Fall/Winter 2009: The Experts


It’s inevitable: Your wedding won’t go entirely as imagined. Having a veteran planner at the helm can get your celebration back on course.  

By Julie Suratt

It’s the stuff of bawdy romantic comedies, but Sala Chnioui has seen it all in real life. The Mandarin Oriental’s banquet director—who previously managed events at the Liberty and Boston Harbor hotels—once watched a bride punch out one of her ex–boyfriends during a reception. He’s also dealt with wedding crashers aplenty and missing mothers-of-the-bride. For Chnioui, it’s just all in a day’s work; for his clients, who rarely realize something’s amiss, he’s a godsend.

What exactly does a banquet director do? I make sure everything sticks to the plan—from the reception set-up to the food arriving on time. And I ensure the staff is following procedure and that no guest is neglected. Basically, I handle the minutiae from A to Z.

Who are you most trying to please? Typically, the bride. She’s the one who worked so hard planning the wedding. The groom is just along for the ride. I tell all my clients: Be sure to celebrate the moment and not get caught up in the little things, like red wine spilled on a white dress. What does the bride do? Call it an accident, crank up the music, and continue the fun? Or start crying? (If the latter, I take her away from the situation to calm down.)

Sounds like your job is part therapist.
Absolutely. You have to be able to read a bride and figure out how to make her happy. And I have to anticipate crises. I once had a wedding where the bride’s mother and father weren’t speaking. When we were lining up the wedding party, the mother didn’t like her position, so she left. I had to go upstairs to her room and spend 45 minutes convincing her to come back down. Meanwhile, dinner was held up. Eventually she reappeared, but we had to skip a bunch of things so we weren’t serving dessert at 1 a.m. But we made sure the bride was downstairs enjoying herself; you don’t want something like this to ruin her day.

What’s the key to a really successful wedding? It starts with the venue: Do your research. Then build a relationship with the staff so you trust them. If you’re a bride who wants everything to go a certain way, let us know that. Really organized ones will e-mail me the flow of events—from the hair appointment to the departure at the end of the night. That’s the bible I go by.

So you don’t mind being micromanaged?
Not at all—but only up to a certain point. Once the big day arrives, let the catering and banquet staff handle it from there. Brides who come in and say, “Do this, do that,” end up changing the original plan, and it creates confusion. Once you finalize the flow of events, don’t mess with it.

You always hear the expression, What’s the worst that could happen? But really, what is the worst that can happen?
I once watched a photographer knock a wedding cake off a table with his fanny pack. I rushed in and told the bride not to worry about it—only the bottom got destroyed and it tasted fine. (Since then, I’ve learned to reinforce the collapsible legs on a cake table with duct tape.) Another time, the best man called the bride by her new husband’s ex-wife’s name during the toast. Even with 250 people in the room, you could hear a pin drop. It took an older gentleman calling out, “Her name is…,” to lift the mood. And once, an impeccably dressed man came up to me and said, “My wife and I have to leave early. Could we take two meals to go?” So we wrapped up their dinner. The groom came over and said, “Who the heck was that guy?” He was a wedding crasher. I always tell people to be organized and have a good sense of humor. Beyond that, there’s not a lot you can do.

Any good tips for saving money?
If you really don’t have a lot to spend, don’t bother with a wedding planner. We often end up telling the planner what to do anyway. And consider having your wedding in February. It’s definitely cheaper—and people tend to drink less in the winter. Put extra money into the banquet chairs rather than other décor; elegant chairs make a room look beautiful. And find a local florist who’s trying to make a name for himself and will cost much less. Also, don’t be afraid to ask the banquet manager what the bar bill is at any point. Then, instead of switching to a cash bar after hours, negotiate with the catering staff and get them to reduce the price on the third hour. Otherwise you end up with such waste…before last call, you see guys walking back to their tables with six drinks each.

We can only imagine how well-executed your own wedding was. It was at the Ocean Edge Resort in Brewster, and my wife planned the whole thing. All I had to do was show up in a tuxedo and have a good time!

Mandarin Oriental, 776 Boylston St., Boston, 617-535-8888, mandarinoriental.com.