Updated: 2012-03-02 07:58
By Yang Yang (China Daily)
Elizabeth Haenle has been involved in 18 weddings in the past two years. [Liu Zhe / China Daily]
Wedding planner says the joy in her work is universal
Elizabeth Haenle's last job was social secretary for former US vice-president Dick Cheney. She worked at the White House for eight years.
So when she moved to Beijing with her husband in January 2010 and gave birth to their son, she focused on a new career doing what she thought was only natural - planning weddings.
Haenle's previous job as social secretary for the vice-president allowed her to "follow the trends of the wedding industry".
"If you are an event planner, you closely follow the wedding industry because it tends to set many of the trends for the year. So I subscribed to every wedding magazine, read all the trends, followed all of the planning details, and attended many wedding fairs, knowing that when I finished my work at the White House, I would start a wedding company."
Starting a new career at 38 is not easy for anyone, but Haenle, now 40, says it was made easier for her "because I moved into an industry I love".
"I am passionate about putting beautiful things together and making people very happy," she says.
In January 2009, when George W. Bush completed his presidency, Haenle left the White House and started her wedding company Elizabeth Haenle Weddings. Within one year, she planned three weddings, including her own.
The company has three offices, in Beijing, New York and Washington DC. She and her husband Paul decided to move to Beijing in 2010 because they were both interested in the country.
Haenle says she learned a great deal about China when she worked for former secretary of commerce Barbara Franklin in the late 1990s and then for Cheney. During that stint, she was fortunate to plan events for Chinese leaders including President Hu Jintao. She traveled to China for the first time while working for the White House to help prepare for Cheney's trip to the country in 2003.
In 2006, the Haenles also vacationed in China, backpacking through much of the countryside.
"When people ask us back home what we love about China, we realize it's the people, and much of the culture that they represented. Like our American friends, we realized that our Chinese friends care about their family, their neighbors and their children," Haenle says.
"And knowing that I could come here to China, learn the customs and language, and work with clients here was very exciting. So in that way it was easy to get me on the plane to move here."
When she was six-months' pregnant in January 2010, Haenle arrived in Beijing. She gave birth to her son Thomas less than three months after she arrived and she has been involved in 18 weddings in the past two years.
Her clients include both Chinese and foreigners.
"I enjoy working with Chinese brides and grooms, and my business here is quite popular, but I quickly found out that my business is global. We plan in China. We have weddings in America, weddings in Europe We plan weddings around the world. One of my clients even got married on the beach in the Maldives."
Haenle's latest clients include brides from England and Australia.
But much of her planning is done in China, where various products are produced for weddings. Some brides even ship her designs back to their countries where the wedding is carried out, she says.
Beside the products manufactured in China, Haenle also does special designs according to different clients' situations. Like custom-made hongbao or red envelopes with "double happiness" motifs printed on them, she adds Chinese elements to her designs.
For an Australian couple, Haenle designed a Chinese tea box to give to their guests because China is "a very important part of their love story" since the couple both lived here and got engaged in the country.
For clients who specify different styles and elements in their weddings, Haenle will take clients anywhere they want - Paris, London, Milan, Hanoi, Bangkok - or Chinese cities. These requests will obviously increase the costs, she says.
The charge for planning a wedding thus varies based on couples' expectations and needs as well as how much they want the planner to get involved.
"So it's really hard to say," Haenle says. "We find ourselves often in what I would call the high end of the wedding market - the Louis Vuitton of weddings - because so many of my clients ask for a luxury wedding."
But it is about more than just the money, Haenle says.
"I really like knowing the customs, the traditions of their grandparents, their mothers and fathers while also planning what modern day brides and grooms want on their wedding day.
"Blending the old and the new with the customs is a critical and a very unique part of our company."
Haenle's studio in Beijing's central business district includes piles of English and Chinese books as well as objects she collected during her travels in China that she says form part of her inspiration for the weddings she helps to plan.
She points out items such as a wedding hat given by a villager in Xishuangbanna, Southwest China's Yunnan province and a pair of traditional shoe-pads kept in a photo frame embroidered by her assistant's family from Southwest China's Sichuan province.
"I really focus on blending, understanding first of all the customs, the traditions," she says.
In the past several years, she has also traveled to other iconic Chinese sites including the ancient city of Pingyao in North China's Shanxi province and top scenic spot Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan province to learn local wedding customs.
In her travels, she has interviewed elderly people who talk about their weddings to understand better the history of Chinese wedding ceremonies.
Haenle finds many similarities between the weddings in the East and the West.
"When it comes to wedding planning, China, in many ways, is really no different than any other place in the world.
"Having a wedding is one of the happiest days of our lives. It's all about family, how you get to this commitment and the story that brought the two of you together. Honoring your ancestors, and celebrating that day with all your loved ones is universal. And in every culture, brides want to look their very best on their wedding day and they want their guests to remember their wedding for a lifetime."
Haenle has observed that, in China, couples go through a tea ceremony and bow to their parents to show their respect to ancestors and the elders. In the West, people often light candles in honor of loved ones who have passed and play music to remember them.
For Haenle, one of the best parts of her job is getting to know couples so well that they often become her good friends.
"It makes me happy when the parents are happy and the bride and the groom and the guests leave with big smiles on their faces," she says.
"That's rewarding to me. When that happens, I know I have done my job."