Before the internet ruined everything, it was easy to propose. Fancy restaurant. Order champagne so she knows what's up and can get her game face on. Pop the question after the main but before the snooty waiter comes out with the chocolate fondant. Home. Boring romantic sex.
Now, a proposal isn't meaningful unless it has some sort of performative aspect. "HEY BABY," croons Bruno Mars over, and over again, as the background music to endless flashmob YouTube videos. "I THINK I WANT TO MARRY YOU." Occasionally the proposals get interesting. Cats dressed as waiters. Cats wearing engagement rings. A heart made out of 99 box-fresh iPhones. A crane from which to serenade your loved one, crashing through your neighbor's house.
When it comes to dressing cats up as waiters, a little professional help goes a long way. Nowadays, bespoke engagement planners will arrange every detail of your proposal—from rehearsing your flashmob dancers to getting the cast of a West End musical to serenade your future life partner onstage.
To understand the industry better, I reached out to three companies who will plan your proposal for you—the Yes Girls (based in the US), the Proposers (from Britain), and the interestingly named Buy the Cow (from Australia)—to find out exactly how many candles and rose petals a $2,000 dollar proposal package will get you. And more importantly, do you get your money back if they say no?
Proposal planning is an industry in its infancy. Every business I interviewed had been set up in the last seven years, with the Yes Girls (an established player in the US market) the oldest, born in 2008.
Which is not to say that it's not lucrative. Elie Pitts, 25, from the Yes Girls told me that they do between eight and ten proposals a month, with the average cost for each proposal coming in at $4,500 dollars. Daisy Amodio, 33, from the Proposers charges an average of around £2,000 per proposal, doing up to 12 proposals every month. In Australia, where the industry is less established than it is stateside, Claire Whelpton, 40, from Buy the Cow does between two and three proposals a week, each costing an average of around $1,000 AUD. But if you can't afford this, companies will offer "postbox proposal" type packages, where they'll send you a bundle of ideas to help you plan your proposal at home—normally for around the $300 mark.
Read More: When Men Can't Handle Being Proposed To
All the businesses were ambitious about their future growth prospects. The Yes Girls has four offices—two in California, one in Dallas, and one in New York—and has to cap the amount of proposals they do on a monthly basis to keep standards up (no more than ten). And both the Proposers and Buy the Cow told me that they'd recently taken on new staff to keep up with demand.
Who's paying these companies to plan their proposals? Basically: wealthy, straight guys. Pitts estimates that only around five percent of their proposals involve same-sex couples, although the number is increasing now that gay marriage has been legalized in the US. Mostly though, clients are "guys who travel frequently who don't have time to figure out all the details. And doctors, CEO-types, who have their plates full with work." The fact that 2016 is a leap year (when, according to tradition, women can propose to men) means this may change. "We've had about eight inquiries from women wanting to propose to their boyfriends already, and we've got two booked," Amodio told me.
It's not because the men don't care—it's because they genuinely don't know what to do.
The obvious question, of course, is, Has anyone ever said no? Every company I spoke to has a 100% success rate, though Pitts said, "We do feel like there may have been a few times after she said yes where they didn't lead up to the altar." For a proposal planner, a "no" is your biggest professional nightmare. "We've done 600 proposals now, and everyone's said yes," Amodio said. "But I dread the day when someone says no."
As with any business, you've got to be prepared for when things go bad. Whelpton, of Buy the Cow, handles this by screening clients before planning the proposal. "I always ask clients whether they've discussed marriage with their partners," she said. "I need to make sure they're confident that person will say yes. If they're like, 90% sure, I'm fine with that. But I would plan very differently if they weren't sure [that the partner would say yes]. I wouldn't do it in public or do anything where it could make her uncomfortable, for instance."
While there was diversity in what sort of proposals the planners told me about—from renting out an entire Texas baseball stadium to recreating a scene from Disney's Tangled in a military base, complete with boat and custom lighting display—there were certain themes that recurred in many proposals. If I had to characterize this theme, it would be the scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Robert's wealthy client (she's a sex worker) takes her shopping on Rodeo Drive (albeit without the snobby shade-throwing sales reps). Whelpton told me about "playing fairy godmother on one of the proposals."
"I took this lady to all these appointments, got her hair and makeup done, bought her new clothes and shoes, all of those things," Whelpton said.
How you might feel about this Pretty Woman vibe basically depends on what sort of person you are. If, for example, you find the whole "I want to be a princess for a day" thing troubling and, dare I say it, a little bit retrograde, then certain aspects of proposal planning might not be for you.
However, if you would like nothing more than for a rich dude to spunk wads of cash on making you feel like short-term royalty, and get a ring at the end of it, then you're going to love this story.
Amodio told me about a Love Actually–themed proposal that took place over two days and cost £50,000. "He hired out this amazing penthouse apartment, and they watched Love Actually the night before. It's her favorite film, and there was a specific scene in it he wanted to recreate. He wanted to treat her like a princess—like she was famous for a day. So we rocked up the next morning with all these designer clothes [and] a hair and makeup artist. She loved it. And then when she was ready, she came outside, and there was a Ferrari waiting for her that took her to a speedboat. Which wasn't just any speedboat—it was James Bond's speedboat [as in, the actual one used in the film]. The speedboat was filled with macaroons, which are her favorite sweet.
"The speedboat took her to a helicopter, which gave her a private tour over London, and then they landed in a derelict church in the countryside. He was waiting there, and we'd recreated the whole scene in Love Actually where they're in the church. The choir was all hidden, and then they stood up and started singing 'All you need is love'. And then he proposed."
If this sounds like your idea of a good time but you're unsure how to tell your significant other that you'd like a Ferrari-speedboat-helicopter proposal without explicitly naming all of those modes of transport, there's now a way. Many engagement planning websites incorporate a "drop a hint" function, meaning you can fill out a form and the company will email your beloved, encouraging them to propose and offering their services.
In some cases, women have used the drop-a-hint function to encourage their boyfriends to propose when the guys have actually proposed already, Whelpton explained. "I've had customers who have said no, girls who have handed the ring back and said, 'Do it properly', and [then] they've contacted me! And I've arranged a re-proposal for them, because they weren't happy with the first one. And it's not because the men don't care—it's because they genuinely don't know what to do."
I wondered whether it was unromantic to outsource your proposal to a for-profit company. Whelpton said no. "A lot of people think it's for men who aren't romantic, but it's really the opposite. A lot of the men who come to me are romantic types; they want to spoil their loved ones but keep it a secret." Meanwhile, Pitts told me that "for a lot of clients, it's their second marriage, and a really common thing we hear is that they want to make it right this time."
It's easy to be a little cynical about the industry, but there's no doubting that the women running these companies are genuinely passionate about what they do. I wondered whether planning proposals daily could make a person cynical about the whole thing—about love and romance. Are there ever days when the sight of another rose petal–filled hotel room makes you want to quote divorce statistics and binge-read Naomi Wolf?
For Pitts, nothing could be further from the truth.
"I'm not cynical at all about romance. The love portion of it [my job] I will never get tired of. I love watching the girl's face when I'm hiding in the bushes and seeing this magical moment. I ddon't know if I'll ever get sick of it."
It's no coincidence that the growth of the proposal planning industry correlates directly with the growth of social media. For proposal planners, social media is the sriracha to their pork dumplings. Take either away, and you're not left with very much.
Proposal planners rely on social media to generate potential business. "I do these videos of the couple—the guy sends me all their photographs. I put text on them, and they go on YouTube, and that's a great tool for creating interest," Whelpton said. "With Facebook, every time I do a proposal I post it up [if the couple gives me permission]. That shows other potential clients what I'm capable of achieving."
And social media also underpins the rapid growth of the industry. Searching "flash mob proposal" on YouTube brings up over half a million hits. After watching a couple of videos, you might start to question whether your fiancé reallyloves you, given that he just popped the question in a fancy restaurant.
I love watching the girl's face when I'm hiding in the bushes and seeing this magical moment.
The consequence of this can be enormous social strain on men, as well as women, to have an Instagram-worthy proposal. Pitts highlights how blogs such as How He Asked and Engagement 101 have made men feel pressured. "I definitely feel like social media in and of itself has created this crazy competition, with like, whose proposal is the best," Pitts said.
"One hundred percent, it is social pressure," Amodio agreed. "Once one of your friends has put it on Facebook that they're engaged, it's a whole whirlwind of people going after that. It's also down to age, people all getting engaged at the same time. Social media puts the pressure on [men to propose]. Girls who are on Instagram—they see the pictures of the rings, and they want that as well."
Does pressure to plan the perfect proposal have to be a bad thing? Whelpton took a different view. "It's pressure in a good way," she said. "The proposal is the time to show your partner what they mean to you, and if you do that over dinner and just pass her the ring and say the words, that's great. But I think there should be an added element to it as well. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Nevertheless, there's a distinctly capitalist, competitive streak underpinning the proposal planning industry. No longer is it enough to be thinner or wealthier—or to have a more lavish wedding—than your neighbor. Now your proposal has to be better, too—and you've got to back it up with considerable cash. Generations ago, it would have been unthinkable—even gauche—to be publicly demonstrative about your relationship. Today, love is not love unless it is brighter and shinier and more Instagram-worthy than someone else's.
"You see all these famous people who have all these epic proposals and weddings," Amodio said, "and we want something like that. Gone are the days where people just got down on one knee. And it's a little bit sad. It's not just proposals though—it's technology. It's everything. It's competitive. Everything's competitive in life, though—you always want the best of everything."