A Sarasota Wedding Planner

By staff February 1, 2003

As a child, Evyan Turner spent every summer vacation on the beaches of Longboat Key. "It was always so relaxing and peaceful," she says. "I called it my happy place." By the time she turned eight, the lithe beauty was vowing she'd be married there.

"I'd dance around and tell people, 'this is what I'm going to wear,' and 'this is how I'm going to walk,'" she recalls. "Everyone thought I was crazy."

But last April, Evyan's wish came true, when the 24-year-old bride donned a princess dress of pink chiffon and married her fiancé, Ryan, on the shores of Longboat Key.

The New Jersey native and daughter of parents Joni and George Leiberman could have chosen The Plaza in New York, or even Paris. But when Ryan proposed to her in December of 2000-on Longboat Key-she knew instantly that was where the wedding would take place.

"Most people who get married in Sarasota want to be by the water," says wedding planner Bobbi Hicks. She estimates that only 40 percent of her weddings still take place in a church.

Debbie Allen, catering director at The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort, agrees. "There's a different air to saying 'I do' when you've got sand between your toes." And who wouldn't want to stare into the eyes of his or her beloved while azure waves lap at a crystalline shore and a sinking sun splashes sherbet hues across the sky? "We can provide what we call 'barefoot elegance,'" says Allen.

For Evyan's wedding, nearly150 friends and family members traveled from Colorado and New York to stay at The Resort at Longboat Key Club, The Colony and the Longboat Hilton. The growing popularity of romantic resort locations has given rise to one of the biggest trends in wedding planning today: the destination wedding. Such weddings are also family reunions, where friends and relatives of the bride and groom can enjoy a vacation along with the ceremony. "Forty percent of our weddings are destination weddings," says Alisa Bennett of The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota.

Resorts are ideal for destination weddings because families can fly in, book a block of rooms and never leave the hotel. Close to 90 percent of Sarasota's resort weddings take place on the beach, and imaginative couples take full advantage of the setting. One groom arrived at his wedding at The Resort at Longboat Key Club via helicopter. At The Radisson Lido Beach Resort, a couple sailed in aboard a blazing white sailboat. After the reception, they reboarded and drifted back out to sea for their honeymoon.

Also popular are mansions like the Edson Keith house at Phillippi Estate Park and the Powel Crosley estate. "Crosley is definitely my favorite place," says Wendy Wallis, owner of Sundance Catering in Sarasota. "It's like having your own private residence for the evening. It's secluded, and the grounds are magnificent."

Bayfront tropical gardens are the draw at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, where koi ponds, massive banyan trees and gazebos create an exotic setting. The gardens' beautiful new Schimmel Wedding Pavilion is generating excitement for its modern styling and lighting, and fabulous view of Sarasota Bay.

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art offers another and equally romantic ambience. Couples can marry in the museum's courtyard, by the rose gardens, even on the terrace of John Ringling's former residence, Cà d'Zan.

From the Ritz-Carlton to the Ringling, Sarasota offers sites that can impress even the most sophisticated guests, says wedding planner Mary Kenealy. After a ceremony in the Ringling courtyard, a fellow events planner from Manhattan proclaimed, "You just blew me away!"

Sarasota also offers the professionals needed to plan even the most elaborate affair. Most catering directors can assist brides with everything from florists to booking a band, and for large affairs, wedding planners can be called into service.

Kenealy, who specializes in high-end nuptials, has organized weddings here that cost nearly a half million dollars. "I have a lot of entourages of 100-125 people who come down from up North just to get married here in Sarasota," she explains. "Who wants to deal with housing, dressing and feeding 125 people?" Kenealy also books hotels and coordinates entertainment beyond the ceremony, including trolley tours and authentic clambakes.

"Since I was living in New York, a planner made things much easier for me," says Evyan, who hired Sarasota event planner Jaymie Klauber to make her wedding arrangements. "Even though my mother did a lot, it was easier knowing that someone locally was taking care of things there."

"The key to choreographing a perfect wedding is to have a team of vendors that is run by one person in charge of it all," says Hicks, who has organized more than 100 weddings. Family members are frequently too involved in the action and emotion to deal with whether the caterer remembered to bring Aunt Martha's antique silver goblets to the reception.

Planners keep things moving, too. "Photographers can get so wrapped up in getting the most spectacular sunset, the most beautiful angle of the bride's dress, that they lose track of time," says Hicks. Meanwhile, the champagne is getting warm, makeup starts to drip and exhausted guests may begin heading for the door. "I find out how much time the photographer will need and I keep them to that timetable."

Sarasota weddings, like those all over the country, are becoming less traditional and more creative, say the wedding pros. Brides are choosing to walk down the aisle alone, or with both parents instead of just the father. They're marrying aboard yachts or in swimming pools. Many are keeping their last names. And all of them are going crazy with the reception menu.

"People are becoming much more adventurous," says Bryan Rawson of Destinations Catering in Sarasota. "They are choosing contemporary table settings and food."

Among those innovations, says Wallis, are exotic menu items, such as ceviche, sushi and martini bars, specialty coffees and cordials. Wallis cites one couple who planned a honeymoon trip around the world. Throughout the reception area, food stations featured cuisine from all five ports of call they planned to visit.

"Especially here in Sarasota, people favor tropical, Asian and Caribbean themes," adds Allen. Evyan and Ryan invited the entire wedding party-all 140 of them-to a luau rehearsal dinner.

From exotic menus to dazzling locales, Sarasota offers what it takes to make a wedding special. Evyan's dream wedding took place on Longboat Key. Here's a look at some popular places to tie the knot and cut the cake in Sarasota. 


A sampling of popular wedding spots. 

The Charles and Edith Ringling Estate

5700 N. Tamiami Trail


A historic bayfront mansion on the campus of New College. Built in 1926, it was originally the home of Charles and Edith Ringling, now known as College Hall. 

Capacity: 150

Catering: Caterers must be self-contained. Outside vendors must be approved.

Rental costs: Ranges from $500 to $2,500, based upon affiliation with the University of South Florida and New College. Highest rentals are for those not affiliated with either university. In addition, $150 non-refundable cleaning fee. Reserved space is limited to the first floor and bayfront, from 9 a.m. to midnight.

Entertainment: Facility must approve name and nature of entertainment and reserves the right to restrict the vendor and volume of music.

Alcohol: Must be supplied by outside vendor.

Contact: Debbie Killarney, (941) 359-4491

Note: Due to the mansion's age, electrical power is limited. Candles are prohibited indoors, and all catering, decoration, staging, lighting and tent setup must be approved in advance. 

The Chelsea Center

2506 Gulf Gate Drive


A 160-foot wall of glass distinguishes this architecturally striking building; the 6,000-square-foot interior has no hidden corners or indoor columns. On the 23-acre grounds of St. Thomas More Catholic Church, it hosts weddings of all faiths.

Capacity: 300-400

Catering: Available on-site for smaller parties, but for parties larger than 100, outside caterers should be secured.

Rental costs: Friday and Saturday $1,500, plus a cleaning and setup fee of $250 for parties of 250 or less, $350 for parties of 251 to 400. Rental covers from noon to midnight.

Entertainment: Moveable stage and dance floor.

Alcohol: Must be supplied by outside vendor.

Contact: Helen Witts, (941) 927-7689 

The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort

1620 Gulf of Mexico Drive

Longboat Key

Stylish beachfront location. A spa and salon on the property can beautify the bride and her wedding party, and the on-site bakery can create the wedding cake. There's even a florist to design bridal bouquets.

Capacity: From 20 to 200

Catering: Available on-site.

Rental costs: $500 fee for indoor or outdoor weddings. Fee guarantees wedding space indoors in event of rain. Additional $5/person if wedding and reception are both held outdoors.

Entertainment: Space available.

Alcohol: Full bar on-site.

Contact: Debbie Allen, Catering Director (941) 383-6464, ext. 2902 

Crosley Museum

(Administration): One Haben Blvd.


This 16.5-acre estate on Sarasota Bay hosts nearly 80 weddings a year and is booked solid for weekends late into 2002. Guests love lingering in the second-story, solid wood observatory and on the terrace that provides views to the bay.

Capacity: From 80 to 600

Catering: Caterers must be self-contained.

Rental costs: $1,700 for first floor of mansion; $2,500 for first floor and outside grounds.

Entertainment: Space available.

Alcohol: Because the mansion is owned by Manatee County government, alcohol must be provided by Crosley Museum management.

Contact: Manatee Convention Center, (941) 722-3244, ext. 221

Note: Due to the mansion's historical designation, interior decorations using tape, nails, or any materials that might damage the structure are prohibited. 

El Conquistador County Club

4350 El Conquistador Parkway


An award-winning chef and phenomenal views of Sarasota Bay are the main attraction at El Conquistador.

Capacity: 300

Catering: Available on-site

Rental costs: $200-$800

Entertainment: Space available

Alcohol: Full bar available

Contact: Sebert Griffith, (941) 758-1466, ext. 115 

Historic Spanish Point

337 N. Tamiami Trail


This historic site that overlooks Little Sarasota Bay was home to Sarasota pioneer Bertha Palmer and holds two Indian middens and many Florida artifacts. Popular for smaller weddings held inside a quaint re-creation of an 1880s chapel or beside a languid pool with a white trellis covered in bougainvillea.

Capacity: Sunken Gardens accommodates 150 guests; Mary's Chapel seats 40.

Catering: Only weddings are permitted at Historic Spanish Point; no catering is allowed.

Rental costs: Sunken Gardens, $500 for two hours; Mary's Chapel, $300 for two hours.

Contact: Diane Gootee, Deputy Director, (941) 966-5214

Note: Receptions are not permitted at Historic Spanish Point; however, couples may bring a cake and champagne to their ceremony for a small celebration and photography. Also, be aware that the chapel is not air-conditioned.

Hyatt Sarasota

1000 Boulevard of the Arts


After a major renovation, the Hyatt has unveiled a new ballroom with a sophisticated décor that hosts many wedding receptions. Most wedding ceremonies are held in the outdoor sunken garden near the private Hyatt marina or at the 130-foot lagoon pool and its 30-foot waterfall.

Capacity: 800 in the ballroom; 150-200 at the pool.

Catering: Available on-site

Rental costs: No space fee. Quotes are based upon food and beverage estimates.

Entertainment: Space available.

Contact: Sheila Chilkotowsky, (941) 363-2603 

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

5401 Bay Shore Road


This state museum was created by circus impresario John Ringling to house his collection of Baroque art. Like Selby Gardens, it has various places to wed, from a spacious courtyard filled with statuary in a graceful, English-style garden to the terrace of Cà d'Zan.

Capacity: Up to 400, but the courtyard can accommodate as many as 1,000. The terrace accommodates up to 100.

Catering: Most major functions secure outside vendors.

Rental costs: Small receptions at the Banyan Café, $500 plus food. Cà d'Zan terrace, $3,500 weekdays, $7,500 weekends. Cost includes use of the first floor of the mansion from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. The museum courtyard is available from 6 p.m. to midnight for $3,500 in the summer, $5,000 in season.

Entertainment: Space available. All vendors must be approved by the museum.

Alcohol: Must be supplied by outside vendor.

Contact: Anna Pohl, (941) 359-5733

Note: The museum offers a $500 rate for weddings with no reception during museum hours.

Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club

7650 Legacy Blvd.

(Located on the Sarasota/Bradenton County line)

The 42,000-square-foot clubhouse at Lakewood Ranch is a favorite for weddings and receptions due to its grand, Italian-villa style and its view of the Arnold Palmer-designed Legacy golf course.

Capacity: 250 for a sit-down dinner with dance floor

Catering: Available on-site

Rental costs: No space fee; quotes are based upon food and beverage estimates.

Entertainment: Space available

Alcohol: Full bar on-site

Contact: D.J. Bracken (941) 907-4700, ext. 244

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

811 S. Palm Ave.


This year the gardens celebrate 25 years of hosting weddings. One of the most popular places to get married in Sarasota, it frequently hosts two and three weddings in a single day. Will provide a calendar of sunset times to help plan your wedding hour. Settings include the mansion, koi pond, gazebo, banyan trees and the new Schimmel Wedding Pavilion.

Capacity: The koi pond area seats 20; the banyans 100; the new gazebo up to 250.

Catering: Kitchen on-site. All vendors must be approved in advance. Receptions take place inside the Activities Center, where 60 feet of glass span Sarasota Bay.

Rental costs: Weekday range from $800 to $2,000; Saturday range from $1,250 to $3,250; Friday and Sunday range from $1,000 to $2,750. Prices include rental for 4 1/2 hours.

Entertainment: Space available.

Alcohol: Must be supplied by outside vendor.

Contact: Nancy Richardson, (941) 366-5731

Michael's On East

1212 East Ave. S.


Known as much for its award-winning cuisine as its grand ballroom, Michael's is one of Sarasota's most popular reception spots. Guests can linger in the adjoining tropical courtyard or stroll down for martinis at the EastSide piano bar. Most of the staff has been here for years, and the service shows it.

Capacity: The ballroom seats 400 but can accommodate higher numbers for informal receptions.

Catering: Available on-site.

Rental costs: No space rental; costs are based on menu and beverage selections.

Entertainment: Space available

Alcohol: Full bar on-site

Contact: Phil Mancini, (941) 366-0007, ext. 227

Misty Creek Country Club

8954 Misty Creek Drive


Misty Creek attracts smaller wedding parties who enjoy the preserve views from its clubhouse. Guests are frequently treated to the sight of strolling deer, bobcats, wild turkeys and eagles that nest on the grounds.

Capacity: 85-100

Catering: Available on-site

Rental costs: No space rental; quotes are based upon food and beverage estimates.

Entertainment: Space available

Alcohol: Full bar on-site

Contact: Chef Tom Ardini (941) 925-1538

Phillippi Estate

5500 S. Tamiami Trail


Originally the home of Edson Keith, the Phillippi Estate hosts weddings in its Southern Gothic gazebo or from the terrace that looks over Phillippi Creek. The mansion itself is used primarily for receptions, and even though it lies parallel to busy Tamiami Trail, a heavy hammock of oaks dripping with Spanish moss transports you back to lazy, romantic days of old.

Capacity: From 100-300

Catering: Caterers must be self-contained.

Rental costs: $1,200 for the entire day, noon to midnight

Entertainment: Space available

Alcohol: Because the estate operates under the state park system, renters must receive authorization from Parks and Recreation before serving alcohol.

Contact: Program attendant, (941) 316-1309

Note: Due to the mansion's historical designation, interior decorations using tape, nails, or any materials that might damage the structure are prohibited.

Radisson Lido Beach Resort

700 Ben Franklin Drive


The main attraction at the Radisson is the new Sunset Terrace on the eighth floor, where a wall of glass overlooks the Gulf of Mexico.

Capacity: 210 for formal dinner with dance floor; 100 in the Sunset Terrace

Catering: Available on-site

Rental costs: $500 for the Sunset Room; $1,200 for the ballroom. Twenty percent of food and beverage totals are credited toward room rental. Space rental is for five hours.

Entertainment: Space available

Alcohol: Full bar on-site

Contact: Kimberly Lemke, (941) 388-5653

The Resort at Longboat Key Club

301 Gulf of Mexico Drive

Longboat Key

The area's only AAA Four Diamond-rated beachfront resort. Most weddings take place beachside or at the Harbourside Dining Room. With views of the nearby marina, the wraparound porch is ideal for cocktails outside and dinner inside.

Capacity: 220

Catering: Available on-site

Rental costs: Does not charge a space fee; quotes are based upon food and beverage estimates.

Entertainment: Space available

Alcohol: Available on-site

Contact: Bobbie Richman, (941) 387-1621

The Ritz-Carlton-Sarasota

1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive


Sarasota's newest and most glamorous luxury hotel. The 12,000-square-foot ballroom is the largest function room in Sarasota, and staff is available to coordinate every facet of the wedding. The on-site bakery can even create the wedding cake.

Capacity: Up to 1,200 for informal ceremonies and receptions; 600 to 700 for formal plated dinners.

Catering: Available on-site, but can accommodate outside catering for special dietary, ethnic or ritual menus.

Rental costs: Does not charge a space fee; quotes are based upon food and beverage estimates.

Entertainment: Ample space for bands of all sizes

Alcohol: Full bar on-site

Contact: Steven Fisher, (941) 309-2000

Sarasota Jungle Gardens

3701 Bay Shore Road


We all know weddings can become a zoo, but some couples take that literally, booking their nuptials at Sarasota Jungle Gardens, amid exotic pink flamingos, brilliant macaws and stunning flowering plants.

Capacity: 200

Catering: Must secure outside catering

Rental costs: Call for quotations on wedding packages.

Entertainment: Space available

Alcohol: Must secure outside vendor

Contact: Mariel Lago, (941) 355-1112, ext. 303

Note: Due to the animals, no rice or balloons are allowed.

The Summerhouse Restaurant

6101 Midnight Pass Road

Siesta Key

The most distinctive feature of The Summerhouse is its lush, tropical garden décor. The waterfront garden and canal ensure elegant outdoor events.

Capacity: Varies seasonally. For day weddings, up to 250; night weddings, up to 100. Off season, can accommodate up to 250 at night.

Catering: Available on-site

Rental costs: From $200-$700 for four hours, five if it includes the ceremony. Price may increase if special linens or stemware is requested.

Entertainment: Upstairs piano bar. Can accommodate entertainment outdoors or indoors until 4 p.m.

Alcohol: Full bar on-site

Contact: Nicolle Van Sweringen, (941) 349-1107

Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall

777 N. Tamiami Trail


Sarasota's performing arts hall has become a favorite for weddings and receptions due to its spacious interior grand foyer (surrounded by a wall of glass facing Sarasota Bay), ample parking and sunset views. The outside area can be tented for receptions and outdoor weddings.

Capacity: 350 inside; outside lawn accommodates 1,000 or more

Catering: Has a preferred vendor, but guests may secure others

Rental costs: $250 per hour, minimum four hours, not to exceed $2,000. Required lobby attendant charge of $225.

Entertainment: Space available

Alcohol: Bar services are exclusively by Celebrations by Café L'Europe

Contact: Charmaine McVicker, (941) 955-7676, ext. 222

Wedding Trends at a Glance

Bigger, more expensive weddings

Black-and-white wedding photography

Strapless bridal gowns

More children in wedding parties

Engagement and wedding rings of platinum instead of gold

Theme weddings and receptions-tropical, Italian Baroque, Victorian, country French

Hydrangeas used in bridal bouquets and for table centerpieces

Individual mini-wedding cakes for guests to take home

Elaborate bachelor parties: a ski weekend in Aspen, a casino weekend in Vegas

Spa days for the bride and her attendants

Instead of throwing rice, releasing butterflies, tossing rose petals or blowing bubbles

Placing a red rose on an empty chair at the ceremony to remember a deceased relative

Innovative table favors for guests such as a CD of the couple's favorite songs

The return of the "blusher," the short veil that covers the bride's face as she walks down the aisle

Tales from the Front

War stories from the wedding pros.

Every Sarasota wedding professional has some war stories, like the one about the bride who wanted to make a spectacular entrance-so she showed up an entire hour late. Or another bride, a vice president at Coca-Cola, who banished Pepsi from the reception and hotel room mini-bars.

Wedding planners know all sorts of fascinating things and could divulge plenty. Who was nasty to whom? Who spent how much on what? Who refused to sit next to her ex, and why wouldn't the minister stand under the chuppa with the rabbi at a religiously blended ceremony? How about those feuding parents of the happy couples? But as many tales as they could tell, most professionals politely demur.

"We've got to work in this town," says planner Mary Kenealy. Besides, she understands that even the saintly can crack under the pressures of planning an elaborate and emotionally significant event. "Wedding consultants are a lot like therapists," she explains "A lot of what gets said to us is strictly confidential. We respect the relationship."

So Kenealy won't say much about the father of the groom who was so obnoxious that she nearly backed out of the project. Nor will she elaborate about an over-the-top ceremony that involved 31 in the wedding party, seven of them flower girls. "I was scheduling hair appointments every 15 minutes that day," she remembers.

And all wedding professionals know firsthand that decorum can be the first casualty of the free-flowing alcohol that often accompanies weddings. "I had a groomsman show up at the church so drunk that I had to pull him from the wedding party, grab an usher and substitute him," says planner Bobbi Hicks. Photographer Alan Ferguson documented one wedding that originated on Siesta Key and turned into an 11-hour free-for-all that ended up at The Colony. Another reception dissolved into a fistfight, with one man threatening to return with an Uzi. "At that point," says Alan. "I asked if I could please go home."

While photographers bear witness to the mania, wedding planners must control it. When a wedding cake tumbled in the baker's truck on its way to the reception. Hicks ordered the panicked baker back to his kitchen with instructions to build a fake duplicate with a top layer of real cake. They displayed this at the reception, while the baker rushed to bake and decorate a new cake.

"Caterers usually take the wedding cake back into the kitchen to cut it into servings," Hicks explains, so after the photographer snapped the bride and groom cutting the real top layer, the fake cake was whisked into the kitchen, switched with the new one and served to an unsuspecting crowd. "The mother of the bride told me she'd never tasted anything so fresh," says Hicks. "I thought to myself, 'It should be fresh. It's only a couple of hours old!'"

At another wedding, part of the flower order didn't arrive. "So I dashed around and took one or two roses from each centerpiece, pulled out the right color ribbon from my bag and had what we needed in about five minutes," Hicks remembers. "You've got to think fast in this business and plan for things to go wrong, because big or small, there's always that potential that something will."

Of course, not every unexpected development is hair-raising. Catering director Debbie Allen of The Colony recalls the reception where an NFL player surprised the entire wedding party by hopping onstage and commandeering the microphone for a sugary serenade to his new bride. "Here's this big, hulking guy wearing a Super Bowl ring and singing Sinatra. It was all off-key and so mushy," she remembers. "And it was the sweetest thing I ever saw."

-Marsha Fottler and Pat Haire

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