Proposal professionals guide the clueless

Dave Stys hired Michelle Velazquez, of proposal planning service, The Heart Bandits, to help plan a proposal to his girlfriend Jessica Sokolek. (Jensen Photography,
Dave Stys hired Michelle Velazquez, of proposal planning service, The Heart Bandits, to help plan a proposal to his girlfriend Jessica Sokolek. (Jensen Photography,
Posted: June 07, 2012

Dave Stys knew with total certainty that he wanted to propose to his girlfriend, Jessica Sokolek, in March. What he didn’t know was how.

For one thing, admitted Stys, 36, of Old City, "I had a fear of getting down on one knee and proposing, and the whole thing falling flat." But more than that, "I knew she’d be retelling this story forever, so it just felt really important … and I wanted Jess to know that the act of asking her to marry me was very significant to me."

So, after watching a few splashy proposals on YouTube, Stys decided to seek professional help. He joined the small but growing number of would-be grooms turning to proposal planning pros for everything from generating ideas to designing details, hiring extras, and snapping photos for posterity.

Stys hired Michelle Velazquez, who launched her Los Angeles-based proposal planning service, the Heart Bandits, two years ago, after receiving an underwhelming proposal of her own (an awkward ask-on-a-sunset-cruise-just-as-it-was-jostling-its-way-back-to-the-pier; she hates boats).

Because Sokolek, 30, loves to dance, Velazquez helped Stys fake a Groupon to Society Hill Dance Academy. A tango lesson was photographed under the guise of gathering new shots for the dance school’s website; later, a tour of the studio ended in a candlelit, flower-petal-strewn room, where a poster-size sign was awaiting a stunned Sokolek with the big question.

Spoiler: She didn’t say no.

Stys was like many men (and women) who contact the Heart Bandits: He didn’t know what he wanted, but he knew it had to be great. Velazquez said her clients come in two categories: "We have the client that has no idea how they want to propose. … Then, we have the client who knows how they want to propose and they’re type A, but they don’t have time to do it, so they hire us to execute it. So it’s either a busy executive, or it’s someone who’s just clueless."

Clueless or not, men are feeling the pressure from the awe-inspiring exemplars on YouTube and the even more impressive feats of romance on shows like The Bachelor and Mobbed, she said. "Women have always had high expectations for their proposals, but before they didn’t know how other people were getting engaged," Velazquez said. "Social media and mainstream media are definitely increasing women’s expectations."

As a result, Velazquez now averages about one proposal per week, and a handful of proposal pros around the country are setting up shop or adding question-popping consultations to their portfolio of wedding-planning services. Heather Vaughn, chief executive of the Yes Girls, also based in California, says she launched her business in 2008 after learning there were 100,000 Google searches per month for proposal help, yet no businesses to fulfill the need.

Perhaps as a consequence, she said, many men tend to err toward the grandiose. While she has orchestrated the occasional Bollywood-style flash mob, she usually tries to refocus clients not on "what" or "where" but rather on "how" the proposal is executed.

She and other proposal professionals say it’s all about personalized details, not outsize statements — skip the Jumbotron unless she’s a Phillies season-ticket holder — so they often distribute questionnaires to home in on what matters to the couple, including thoughtful details or sentimental gestures.

Vaughn says those questionnaires have led her four-year-old proposal business in many different and quixotic directions. She’s done everything from inflating thousands of balloons to re-create the movie Up in a Las Vegas pool cabana, to designing a Parisian flea market on a New York City rooftop, to hiring a professional sand sculptor, to helping a man cast his friends in a makeshift boy band for a proposal in a public park.

"The premise of the company is to make each one really unique to the relationship," she said. The one constant among all the proposals: "having a videographer or a photographer there is really key now."

Stys says having that documentation was crucial in his mind: The proposal is "something that we’ll always have as a memory, and I also wanted it to be something Jess could share with her family and her best friends."

Still, having a photographer lurking in the corner creates plenty of potential for awkwardness. That’s why James Ambler, a New York-based paparazzo who spent years shooting celebrities for People, TMZ, and other outlets, launched his covert proposal photography business, Paparazzi Proposals, about a year back. He contracts celebrity photographers across the country, including in Philly, to snap discreet proposal photos that don’t detract from the moment.

While Ambler often gets last-minute calls — "us guys are hopeless," he said with a sigh — a great paparazzi job takes hours of planning. "We’ve got to make sure we have the shot and a backup angle," he explained. For one client, a wealthy London street-art collector, Ambler had hoped to arrange a proposal atop a cherry-picker by one of the Love Letters murals; after scouting the West Philly location he decided the neighborhood was a bit rough for his client’s taste, and instead hired a prominent graffiti artist to create a similar piece on canvas.

He has also trailed clients across Manhattan for entire proposal weekends, organized flash mobs of ballet dancers, and shot romantic gondola rides.

When clients come to him, Ambler said, he’ll go so far as to create a storyboard of the perfect proposal. Velazquez also makes detailed sketches, approved at every step by the client; then, if she’s working remotely, she demands that photos of the staged proposal site be sent so she can adjust every detail.

Occasionally, experts also get calls from women. Vaughn has crafted proposals for a few who were tired of waiting for their boyfriends to get down on one knee, as well as one for a client who had declined a proposal from her boyfriend years earlier, and now knew it was her turn. For one couple, the Yes Girls set up signs along a chairlift at a ski resort, so he could read the proposal on the way up and be greeted by friends and family at the top. Vaughn says such proposals can be a challenge, but the basic ingredients for romance — a heartfelt request and the element of surprise — remain the same.

Services vary in price from an idea consultation for $100 or $200, to an average of $1,500 for a simple full-service proposal by the Heart Bandits — and on up, depending on how many ballet dancers, a cappella singers, and helium balloons you can afford. Planners are usually able to wrangle vendor discounts for photographers, florists, musicians, and actors, as well as to recruit volunteer extras.

Perhaps most important, pros are there to talk men down from disastrously misguided gestures of romance (one recent loser included a fake Super Bowl ad, which Velazquez said doesn’t exactly scream romance).

"We’re trying to balance it out and say even though the proposal can be grand or over-the-top, it’s the most important thing you can ask someone," says Ambler. Even when asked simply, it’s still the big question: "The gesture itself says everything."

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