A destination wedding close to home

You’re planning a wedding. It’s complicated. You’ve been imagining this day your entire life and the venue is key. You have an idea of what it should look like and what it should feel like but you need options because, guess what? You’re complicated, too.

You may be looking for something bucolic yet close to stores, seemingly remote yet totally convenient. You envision an outdoor ceremony but, then again, inside might feel cozier and you can control the variables. There’s a lot to consider when you’re on the hunt for a wedding venue.  

At LaKota Oaks in Norwalk, “It can be a destination wedding,” says Christine Imbrogno, director of sales and marketing. “It’s a one stop.” 

Formerly the Dolce Norwalk, LaKota Oaks just underwent a $5 million renovation with an expedited turnaround. Work started last December and was completed in time for an event on Feb 25. Two crews worked simultaneously to accomplish a total revamping of 123 guestrooms, all meeting spaces and a refreshed lobby with 70-footatrium, beautiful oak woodwork and unusual architecture.

“The property itself is stunning,” Imbrogno says. Upon arrival, guests wind up a quarter-mile driveway through the 66-acre property past wildflower meadows and four ponds before arriving at the three-building center. “It’s breathtaking,” she adds. “We’ve even had local high schools do prom pictures in front of our antique red barn.” 

Imbrogno says couples are drawn to the secluded, peaceful feeling of the property. The historic site was home to a monastery dating from 1903 and a half-mile walking path is dotted with statues that depict the Stations of the Cross. “Brides feel very privileged,” she says.

The property is loaded with options and spaces of varying size and feel. You can have separate locations for the ceremony, cocktail hour and reception as well as complementary events like the rehearsal dinner and next day brunch.

Couples can also arrange for their guests to stay in revamped rooms with new white quartz table tops, carpeting, ceilings, wall coverings, window treatments and lighting. All the double beds were swapped out for queens. And all the queen and king options are adorned with new bedding.

During the renovation, Ferndale, the main ballroom (there are 18 event spaces in all) gained an additional 18 feet of space, a large new window and chandeliers. The room can hold 250 people with dancing or 300 without — though for other occasions, such as a recent event with Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, the room accommodated nearly 320.

Recently, a couple who had booked the space before the renovations was “blown away” by the changes, says Hazel Scudder, director of catering. “They’re response was overwhelmingly positive. They loved what they had booked, but now we are just elegance exemplified.” 

And word of mouth is spreading. LaKota Oaks has earned a five-star rating and a “Best Of” nod from premier wedding planning website, The Knot. The versatile, attractive space is key. But they also have Scudder as a secret weapon.

She has forged a reputation as a sought-after wedding planner who makes events at LaKota Oaks feel truly bespoke. “It’s about Hazel,” Imbrogno says. “She’s quite the celebrity but very sincere. She’s got the experience. Hazel’s slogan is ‘I love my brides’.”

“I have the best job in the world,” Scudder says.

She works tirelessly to create the exact experience a couple envisions. Whether you want a farmhouse feel, a bohemian vibe, something traditional or modern, “We can create any kind of look they want,” she says, “and we only host one wedding at a time.”

Imbrogno adds, “Otherwise we don’t feel it’s fair to the bride.” 

And if a young bride seems unsure or overwhelmed, “Hazel takes the reins,” Imbrogno says, “and people love that.”

Scudder puts together the package and tries to make it easy. The only things that a bride needs to worry about are the flowers, photographs and music — although Imbrogno adds, “We do have a preferred vendor list.”

Executive chef John Peper works with Scudder to take any event to the next plane. “The chef and his culinary team are unbelievable,” Imbrogno says. “(The food) will blow your mind.”

The feeling of privacy and peacefulness at LaKota Oaks belies the fact that the property lies right off the I-95 corridor. “We are not on the main drag but we are easily accessible,”  Imbrogno says — so accessible that the team recently worked with a couple from out of state. 

“Nobody attending the wedding was from Norwalk,” Scudder adds. “One side was from Philly and the other from Boston and they met in the middle.”

That convenience makes LaKota Oaks a sought-after venue for business events as well.

Booking hovers around 20 percent for celebratory events and about 80 percent for business events. Liquor distributor Brescome Barton held its black-and-white party at LaKota Oaks and the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce held its gala there. The venue often hosts team building exercises, summer picnics, corporate retreats and holiday parties.

Further updates on the property address their guests’ sense of well-being. “We put a fitness center in our guestroom wing,” Imbrogno says of the “two fitness pods” that were created so guests could roll out of bed and work out. 

There are massages and yoga as well as an indoor pool. Guests can play tennis, basketball, racquetball and volleyball or relax with a game of bocce or cornhole, a lawn game in which you throw a plastic bag of resin into a hole on the far end of a raised platform.

As far as weddings go, bookings are usually done six months to a year out. “2020 is going fast and furiously,” Imbrogno says, “and there are some inquiries for 2021.” But she adds that the team tries to accommodate every request. “We had a couple come to us five weeks before the wedding.” 

That effort to accommodate is a guiding principle at LaKota Oaks, of which “lakota” is Sioux for “allies.”

Says Scudder, “We have a wonderful relationship with our neighbors.” LaKota Oaks doesn’t close its gates and local residents can stroll the impressive grounds. 

“What we do want is to work with the community,” Imbrogno adds. “So we can stay here and flourish.”

That also means working in companionship with other local venues, such as country clubs that don’t have hotel rooms associated with them. “If they want to put their guests here we can accommodate that, too,” Imbrogno says.

Though Scudder enjoys planning all of it, there’s a moment after the ceremony, once the reception has moved past the speeches and the party is underway, that is the proverbial cherry on the wedding cake.

“It’s seeing everybody relaxed and enjoying themselves,” she says. “That’s my favorite part of the job.”

For more, visit lakotaoaks.com.

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