Interview with the Balmoral Wedding Planner
Weddings at The Balmoral Edinburgh
When she was a child, Elizabeth Bell dreamed about a wedding at The Balmoral Hotel. She would hop on the train from Fife to Edinburgh at weekends, pulling into Waverly station, bathed in the hotel’s grand shadow.
Within those walls, she heard tales of exotic palm courts, hidden passages, regal regulars, and literary magic. This was a place of fairy tale.
And Elizabeth’s dream came true. Many times over. To date, she has had nearly 200 weddings in the Balmoral. Elizabeth, you see, is the hotel's wedding planner.
As an attentive reader, you probably saw that coming. She didn't.
“I just fell into weddings, to be honest,” she says, laughing. “There was no pre-planned career based around a love of weddings. But it is incredibly rewarding.”
For someone who just tumbled into the profession, like Alice down the rabbit hole, Bell has been incredibly successful. She has organised nearly 800 in the past seven years. Prior to joining the Balmoral three years ago, she was wedding planner at Houstoun House Hotel near Livingston. Before that she organised people's big day at Auchen Castle in Moffat.
“People will book here because they buy into me,” she says. “They have to, as I am the person who will plan their wedding day. So quite often you get to know the couple really well. For some couples I am working with them for a year or two to plan the wedding.”
The industry has also been singing her praises. In 2012 and 2013 she was nominated as wedding planner of the year at the Scottish VOWS Awards, the industry's equivalent of the Oscars. She is hoping to graduate from her status as a bridesmaid at this year's bash.
It is not just the young Elizabeth who is bewitched by the Balmoral. Some couples book their wedding here without even visiting. It is easy to see why. In architectural terms, it is Princes Street's prince charming - a handsome, lantern-jawed hero of a building, compared to the impressive but rugged warrior that is Edinburgh Castle. It is a place ripe with romance and promise.
Opened as the North British Hotel in 1902, it was designed as a proxy for the grand station was never allowed in the space between the Old and New Towns, where Waverley Station apologetically squats.
It was built by the North British Railway Company as a luxurious stop over en route to the Highlands. This was during the golden age of train travel, when the railways were graced by mythical services such as The Flying Scotsman and the Orient Express. The Balmoral was a luxurious addition to this pantheon.
“It's a beautiful hotel,” says Elizabeth. “You feel proud to be working for such a landmark.”
Its myth-making continues into this century. In 2007 JK Rowling finished the Harry Potter series here (in Room 552 to be precise). Several weddings Elizabeth has planned have taken on this air of enchantment. A menu for one was themed around Roald Dahl’s book, James and the Giant Peach, complete with chocolate spheres filled with peach moose.
With two ballrooms, each holding between 80 and 250 people, and two smaller second floor rooms that can accommodate up to 60 people, Elizabeth has organised weddings of every size. With between 60 and 70 weddings each year, there is not a weekend that doesn’t pass without a bride gliding through the hotel’s ornate corridors.
Like the Balmoral's clock tower, which is famously set three minutes fast to help cajole passengers running for their trains, through it all Elizabeth is the embodiment of helpfulness.
“A lot of people think I might not be here on the day for the hard graft, like setting tables up,” she says. “But I do all the table plan and place cards myself. You need to feel confident when 200 guests enter a room, that the place-cards and table plan have been done perfectly. It can't not be perfect.”
Last year Elizabeth found herself in a manic race against time, as she tried to ensure that dictum was not violated.
It was a normal weekend in November. As usual, a wedding was planned for the Saturday. Most of Europe lay under a blanket of snow. Including, unfortunately, the runway in Germany that the bride’s parents were supported to be flying from. Their Friday night flight was cancelled. They would now arrive on the Saturday morning. It was going to be close, but manageable.
Then the Saturday morning flight was delayed. And delayed. The wedding was for 3 pm. The bride’s parents’ flight did not land until 3.30pm. “The bride, quite rightly, didn’t want to start without them,” says Elizabeth. “But the guests had all arrived. So we put on complimentary drinks while they waited. Then we discovered the issue with the luggage.”
The bride’s parents’ arrived at the Balmoral by 4.20pm, but without their bags. The snow had let the flight leave but not their wedding outfits. And so, the wedding proceeded with the father of the bride giving away his daughter in jeans and t-shirt. But what about the all-important wedding photographs?
Elizabeth was on a mission. She ran across the road to John Lewis, grabbed the personal shopper, and bought an outfit for the mother of the bride. All the while she was trying to work out the British equivalent to German sizes.
“Said she loved it,” says Elizabeth. “And she wore it for the rest of the day. It was really important for them, especially for the official wedding photos.”
The Balmoral has glamour and prestige built into it. It is a place, after all, where porters in regal red jackets would meet guests off their train and take them by elevator into the hotel, a place that called the Queen Mother a regular lunchtime visitor. It is rightly proud of the five-star service that Elizabeth and her team provide for weddings.
But it also presents a challenge. “People might have an idea about the Balmoral, that it's pretentious or too posh for them,” says Elizabeth. And, just like table plans and emergency mother-of-the-bride outfits, she has this covered.
“From the initial meeting, we want to make people feel as welcome as possible. From the concierge’s greeting onwards, we make sure they feel that this place is for them.”
The general manager, the Balmoral’s head honcho, is always around and accessible, which surprises a lot of people. As does the pricing, which Elizabeth describes as “high quality but affordable”.
And they are certainly not inflexibly straight-laced when it comes to couples adding bespoke touches to their wedding. Elizabeth can recommend suppliers, a massive help especially for the many international weddings, but couples can equally use their own ingenuity and contacts to craft something truly unique.
Last year, for example, a couple transformed the Balmoral’s Sir Walter Scott ballroom, by laying a cream carpet, covering the walls in cream drapes, and hiring a 20 piece show band from London. The room was transformed into a cream, pink and gold wonderland. “It was just, wow,” says Elizabeth.
And then there’s the food. The Balmoral is home to its own Michelin-starred chef, Geoff Bland, who is available to design the wedding menu. The James and the Giant Peach menu was one of his most recent commissions. “He enjoys the challenge,” says Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s childhood dreams are about to come true in another way. She is getting married later this year. A healthy split between work and her personal life means the wedding will not be at the Balmoral. Otherwise the place cards might prove too distracting.
But it does mean she is able to offer a little bit more of herself as she plans upcoming weddings.
“It's been amazing,” she says. “Everyone's asking me what I'm doing, who my supplier is, who is my photographer, band, and where I'm getting my dress. They relate to you more. There are a few brides who are around the same date as me, so we're comparing what we've done so far. So we're going on the journey together.”