A word with Janessa White, co-founder of Simply Eloped

Liz Patterson Harbauer//April 8, 2020//

A word with Janessa White, co-founder of Simply Eloped

Liz Patterson Harbauer//April 8, 2020//

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Janessa White, co-founder of Simply Eloped

Started in 2016 in Idaho by a young couple seeing a shift towards elopements instead of traditional weddings, Simply Eloped got ahead of the curve and offered a unique service: planning small weddings and destination weddings for couples seeking something more intimate and unique.

And as the trend grew, so did Simply Eloped. Fast forward to 2020 and they now have organized over 5,000 ceremonies and are serving 20 markets around the nation from Idaho to the Florida Keys.

An elopement isn’t going to the courthouse and getting married in secret anymore. It’s simply defined as a wedding with under 20 guests. These small weddings offer a chance for a more personalized and less traditional experience. Some couples who choose to elope plan destination weddings in scenic locations or adventurous experiences in remote getaways. And scenery and adventurous experiences are two of Idaho’s specialties.

The average wedding in the United States costs upward of $30,000, but Simply Eloped offers wedding planning packages starting as low as $350, creating more accessible options for young couples seeking a beautiful event that doesn’t break their budget.

But even a small wedding with a handful of people became out of the question when the country locked down with stay-at-home orders and social distancing protocols in light of the coronavirus outbreak. Many couples are choosing to cancel their weddings or postpone them.

As the event planning industry deals with a significant hit to business during this crisis, Janessa White, co-founder of Simply Eloped, has a message to fellow planners: compassion.

“If you lead with kindness and understanding, it’s going to be better for you,” she says. People will remember the businesses that acted with compassion during this frightening and challenging time and will want to support them in the future.

Recently, the Idaho Business Review spoke with White about the story of Simply Eloped, the elopement and wedding planning industry and how the company is weathering the current crisis.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the story behind Simply Eloped?

My business partner was my boyfriend at the time, and he worked for an SEO agency that’s headquartered here. He did research and realized that there were all sorts of people looking for elopement services and there weren’t very many people helping them. He was really passionate about it and really wanted to build a business and tried to do it on his own for a bit but it didn’t really go anywhere. And that’s where I get introduced. I have done events and customer service and I’ve done weddings so I offered my help. I was like, ‘Maybe with my experience, I can be an asset to you.’ And two weeks later, we had our first customer.

A wedding planned by Simply Eloped in Hawaii. Photo by Lei Contradt, courtesy of Simply Eloped

So it just kind of started organically between us. We ran the company, the two of us, for about a year and a half. We only had one employee for the first two-and-a-half years of our business. And then at that point, we started growing so aggressively that we started scaling our team. Currently, we are at 17 employees and are in 20 markets around the nation.

We define an elopement as 20 guests or fewer. We do that because anything over 20 requires chairs and a sound system. So you need more structure when you get to the end. But we also felt that capping it at just a couple didn’t really make sense. A lot of people still want to invite their family, their parents or best friends, people who were important to the relationship.

Our last count is that we’ve performed over 5,000 ceremonies since the inception of our business in 2016.

What are some of the most popular locations? Specifically, here in Idaho?

They’re so obvious here in Idaho. Stanley’s a huge one. Sun Valley’s a huge one. Here in the Boise area, we do quite a few at Bogus Basin and Camel’s Back Park.

Are there any specific challenges you run into while planning a wedding in Idaho?

The most unusual thing is that we are not an international airport, so a lot of people who are getting married in Idaho live in Idaho, which is reversed from what we’ve seen in other markets. 82% of the people in other markets outside of Idaho are actually destination elopements. So it means they don’t live there; they travel there to get married. For family members traveling to attend the ceremony, it’s usually more expensive and more of a hassle to get here.

So you started off in event coordination and then you switched to being a wedding planner. What are some of the differences you notice between the two industries? 

I’d say the first thing is emotions, right? I think there’s a lot of pressure on the couple and on the families. The process of planning a wedding is really expensive, really time-consuming and very complicated. So I think that the first difference between any events and a wedding is just the pressure that people feel because they’re inviting their loved ones and they’re celebrating with the people they care the most about.

Another thing that I would say is different is, because you are combining two families, not everyone is necessarily guaranteed to get along. If you’re doing a convention with co-workers, people are generally going to be on their best behavior. But when you’re bringing two families together, emotions are really tied up in an event like that.

Something I’ve also observed is that in the wedding industry, things just generally cost more. So if you’re buying a cake for a convention versus buying a cake for a wedding, generally you’re going to see about a 30% markup. I do think that it’s, to a degree, businesses taking advantage. But I also think it’s because a convention’s a more consistent thing than a wedding. There’s actually a high probability that that won’t go through. They’ll put the deposit down and they’ll break up or they’ll change their mind or a family member will get sick. So I mean, there is a reason why those prices are higher.

In regards to the crisis right now, are your events predominantly being postponed? Or are you getting cancellations?

I’d say a 60/40. I’d say 60% of the people who had plans in April and May are postponing and 40% are canceling.

What advice do you have for other event and wedding planners to weather the storm?

The first piece of advice is to act with grace and compassion. I’ve seen a huge mix of responses coming in from people. I think that there is a sense that we’re all going through this together, but when it’s a customer versus business owner, I think you can feel kind of pitted against one another. So I really encourage anyone in this industry who’s on the business side to have grace and compassion. People are losing jobs, people are losing family members, people have their spouses still going into work in public places because they can’t afford to lose jobs. This is an extremely stressful time for everybody. I know a lot of businesses are facing going under and that’s a terrible thing, but to me, it’s more devastating to lose a family member.

It’s not an easy decision to cancel a wedding. That in itself is a pretty emotional thing. Approaching everybody with compassion and understanding and empathy — I think that is going to bode better than preservation. We’re dealing with a lot of venues right now that won’t refund deposits for the clients who have canceled with us, who we’ve already refunded the deposit to. I just feel like it’s really shortsighted. I think when everything shakes out, people are going to remember the businesses they dealt with. Did they understand where I was coming from or did they act like a regular business and just keep my money? I think people remember that. So I think in general, if you lead with kindness and understanding, it’s going to be better for you.

What do you think the long-term ramifications are going to be?

Obviously I’m not an economist. I’m not a health professional. So I can’t speak to those two things. But I think in the wedding industry specifically, we will see people reluctant to gather in large groups for a really long period of time. I also think there’ll be a lot of reluctance for international travel. I definitely think that we’re just now seeing the beginning round on our economy. And so I think that people for a while will be more budget-conscious.

Another aspect is we’re all really, really starved for humanity right now. I think that any negative feelings or any kind of negative behaviors are pretty unwelcome right now because we’re all going through so much. People will just be really starved for compassion.

A lot of the businesses that are going out of their way to provide health supplies or to distribute meals to the homeless — I think an act like that will really be remembered and I think that people will support those businesses that went out of their way during this time.

So your whole office is working remotely. What has that been like? Do you have advice for companies that are forced to do that right now?

We’re doing our best to treat our teams with grace. We’re really encouraging mental health breaks. We do regular mental health checks. We just did one today where anything goes: you can express any feeling and say whatever you’re going through. It’s really important to encourage people to be really attentive to their own personal needs. It’s really important to really self-monitor. And then as an employer, give your employees a lot of breaks to take care of themselves and their families.

Another thing is supporting people to not leave their homes. That’s so crucial and so important, whether that’s supporting people with Uber Eats gift cards or whatever. It mostly just comes down to grace. I think everyone has different needs. Some people have kids; some people don’t. It’s a lot harder with kids. As an employer, just being understanding that you’re probably not going to get 100% of the output that you were getting a month ago and being considerate about that.