Ten years of helping couples to 'set the date'

It’s ten years since Carrigaline based entrepreneur Ciara Crossan set up WeddingDates.ie, which has helped generate millions of euro for wedding venues in Ireland and the UK. EMMA CONNOLLY caught up with the mum of twins, to talk about the past decade
Ten years of helping couples to 'set the date'

SUCCESS STORY: Ciara Crossan founded WeddingDates.ie back in 2018. The concept is simple: it offers a free service to the bride and groom to see what venues are available for their big day. Picture: Diane Cusack

A CORK woman has generated €90m in revenue for wedding venues in Ireland and the UK during her decade in business — and is now setting her sights on taking the US, South African markets.

Ciara Crossan, entrepreneur and mum of four year old twin boys, who set up WeddingDates.ie in 2008 says she laughs when she thinks back to the naivety of herself starting out.

A BIS graduate from UCC, she was working in HR in Clonmel when the business idea came to her ‘like all good ideas, around the kitchen table.’ The concept is simple: it offers a free service to the bride and groom to see what venues are available for their big day. And for an annual fee, ranging from €500 to €3,500, it allows venues and suppliers to be listed, and just as importantly through sophisticated software, to track bookings, growth and lots of other business markers.

“At the time, I just thought, if it doesn’t work out, sure I’ll get another job — it all seemed so easy. People say, when you start a business, ‘you’re so brave.’ But really it was the opposite as I didn’t have any financial commitments, a mortgage or kids and I hadn’t been hardened by the real world. I was very innocent looking back,” she recalls.

Launching in February 2008, the recession hit proper that September with the Lehman brothers collapse recalls Ciara, originally from Kerry Pike and now living in Carrigaline.

“In a lot of ways it was good to trade during these times as it really hardened me up. I had to really boot strap the whole operation and every sale became a really big win.

“I remember I was driving a banger of a car, living in my parents; and crashing on friend’s couches when I was travelling around Ireland visiting hotels.”

Starting out with an initial 30 clients in Cork and Kerry, she said the company always had steady positive growth — as well as knock backs.

Throughout she had massive support from her parents, Lorraine who works in UCC and Conal who is self-employed in the construction sector. They both grew up in the hotel industry, both sets of her grandparents owned hotels in the west of Ireland and Ciara said her parents “understand what it takes to make it work in the private sector.”

MEET THE TEAM: Ciara Crossan employs a team of eight at the WeddingDates HQ in the Airport Business Park and another two in the UK, with plans to employ a further two staff there. Pictures: Diane Cusack
MEET THE TEAM: Ciara Crossan employs a team of eight at the WeddingDates HQ in the Airport Business Park and another two in the UK, with plans to employ a further two staff there. Pictures: Diane Cusack

“I kind of think of the early days as like being in a boxing ring where you’d get a knock and retreat to the corner where my parents would be waiting with a sponge for me! They really were my champion. It’s so important to have people who believe in you on those tough days.

“My father said if anyone can make it you can; he was a great advisor for me and he was my sounding board for any big decisions.”

The tipping-point for the business came in 2012 when Ciara made the leap into the UK where opportunities are much bigger. She moved there for a time that year to develop business and now has 500 UK venues as well as 200 in Ireland and more than 2,000 wedding suppliers using the service.

“Ireland has 22,000 weddings annually — the UK has 320,000 — it’s a massive market in terms of venues and suppliers.

“It was never a case of giving up on the business but moving into the UK really exploded the business to the point of creating employment which was always my goal.”

A client of Enterprise Ireland, and the Rubicon incubation centre at CIT, she describes WeddingDates.ie as a software company and says her focus has always been on export growth.

Currently she employs a team of eight from the HQ at the Airport Business Park; with one other in the UK where she’s currently recruiting an additional two.

“We’re a bit unusual in that we have two customers; the bride and groom who use the service for free; and then venues and suppliers who pay between €500 and €3,500 a year,” she explains.

However with a 90% renewal every month she says they deliver a lot of ‘transparent’ value. Since starting out they’ve had 220,000 enquiries for venues and suppliers.

“We guarantee bookings of their money back. We don’t take comission on weddings — I joke if we did I’d be in the Bahamas now!”

Mum to four year old twin boys Liam and Max, Ciara acknowledges the challenges of being a self-employed mother.

“Lot of childcare decisions come down to the mum and a lot of the unseen admin stuff like dental appointments etc falls to the females. It’s important to be realistic and gentle with yourself and know what you can do. I went back to work when the boys were only 12 weeks old. I do a four day week now and Friday is time for me, for self care which is precious and I think women should be mindful of that. There’s a saying ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ which I think makes a lot of sense. I must be fulfilled before I can give to clients, to work and to the boys.”

With regular travel involved in the business, she acknowledges again her mum; and she also has an au pair.

With US and South Africa in her sights entering into her second decade, she’s working at making connections in these markets.

“I’m also looking at expanding our software product so it will solve more problems for clients,” she said.

Her top business tip is to make sure your idea is a money making one.

“People have ideas all the time, but at the end of the day it’s just that ‘a nice idea’ if it’s not going to make money. I didn’t have any investment starting out, just a bank loan of €25,000 at the start so I was laser focussed on revenue. If your idea isn’t going to make money you’re just fooling yourself.”

CIARA'S TOP WEDDING TIPS

BE MINDFUL OF GUESTS 

Consider how your decisions will impact your guests — eg your choice of venue; will it involve guests tramping through fields to get to portaloos? Will there be sufficient accommodation available? Be considerate.

BUILD RELATIONSHIPS 

Develop a good relationship with the hotel/venue team — it all comes down to them on the day to execute your plan.

DON’T GET CARRIED AWAY 

Remember this is a marriage, the start of your life together and not just a wedding. It’s just one day. If you enjoy it as a couple, your guests will enjoy it.

SPEND ON...

Food and photos. People will remember good food and you’ll have the photos for years to come.

SAVE ON...

Decorating the venue — unless you’ve the time, energy and budget leave it to the hotel who will do a great job.

ON TREND 

Latest trend: Donut walls (exactly as the name suggests) and high end food and drink stations and food carts instead of BBQs: “It’s about serving food and drink in creative, instagrammable ways.”

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