An interview with | Alan Hodge Wedding Toastmaster
On stand-up comedy, the space-time continuum and lost wedding rings
I’ve been to weddings where the toastmaster has ‘performed’ and put on a show, full of stories about themselves. At others, they’ve been all about the red jacket and being in control yet when it comes to the actual work they’ve been about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
But Alan is one of the industry’s gems. He’s positive, diplomatic and sensitive to the core. A true gent who makes everyone feel special. He can ask a Mother of the Bride to leave the room so that I can photograph it in a way that no-one else can.
He’s a bit of a joker too and has a huge sense of fun, which makes his approach thoroughly modern. No traditional Toastmaster formality unless you want it. You can’t help but have fun at a wedding with Alan.
He makes every wedding I work at much less difficult and much less stressful, which means my couples get better photos. After so many weddings together I only have to look at him and he knows what I need. If he does that for me, imagine what he’ll do for you as his client. You’ll be glad to have him on your side.
How did you become a wedding toastmaster?
Years ago I worked in clubs doing stand-up comedy and singing. I’ve always been into amateur dramatics. Back then Susanna (my wife) and I had a holiday home on the coast where I played golf. The golf club had an end of year ball where a Toastmaster was working. Susanna said “you could do that” and I thought “yeah, I could”.
So I studied to be a Toastmaster. You have to train for two years and take exams. At that time I was a member of one of the trade associations for Toastmasters. They come out once a year and watch you to make sure your work is up to standard. They told me off for not being formal enough. At this particular wedding, the guests had taken their coats off because it was hot and they told me to tell everyone to put their jackets back on. Their approach is very traditional. They tell you when you can smoke, when you can take your jacket off, when you can leave the room… They said I enjoyed it too much! After that, I left the association and built my business based on controlling the day but not taking over. Whatever happens, the bride and groom have got to shine and have fun.
What’s a typical wedding day like for you?
I like to arrive early; a couple of hours before the guests, especially for civil ceremonies. If the Bride is getting ready at the venue, I’ll pop up to her room to say hi and chat through the day, just as a reminder and to make sure nothing has changed.
Then I’ll have a chat with the venue staff, catering team and the Registrars to make sure everyone is working with the same timings. Often timings change during planning stages and suppliers have something slightly different which needs to be flagged up and dealt with early.
I’ll greet the guests as they arrive, show them where to go and explain what will happen when and where. I take time to chat with them and make sure everyone’s happy.
I take the Groom and then the Bride to see the Registrar for their final meeting. Very often they’re nervous and I try to calm them down. Simple things like being there to open doors can be really helpful too.
Very often the Registrars arrive late because they’ve been delayed at a previous wedding. You can’t help that but it impacts the rest of the day if the ceremony starts late. You have to find a way to make things happen. For example, the receiving line could be dropped in favour of a bit more time for photos. If I wasn’t there the couple or their families would have to sort it out. It’s a stress you don’t need.
For the ceremony, I make sure everyone is seated before the Bride arrives. I check that the music is ready too. Quite often the disc will have been left in someone’s car, the CD player isn’t working or the volume hasn’t been set.
After the ceremony, I’ll guide the guests to the right place for the drinks reception, making sure everyone moves along quickly and no-one is left behind.
During the drinks reception, a big part of my job is to help the photographer. Gathering guests for group photos is time-consuming and it needs someone to manage it and chivvy people along (in a nice way of course).
Sarah and I worked on one wedding together where the couple wanted a photo of everyone. I got all the guests gathered in the right place while Sarah went off to a bedroom window to get a high viewpoint to take the photo. I had all the guests in place but Sarah was nowhere to be seen. The reception team had lost the key to the bedroom that was needed and was hunting to find it! I didn’t want the guests to know and get impatient so I used it as an opportunity to explain what would happen later in the day and padded it out with a few jokes!
I’ll also be coordinating with the catering team through the day to make sure they’re going to be ready on time. This continues throughout the meal. If there are smokers or it’s a warm day guests have a tendency to leave the room and go outside between courses. I’ll need to get everyone seated again so that the catering team can serve the next course.
Later in the day, I do the things that you would imagine a Toastmaster does – announcing the couple into dinner, introducing the speeches and making sure the cake cutting is done in style. Creating a fun and energetic atmosphere is important for these parts of the day. I encourage the guests to make a lot of noise for the couple!
It’s a very reactive role; you never know what’s going to happen. In terms of the problems I have to deal with nothing is typical. I could write a book of stories!
One couple had been given a lot of cards with money in and I went to take them up to the couple’s bedroom for safety. I met the Bride’s Mum on the staircase who said she’d take them as she was going that way to her room. Off she went, only to find the Groom ‘busy’ with one of the bridesmaids. Understandably her reaction was very emotional and I had to ask everyone to leave. That was a very sensitive situation to manage.
I had one Bride who wasn’t happy with her make-up and the make-up artist had to start all over again, delaying the ceremony over an hour. The Registrars had another wedding to go to so they couldn’t stay. I had to break the news to the Bride who had expected them to wait. I have a good working relationship with the Registrars so I was able to arrange for them to come back later but not until 5 pm. I worked with the venue and caterers to swap things around so the couple could have their drinks reception and dinner first and then get married afterwards. It was unusual but it happened and everyone still had a great time.
What’s your favourite thing about being a Toastmaster?
I always meet a couple about 6-8 weeks before their wedding. They usually have a list of questions and concerns as long as your arm. We run through everything and by the end of the meeting they start looking forward to the day more. I love being able to reassure people.
I remember meeting with one couple where early on the Bride was talking about wanting a piper and the Groom was having none of it. He hated pipers with a passion. Despite that, he booked one as a surprise to play his Bride down the aisle. The Bride cried. The Groom cried when he saw the bride cry. Gran cried. The venue coordinator at the back of the room cried. I love to see things like that.
What’s the hardest thing about being a Toastmaster?
Dealing with problems and making sure no-one else knows about them.
Is there a wedding you’ve worked on that really sticks out in your mind?
When I first started as a Toastmaster, I had a travellers’ wedding. It was a massive wedding and no-one responded well to being told what to do! It was very difficult to manage. There was a 50-tier wedding cake and all the guests threw the bread rolls at each other during dinner!
More recently, I had a wedding on a really hot day where the groom said he was going to jump in the venue’s lake to cool down after dinner. He jumped in and got out again, minus his wedding ring. Grooms always fiddle with their rings when they first wear it and I remember the look on his face as he went to touch it and it wasn’t there. He was all for draining the lake but being full of carp even that might not have worked.
Whose wedding would you love to be Toastmaster for, past or present?
Neil Diamond. I’m a big fan of his. I’ve seen him live around 30/40 times.
What do you usually do when you get home from a wedding?
I have a large glass of white wine and chat with Susanna about the day. Even if it’s 2 am. I can’t go straight to bed. I’m on a real high when I get home.
If you could give a couple one piece of advice about their wedding, what would it be?
Enjoy the day. As everyone will tell you, it goes by quickly. Relax and enjoy yourself. Don’t worry about anything. Let me, your venue staff and other suppliers guide you through the day.
Alan! Thank you sooo much for such a great interview! I had such fun hearing all your stories. If we played a game of ‘have you ever seen…’ you would win every time!
Alan’s comment “Dealing with problems and making sure no-one else knows about them” sums it all up for me. That’s exactly the reason why you need a Toastmaster.