A year after Stefania Sciascia begged her boyfriend Jad Gerges for a picnic, there it was, sitting pretty on a lawn in Montreal's Old Port neighbourhood. Cherries and wine waited for her among the peonies, as did a wedding-ring box, tucked away in the picnic basket.
"We were both on both knees," recalled Ms. Sciascia of the day last August. "Obviously I said yes."
Lurking in the bushes nearby was Vanessa Ferrara and a photographer capturing every second with a telephoto lens. Ms. Ferrara, a wedding planner who parlayed her skills into crafting proposals, delivered the picnic, which would set a client back $750, photography included.
"I had no idea what to do," said Mr. Gerges, a 25-year-old contractor who admits that even with the steadying hand of a proposal planner, he had to down "eight to 12" grappa shots before uttering those four words – at noon.
Despite the fact that her proposal had been orchestrated by another woman, who hovered in the park, Ms. Sciascia, 24, said, "it was worth it.
"It was shocking that he would do something like that. It was a good shocking – considerate."
In this era of men out-proposing men with highly choreographed scenes and flash mobs on YouTube, proposal planning is taking off. Increasingly, hapless boyfriends are seeking out wedding planners to help them pop the big question. Women may never have to endure the stadium proposal again.
While wedding planners chart out the big day with women, proposal planners in Canada and the United States scheme with men. Fees run from $100 for a basic consultation to $12,000 and beyond for deluxe, multi-day proposals.
With her company The Proposal Planners, Ms. Ferrara started helping men in 2010 after seeing one too many underwhelming pitches. One boyfriend was so petrified he suffered premature proposal, popping the question at a red light instead of at the restaurant.
"They really don't know what to do. I pull the ideas out of them," said Ms. Ferrara, who charges $75 for a basic online consultation and $350-plus for more extensive sessions involving a travel concierge and diamond consultant.
Some men are extremely secretive about Ms. Ferrara's hand in the proposal; others cart her out to meet the bride-to-be. Sometimes, this scores her the wedding-planning contract.
Karina Lemke said she often works in the shadows when plotting proposals: "My lips would be sealed. Better she thinks he is perfect and thought of it all on his own," said the Toronto wedding and event planner.
"I really feel for these guys," she added. "The one-upmanship truly does make them quake. They really don't want to get it wrong, and I have to say that the ladies, at least in some cases, just don't make it any easier."
Ms. Lemke charges $250 an hour to "chat it out," comparing it to therapy. To select vendors or plan a proposal after-party or weekend, her cost ranges between $500 and $1,500.
"I need to assess whether she wants it to be a show or whether he just thinks it needs to be," said Ms. Lemke, who has talked several men out of the dreaded JumboTron proposal.
"Sometimes we have to tone them down," said Toronto wedding planner Crystal Adair-Benning, who has orchestrated some 20 proposals a year since 2009.
She said YouTube and schmaltzy films like The Notebook have raised the bar for men: "It's a lot to live up to." Recently, she had to dissuade a guy who wanted to propose while skydiving – to a woman who would not call herself an adventure enthusiast.
Ms. Adair-Benning's personal favourite involved a girlfriend who devoured several romance novels a week. For her, the planner had a shadow writer pen a 170-page novella encapsulating the couple's 12-year love story. The last line was "Will you marry me?" It took the woman two weeks to get through this particular tome, as her boyfriend flitted around nervously with the ring.
For Terence Yao and Emily Chan of Richmond, B.C., the ticket was burgers in the Hollywood Hills. Ahead of a business trip to L.A., Mr. Yao reached out to The Heart Bandits, a husband-and-wife team who arrange proposals in the city.
"I was lost," said Mr. Yao, 35.
The Heart Bandits, a.k.a. Michele and Marvin Velazquez, put the Canadians on a horseback ride through Griffith Park. At the end of the trail sat the ubiquitous proposal picnic, complete with In-N-Out burgers and Sprinkles cupcakes, two L.A. staples. "Bunniee," read a sparkly pink sign nearby, referencing Ms. Chan's pet name. "Will you marry me?" read the reverse.
"It's not like him to actually be prepared," said Ms. Chan, 26, who will be marrying later this year. "That's why I was so shocked, I started crying."
The Heart Bandits have arranged 60 proposals since 2010. Ms. Velazquez has chartered private helicopters, co-ordinated flash mobs and put men on horses galloping down beaches at sunset. She's also talked plenty of boyfriends off the bad-proposal ledge, including a fake commercial "aired" during the Super Bowl and a ring hidden in dessert, "which is super cliché and 1980s and we hated it." She entrusts her own husband, Marvin, with keeping the proposals from getting too girly: "The guy doesn't want to be stumbling in daffodils. My husband will make sure it's reflective of the guy."
At the swish end of the market sits Sarah Pease, who has crafted hundreds of proposals since branching out from wedding planning in 2008. The idea came to her after she heard about a man who'd buried his girlfriend's ring in a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
"That was the point at which I said, 'There has got to be a better way,'" said Ms. Pease, the owner of Brilliant Event Planning, which does high-end weddings in New York.
For $500 (U.S.), Ms. Pease will draft the strategy, and it goes up from there: "It actually can go above $12,000. The sky's the limit: How elaborate do you want to get? Is it a multi-day proposal? Is it international, where you need me and my team to fly and run everything on the day of?"
She described an all-day proposal that saw the lucky girlfriend chauffeured across Manhattan in an elaborate Sex and the City scavenger hunt last June: Think lingerie shopping at La Perla; perusing a "buffet" of heels at Barneys; champagne, sushi, the perfunctory cupcakes and a professional photo shoot complete with hair and makeup. The opulent orgy culminated inside Pierre Cartier's private office on Fifth Avenue, where the boyfriend waited on bended knee.
"It wasn't exactly free," said Ms. Pease.
With such feminine visions, is the consultant-planned proposal essentially women proposing to other women? "The point of view of having a woman involved makes it a little more detailed," Ms. Pease said.
And what about a woman who rebuffs a carefully plotted pitch? While none of the proposal planners has had the misfortune, the clauses are clearly in place: There is no refund.
"Even if she says no, it's really not our fault," said Ms. Adair-Benning. "We apologize profusely, but it's nothing we can help you with."
Others don't entertain the possibility of rejection. "No way," said Ms. Velazquez. "No one says no to my proposals."