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Start-Ups Hope Couples Say ‘I Do’ to Online Wedding Planning

Start-Ups Hope Couples Say ‘I Do’ to Online Wedding Planning

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“They have a 12- to 18-month buying timeline so you know they’re going to spend that money, and it’s a really frustrating process,” Ms. Khalil said. Performing maid-of-honor planning duties for her sister’s wedding prompted Ms. Khalil to start her company in 2012.

“There’s completely no transparency on pricing so you don’t know how much things cost, everything is dynamic, and you never know if vendors are available,” Ms. Khalil said.

But even with untapped demand, building a successful business took some trial and error. The first iteration of Ms. Khalil’s start-up, Lover.ly, was a website with editorial content, which she expanded into e-commerce in 2015.

She soon learned that couples who visited weren’t interested in buying the products she was selling — but they were asking for advice. That prompted a change in 2015 to the next version, a platform that replicates two of a planner’s main tasks: helping to set a budget and suggesting wedding professionals. Ms. Khalil started with $75,000 of her own money, and has since raised $7 million from investors.

The average fee for a full-service wedding planner is $3,000; many cost much more. It is an expense many couples tend to forgo. About 18 percent hire a planner, according to the Wedding Report.

Lover.ly is one of numerous start-ups using technology to try to make planning easier for the remaining 82 percent who do it themselves.

These companies are moving beyond the traditional listing, inspiration and content services, which often have an overwhelming number of vendors, to offer personalized suggestions. And as texting and online chat become so integral to communication, those formats have been harnessed for wedding planning.

But persuading wedding service professionals to adopt new platforms and technology can be challenging. Many are hesitant to invest the time and resources, and the industry remains stubbornly offline. About 12 percent of transactions are done online, Ms. Khalil said. “It’s one of few industries yet to be fully digitized,” she said.

Still, Ms. Khalil has been able to build a database of 65,000 vendors, who are linked via a “relationship map” to venues. One of the company’s virtual wedding planners assembles a list of vendors based on a couple’s criteria, and the couples receive it within 48 hours of purchasing a service. Couples are charged from $10 to $399, and vendors $10 per client lead.

The website serves to drive traffic to the company’s app, a platform for interacting with the virtual wedding planners. Testing showed that brides prefer texting over phone calls or email.

It has attracted users such as Heather Marie and Aniekan Udo, who live in New York and are planning a small wedding in Tuscany, in Italy, in June. Ms. Marie, a tech entrepreneur, was attracted by the efficiency and convenience of planning by app.

“The amount of time it takes to research the different vendors would be every single weekend of my life until the wedding and it’s overwhelming,” said Ms. Marie, who initially did her own comparisons against Lover.ly’s results and was impressed by the app’s suggestions. “I kind of wasted my time,” she said.

Lover.ly is beta testing its chatbot, nicknamed EVA (Expert Virtual Assistant), which gathers basic information from couples. It’s currently used when none of Lover.ly’s human planners are available online. The model is being refined, and it’s becoming more sophisticated as more couples use it.

The competition includes big, established sites, like WeddingWire and the Knot, which was founded in 1996 and introduced its first app in 2013.

It’s not surprising that entrepreneurs are swarming into the wedding space, said Michael Steib, the chief executive and president of the Knot’s parent company, XO Group. But for many start-ups, getting a foothold in the market remains a challenge, he said. The Knot has acquired several start-ups that had good ideas within their niches. “We always have our ear to the ground,” Mr. Steib said.

Other start-ups are seeing opportunities to use texting and online chats in new ways. Another app, LadyMarry, went live in 2015. Its founder, Joanne Jiang, a former tech consultant, said the company was developing its own artificial intelligence bot to streamline communications between the company, vendors and couples.

“In this industry, you send emails to vendors. It takes forever to get a response,” Ms. Jiang said. “You really want instant feedback. You’re just so exhausted and just want to get things done, but there’s no one replying to you.”

Ms. Jiang said LadyMarry had been used to plan 90,000 weddings. It is free for couples; the company charges vendors a percentage, ranging from 15 to 45 percent, depending on the location and service. LadyMarry has six full-time employees, plus consultants.

While she knows LadyMarry is one start-up in a multitude, Ms. Jiang sees room for growth. “There’s a huge opportunity for us,” she said. “We can be a big player in the service provider segment.”

Some wedding start-ups are taking cues from other sectors. Melissa Wilmot, founder of WedBrilliant, took inspiration from bid sites. A user posts a need for a service, and a vendor submits a bid.

“I really from the get-go wanted to offer the service as a complimentary matchmaker service,” said Ms. Wilmot, who started the company in Portland, Ore., in 2014. She said the site, which is free for couples, has 3,400 registered vendors, and charges businesses a $5 monthly or $50 annual membership fee.

Ms. Wilmot said the idea came about when she encountered difficulty getting bids from vendors for her own, out-of-state wedding. “We’re talking about folks trying to get a sense of what the marketplace is like for a particular service,” she said.

And, certainly, the high end of the wedding market is sought after. The top 15 percent of weddings account for over 60 percent of the industry’s revenue, said Jess Levin Conroy, founder of Carats & Cake, a company based in New York that caters to the couples planning big-budget nuptials.

Ms. Conroy started the company in 2012 with a focus on business owners. “For us, the thought process is, the better we can serve that local entrepreneur, the better we can serve the end consumer,” she said.

The site does not charge couples; revenue comes from charging wedding professionals for add-on services like payment processing because many vendors still rely largely on cash and check transactions.

Carats & Cake partnered with the payment platform Stripe to offer online invoicing and bill paying. It has five full-time employees and 20,000 member businesses; about 300,000 couples used the site in 2016. The company had revenue in its second year of operation, and reached profitability by the fourth, Ms. Conroy said.

The aim is to replicate offline professional networks by creating a visual record from vendors’ previous clients. Couples post images from their weddings, along with a list of service providers, which are linked to the providers’ profiles.

As with many other online sectors, there is a risk of saturation. As members of a tech-savvy generation begin to plan their own weddings, it’s not surprising that many think they can improve the process, Lover.ly’s Ms. Khalil said.

“You’re seeing people experience the pain firsthand and they do the research, see this is a big market, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I think I can do this one piece better.’”

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