Menomonee Falls event planning business expands with new event venue in Butler

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

For as long as she can remember, Menomonee Falls-based event planner and creative designer Ebony Whitson has been planning things.

When she worked at her corporate job, she planned business lunch meetings and department baby showers. With her six children, from her and her husband Alan's blended family — some of whom are now adults — she planned birthday parties, outings and special events.

"This is something I have always done," said Whitson. So then, it should be easy to leave her corporate career to open an event planning business, right?

Not quite. In fact, she said it has been "very challenging."

She opened her full-service event design, management and production company Whitson Wonder Productions in 2018.

She has progressed from meeting clients at coffee shops while renting a heated storage unit for her supplies, to operating out of an office at N48 W14170 Hampton Road, Menomonee Falls, and then to expanding that office to include a meeting space, showroom and storage area.

On Aug. 2, Whitson plans to take her next step: to open a 6,000-square-foot event venue, Elegante Luxury Event Venue, at 12601 W. Hampton Ave., Butler.

The space can hold 100 people, Whitson said. It has a warming kitchen, bride and groom suites and handicapped access. She will celebrate with an open house from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 2; the event will include tours of the facility, light appetizers and a nonalcoholic bar.

" It has kind of an upscale, hotel feel," she said.

She credits guidance she received from her volunteer SCORE mentors, training scholarship opportunities and online training options with helping her business thrive and grow.

'How far you can go with the right people directing you'

When Whitson started her business four years ago, she operated at a minimal cost to customers to gain experience. But people loved what she did, and her business grew.

But she wanted to make sure it would grow in the right way, and she had questions about whether what she was doing right. She turned to SCORE, a nonprofit dedicated to helping small businesses. One way the organization does that is through mentors.

Whitson connected with Jim Injeski, who was recently named the 2022 SBA Wisconsin SCORE Mentor of the Year.

"He did an assessment of our business. He took a tour and immediately referred different things and upgrades," said Whitson. She said he was able to help her to qualify for new business funding, suggested a different accounting system and attended her hearing for an occupancy permit.

"It has been a blessing," said Whitson. "If he does not know the answer, he finds someone who does."

"Part of SCORE is trying to understand people, listen to their story and make them feel comfortable," Injeski said. "If you’re thinking about starting a business, ask a lot of questions to help determine if doing so is the right fit for you. SCORE mentors share the steps to take to understand if there is an audience, whether the business is a differentiator, and why it’s going to be successful. If you don’t have a target market or understand how to get there, how else are you going to make money as a business?"

As a result of the mentoring, Whitson's business was nominated for a Wisconsin SBA National Small Business Week award in May. Whitson Wonder Productions was also nominated for a “Rising Star” Award at the 2021 Governor's Marketplace Conference.

She said she learned "how far you can go with the right people directing you."

Investing time and money in training

In some states, specific certification or skills are required to be a wedding or event planner, but in Wisconsin, that's not the case.

But Whitson said, "We are making it a requirement."

She working to become a certified wedding planner and is also making training a priority. "We invested thousands and thousands in training. We want to do the research to bring people the best design," she said.

When COVID-19 hit, Whitson said she had been running her event management business for two years. "We were going to take off," she said. "COVID took a real hit."

But COVID also brought some benefits, she said. For example, many conferences and training events became virtual and were available on Zoom. "I did not have to travel," she said. Attending industry conferences, she said, is an important way for her to learn all she can.

She was the first person in Wisconsin to be selected to take the Wedding Pro Fellowship for Change Mentorship Program. She also trained in North Carolina with Lance Devereux of VH1’s "My Celebrity Dream Wedding," where she is able to learn from the best, she said.

'You will not see the same event twice'

With the professional development and training she has received, Whitson can incorporate the best ideas and design features in her business model.

"You will not see the same event twice," she said.

"We want to create that unique experience," she said. "We want to put your stamp on your event. We have the skills to give an amazing experience — and to not break the bank. We want people to see that."

Her goal is for Whitson Wonder Productions to become her blended family's main support. She and her husband, Alan, have six children, ages 19, 19, 18, 16, 11 and 8. During COVID-19, Whitson said her husband, who has a career in auto sales, dealt with declining sales during COVID-19 and is looking to work full-time time at Whitson Wonder Productions.

“We needed to maintain and make sure our event planning business could produce what was missing from my husband’s job. With the changes in the car buying process, we could see that a future in car sales is unclear. As this transition is happening, we can bring my husband on full-time and operate a successful business together. It is not only our passion but can also become our livelihood.”

Cathy Kozlowicz can be reached at 262-361-9132 or Follow her on Twitter at @kozlowicz_cathy.

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