I was delighted to catch up with Sandra Looney, owner of To Have and To Hold, which is based in Kinsale Road Commercial Centre. Her premises have a prime roadside location with a refreshing, spacious and welcoming showroom. I have known Sandra for many years and our paths crossed, as she led the way in many corporate positions. So, I was very keen to catch-up and see how life is treating her in the world of weddings.
Sandra, you have an absolute wealth of experience in retail, customer service and people management – just to mention some of your many talents! What was your last job prior to making your life-changing decision to become a wedding planner?
My last ‘real’ job was in HR with The Musgrave Group as the Group Head of Talent & Strategic Planning. I worked there as part of an amazing team for almost ten years. I had worked in various HR roles for over 20 years. I was lucky to work internationally for many of those early years, experiencing diverse cultures and ways of working. However, I always had the hankering to start my own business and so, in late 2014, I decided to take the leap!
I recall you had many years in both retail and the corporate world. We have crossed paths many times in the past – Cork is small – when you were in other businesses. You were always a born leader in business. Do you ever miss your time in the corporate world?
I loved my time in the corporate world and yes, there are many aspects of it that I miss. When you start your own business, it can be a rather lonely place, where the buck stops with you for everything. I was used to being surrounded by large teams of experts across all disciplines; IT, marketing, sales and so on, but suddenly, I had to dig deep and learn to do it all for myself! On the flip-side, it’s a great feeling to step off the treadmill and do something that’s mine! It’s so rewarding to build a business from nothing and to see it grow year-on-year. It’s challenging work but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
You mention that you decided to pack your bags and follow your dream. What exactly gave you the inspiration to follow this dream?
I could see that weddings were evolving in Ireland, with couples looking for a range of options on how to marry and how to celebrate! I could see a gap in the market in Cork for a place, where I could work as a wedding planner to guide couples through the minefield of planning a wedding, while also helping them to source excellent quality props to style the venues. I loved the idea of using both my project management skills and my creative side. I wanted to create a comfortable place for couples to wander through a range of styles and themes that they can create for their special day from the invitation cards right through to the ceremony, reception and so on. The exquisite bridal shops in Cork offer this lovely experience to brides when they go shopping to ‘say yes to the dress’, so I wanted to create a similar experience for all the other aspects of the wedding planning! Our new showroom achieves this, creating a lovely experience for couples, who are booking the other elements of their big day.
You choose to train in the UK. Did you find this training gave you an added edge? If so, why?
Yes, I trained initially with the UK Alliance of Wedding Planners [UKAWP] in London. This gave me the basic structures and parameters associated with planning and styling a wedding. It was great to learn from people, who did this for a living, as I was able to get a first-hand understanding of how the business worked. I believe that this gave me a good foundation, as well as the confidence, to go out on my own.
When did you open your Kinsale Commercial Centre premises?
I moved to the new showroom from Northpoint Business Park in July 2017. It was a shell when we looked at it but I could see the potential! It was a big, bright space with a large shop-window facing onto the busy road, but it needed tonnes of work. As luck would have it, The Wedding Scribblers were also in the market for a new location too, so we joined forces to refurbish the building together. We designed a showroom that would showcase both of our businesses and the Cork Wedding Centre was born. At To Have and to Hold, our core business is still prop hire, wedding planning and venue styling, but we have developed a retail store offer too for accessories and gifts, which is a big hit. We haven’t looked back since; it’s a terrific location! Along with our own services, we now have other local wedding suppliers, who have concession stands here too, offering couples a seamless experience under one roof!
I have visited your beautiful premises and can see it’s a one-stop-shop. Very calm, welcoming and amazing stock. Have couples’ expectations and wedding aspirations changed over the last few years? Any unusual requests?
Lots of the females in particular have been planning their big day for years, so they know exactly what they want. Many of them want to ensure that their guests have the best day ever, and they save hard to add the special touches to the venue or to the celebration that really matters to them. For some it’s all about big florals, for others it’s about draping and fairy-lights and everything in between! Pinterest has given everyone ideas from across the globe, so lots of couples look to replicate some of the décor and design ideas. In some cases, it isn’t always possible to do elaborate designs, as the venue may not be suitable, or indeed, the budget may not always stretch as far as it would need to! The most unusual request was for a bucking bronco at the drinks reception.
Can couples just go à la carte and pick certain elements in your business or must they let you work with them for the entire wedding?
It’s very much up to the couple; they can pop in, decide to hire one item from our range or they may require church or civil ceremony décor or they may want us to plan the whole wedding! We are delighted to work with couples based on their requirements and their budget. Lots of previous couples recommend us to their friends and family, so we often work with whole families at various times on different aspects of the planning or styling.
Had you the opportunity to coordinate a wedding for any high-profile couples?
Most of the couples that we work with are local and we treat them all as VIPs but we have been lucky enough to work with a few high-flying international couples too. We recently did the planning and styling for an American model, who is based in London and got married in a marquee in Kerry. That was very glam!
I’m sure you have worked with an extensive list of amazing locations. What was the most outstanding or different property that you have worked with?
We’re lucky that many of the locations across Munster are beautiful, particularly with our amazing coastline. I’m spoilt for choice when recommending or working in some of the great locations. Last Summer, we worked with a couple, who had a ceremony in a field overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in West Cork. The guests all sat on hay bales covered with lace and there were large pots of sunflowers up the aisle. The views were amazing and the Sun was setting behind the couple as they were saying their vows. All the gods were smiling down on them with the weather!
There is always that fear of dealing with a bridezilla in your industry. Without naming or shaming, can you recall any experience with someone like this?
Thankfully, I have limited experience of dealing with bridezillas but there have been a few! Most of them get totally stressed about small details and they end up ruining the whole experience for themselves and those close to them. One young lady had me on speed dial 24/7 for the weeks leading up to her wedding day. She would often call me at all hours, day and night, to discuss some aspect of the wedding but often it could be something quite trivial. We had many a long discussion about how the napkins in the hotel should be folded on the table! This lead to her meeting with the hotel staff to view all of the different fold options – and she did that twice as she couldn’t decide!
If you were to name five must-haves at a wedding, what would they be?
- A beauty squad for hair and makeup, who will enhance your beauty, not turn you into someone else!
- A creative photographer that you can get on with for the day.
- A well thought-out table seating plan!
- A wedding post box to ensure that none of the wedding cards go astray.
- A good band to keep everyone on the floor.
Life is short and hopefully, when we all look back at life, we will be recalling fun times with the people we love. Have you any magical tips for wedding couples to make sure they’ll have a day filled with love and fun?
Plan the wedding day that they want – don’t let everyone else influence their choices too much! Book the bigger ticket items well in advance – band, photographer etc – as the good ones are in big demand. Keep the invitation list to a realistic number of guests. Often very large weddings become very stressful, as the couple spend all day trying to get to talk to everyone, often missing out of the best parts of the day.
Thank you so much Sandra. Wishing you huge continued success with To Have and To Hold and of course love and happiness.
To Have and to Hold
Cork Wedding Centre, Kinsale Road Commercial Centre, Kinsale Road, Cork
021 496 5157.