Below is the transcript from my interview with Sarah Tolmie of Live and Love Creations, one of the most respected wedding celebrants on the Central Coast and in my view the best there is. If you’d rather watch the interview, you can do that here.
Sarah also can be booked for for Newcastle, Sydney and Hunter Valley weddings.
Andrew from Impact Images chats with Sarah from Life and Love Celebrations
Andrew: Thanks for doing this today.
Sarah: My pleasure.
Andrew: I guess the idea of the interview is to just give brides a bit of an idea of what to expect when they’re booking a celebrant so they’re getting married, so maybe you want to give us just a little background about you, how you got into it, and just a little bit of background.
Sarah: We’ll I’ve always been into ritual and ceremony and my background previous to becoming a celebrant, I was in media and communications and public relations, and when I had my two children and a bit of a sea change and a life change and I really didn’t want to go back to that corporate lifestyle and I looked at bringing together a bit of a skills map of what I’m good at and what I’ve invested in in my career over the last decade or so and what I love to do and that was being with people and celebrating and doing ceremonies. So I became a celebrant and I absolutely love it. I feel like it’s walking my bliss in terms of what I’d like to do.
Andrew: Beautiful. Well the reason I asked you to come and do this was because, as far as I’m concerned you’re the best celebrant on the coast. There’s no one better and I think the way that you do your ceremonies you seem to get so much more out of the couples, you seem to be more in touch with the couples. The whole ceremony seems to be a bit more intimate with what they share. So how do you get that?
Sarah: Well, I do invest the time to get to know my couples. I think getting that initial rapport is really important, and to me the ceremony is a real intimate portrait of a relationship and of someone’s life and love and the whole point of having everyone gather there to celebrate your marriage is to share that with them. So I spend my first meeting with couples anything from an hour to an hour and half, and another meeting later on, and I also get them to do questionnaires about their relationship and their life and their love and what they love about each other. The ceremony becomes a story, it becomes a narrative of how they met and how they fell in love and what they love about each other, and what’s the foundation of their relationship, and affirmatively speaking about what they want their marriage to be. So, it is a real intimate conversation and a beautiful portrait. Like you take beautiful pictures, my pictures are in words to give that story of a couple’s relationship that everyone can get an insight into.
Andrew: I especially noticed when the guys or the couples say their vowels or their words to each other at your ceremonies, they’re really from the heart, it’s not something that is straight out of a book.
Sarah: No. I give my couples a guide about their vows and I give them lots of samples, but really the way I try to guide them is that when you’re standing up there in front of everybody and saying those vows, they really have to be yours, they have to be your words. So when I take notes at my meetings, I’m taking notes about what they have said, and in their questionnaires what they have written. Vows leap off the page to me and it’s in their words and it’s in their language and I think that’s when the real intimacy of their ceremony comes through, is if you can tap into the couple and reflect back to them and their guests, their personality and their language and how they say things then I believe the vows should really be authentic to the couple. So yeah, I try and draw that out of my couples so that when they’re standing up there, in a really vulnerable, intimate moment, that they can feel comfortable doing it in their own language and their own words.
Andrew: So I understand more girls would probably be more comfortable with that. So when the guys are putting those words down, are you sort of constructing the vows from the conversations you’ve had?
Sarah: Both from the conversations we’ve had, from what they’ve written down in their answers to the questions that I’ve asked them, and sometimes they’ve taken lines out of ones that I’ve given them as samples that they really like, and the reason why they work for them is that they’ve resonated, so it is something that they feel that they would be comfortable saying.
Andrew: They are their own words but you’ve helped construct it. So they don’t have to memorise?
Sarah: No, and the way I do it in the ceremony where I’m standing behind their shoulder and I’m giving the vow line one at a time, nice small easy chunks for them to say, they can just really be in the moment and say what they’re saying to their partner and not be worried about memorizing it or reading it off a card.
Andrew: Beautiful. Okay, so getting back to the ceremony or the actual booking, when do couples come to see you, I guess it’s straight after they book their receptions.
Sarah: Well I’m not sure – the timing is really random when I finally get a phone call from a couple but I would suggest to people when they’re organizing their wedding to book their celebrant fairly early because it’s one of the essential requirements in what happens in your day, to have someone conduct the ceremony, and we do get booked out especially in the busy spring and autumn months.
Andrew: So after that first initial contact, is that just a quick phone call, can we come and meet you?
Sarah: Yes, and I offer my couples an obligation free consultation and I will give them that hour or hour and a half where we talk about their wedding, talk about what they want, what are their ceremony needs are, listen to see what kind of style and event they’re after, and I’ll offer my ideas and ask them questions that will get them thinking about what they want if they don’t have a clear idea and I’ll let them know the process and how I work with my couples and I’ll give them all of my information, my nice pack of information, and really give them the opportunity then to go away and have a think about it and make their decision and then they can contact me again and then we start the second round of meetings and the paperwork, and talk a little bit more in detail.
Andrew: So that first consult, that obligation free one, so you’ll still be taking notes in that one?
Sarah: Oh yes, for me that’s absolutely the start of the process. And that is getting to know each other because it’s a two-way collaborative creative process. They’ve got to feel comfortable with me and I want to know that working with this couple I’m going to be able to give them the best ceremony possible. And it does require from the couple, the way I work, a degree of engagement. Like you said before, my ceremonies are intimate and personal and tell that story of the couple, and if I can’t extract that from them – they need to feel comfortable with me and how I work as well.
Andrew: So where does that take place, is that at their house or your place?
Sarah: For my Sydney based couples I have a meeting room in Fairlight in Manly and so I do do a lot of weddings all over the coast and also down in Sydney as well, and for Central Coast couples I will either meet them at their home, and I do that midweek, evenings or weekends if I can if it’s not a busy wedding weekend, I just try and fit in with people’s schedules and my schedule, so I can either come to their home or we meet somewhere local or at a cafe.
Andrew: Then so after that first one, once they’ve made a decision, then it’s a matter of having a second appointment and how long is that one?
Sarah: Probably another hour, so there’s been an hour and a half meeting and then another hour meeting where we will talk a little bit more in detail, we’ll do the paperwork, I need to sight original birth certificates and they need divorce certificates if there’s been a previous wedding, and then we have another meeting later on, usually what I call the pointy end of the business where a couple of months out from the wedding the next meeting that we’ll have I’ll actually do a site recky, so we’ll do that on site at the ceremony location.
Andrew: Going to check out where…
Sarah: I’ll go with the couple to check out the site even though it’s a site that I may already be very familiar with, I like to go with the couple to see how they want to interpret the space and use it, and give them some more practical guides about logistics and what’s going to happen, where they’re going to be, and that’s when the couple will often – I’ll ask them to have their questionnaires completed and return those to me, and I’ll take those and get another quick update on any more changes or ideas in terms of some of the more specific elements of the things that are going to happen in their ceremony, who’s involved, any readings, what’s the music and get an update on those things. And that’s when I really then go and start to write the ceremony.
Andrew: That’s after three appointments?
Sarah: Yes. Obligation free meetings, sometimes we get really chatty and have so much fun for an hour and a half. The second meeting is to return to do the paperwork and have a little bit more of a detailed discussion about some of the elements of the ceremony which may have started to bubble up in their mind after our first conversation. And then the third encounter is we’ll go to the site, we’ll go to the ceremony venue and work out how logistically and practically they want to use the space. And that’s where I get the couple to return their completed questionnaire to me, find out how they’ve found the process of doing that are what came up and then ask some more detailed questions about music and readers and people being involved in the ceremony, and anything else I need to know before I go away and actually write the ceremony. So all my ceremonies are individual creations written about the couple, so that takes a bit of sort of creative juice – to get in the flow when I do that, I commit to the couple that I’ll give them a draft about 6-8 weeks out from their wedding date. If they get it an earlier they’re just going to read it to death and they’ve got other things to do those months of booking. So they get their ceremony, we trade emails back and forth about just whipping it into shape and editing it and correcting it and just getting it just right. Then they can not have to worry about it, that’s usually the last month before they’re doing all of their crazy last minute preparations and then the next thing we do, the next encounter is the rehearsal. So I do a rehearsal usually the week of the wedding, usually often the day before because lots of people are kind of coming in.
Andrew: So that’s the whole bridal party then?
Sarah: I like to have the whole bridal party there. I even encourage the parents to be there too, because what I think makes a difference is to have that connection. You’ve noticed at the weddings that I do, I know the Mum and Dad have made an effort to get to know each of the members of the bridal party, and when they know what’s going on as well, it just takes all the stress away. They know where they’re going to stand, they know where I’m going to stand, they know what’s going to happen, they know the elements of the ceremony and the flow of what’s going to happen. If we have to go to plan B for a wet weather backup, we’ve had that conversation, it just happens without a beat. For me, I really want the bride and all the other people, and the groom, and the parents, and the bridal party to be really relaxed. And it’s not meant to be a stressful event, it’s actually meant to be a joyful happy enjoyable event so all of that preparation beforehand ensures that you get that naturalness, you get that flow, you get that ease, and you get that relaxed atmosphere, and that’s when the fun and the joy can come through.
Andrew: So that’s four appointments. I’m imagining or I’m thinking most celebrants don’t do that.
Sarah: I don’t know [laughter] I don’t think they do. I really classify myself as a holistic sort of boutique celebrant. I go the extra mile, have that X-factor, have that ability to make it feel like I’m almost a friend that’s there as part of the day.
Andrew: That’s the way it comes across at the ceremony which is awesome. We’re going to come back to the wet weather stuff in a minute. So just tell me with the readers, do the couples decide how many readers they have? Whether they have religious content?
Sarah: Yes, they decide on the readings and the content. I’ve got a load of readings that I’ve collected over the years on my website they’re just up there and anyone can have a look at them and that’s the tip of the iceberg. What I say with readers is I think they’re really great, and it’s good because it breaks up me talking the whole time and adds a bit of movement and dynamic to the ceremony. But you’ve really got to pick people who can actually stand up and deliver and read in public. You don’t want to have people stressing out and being visibly nervous and uncomfortable up there. That’s no fun for anybody. And also I’d only put a reading in there if you actually resonate with what the reading is saying. You know when you read through all those readings you see which ones you like and which ones you don’t.
Andrew: So what about if one side of the couple is a little more religious than the other, even though they’re having a celebrant and not a church service, they can still have some religious content?
Sarah: Absolutely yes, and for me I’m quite a spiritual person myself and I will always when I begin ceremony invite people to bring into the space whatever is your faith or belief so that we can all celebrate. Because I recognize that you’ve got a hundred people out there, guests, and they all come from different walks of life. With regards to the bride and groom, I’ve had a lot of occasions where they’ve been multi faith or different faith or one who’s had a strong faith and one who hasn’t, and it’s about negotiating and making sure that each party is respected and included, and there are ways that you can do that. I’ve had couples whose parents have been deeply religious and worried about having a civil ceremony who have come up to me at the end and just said it was beautiful and very spiritual. I’m very comfortable talking about God with a big G or a little g and having whatever faith and ethnic cultural tradition in there it’s fine.
Andrew: So whatever they bring to the table you can incorporate?
Andrew: What about the actual wedding day, when I go to lots of weddings like you do, but I see all different celebrants and the worst thing for me in the outdoor ceremony is if the people in the back can’t hear. I’ve seen people smoking, they’re drinking and chatting because they can’t hear what’s going on in the ceremony.
Sarah: That really affects the energy of the ceremony. It’s really important, with the ceremony I come 45 minutes early, I setup my sound check and I’m prepared before any guest arrives.
Andrew: When you say sound check, do you have a PA.
Sarah: I have a PA system, so I’ve got a good PA system, I’m wearing a microphone that comes down the side of my cheek, and I’ve got a second microphone for any readers and when the couple do their vows. And at the rehearsal we practice using the microphones so they feel comfortable with it and they can forget it’s there and it’s just a tool that helps them be heard by everybody else.
Andrew: There’s nothing worse at a ceremony when no one can hear what’s going on. That’s horrible, especially when the vows are so beautiful.
Sarah: I know, and legally I have to say, the witnesses have to hear the vows. It’s a legal requirement of the ceremony that it’s heard.
Andrew: Well I’m pretty sure I’ve been to a few illegal weddings then [laughter].
Sarah: My PA and my sound system is really important, and just energetically getting everyone a lot closer. I find that’s one of the most challenging things is when there’s guests at a wedding and they all hug the perimeter of the space, and the trick is to just bring them in as close and as close as they feel comfortable, because not only will they then see and hear better, energetically you get that sort of group feeling and you feel a part of it.
Andrew: On the day, say you turn up and the weather’s looking a bit iffy – this is one of the things I guess, people ask me do I prefer an outdoor or a church ceremony. I love an outdoor wedding, it’s easier for me to photograph, but I always stress about the weather for the couple.
Sarah: Yes, I’ve developed nerves of steel now for the last 8 years. And I love my iPhone because it has the radar on there. So I’m watching the radar and I’m talking to the bride and groom throughout the day, we have a plan, we’ve had a conversation at the rehearsal about wet weather. I won’t take a booking if a couple don’t have a wet weather plan, it’s just as simple as that. You need one. I’m there with 120 guests; I need to know what to do and how to guide them and instruct them, and there’s no way I want to be in a situation where mid-ceremony, absolute downpour comes down and you’ve got to stop and re-gather. I don’t ever want to have to be in that situation, so it’s about having a plan, it’s about looking at the radar, it’s about having a conversation about at what point do we call it. It’s certainly a lot easier if your wet weather plan is on the same site as the outdoor ceremony, you just move under the marquee or into the function room, and if it’s only mild rain that’s potentially having a bunch of umbrellas there or having a light marquee and some coverage is good as well but definitely the discussion has been had, the plans are in place.
Andrew: Obviously the couples, they pick the location for the ceremony and you sort of go along and have a look at that. If you think the aspect’s wrong, or on the day that the wind is blowing form the wrong direction, are you happy to sort of swap the bridal party around?
Andrew: So the bride doesn’t have a veil over her face.
Sarah: You have to be fluent and you have to be flexible and you have to have the confidence and the ability to adapt to the conditions, and as much as possible I’m having those conversations with the couple at the rehearsal which I do on site as well and I often do at the same time as the ceremony is planned for so that we get an idea of sun conditions, we get an idea of other environmental factors that may come into play, and I’ve got options up my sleeve as to – okay if we’re on a beach, it might not be raining but if the wind picks up to a really uncomfortable level where do we go then or how do we deal with that? I’ve got some plan Bs, you know Terrigal Haven for example which is lovely, the couple want to be up on that rock, rocky platform, it’s just spectacular, but if there’s a huge on-shore breeze coming in there, some people can feel really vulnerable and frightened on that headland and it’s not safe and I’ll move them to around the corner where there’s a bit of a shaded area.
Andrew: Protect them from the wind. What about if a couple comes to you and they know they want to have an outdoor ceremony, and they say we want a beach or a park and they don’t really know the area that well, are you happy to sort of give them some advice?
Sarah: Yes, I’ll certainly be having those conversations. For example, I would know if they need to get a permit from council to be where they are. If it’s a beach, I’ll go to the extent of looking at the tide charts and I’d be wanting to know is it school holidays because that will affect if you have the beach to yourself, I’ll even check if there’s a carnival [laughter] I’ve done this long enough to know that there are things to check and to be prepared for and certainly this space does dictate some tricks of the trade. For example a beach wedding is such a vast public space and the trick is to make it feel as intimate and private as possible so I would be suggesting to the couple – I know it’s a little bit cliché but those Bali flags do more than just look pretty, they mark out a space and they enclose you in and keep everybody else out, and for me it’s really handy because if you can make them into a bit of a circle, you can get everyone inside the flags and I love saying ceremony inside the flags, it’s safer that way.
Andrew: They’re really marking out your little territory, and that’s for the couple. That’s their spot, everyone else stay out.
Sarah: I like it intimate and I like not so sprawled, and to be able to sort of mark out a perimeter and have that visually helping people just sort of come and stand within a defined area sort of makes it a bit more intimate and manageable.
Andrew: Photographically it’s nicer too because it looks more intimate. It looks full and busy, everyone is in together and close, it’s nice.
Sarah: I often change, I shouldn’t admit this on camera but sometimes when the decorators come and you know where the bride and groom are going to stand and then the first row of chairs are like way over there, I come in and I’ll move the chairs and I’ll bring them in, you just got to do that otherwise you’re just miles away from everybody. It’s creating that space.
Andrew: Are you happy if I ask you a little bit about price?
Andrew: I know that you’re a little bit more expensive than the other celebrants on the Central Coast, Newcastle and the Hunter Valley, and I can obviously see why, that’s why I asked you to come and do this today because you were going to give us a lot more than some of the other celebrants would give as far as quality to the brides. So how much do people expect to pay to get married? How much does it cost, is there a big variation or is it just one package?
Sarah: Firstly there’s a big variation out there in the marketplace in costs of celebrants and I would urge couples to look closely at what they get for the price. For example, just as a starting point you won’t be able to walk out of a registry office under $500 once all the legal things are done and you have your ceremony. So imagine going into a registry office where you’re only allowed 12 guests and it’s between 9 to 5, and it’s a soulless little room and you have no choice of ceremony and you’ve just got some random registrar who just stands up there and says the words and BAM you’re married.
Andrew: And that’s $450?
Sarah: Yes. So look, I really think that’s a benchmark in terms of, you shouldn’t expect anything at all reasonable for under $500 – $600 dollars. When you look at you need to book the date, bump in bump out on their own site for 2 hours, travel there and travel home but then what you see on the day is the tip of the iceberg. You’ve heard from me that I do 2 fairly intensive face to face meetings with my couples, I give them a process of questionnaires to do, I do a site visit, and then I do a rehearsal, and then I come on the day and deliver a fabulous ceremony. It’s all that preparation and planning that goes into it as well to ensure that you have a great ceremony. So for me I am a bit more premium priced but the value you get from that is well worth it and you’ve got everybody there, it’s the most important part of the day and it sets the scene for the following celebrations for the rest of the day and it’s worth investing in because you only get one chance to do it and no amount of money saved or money back at the end if it’s botched and shabby is going to really make up.
Andrew: I’ve seen some really bad ones, it’s sad, it’s sad.
Sarah: I’ve heard some really shabby ceremonies and it is sad.
Andrew: The PA is cutting in and out and you can’t hear and they turn them off and they’re cutting in and out things like that, not really knowing the couple, waiting to get to the next ceremony.
Sarah: Rushing. I have a rule, the other reason why I am probably a bit more premium priced is I’m not a volume player in the market, quality over quantity. I won’t book any ceremonies dominate so close together that I’m rushing in and rushing out and not really tending to the couple with the care that they need. So I only do one ceremony in the afternoon and one ceremony in the morning if I potentially have a same day booking, and the rehearsal is really important and good quality gear.
Andrew: So how much do you charge?
Sarah: All my fees are clearly on my website. I have different prices for weekday and weekend. I have some discounts for winter, all you brides out there, please, winter weddings [laughter] and on my website is an outline of what you get in my service and the amount of time that I spend with my couples. So you get a really clear outline of all my pricing, and I do have pricing, additional cost for travel once I travel over 100 kilometre roundtrip. So, it’s all there. I often see that a lot of other celebrants don’t list their pricing on their websites and mine is out there for everyone to see and know.
Andrew: So starting out, Central Coast wedding, Saturday in the spring?
Andrew: For the amount of time, that’s unreal and I can see the difference in the ceremonies, that’s unreal. So just to finish off, there are probably going to be brides watching this that could be in the States or Europe or on the north coast,or anywhere in the world that can’t have Sarah Tolmie do their wedding.
Sarah: Yes they can [laughter]
Andrew: And I’ll come too. If they can’t have you or you’re already booked, what should they look for in another celebrant? How do they check that they’re going to have a good ceremony?
Andrew: Ask for how many years?
Sarah: How long have they been a celebrant? Go onto their website and see testimonials. I even am very happy I’ve got couples that people can contact and speak to them direct, and I’m very happy to do that. I’ve even let people come and see ceremonies of mine. I’ll let them know when I’m next out in public. So go and see, go and watch a ceremony. Referrals and recommendations, people like yourself, you’re going to ceremonies all the time so ask your photographer who do you recommend, and they’re going to be giving you good direction. So looking at their experience, looking at who can give you a referral and a testimonial. Meeting with them either face to face, if you cannot Skype. I have married couples who are overseas and come back home, they’re expats and come back home for their wedding, so Skype. Make sure when you’re talking to your celebrant, you have that rapport. This is someone that you’re going to need to trust with something very special and important and quite intimate as well so make sure you have that rapport and go on their website.
Andrew: So you think if they’re a serious celebrant and they’ve been doing it for a little while they’ll have a website?
Sarah: Yes, they’ll have a website. They’ll have people that you can be referred to for recommendations, testimonials and go and see their work.
Andrew: What about, just lastly, if someone is really on a tight budget, they’re madly in love, they want to get married, they want to have the wedding but they just can’t afford to have all the luxuries, they can’t have the photographer they want, they can’t have the reception they want, they maybe can’t have Sarah, what should they do?
Sarah: Um, what should they do? I actually have done barter and lowered my fee in really exceptional circumstances, we would all do that, what would you do, gee, I don’t know Andrew. You can go to the registry office, if you’re creative, when I got married I wrote my ceremony, I did it all and then just got the celebrant to deliver it so you could do that. I don’t know the answer to that.
Andrew: I guess no matter what it’s going to cost something, you have to budget for something.
Sarah: I suppose if you just prioritise what’s important. You need a celebrant or you need a priest or you need a registry office official. That’s actually an essential part of your day to actually be married so we are an essential service but there is a spectrum that you can choose from just like every other feature of your wedding, dress, flowers – steal some frangipanis from next doors tree and get some friend to do the photography, sorry Andrew.
Andrew: I’m laughing that you said frangipanis as last week I spoke to Tanya from Angel Blooms and I said frangipanis this and she said, I don’t do hardly any frangipanis.
Sarah: They’re really fiddly, you’ve got to wire them, they’re terrible.
Andrew: I hope she watches this back. That’s unreal Sarah, I think that’s everything that I wanted to know, I think that I’ve sort of asked the questions that a bride would. Just last little question, if someone is tossing up between a church wedding and an outdoor wedding, is there any way to sway them either way or does it really depend on their faith or is there good things, bad things?
Sarah: I wish I had a church. I want a civil church. I want my own parish. I want a church. I want that stone church on your photo.
Andrew: Can you go into a church?
Sarah: In my other capacities when I do funerals, I have co-hosted ceremonies with a priest and minister. I’m very happy to work on interfaith ceremonies. There are many churches and chapels that are deconsecrated so you can go in there with any faith and utilise the facilities.
Andrew: So you can go into a church?
Sarah: Yeah I can, if it’s deconsecrated or if it’s a chapel that’s not catering to a particular faith.
Andrew: So like the church at Nulkabar at the Hunter Valley.
Sarah: Yes. I love a beautiful church, beautiful spaces. And it’s not often that I get the opportunity as first choice location to do an indoor ceremony and I actually really like it when I do get the opportunity because you do get that real sense of just being enclosed and it’s really lovely and intimate. I’m not such a fan of the function centre, ballrooms that are sterile, but if you’ve got a beautiful old building that’s got a lot of character, it’s lovely. For me any location we can make it great and fabulous but it’s almost a bit secondary once you’re there in the mix and flow of the ceremony experience, I find the focus shrinks right in and people are looking at the couple and they’re in amongst it with other people and you kind of almost forget the location and the view, which is a good thing if you do have that wet weather scenario that comes up and really the location for the ceremony… although a ceremony is a real multi-sensory thing, you’ve got things to look at and beautiful smells, and flowers or incense or whatever, and you’ve got music and you’ve got words, and the feelings, it’s all of the senses are being stimulated so if you have to withdraw from your preferred location and go indoors, it’s still going to work, and the ceremony experience is still going to be beautiful and wonderful and then you can go and join Andrew later and have your photos done in all fabulous location. Indoor is nice.
Andrew: That’s great Sarah, it’s unreal. Can you just tell us which areas you service?
Sarah: I service the Central Coast, the greater Sydney area, I do a lot of ceremonies on the northern beaches, that’s my homeland, North Coast as well, I’ll travel to Hunter Valley …love going out to Hunter Valley to the vineyards, even to Blue Mountains, and every now and then I am lucky and blessed now to be flying out to Byron or Bellingen any brides up there I’d love to, it would be great.
Andrew: And Newcastle too.
Sarah: Yes. After a certain capture in terms of travel I do charge for travel as you would too for time.
Andrew: Sure. And then, how do couples find you? That’s the important thing.
Sarah: On my website, my business is Life and Love Celebrations, they can find me on my website. They can email, they can call me, they can Skype me.
Andrew: Unreal. Thanks so much Sarah.
Sarah: My pleasure, thanks Andrew.