Kendra Coons was turning 30, so her then-fiancé Brandon Smith threw her a surprise party—or so everyone thought. On a hot Saturday afternoon in August 2016, groups of friends and family began making their way to the couple’s quaint home in Kitchener, Ont., and were immediately taken aback by their beautifully transformed backyard. The trees were covered in lights, garlands and baby-blue decorations. Stark white cocktail and dinner tables were scattered across the yard, and well-dressed waiters walked through the crowd serving delectable hors d’oeuvres.
“Wow, Brandon, this is amazing! This could almost be a wedding,” whispered one guest. Smith nervously laughed off the comment and retreated from the crowd to avoid any questions from inquiring minds.
Then, as if it was perfectly timed, it began to rain. Actually, it poured. As the majority of guests darted for shelter under a large white tent, a small cohort strategically scattered themselves throughout the backyard and began rearranging the décor. Two men took the arbour that was staged as a photo booth and moved it to the front. Others flipped decorated chalk boards to reveal wedding hashtags and an itinerary. One insider started paving a walking path between the guests, and another switched out 3-0 birthday balloons with ones that read “Bride and Groom.”
With the heavy downpour to distract them, many of the guests still didn’t understand what was happening until Coons emerged wearing a long, white dress with her father by her side. So did her bridesmaids and groomsmen—as well as the groom himself—dressed in formal dresses, blazers and bow ties. That’s when it suddenly became clear that the path was really an aisle, the awning an altar, and this birthday party was actually a wedding all along.
The surprise wedding trend is on the rise among millennials
Over the last few years, surprise weddings have grown substantially in popularity. Most people are intrigued by the spontaneity of them, while others simply wish to avoid the tensions of planning a wedding with too many people involved, or the stress of a long (and expensive) guest list.
Coons, founder of Confetti and Co., is a professional party planner with a soft spot for weddings, and always knew that this was what she wanted for her special day.
“I have always been drawn to the idea of doing something that was a surprise and just making it a really fun experience for our guests to always remember,” she says.
Now, with the experience she’s gained from her own covert celebration, Coons is planning a client’s surprise wedding that’s being masqueraded as a stag and doe party—and she’s learned a few key lessons along the way. So, if you’re feeling inspired to make your own special day a surprise, here are her top tips to ensure it’s also unforgettable.
1. Think of the perfect ruse
You need to find a convincing cover-up so that the most important people in your life are guaranteed to attend—and arrive on time for the surprise to work. For Coons, planning a surprise birthday meant everyone needed to get there before the big reveal. “Having a hard start time is really important because if guests are going to casually show up throughout the night, it’s harder to get everyone there to actually do the surprise,” says Coons, adding that popular ruses include surprise birthdays, engagement parties and stag and does. When she first thought of the idea to make her a wedding a surprise, she was picturing a housewarming barbecue, but ended up going with something a little more upscale.
2. Recruit a small group of trustworthy pals
It’s no surprise that keeping this big secret from your friends and family will be difficult. So you may want to reveal the true intention of your event to your inner circle for help with last-minute preparations, especially as the date draws near. But keep your group of helpers to those who can be trusted. “The more people who know, the higher chance of the ‘beans getting spilled,’” Coons warns.
3. Become a master of disguise
You may find that having to constantly lie to your loved ones is difficult and exhausting (or not!) so try to avoid conversations around your wedding planning. “For a couple of months, it felt like we couldn’t talk to our best friends because we had this huge secret that we were keeping from them,” says Coons. “So we would kind of keep to ourselves for a bit…but it was definitely hard to keep it a secret.”
If you’re a terrible liar, keep the planning process short. “If you’re able to plan it on a short enough timeline so that it doesn’t go on for a year, do it,” she says. “If it was longer, that would’ve been hard [to keep secret].”
4. Don’t sweat the small stuff
In the midst of your planning, you may think that the colour of your bouquet or the perfect DJ will make or break your wedding. (Spoiler: it won’t! And this goes for all weddings, surprise or not.) The only thing your guests will remember is the sheer joy of the surprise. Coons recommends focusing on making the day a fun experience for guests rather than on décor details. On her special day, they set up a “speech wheel,” which allowed guests who wanted to make a toast spin to reveal how they wish the happy couple well, including singing a song or freestyling a rap. “This goes for really any wedding, but thinking about your guest experience while you’re planning goes a long way,” she says.
5. Get an officiant with a sparkling personality
For most surprise ceremonies, the first person who speaks is the officiant leading the ceremony, so make sure they have a strong enough personality to drive the day forward. Coons asked her friend to officiate because she wanted someone fun and bold to lead that part of the party. Just make sure you have all of your legal work in order beforehand, especially if you ask a friend to officiate. (Coons and her fiancé signed their official papers a few days before their public ceremony.)
6. Document your day
This seems obvious but if there’s one thing you should splurge on, make sure it’s hiring a photographer and videographer. After the ceremony, the pictures and videos will be all you have left to remember it—especially for those who thought they were skipping out on just another birthday party.
7. Have fun!
At the end of the day, a surprise wedding is really just another wedding that less people know about, so go about your planning process as you would for a regular ceremony. How big or small it ends up being is up to you, but inject your personality throughout the day wherever possible. And remember to have fun with it. It’s a day of celebration, after all. “I love the art of celebration and building a community and giving your guests a great experience by bringing everyone together,” says Coons.