Mission Inn Possible
Five best practices in wedding showcases, from a California property that immerses couples into the full wedding experience.
The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa has made certain that couples beeline to the Riverside, California property on a mission of their own: to have the perfect wedding. While other hoteliers may not be able to physically duplicate the National Historic Landmark that is the Mission Inn, they can learn much from the hotel about how to secure wedding business, from the decade of experience that informs the team’s successful wedding showcases. The events go well beyond offering a mere assortment of vendors sharing information.
Sure, the Mission Inn, owned by Vice Chairman and COO Kelly Roberts and her husband Duane, has a lot going for it to start with, including 20,000 square feet of event space with Spanish-style architecture and lavishly decorated ballrooms and outdoor terraces. Oh, and there’s the St. Francis Chapel, which features 22-foot mahogany doors, an 18-karat-gold Rayas Altarpiece from 18th-century Mexico, Tiffany stained glass, and other priceless, historical treasures from around the world. There’s also a fascinating history of celebrity weddings and tradition, but let’s skip that for now and get to the part of interest to any hotel trying to book more weddings.
The Mission Inn has held elaborate wedding showcases for the last 10 years. In recent years, anywhere from 450 to 700 people attend each showcase, with the lower figure typically only arising in the event of bad weather. The hotel now averages around 50 weddings booked from each showcase, as opposed to 10 the first year. Overall, the hotel averages 280 to 300 weddings per year.
Here are the keys to the success of the Mission Inn’s wedding showcases:
1. Mock Out
As Anderson Ewing, director of catering at the Mission Inn for the last six years, sees it, two types of wedding/bridal shows exist in the industry. One is a big event in a convention center where people walk around getting information from booths, but don’t get an experience. The second, in Ewing’s view, is what the Mission Inn does: a serious wedding showcase of the entire experience of what the wedding would be like. At the Mission Inn, attendees walk through all the ballrooms, each set up like they would be for a wedding in a particular theme or style. These immersive environs are decorated by vendors and the hotel team, with full table setups, centerpieces, lighting, DJs playing music, and more with bride and groom mannequins on the dance floor having their first dance. Free-flowing Champagne and passed apps for attendees add to the authentic wedding vibe, while bakeries present cake samples, so people can experience the wedding cake there as well.
The wedding showcase is typically four hours long, usually 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with eight different ballrooms set up and two or three mock ceremonies in the chapel, using couples who had been married there. “That way couples who had their weddings here can talk with couples about their experience,” Ewing says.
2. Vet Your Vendors
“Every year, we try to enhance the look and how the vendors present their wares,” Ewing. “We have very strict guidelines. To be a part of our show, they really have to bring their A game and tell a unique story.”
In a given year, Ewing says, 50 to 80 vendors ask to be a part of the show, in addition to the 40 or so who already are a part of it. “One of the things I tell couples who attend is that these vendors are just recommendations,” Ewing notes. “They are vendors who have presented exemplary service to our couples and work well with our staff. We have had times in the past where a vendor isn’t living up the expectations we set, and we’ve had to tell them maybe this show isn’t going to work for you, but we can look at doing something in the future.”
3. Attract Serious Couples
The hotel advertises its showcases, and each year they get “a better quality of couples,” Ewing says. “It’s people who are more serious, from different regions. When we first started, it was mainly from the area right around the hotel. It was mostly like typical bridal shows, with lots of Looky Lous—people not having a wedding but just want to see what’s going on. About 90% of the people now are very serious, have a date in mind, and are looking to book. It’s grown every year.”
The Mission Inn’s admission fee ($30 at the door at the most recent showcase) helps weed out the Looky Lous as well. “You want a lot of people to attend, but you want to make sure the quality of people is beneficial to the hotel and vendors as well,” Ewing says. “The show is successful because we have a lot of great vendors, so I have to make sure we get brides and grooms who are serious about booking and serious about the vendors as well.”
The main showcase is typically held early in the year, with another one sometimes in the fall. For 2017, the Mission Inn created a new, separate festival in February, Festa de Amor, celebrating “the month of love.” Ewing says next year, for the second annual Festa, they will incorporate the showcase into it—just after Valentine’s Day, so they can throw a broader net to include couples who may have recently gotten engaged. The expanded event will showcase more of the hotel, including their full-service, onsite spa in all of the rooms, instead of just one spot, adds Director of Sales and Marketing Shannon Walters. They’ll also show off more of the Mission Inn’s culinary side, from its four restaurants, at added stations in each room.
4. Plan, Plan, Plan
Ewing advises planning at least six months out for a serious showcase. “We come up with concepts for all the rooms and how the vendors are laid out in the rooms,” he says. “We want the room to feel full like a wedding experience but also allow couples to move freely and get a full picture of the hotel. Every year, I send a full proposal to Kelly Roberts, the hotel COO. She’s very involved and hand-reviews everything and makes changes.”
It’s all about organization and planning to meet every detail. “Take your time,” Ewing says. “If you’re a venue with multiple ballrooms, plan each room one by one. Make sure your concepts represent the hotel well. And make sure you get the word out. You could have the best show in the world, but if you don’t market it, nobody will show up.”
5. Make the Tasting Part of the Whole Experience
GM Stan Kantowski has seen other hotels have the couple sample F&B options in a banquet hall or restaurant. “We take a different approach,” he says. “Our tasting and selection of foods as a part of their experience is once a month in our ballroom, set up the same as the wedding would be. They have the experience of not only the dish but the whole experience with that food. We have a DJ, we do uplights, and we decorate to the lighting system. Our wedding concierge will meet with them to decide.”
Every room the couple experiences is a different theme, and each restaurant’s food has “a different story,” Kantowski says. The couple can compare and determine which theme speaks to them and which food complements the space. “We don’t know what’s in their heart,” he says. “We just try to help them with the different options.”
Another tactful tool in the Mission Inn’s wedding F&B experience is to unite by dividing.
“We recommend to the couple that the bride select the dinner menu, and the groom select the late snack options,” Kantowski says. “Very often, the snack is more casual and manly. We try to separate it and have a little fun with it. We tell them, ‘Don’t start the big day with controversy.’ Couples love that.”
Kantowski says action stations range from simple salads, tossed and put into Martini glasses, to bigger beef carving stations and more, for those preferring more entertaining food service over plated dinners. Either way, the Mission Inn supplies diverse options.
“We have four outstanding restaurants: Las Campanas (Mexican), Bella Trattoria (Italian), AAA Four-Diamond Duane’s Prime Steaks & Seafood, and the Mission Inn Restaurant (three-meal, American),” Kantowski notes. “We incorporate those into the wedding menus. People like our lobster and steak options from Duane’s. This is their day, not ours; we’re only a part of it. We listen to what they’d like to do that day.”
While most hotels may not have all the inhouse resources the Mission Inn has at its fingertips, their experiential approach and wisdom for wedding showcases can be universally useful for getting a few more “I do’s” from wedding clients.