Sisters Dawn Clark and Mary Coombs exemplify Holly Chapple's vision for the Chapel Designers organization and we're thrilled to bring their story to you as they celebrate 10 years in business as A Garden Party. Tami & Ryan Photography captured the images in this post at their anniversary celebration in Elmer, New Jersey. Congratulations on 10 years of hard work, trials endured and sweet success, Dawn & Mary!
We recently sat down with Dawn and Mary to get some insight into their flower journey and the root of their success growing A Garden Party.
Chapel Designers: Thanks for sitting down with us and sharing your story! Can you take us briefly through your floral journey starting with the creation of A Garden Party and describe how A Garden Party has changed over the years?
A Garden Party: Our journey started as most creative careers do - in the daily life of our childhood. We always loved picking flowers for our Mom and annual trips to Longwood Gardens inspired a sense of respect and fascination with Mother Nature. As we got older, our participation in our high school's FFA program helped structure our flower arranging while degrees at Penn State for Mary and SUNY Cobleskill for Dawn solidified our career choices. It has been incredible watching our business evolve - we have so much more confidence in our style now and have had the good fortune of being able to select clients who love flowers as much as we do. In the beginning, you take whatever job you can, and just hope that you can share your creativity and influence. Now, our clients trust us to fly a bit more freely and we have so much pride in the work we create.
Chapel Designers: What services does A Garden Party provide?
A Garden Party: A Garden Party provides a myriad of services to help with event design and decor. Beyond floral elements such as bouquets and centerpieces, we've escalated our rental inventory to set up lounge areas, pipe and drape, lighting, custom signage and specialty linens. An added event design fee will secure us to help clients with the room layout, linen selections, seating cards, and overseeing any furniture rentals. We also offer DIY Wedding Parties for clients to come with their friends and family members and create their own wedding flowers based on our recommendations and recipes.
Chapel Designers: What is the most valuable lesson you've learned over the course of your career?
A Garden Party: The most valuable lesson we've learned would be to maintain a sense of gratitude. Every client that books us is trusting us and helping us to achieve our dream. Even if we don't necessarily have the exact same style as some clients, these are the people who are making our careers a possibility and it's important to respect the opportunity they are giving us. Being grateful to clients includes being respectful in our transparency - our proposals lay out exactly where each dollar they pay us is going. We're grateful for the nature of our career - we get to do what we want, what we love to do. We get to prioritize our schedule to make time for our families and maintain control over how we want to run our business. We are also grateful for other vendors! I can't imagine if there weren't amazing photographers who take the time to focus on our details at an event, to submit weddings and send us the images for promotions. High quality wedding planners and venue coordinators are also great relationships for booking clients - these types of recommendations are so important in helping us acquire the types of events that are to the scale we love.
Chapel Designers: What have been your biggest challenges along the way and how did you overcome those challenges?
A Garden Party: Our biggest challenge is the nature of busy seasons versus slow seasons. It's hard to not panic that we won't get everything done in our busy season, that we won't have enough staff, enough time, or do it fast enough. And then when it's slow, are we overstaffed? Are we spending too much? It's an ebb and flow that we have to work on accepting.
Chapel Designers: Tell us about your staff. How many do you employ? What are their responsibilities? How do you find and keep employees?
A Garden Party: Besides Mary and Dawn, there are 6 year round staff members. Torey is our head designer - while we are in the office during the week, Torey makes the daily designs, processes flowers, and is our right hand man when we are on the bench designing weddings. She is Dawn's sister-in-law, and an invaluable member of the team. Next, we have a shop manager, Christine, Dawn's best friend. Christine works out the timelines for each event, including set-up, delivery and breakdown. She goes over our supply inventory and keeps updated with what we need to order or replace. She is also in charge of the newer staff members, delegating what needs to be cleaned for events and packing the vehicles. Cristina, Mary's sister-in-law, is our Administrative Assistant. She writes our blog, does our invoices, estimates, updates proposals from brides, office accounting, marketing, web maintenance etc. Cristina also does all of our custom signage and personalized artwork. Ashley is our newest year-round staff member, and she does it all! Her first week with us she laid a brick walkway, and the surprises she's had up her sleeve haven't stopped. She is a hard worker and an important part in wedding set ups, midnight breakdowns and sympathy work designs. Sandy is another part time designer we’ve recently added that has blessed us with her talented fingers. Last but certainly not least, our mother, Melanie Colson, assists the team every Friday in the studio and on the weekends with set ups. She folds a mean napkin and boasts mad bout skills. We have struck gold in that our employees are all associated as family and close friends and that it works so well for us. We have many people who apply to work with us, and I think they glamorize the job and most don't understand how much physical labor and sweat is involved, or the amount of strategy that is used in design. We have trialed applicants and can always guage who clicks or who isn't quite the right fit. For the employees we have now, it was important to see individually what each person offers and taking advantage of their strengths - for example, Cristina may not be a floral designer, but she is still essential to keep us running smoothly.
Chapel Designers: What are your dreams for the future of A Garden Party?
A Garden Party: Our dreams for the future would be to expand our cutting gardens and our knowledge as growers. This is not only to save money, but for the convenience of always being able to fall back on what we have right in our backyards. We love putting that piece of ourselves into arrangements, and supporting the Slow Flowers movement has been very important to us. We are also working on limiting the types of events we work on. We've set budget minimums for weddings and will no longer book more than 3 events in a day. We've been pickier about our clients, too, and hope that our business will continue to attract those who love flowers as much as we do. We're hoping this means that our future holds beautiful, quality events that have us walking away inspired instead of just accepting whomever gets a deposit in first.
Chapel Designers: Tell us about your families. How do you balance being mothers/wives with being entrepreneurs?
A Garden Party: Balance is a tricky word. I think it's important to note that nobody can "have it all," or at least not all at once. I think that there will always be give and take. We only schedule meetings two nights a week, one night for Mary to work late and one night for Dawn. During the busy season, we don't get all the quality time that we want with our husbands and children, and it's hard, but it's so that we can be happy. We like the independence, the creativity, and the fact that we are setting good examples as hard-working businesswomen for our children. Our husbands are both big helps in our company as well - they have both been on numerous setups, breakdowns and involved in behind-the-scenes construction for our large-scale designs (including a floral elephant frame and a 10 ft cross!). Our husbands and parents are also a huge part of raising our kids - getting them off the bus or home from school or even as childcare providers. The support from our family means everything. Our slower season means that we take a break from the office work - days are shortened to end at 4pm - and we get to do more things with our children. This is vacation time with our families when we can do way more extracurricular activities together.
Chapel Designers: What have you learned about business ownership and/or floral design that you wish you'd known when you started your business?
A Garden Party: What we've learned concerning the business ownership aspect would be the importance of knowing and keeping track of every dollar. Setting a budget helps us stay firm in our quotes, because we have mapped out the profit margins that will allow us to pay for the flowers, delivery fees and labor that will go into setting up an event. It may sound basic, but knowing that there is a minimum amount that we have to make to make sure that we can pay our staff and put food on the table gives us a lot more confidence in our charging and prices.
Chapel Designers: How has your Chapel Designers membership affected your business experience? Your personal life?
A Garden Party: Becoming Chapel Designers was a turning point for our business. The network has shown us that anything we can dream up in our floral design is possible since we have such an incredible resource of fellow florists. It has taken our work to a whole new level of quality. We've also been able to hire fellow Chapel Designers as freelancers with full confidence in their style and capability. On a more personal note, sometimes all you need is to vent, or to hear similar client horror stories to be able to laugh about some ridiculous scenarios instead of crying over petty complaints - or to be given the reality check when we feel wronged but the client was justified. Overall, it's nice that when we feel crazy or burnt out to know that we're not alone.
Chapel Designers: Can you share a little about your special 10 Year Anniversary Party?
A Garden Party: Our 10 Year Anniversary Party was a huge success. Not necessarily because of the amount of people that came out, but because of the quality of relationships we had with each one. The fact that Holly Chapple came and supported us with fellow Chapel Designers meant so much. There were people from all walks of our 10 year history, all bringing back certain memories and cherished moments of growth. The gestures made by fellow vendors was also SO incredible. Our wedding photographer friends came to take photos, DV Flora donated a ton of product for us to design with, a wedding planner donated her services to keep us organized, Let's Do Linens donated linens to decorate with, and another wedding coordinator sent her Party Host Helpers to serve food and help with set up. It really touched us to see how many people care about us and want to see us succeed.