We had the good fortune of connecting with Emily McMahon Wattez and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Emily, how has your work-life balance changed over time?
In the beginning, my work was able to take priority over most everything else. I’d been in the event industry for a while so working hard and dedicating long hours wasn’t a new thing, but running my own business was a lot bigger – and very exciting. I worked around the clock. There was no such thing as business hours, my clients could (and did) reach me at any time, and working from a home-office meant I never really “left”. In those days my home life consisted of a boyfriend and a dog… Ten years later that boyfriend is my husband, we have two dogs… and three small children. Certainly my work/life balance was very different than it is today, but I also believe there’s a season for everything. Those early years were all about growing and learning in my career. The scale was so tipped so far towards work that I let a long-time client talk me into managing an event that took place over the same weekend as my own wedding (I sent my assistant to work it, at least!). Marriage didn’t change too much – I planned a wedding that took place 11 days before my first born entered the world – and I actually spent the first few hours of my hospital induction, putting together a budget spreadsheet for a client. As my family grew, I learned that I simply cannot do “all the things, all the time”. I have to know when to pause one side of my world, in order to focus on the other. On any one day I have a growing to-do list that I’m juggling minute by minute, which I’ve had to become very good at prioritizing, and at delegating (which is all about building the right support team). Equally as important, I’ve become much better about letting things go, so that mentally I can remain focused on what really matters. I feel confidence in my years of event experience, and can use that hard-earned wisdom to make decisions quickly and complete tasks efficiently. In some ways having kids has made me realize that I am pretty good at my job, because I feel like there are very few challenges that may arise during an event that I wouldn’t know how to handle – and let me tell you, I never feel that same level of confidence in my parenting skills! The brilliance of owning your own business though is that you get to decide. If one of my kids is having a rough day, I can look at my to-do’s, knock out the most time-sensitive tasks, and then take some time off to dedicate to the small humans I’m trying to raise. Likewise, if a client is stuck with a decision and needs extra help, I might decide to work into the wee hours after the kids are in bed, to help them move into the next steps. I’m certainly not any less busy than I was before kids – but I’m choosing my busy. And then 2020 came around, and as so many of us in the hospitality industry have learned this past year – nothing can be taken for granted. I’ve had difficult conversations with all of my clients who had to make hard choices over whether to cancel or only pause their plans, and how to do so in the most sensitive, and budget-friendly way. There’s still a lot of uncertainty – advising on when to start (or re-start) planning an event in this climate is new territory. Quality time at home with the kids is a given, if you’re under a stay-at-home order. But I’ve also been able to take time this past year to think about what I love, and what I don’t love, about my job – and make plans for how to ensure my business continues to grow in the right directions, once the world opens back up. Rather than pivot towards pandemic-friendly events, I made the intentional choice to stick with what I’m passionate about – planning fantastic, creative, In-Person celebrations. I believe live events will be “next level” when it is finally safe to gather, and my overall balance may tip back towards work again for while. But if it does, it’s because I choose for it go that way, for the next season.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
I never intended to be a business owner. In some ways I feel that it just “happened” to me, rather than me making it happen. But 2020 was actually the tenth anniversary of Grandes Fêtes, and 2019 was my most successful year to date. (I believe 2020 would have been, but we all know how Covid changed the world in a blink.) I think what I’m most proud of is how my business has morphed over the years directly towards what I do best and love the most. I started out in event design as that is what I knew well, but then I started to get requests to plan and design, mostly weddings at first, and I fell in love with the personal aspects of these life-changing occasions. Designing was fun, but managing the entire event… that was inspiring. Watching all the pieces come together, collaborating with so many amazing vendors, and getting to know my clients so well – I just loved it. I love how my clients become my best friends for a time. I love helping people plan an event that is personal, meaningful, and perfectly in line with their own style and energy. I like that I help people. I get teary when someone says their I-Do’s, or I watch the Bar Mitzvah montage. I’ve done some corporate retreats recently and find myself inspired and proud of the businesses celebrating their growth and change. I’m proud that all of my work has been word of mouth, in a time when social media rules it all – I still feel strongly that direct referrals and real experience mean so much more than a pretty picture on instagram. I’m a bit of a wallflower, so I like being behind the scenes, while still being in charge of it all. I think the fact that I miss my clients once their events are over, means a lot about the kind of clients I’ve been so lucky to work with. That I have repeat clients who have hired me to do events year after year, feels like an accomplishment to celebrate. I think what is most important for people to know about me, is that I love what I do, and at the end of the day what’s the most satisfying for me is knowing I helped my clients create their perfect event. Not my perfect event, not anyone else’s, but the event of their own dreams. Every single person I work with is different, and so their event should be too. I can provide as much or as little help as my clients may need, and ensure that on the big day they will get to relax and enjoy it.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Los Angeles is a city for anyone, that’s what I love so much about it. Whatever your interest, there are places to go that will check those boxes. My in-laws love museums – there are enough here that we can go to a new one every time they visit. My brother loves unique experiences and spectacle – there are so many “secret” bars and live shows to explore. Most of my besties have small children, and there is no end to the adventures you can go on with kids. There’s often a festival happening right around the corner, celebrating a unique topic or culture. The beach and the mountains are both within an hour’s drive. And oh the food… I think my ideal week’s itinerary would include a canyon hike with a stream and shady trails, a beach day in Malibu with tide pools and gentle waves, an afternoon at the Getty Museum on a clear day when you can see all the way to the water, maybe a day-trip up to Santa Ynez for some wine tasting (I got married up there!), an intimate magic show at Magic Bar or a trip into the magical depths of Lost Spirits Distillery, an outdoor movie with food truck hop, and most definitely pizza at Mozza, sushi at Sugarfish, the croissant French toast at Perch downtown, and if we were really feeling decadent a tasting menu from one of any number of the amazing chefs in town – with wine pairing of course. The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
We can learn something from everyone we work with, but there are two people in particular who have really helped me to grow into who I am as an event planner. My last job before I started my business was as a designer for TFS Studio, a high-end event design firm responsible for the “look” of exclusive events taking place all around the world. My boss, Clifford Miller, taught me more than I could ever write down in a list. Clifford remains one of the most influential humans in my career, as he illustrated to me how to be a business owner with roots in kindness and grace. From him I learned how to listen to a client’s dream, and then interpret that dream into a reality. I learned how to budget for that dream, how to manage a team to execute that dream, and how to troubleshoot if the dream wasn’t working out as anticipated. I learned so much, but mainly because Clifford put his trust in me – even when I didn’t yet deserve it. Clifford just expected I could handle it, whatever “it” was, unless I went to him for help. And because he believed that I could handle it – I learned to do so. He believed in me, so I learned to believe in myself. While working for TFS, I had the privilege of designing a few events for an amazing event producer, Heidi Mayne of Red25 Events. I liked Heidi from the start, but I didn’t realize how much I would one day learn from her. When I started my event planning business we stayed in touch, and I began asking her advice from time to time. My experience at TFS required a decent knowledge of all aspects of an event, but was definitely rooted in design. As my business grew I found myself with a lot to learn. Heidi has impeccable taste. The events she produces are seamless. She has this innate ability to anticipate any issues that may arise, in advance, and already have a game plan for how to handle any what-if’s. But what I feel really makes Heidi stand out from the rest, is that she genuinely wants to help people. While other event planners might see me as “competition”, Heidi sees me as a fellow woman, making her way in the world – and has always been willing to offer her opinions and experiences. She has empathy, she has compassion, and she isn’t afraid to say “no” or stand up for what she believes is right. Over the years our relationship has grown and I’ve had the honor of co-producing some amazing events with Red25 Events. We make a pretty awesome team, and I always know that whatever may come up in the future, Heidi will be willing to listen and advise. When you’re the business owner, there aren’t always that many people who will help guide and support you – having that someone in my life is invaluable, and I will forever be grateful for Heidi as a mentor, a partner, and a friend.
Family portrait: Darby Nicole Spaces. Nighttime event tent: Tammy Horton Photography. Daytime Sailcloth Tent: Andy DeLisle Photography. Hot Pink Party: Shannon Lee Images. Yosemite Bride & Groom: Patrick Pike Photos. Dinner party with light strands: Docuvitae. Festival with chandelier: Andy DeLisle Photography.