Heroes of the Wedding Industry
MELANIE JOHNSON of ATLANTA EVENT VENUES, INC.
Breaking into the competitive wedding industry requires hard work and heart.
When Melanie Johnson first thought of creating an event space for weddings in the greater Atlanta area, her main motivation was retirement planning. Having spent the better part of her career traveling on a weekly basis for her IT consulting business, she recognized the need to transition away from life on the road. But she soon realized that her plans for an event venue were about much more than her professional future. It was about creating a space where others could find joy.
“Our goal was to create a beautiful, happy place – a place where people could come and create a completely custom high-end wedding,” Melanie explains. Situated on ten acres of land in a suburb outside of Atlanta, Georgia, the flagship venue she’s created, Whitestone Reserve, Inc., has realized that vision. The location has quickly become a hotspot for area weddings. In their first year of business alone, they’ve booked some 60 weddings, which Melanie admits is “pretty huge” – especially given the trials and tribulations it took to get there.
It took six years from the time Melanie purchased the land the venue sits on to the venue’s inaugural event. Held in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, that first wedding had a cloud hanging over it – literally. “It was very overcast,” Melanie recalls: “We had created a super sparkly aisle with metal flakes to reflect the light. The idea was that, when the sun hits it, the aisle shines like diamonds. On the day of the wedding, it was so cloudy, you couldn’t really see it. But as soon as the bride stepped out to walk down the aisle, the sun just popped out… And I just turned around and started crying with happiness.”
It was a mix of fortuitous moments like this one – or “divine intervention,” in Melanie’s words – and hard work that allowed Whitestone Reserve to find success. According to Melanie, it was a steep learning curve. One major reason she invested in the piece of property she did was that it was already zoned for commercial use. However, there were still civil engineering plans to come up with – requiring more than 100 pages of documentation – and building to be done. Then there was the financing question.
After contacting a commercial broker in Atlanta, Melanie was put in touch with Fountainhead, a national non-bank direct commercial lender. Fountainhead specializes in helping small to mid-sized enterprises finance their growth, and they supported Melanie’s venture, helping her revise her business plan so she could get a Small Business Administration loan. “They held my hand and basically made sure I completed every detail necessary to get that SBA financing,” Melanie says. Although she had done a lot of research and already had a 70-page proposal in hand when she started working with Fountainhead, there was still work to be done: “The SBA looks at a lot of things that a common person just doesn’t think about,” she explains. Fountainhead got her where she needed to be for SBA approval.
The entire process took months, but it was worth the wait. Melanie and her team got the cash infusion they needed to complete the project. Once they opened their doors, they were met with a warm welcome by both the local community and the wedding industry. They hosted bridal shows, vendor shows, and were honored to host a Wedding Industry Professional Association (WIPA) event, a major opportunity for such a new venue. “That was a big one for us,” Melanie says, noting that WIPA is a national association – giving Whitestone Reserve a chance to establish their reputation on the national stage. Vendors have already coined the space as having a “Tom Ford of Atlanta” vibe – a nod to the Texas-born fashion designer credited with the revival of the Gucci fashion house in the mid 1990s to early 2000s.
Looking ahead, Melanie has more plans to refine the event space. She’s leaning into the wedding grounds’ Napa inspiration and has already added a small vineyard. Plans are in place for a large pavilion, botanical gardens, a walking trail and a vibrant floral swing for the bride to sit (perfect for making memories – and taking pictures). Every detail is focused on creating that fairytale setting and realizing Melanie’s initial vision: a beautiful, happy place where people can celebrate their most precious moments with those they hold nearest and dearest.
Asked about advice she’d give other hopeful entrepreneurs wanting to break into the wedding business – a notoriously lucrative but highly competitive market – Melanie emphasizes the need for two things: hard work and heart. “You have to work harder than the average person,” she says. That work ethic, coupled with a genuine desire to create a stunning venue, is – in her view – the key to success. Or, in Melanie’s words, “Build it and build it beautiful, and it will sell itself.”