Ami and AJ, The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel

Catholic ceremony: Church in Dana Point, CA
Hindu ceremony: The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, CA
Reception:  The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, CA
Photography: Lin and Jirsa

Ami, can you share a little about your planning environment?
I live on the East Coast and knew the wedding would be in southern California. My parents took the lead on vetting venues based on a list of potential spots, guest list size, and various other criteria we established together. I had two ceremonies – a Catholic ceremony at a church in Dana Point, followed by a lunch at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, then a Hindu ceremony, a cocktail hour, and dinner reception to follow. Most of my extended family flew from abroad and had never attended a Christian ceremony before, while many of my American friends had never attended a Hindu wedding, so there was some education as to traditions involved, since everyone was quite curious.  There were several components and it was important to us that they all come together seamlessly. Between trips to India and LA, I found that staying organized was the main priority.  Hiring a wedding planner greatly assisted with that, as it allowed me to outsource some of the general details you see at any wedding.

What was it like wedding planning from afar?
It was not as difficult as I had imagined.  Being on the East Coast, the time difference was in my favor, so that helped with wedding planning after work, since I could jump on a call with a vendor without having to skip out of the office.  All of the vendors I worked with are based in Southern California and were receptive to using Skype and Face-Time. Most importantly, if I ever felt that communication was lacking on their end, I gently brought this up and found many were quite responsive to the feedback.  Another perk of planning a wedding from afar?  I didn’t get too much unsolicited advice!

What advice would you give to couples planning from afar?
Before you talk to any vendor or see any venue, it’s important to know what you are envisioning.  The biggest things to take care of first are: venue, photographer, caterer, DJ/band. I recommend setting up regular phone calls and trying to schedule everything in a way that doesn’t overwhelm you.  If you can take the time to fly out at least once to meet your vendors and see your venue, that will help make your vision much clearer in terms of being able to visualize the logistics and spatial relationship between everything.

Another thing that I believe is crucial is having someone at the location of your wedding.  In my case, it was my parents, who visited the venue multiple times, and my wedding planner, who knew the venue like the back of her hand.  If you are able to hire a wedding planner, I find that a good one is not only underrated in terms of the service you receive (in communicating your vision to vendors, telling you if something won’t work while also allowing you to implement new ideas, and generally taking care of the smaller details that can get stressful), but will save you more money than the flat fee that is charged.

How did you decide on the Ritz-Carlton?
We considered several venues.  This is where it helped that my parents and I had a list of non-negotiable criteria. One venue couldn’t accommodate two ceremonies, as there wasn’t a Catholic church nearby, while another venue was shooting a reality TV show during our preferred weekend.  Another place did not allow outside catering and did not have very good food, while another did not have an ocean view, which, in my heart of hearts, was my non-negotiable.  The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel created an elegant and delicious menu for lunch after the Catholic ceremony, was very close to a beautiful Catholic church, accommodated outside catering for the cocktail hour and evening reception, features stunning ocean views, and has excellent service.

Describe service at the Ritz.
The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel does a very good job. From the start, I immediately saw a difference in the way they approached my inquiry about potentially planning a wedding on their grounds. Though I was not able to join my parents on site visits, I found that they were incredibly attentive to my parents and followed up with me, the bride planning from a distance. They listened to our criteria, took time to show my parents the property, and walked them through what the wedding day would be like – the beautiful lobby from which our guests would enter, to the elegant staircase they would walk down to the baraat, where the mandap would be located, where the cocktail hour would be held, as well as where the bride and groom would take pictures, what the inside of the reception would look like, as well as how the lunch in the afternoon would be set up.

We had our Catholic ceremony at a nearby church. Although the Ritz-Carlton was not involved in the morning ceremony, they made sure to take copious notes so that they could assist with getting us to the rehearsal ceremony the night before on time by having our car ready at the valet, and making sure we were ready to go on time in the morning.  The valet team was incredible in making sure we were never a second delayed and the events coordinator made sure that the lobby was cleared so we could take pictures without having to wait for any luggage to be cleared.  I felt like a celebrity having so many people escort me around in the morning (including a photographer in tow!), making sure everything was going so smoothly!  The Ritz-Carlton additionally took the time to make sure our wedding guests were treated with the same courtesy and consideration that guests of the hotel were being given.

The night of my reception, a cotillion for 600 people was concurrently taking place, but the Ritz did an excellent job of separating the events so that they never overlapped in any way whatsoever. Their ballrooms are separate such that the events didn’t clash and so I never worried about my guests going to the wrong event or vice versa.

There was a certain finesse in the way the Ritz-Carlton’s staff handled every scenario, whether it was unforeseen or not.  For example:

  • When we arrived at the hotel to check-in, both sets of parents, my fiance, and I were individually escorted to our rooms, where individual welcome gifts were displayed to kick off our wedding weekend.  The Ritz-Carlton additionally made a special exception to steaming one of my fiance’s outfits for the next day, even though the time to hand such items over had passed.

  • A friend of mine who was also a hotel guest attended our wedding on crutches. The Ritz-Carlton made sure that her hotel room was close to the ballroom so that after the evening’s events, she would not have to walk too far.

  • A handful of our out-of-town guests were staying at the Ritz-Carlton with their small children and the Ritz planned activities for the children to make their stay memorable as well.  These activities included visiting the tidepools the day before or going for whale watching in the morning.  Additionally, they have activities on site that are exclusively for children.

  • During our baraat and wedding ceremony, other guests of the hotel gathered around to watch. It was a little disruptive, given that snacks and drinks were being served by the staff  and there was potential to misconstrue the bystanders as guests. Instead of asking those people to leave, the Ritz-Carlton staff guided them to a nearby restaurant where they’d have a view of the wedding and be able to watch the sunset.    

  • The Ritz-Carlton coordinated cleaning the bathroom in the hotel lobby just after our ceremony, where they directed many of the ladies who wanted to change in between the ceremony and reception. There, an attendant waited with hand towels for anyone who may need them and ensured the bathroom remained stocked. That they paid attention to such a small but necessary detail made it very clear that the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel has considerable experience with South Asian weddings.

  • Throughout the property are screens displaying day’s events at the hotel. On the banner, the Ritz-Carlton had written, “Congratulations Ami and Akhil” on all the screens. It made us feel very special to see that as we walked through the hotel for each of the day’s events.

How did you vet vendors?
It is important to be able to schedule at least one trip to your wedding destination if you are planning from a distance.  This will help you meet some of your vendors face-to-face. These are people who are excited to do what they do! For most of them, it’s about creating magic for a couple and their guests and taking part in a special moment in someone’s lives.  Even the most difficult of wedding vendors take pride in their work and want to make sure your wedding is a success.

That being said, I recommend selecting vendors that understand your vision and will execute on it.  Some of my vendors were difficult to deal with in terms of communication and personal style. Though this led to some frustration, I recognized that they were still trying to be responsive to my needs and most importantly, had the same goals as me.

Also, I highly recommend against selecting vendors because they are a family friend, personal acquaintance, or someone that all your friends used. It is crucial to select vendors that will implement your vision and understand what experience you are looking to have. I guarantee that during the planning process, there will be uncomfortable moments and conversations. Having a third party as your vendor, as opposed to someone you know, not only spares potential hurt feelings, but makes communication easier for everyone in the short and long-term.

I was wary of vendors who said yes to everything I asked for, because while I had a vision of how I wanted the day to look, I did not know exactly how the details would come together. I appreciated vendors who gave genuine input and pushed back in a gentle way about what would and would not look good. The best way to sum it up is I tried to find vendors whom I thought would go above-and-beyond their core responsibilities. Chris, our photographer from Lin & Jirsa, helped our florist ensure an immaculate set-up, because he needed to take pictures of a ready ballroom. Oscar, my make-up artist, showed me how to pose for photos that showed my best angle and even urged me out onto the balcony as we watched my fiance’s baraat, which made for fun memories before our ceremony. My wedding planner helped keep the room clear so that there wasn’t clutter in the background while the photographer was taking pictures.  In this way, it helps to have vendors who work together and can assist one another on such a busy, hectic day.

Can you share some of your vendor experiences?
Chris, from Lin & Jirsa, was our photographer and we had a wonderful experience with him. He stuck to the timetable, made sure to review with us all the important shots we wanted to get prior to the event, and was receptive to any changes we made on the spot.

Oscar did a great job with my makeup. He also knows how to talk to South Asian mothers and he’s very passionate about his job. I definitely recommend doing a make-up trial, preferably combining it with your engagement shoot.  This will give you a good feel for what works and doesn’t on your big day.  

The priest at the Catholic ceremony acknowledged my relatives who flew in from India during the wedding and welcomed them, which was very nice. He knew this was their first time attending a Christian wedding and he was  good at explaining everything.  Additionally, for the Hindu ceremony, we had distributed programs at the Hindu ceremony for our non-Hindu friends to follow, but the Hindu priest explained everything and kept the mood happy and light, which made for great ceremony pictures.   Both priests had taken time to meet with my fiance and I to understand our story and who we were.  During both ceremonies, they incorporated personal touches of our story into their sermons.

The cocktail hour and dinner reception was catered by Natraj Cuisine of India on Alicia Parkway. Vijay Khosla is passionate about his restaurant services and comes up with new, exciting dishes.  He is also adamant that everyone be happy with the food, so he accommodated all sorts of requests for individual guests (vegan, gluten-free, and without garlic and onion). When the cocktail hour started and my husband and I had to get ready for the reception, Natraj Cuisine of India sent plates of food for my husband and I to make sure we had a chance to eat before the reception.  Additionally, they kept plates of dinner ready for us when we came back from the reception, where we did not have much of a chance to eat. We really appreciated the thought!

What was your favorite part of wedding planning?
As much as many of us have thought about our wedding day from the time we were little girls, I never realize just how much my own parents had thought about their daughter’s wedding day.  My parents did not have an elaborate wedding, nor did they have much say in what they wore, what guests ate, where the venue was, and what the decor at the reception was like.  My favorite part of wedding planning was being able to work side by side with my mother on what was a dream wedding for not only me, but for her. Though there were certainly difficult moments in the planning process, this was also her event as much as it was mine.

My husband is an only child, so when I went shopping for my white dress, I brought my mother-in-law along to give her input as to the veil and train from the choices I had already pre-selected.  She later mentioned that she did not choose her own wedding dress, and that she enjoyed going wedding dress shopping with me and seeing all the beautiful designs for brides today.  To that end, I urge a lot of brides to make sure some attention is lavished on the mothers of the bride and groom, not only during the planning process, but during the big day.  For me, that meant having the professional makeup artist do their hair and makeup (something neither mom had experienced before) and having the photographer’s assistant spend about 15-20 minutes doing pictures of just the parents.  My parents never had a “First Look” at their wedding, so I planned their “First Look” as a celebration of having built a life together over many years.  Unlike my “First Look,” it was off to the side and private. Looking back on those pictures is still incredibly touching.

What advice would you give to couples for their wedding day?
A small bit of advice that I think everyone should take: ask your caterers to pack a dinner for you and your spouse and have the hotel deliver it to your room during the reception. You likely won’t be able to eat and in our case, we didn’t want to, since we were so excited to talk with our guests and hit the dance floor!

Also, everyone will give you wedding planning advice and at times, it can be exasperating.  Whether it’s the friend who planned a wedding, a completely random person who is unmarried, or an auntie who just wants to feel involved or important, it’s okay to listen suggestions and proceed to completely ignore them. To the extent that you can keep the intricate details of your event on a need-to-know basis, I would recommend that route, so as to keep at bay any opinions of whether that’s a good idea or not (that’s where a vendor who does weddings all the time can help you vs. someone who has attended other peoples’ weddings). My motto during the planning process was “Not your budget? Not your say.”

Finally, if you don’t heed the two prior bits of advice, please at least consider this last part: it’s important to remember that on your wedding day, something will not go as planned, and that’s perfectly, completely okay. Someone may do/say something weird/crazy, a vendor might have an unfortunate or random mishap, the weather might be foreboding, or you might realize you forgot something.  No matter what happens or goes wrong, only you will notice. I promise the day will still go on.  Just remember that it can become easy to focus on that tiny detail that’s going wrong, but you HAVE to enjoy that day — that day is created specially for you and your fiance(e)!  You will never get your wedding day back, so you absolutely should make an effort to enjoy it to the fullest while it is still your day.

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