Bailey is a 6'2" Panamanian who looks like he just stepped out of the pages of GQ. To bridal consultants, he's practically a rock star. Bailey didn't speak to the audience so much as dish with them about glamorous events he's worked. One lady behind me yelled, "Yeah Preston! Keep it real!" And that he did. Bailey was honest, down-to-earth, and enthusiastic, and his keynote, though drawn from his floral experience, had lessons for all wedding vendors. I'd hire him in a heartbeat—if only I could afford him. His typical budget is a cool $2 million.
Bailey said a successful event to him is when people don't want to leave. He loves hot colors and likes to make dramatic statements. He has made a wall of flowers using glass shelves. He has sculpted elephants, dogs, lions, and even a six-foot pineapple out of flowers. He likes to create "surprises" every 15 minutes during an event, be it a change of lighting, a new food served, or a change in music. Bailey said we should always strive to improve ourselves and that "if you screw up enough, you become an expert."
He also showed "before" and "after" pictures of his floral transformations. Breathtaking is a word that comes to mind, and many audible gasps were heard as he showed off some of his latest creations.
Bailey runs Preston Bailey Design, a New York City-based outfit that has been doing weddings and other special events for the rich and famous for more than 25 years. Oprah Winfrey (whose studio he transformed for her 50th birthday celebration in 2003) has called Bailey a "floral genius." For a look at some of Bailey's sculpted floral arrangements, check out his website.
Many professional wedding vendors want to know how to take their business to the next level. One way is to ask successful people how they got to where they are today. In early February, I interviewed Bailey over the phone, and asked him to pick the single most important attribute that has contributed to his success. Bailey said, "My ability to read what my clients want. This is not my event, but my client's event."
Bailey said his relationships with his clients are very important. Many times, he said, he has made a new friend by the end of their event.
I asked Bailey if, in hindsight, he would do anything differently. "Absolutely!" he said. "When first starting out, I wished I knew more about the business aspect and about pricing my services. I admire people who have a business plan and a direction. I made it without a business plan because I knew no other way."
Bailey said the best way to brand yourself in the wedding and event industry—particularly if you're aiming for high-end clients—is to be very clear about who you are.
He said he likes to make his work not necessarily better than but "different" from others. "Define your point of view and work with it," he said. "What I do is very theatrical and over-the-top. Martha Stewart is very minimalist, clean, and simple. Different clients want different things. I loved the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. and I said to myself, ‘How can I bring nature indoors?'" Bailey said the high-end market is very distinctive, and the clients you encounter there have seen it all. Quality is important, along with great service and connection.
To get noticed, he says, "try to promote and publicize yourself to get credibility. Get your name in print. When I first arrived in New York City," he recalled, "I would call New York magazine once a week and try to get my name in the magazine by offering advice. Finally, when they needed an expert they called me."
I asked Bailey what he looks for when hiring wedding vendors to be part of his team. Bailey said his name has come to mean "quality, reliability, and accessibility" and that he expects that same commitment in anyone he hires.
Bailey said it's important to have both "skill" and "personality" in this business, which is a service industry. It's not about you (the vendor), but all about the client. "My clients are wealthy and used to getting what they want, and it's my job to give it to them."
I asked Bailey how often his clients use the services of a professional videographer and he said, "It depends." Certain clients want it to remember their memories and others don't." Those who do have one thing in common: "My clients don't want a video camera in their face."
Bailey said that if a client doesn't want video then he doesn't try to change their mind because it's all about the client and what they want. He uses a planner who handles the hiring of a professional videographer. But he has his own expectations, regardless of who does the hiring. "I don't want bright lights to disrupt the event," he said. "I want the videographer to be very unobtrusive." When I asked Bailey to describe the best wedding video he has seen, he said, "I have no need to see a finished video since it's not my event. The video is for my client."
Bailey's final piece of advice: "Do not emulate anyone. Do what you do best." I couldn't agree more!
Kris Malandruccolo is an award-winning videographer and columnist based in the Chicago area.