By Stephanie Booth
It's been only four years since Charrisse Min Alliegro quit her position as vice president of corporate planning for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter and started Princeton Wedding Consultants out of her New Jersey home. Her research skills and eye for detail have served her well. Already, Alliegro's services have been ah engaged by the likes of celebrity actors, high-profile politicos, and social doyennes. So how did this 34-year-old former Wall Streeter go from high finance to highbrow weddings?
Alliegro didn't grow up with a cell phone in one hand and cake samples in the other. "I was never a mushy, dreamy child and was definitely not the type who envisioned herself as a bride," she says with a laugh. "I never even had Barbies. The big joke in my family is that at age eight, I asked Santa for an encyclopedia."
After graduating from The Johns Hopkins University with a degree in behavioral biology, Alliegro earned an M.B.A. in market research and strategic planning from Columbia Business School and headed to Wall Street. At that point, becoming a wedding consultant had never occurred to her -- not even in 1991, when she was searching for one to plan her own ceremony.
"The [wedding] consultants I encountered fell into one of two categories," she recalls. "They were either nose-in-the-air, 'Well, daaahhling' types, or women who were planning weddings as a part-time hobby and had typos all over their brochures."
Frustrated with her options, Alliegro decided to serve as her own wedding consultant. When the wedding went off without a hitch -- and garnered praise for being a sophisticated, elegant affair -- Alliegro's friends began calling for help with their own weddings.
For the next three years, Alliegro booked bands and commissioned cakes for other people's weddings, while still crunching numbers and managing a staff of three at her "real" job on Wall Street. Eventually she realized she'd found her niche and quit her job at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. "I loved that I was serving a real need," she explains. "I'd finally found a career where I could combine both right-brain and left-brain stuff -- the froufrou part, like getting excited about gowns, mixed with the precise, crystalline planning that's second nature to me."
Alliegro used the business skills she'd learned in the corporate world to get her freelance career off the ground. She carefully researched the market and interviewed brides and various vendors in the industry. She wrote a meticulous business plan and timeline, laying out the investment required and how she would position herself and her services. And when she officially founded Princeton Wedding Consultants, she turned to Wall Street once again -- for clients, many of whom were former colleagues.
"My M.B.A. and professional background did help tremendously in starting the business," Alliegro says. "Planning a wedding is really a form of strategic planning -- albeit much more fun. You have a vision or goal in mind, formulate the steps you need to take to achieve it, and, finally, you execute those steps."
Alliegro offers one-time consultations for couples compiling the guest list or trying to agree on the perfect place for their reception. In an hour or two, she can help them prioritize their needs and characterize their dream wedding (anything from "old-fashioned" to "witty and dramatic"). By the time the couple leaves her office, they have a list of suggestions and a firm plan of action, along with a list of recommended local vendors.
When couples need more handholding, Alliegro takes over the orchestration of the actual event -- a task that starts six weeks before the big day. She introduces herself to all the key players in the production and uses her scheduling expertise to keep the day running smoothly. No detail is too small to consider.
"It's not something on a clipboard that I use to whip people into submission," she says. "It's more like when someone asks, 'Where's the limo?' and I can say, 'It should be coming around the corner now!' It's a great feeling when my watch says the same time as my schedule."
Alliegro's biggest challenge is when she works as a full-service consultant, guiding the couple-to-be from the time they start planning until the moment they say "I do." She can garner a five-figure flat fee for taking charge of the entire process.
Because weddings are emotional affairs, Alliegro has found that maintaining a balance of both professionalism and empathy with clients is -- excuse the pun -- no piece of cake. Alliegro has been asked to intercede in every kind of conflict from a squabble between bridesmaids to animosity between the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom.
"I try to be fair and see things from all sides," she says. "There's a lot of negotiation and compromise that goes on before people remember to focus on the big picture."
Usually she'll delicately intervene, but there are certain situations Alliegro politely sidesteps. "People are always trying to pump me for information. I refuse to reveal how much another client has spent on something or talk about another client's personal affairs," she says. "I won't make decisions about seating, because that's a personal decision, and I don't delve into religious aspects of a ceremony because that should stay between the couple and their officiant."
And personal taste? "It's so subjective," she admits. "I keep my mouth shut unless I think the clients are doing something that their guests will find offensive or horribly gauche. Otherwise, anything goes, and I remind myself that it's not my wedding!"
Her definition of a successful wedding is "one where the clients were thrilled, the guests had a blast, and something very creative or un-cookie-cutter-like was featured." At a September ceremony she planned, for instance, guests entered a world of luxurious red damask cloths, parchment parasols encircled by jewel-like flowers, live bamboo, and clusters of Japanese lanterns. Fireworks and Chinese lion dancers capped off the evening.
Another memorable wedding, held in Philadelphia, earned a lavish spread in the June issue of InStyle magazine. It featured dinner by candlelight in a historic, Beaux-Arts style rotunda, elaborately trimmed with gold, burgundy, and ivory tapestries. Before the actual ceremony, out-of-town guests were indulged with custom-embroidered gift bags placed in their hotel rooms, a trolley tour of Center City, and a private showing of the Delacroix exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Aside from a mention in the local Yellow Pages and a newly launched Web site, Alliegro doesn't advertise. Word of mouth brings in the majority of her business, and mentions in publications such as Martha Stewart Living, Philadelphia Magazine, and The New York Times haven't hurt either.
No More Nine to Five
Business is good: Alliegro has handled as many as 18 clients at one time. When not actively meeting with florists or booking helicopters for her more publicity-shy clients and their guests, Alliegro keeps busy by adding to her ever-growing inventory of ideas.
Although she put in her fair share of overtime on Wall Street, Alliegro finds herself working more now than she ever did in her corporate office -- even taking into account the absence of the daily 3.5-hour round-trip commute she used to make from Princeton into Manhattan.
"I choose to work nine to ten hours a day," she says. "I could farm a lot of tasks out to others, but I prefer to take care of the majority of details myself. And it's important for me to always be available for clients, even if it's ten o'clock at night."
So far, her philosophy has worked. Alliegro recently changed the name of her business to Princeton Event Consultants, and she's branching out into coordinating corporate events.
"In many ways, corporate events and weddings are very similar," she says. "Although with corporate events, we obviously don't spend a lot of time obsessing over different shades of pink!"
December 13, 1999
Primary Editor: Katy Demcak
Illustrator: Steve Smallwood
Production: Keith Gendel
We'd love to hear your comments about this article!
Stephanie Booth is a freelance writer who lives in Hightstown, New Jersey. If you like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with her, or with anyone named in this article.