It’s been eighteen years since Wonda Karibian took over A-1 Party Rental, but she’s not slowing down: she just bought out a St. Louis company and expanded across the river.
Karibian was working for the St. Louis Butler’s Pantry catering company in the 1990s, but wanted to work on the metro-east side of the river to be closer to her family. So she began working for a party rental business, and in 1999 she bought the company.
Since then, A-1 Party expanded to become A-1 Party and Wedding Rental. They handle home parties, barbecues, graduations, craft fairs and any other type of event, but at least 80 percent of their business is comprised of weddings and anniversary parties, Karibian said.
This past weekend, for example, the 12 employees of A-1 Party handled 33 events, almost all of them weddings. That’s more than 3,000 items rented, many to be delivered, set up, and collected at the end of the festivities. That’s an average weekend, Karibian said.
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And now they have purchased Sitting Pretty, a wedding and party rental firm on the St. Louis side of the river. With this purchase — creating A-1 Party and Wedding Rental/Sitting Pretty as the new name of the firm — Karibian has a store in Maplewood as a showroom in addition to her three-storefront location on Main Street in Collinsville, and adding 12,000 square feet of warehoused fabric and products to their rental inventory.
The News-Democrat recently sat down with Karibian to talk about the expansion and the challenges of owning a business:
Q: What are the challenges you’ve faced in your years in the industry?
A: “Having enough inventory, keeping up with the colors … Every year the colors change. You have to invest quite a bit to come up with different colors for the brides, with the trends and styles. Every bride is unique, and we want her to feel she is the only customer that weekend… The average bride may be doing most of it herself, but using us to fill in the blanks. They have a lot of stress that weekend, and they want someone to help and pamper them.”
Q: Most weddings are on weekends, what’s a weekend like?
A: “On a good weekend we can do 30 brides. We see people post online, ‘Thank goodness it’s Friday!’ We say, ‘We wish it was Tuesday.’”
Q: How have the trends changed over the years?
A: “They all come back around. Bright colors or dark colors, sparkle is in or out. We are finally starting to come out of the burlap phase, and the bling is coming back… We do backdrops in every shape and size. We design and sew the backdrops ourselves, and we do custom designs for them.”
Q: What’s the most unusual request you’ve gotten for a wedding?
A: “I delivered a coffin for a wedding. They were both dressed in black, it was a goth-type wedding. I have two coffins, like Count Dracula coffins. We have them for Halloween fun, but that was their first wedding outing.”
Q: How did you decide to purchase Sitting Pretty?
A: “The gentleman had come to me a couple of times, and I was thinking about retiring! But they had so much more inventory than I had on overlays, patterns, bengaline, damask, all these beautiful fabrics … 500 bolts for me to design backdrops. They have fun things like tablecloths with boots on them for a cowboy theme, or swans or florals or stars. It had everything I didn’t have.”
Q: How has the transition been going?
A: “As of right now, we are organized. You take 12,000 square foot of product and put it together… We are just now to the point where we can walk people through.”
Q: The expansion gives you a foothold in St. Louis as well as the metro-east now, doesn’t it?
A: “Now that we are doing St. Louis it’s really starting to pick up. This is our first summer to do St. Louis, and we’re learning all the halls and country clubs there.”
Q: Do you get most of your customers from wedding shows?
A: “Wedding shows are definitely where we get the majority of our brides. Everybody and their brother puts on a wedding show now… It’s at least two shows a month, and they cost a lot: $500 to $800 each. If you look at an average show, I expect to spend about $2 a bride to talk to her. But you have to go, because if you do 15 shows instead of 16, that 16th is where you’re missing brides.”
Q: What advice would you have for someone thinking about running a business like yours?
A: “Research. When I got ready to do this, I went to SIUE and did a lot of research. I took the figures of how much (the previous owner) made, and they told me I would lose about half my clients, and it would pick up in two or three years. They told me how much money I would lose the first year. They’re telling you that because it’s true, so listen to the advice of people who know. I had never been a business owner, this was my first experience of owning a business. It’s been ups and downs, but we’re on our way up.”