, and is there anything I can help you with?” Rather than walking into the space during set up the next day with people rolling their eyes like “Oh great, here’s comes the planner…,”I hear “Hey José, what’s up?” It’s great to have this positive energy going back and forth.
Planning a wedding can be very stressful. You seem to really understand this and make your clients’ well being a priority through the planning process. Can you tell us about the extra benefits José Rolón Events offers to ensure a couple’s health and happiness remains intact?
In order to do my best, I have to stay cool, calm, and collected. When someone starts working at José Rolón Events, they get a handbook that says on wedding days, the number one rule is “DON’T RUN.” No one has ever seen me crack under pressure, or scream and yell at an event. Just about every review mentions something along the lines, “He keeps everyone so calm.” It’s such a wonderful compliment, but at the same time, I am a little shocked. Because isn’t that the point of my job as a planner? For my clients, I focus on maintaining a level of calm through out the wedding planning process. One of my strengths is sensing when a client is anxious and helping to absolve their worries whether it requires an active solution or just saying the right words.
At José Rolón Events, all couples receive a complimentary dance package, which includes three one and half hour sessions. Aside from the ceremony, the first dance is the only other moment when all eyes are on you. This can be a dreadful thought for some. Couples feel so much better walking in with a choreographed first dance. Additionally, I offer all my grooms a session from the New York Shaving Company, which includes an old-school shave and facial. And just this year, I added a wellness package. Clients can choose to do aromatherapy or Pilates, and they also get a session with wellness coach Melanie Kotcher.
You offer clients various wedding planning packages than include partial planning, full planning, and even help with surprise proposals! Can you tell us about each package?
I’m a romantic – my birthday is on Valentine’s Day. I love surprises and I love surprising others. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure out I should be a wedding planner! So I thought why not include surprise proposals in my services? I had one couple, two grooms from Canada. We planned this spectacular day that included a helicopter ride and breakfast on a bench right outside of the building where “Friends” was filmed – one of the grooms was a huge fan of the show. Next it was on to a roof deck where the groom proposing sang a song with a keyboard already set in place by my team and then got down on one knee. I had hidden a photographer capture everything. In the loft apartment below, we organized a party with the family and friends of the groom who had just said “yes.” The surprise within the surprise was that his family didn’t know – they were actually all there for his birthday! It was a truly amazing moment. Then everyone went and had brunch at the NoHo Hotel to celebrate.
The partial planning package is for the couple that has their venue, caterer, and a sense of floral design determined, but needs some additional help. They get to pick three vendors that I’ll manage leading up to the wedding. They also get me the day of. Full planning is exactly how it sounds, from start to finish. I just took one couple on six site visits and they quickly settled on Cipriani Wall Street. When you hire me, you get me. This means I show up at the hotel or wherever you’re getting ready thirty minutes before the first vendor arrives and stay until after you leave. Some planners check in and then have their assistants take over, or sometimes planners show up just a couple hours before ceremony. For me, it’s a sixteen plus hour day and I am perfectly happy with that.
You take a very personal and hands on approach to wedding planning. Can you walk us through your process? What can a couple look forward to when working with José Rolón Events?
Couples get three to four hour long, 1-on-1 meetings with me. Along with getting to know each other, these meetings are meant to keep us on track, organized, and monitor the timeline. I also give out a preliminary survey, which is organized by category such as catering and florals. From these answers, I get a good idea of what turns a couple on. We can then zero in on vendors that would be a good match based on style, taste, and personality.
I also use the app called WunderList. It’s like a massive, visual To-Do List. I invite my couples to collaborate. Once I upload a vendor contract or image for floral inspiration, they get a notification. If my bride sees an ivy wall she likes, she can upload a photo and I get notified immediately. It’s a collaborative and transparent way to streamline the process while having fun along the way.
So many couples dread the first dance just because they aren’t comfortable on their feet. We love that you include complimentary dance lessons with your services! What made you want to do this?
I used to choreograph Hip-Hop and salsa in college. Back in the day, I even auditioned for Michael Jackson. I wasn’t a professional dancer, but I did it in college for extra money. I still love to dance – being on the dance floor is my happy place. I wanted to share this with my couples and help them feel the same way on their wedding day. Our choreographer is Julliard trained, Ranardo-Domeico Grays, and has been one of my best friends for twenty years.
You said that regardless of venue and location, a wedding is about the best way to express each couple’s unique story. So true! How does this philosophy help guide you in your work as a wedding planner?
We live in a social media driven world, which I admittedly subscribe to and reap the benefits from. But I am not creating for the sake of an Instagram post or to get published. I have always been a storyteller, which comes from my background in video editing. For me, it’s about listening to every one of my couples and making sure that it is their unique vision and story that is being told in a really beautiful way on their wedding day.
Bride & Blossom had the pleasure of working with you on Christina and Derek’s beautiful wedding at The Foundry. The entire affair was full of fun and heartfelt details that reflected the couple’s personality and love. Can you tell us what work went into making this wedding so uniquely special?
Christina and Derek were so refreshing. They had a New York sensibility without being jaded, great taste, and a good sense of humor. They weren’t afraid to have fun and add playful touches to the décor. Some really cool highlights were the miniature wedding cake with Lego toppers. The tablescape incorporated glass evil eyes at each guest’s place setting, which reflected their Greek heritage. Derek actually picked out the blue napkins. The pops of blue against the white dinnerware and white and greenery floral decor was visually stunning upon walking into the courtyard. They were just a very sweet and authentic couple. And very much in love.
As a single father of three children, family is very important to you. How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I cap off at twenty weddings for the year. This allows me to spend time with my kids, yet my couples don’t feel like they are just a number. I am very clear on my contracts that my office hours are 10 am to 6 pm. The reality is that I am working and emailing with vendors later once I put my kids to sleep, but the office is closed after 6 pm. This policy helps me to be present as a dad and in other aspects of my personal life. Fortunately, I am pretty good at compartmentalizing.
What advice do you have for aspiring wedding planners?
It’s been eight years since I started at The Foundry. I still feel very new to the game and am flattered to even be asked this question when there are these talented and respected cats from Eyal Tessler to David Beahm and beyond who have been in the game much longer! My advice is to take a hard look at your strengths and weaknesses. Then keep your weakness in check. This will surprise a lot of people, but I am not the most organized person in my personal life. I am completely aware of this and have put in place an incredible staff. My event coordinator is always one step ahead. WunderList holds me accountable for what needs to get done. Organization is key. And you should really love what you do. DO NOT go by the wedding planners you see on reality television. I think reality TV, which I am a huge fan of, has ruined the way we think about how wedding professionals should be. It’s not the José Rolón show. It’s about the couple. Their vision and story brought to life. Not ours. Nobody wants to work with someone who is not team player. It’s a business that is very personal and half of the job is managing massive personalities. Checking your ego at the door ensures effective communication with both the vendors and couples.
How do you stay creatively inspired?
It’s not difficult to stay creatively inspired when you live in New York City. This is a walking city and that corner of the street is not going to be the same corner tomorrow. Today there’s an attractive couple making out under some scaffolding, tomorrow there could be a crackhead wearing a flower crown! You never know. Just looking at how people have decorated their stoop can be really interesting. One moment of inspiration that has stayed with me was when I walked into the Paper Factory Hotel about a year ago. I looked up to see this gorgeous crystal chandelier surrounded by an industrial steel sphere. I love to mix masculine with feminine elements, so this really turned me on. Instagram is great, but I shy away from using it for inspiration. I find that by looking at other’s work, I could copy ideas without even realizing. Then there’s the opposite effect of just getting discouraged because you didn’t think of it first.
It’s your day off. How do you spend it?
I am fortunate to have an incredible support system. A couple nights a week, I have a babysitter come for the evening. These nights are just for me – I am not wedding planning in a vest or being a dad covered in dirt smelling funky. I am dating right now and just went on a great date last night. Sometimes I go to the movies by myself, or go out with friends. But I also really enjoy spending my weekends off with my kids. They are four and five right now, which are fun ages.
Aside from planning weddings, do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to share with our readers?
I am working on the second season of The Wedding Buzz an online video series where I do sixty-second interviews with professionals in the business. They are really fun, usually done over cocktails, and include outtakes and bloopers, which people seem to love the most! The first season, I interviewed some really amazing people like Shay from “Say Yes To The Dress,” wedding photographer Amber Gress, cake designer Ron Ben-Israel, and Allison Du Val, owner of The Foundry. I am really excited about the upcoming episodes with Madison Lee of Madison Lee Cakes and the folks at Brooklyn Grange.
A big thank you to José for taking part in our Industry Influencer interview series!
Be sure to catch up with José on Instagram: @joserononevents