With growing emphasis on the proposal, some prospective grooms are turning to professional proposal planners for help. The cost ranges from a few hundred dollars to thousands, depending on how much logistical assistance is required, Winikka said.

Proposal planning has become something of a sideline for some jewelers and travel agents.

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Men buying rings at Nelson Coleman Jewelers ask for engagement advice so often that the store keeps a list of eight suggested proposals on hand. Some of them, including the suddenly popular scavenger hunt, are "a lot of work," concedes Peggy Coleman, general manager at the Towson jeweler. One suggestion calls for having a custom storybook printed up. ("Be ready with the real diamond when you get to the last page, which reads, 'Will you marry me?' ")

"We've had so many guys ask for ideas that we wanted to make it easier for the sales team to come up with things," Coleman said. "Guys come in, and they're very nervous. There's always two things girlfriends ask the girl: 'Where'd he get the ring?' and 'How did he propose to you?' "

In recent years, Smyth Jewelers has cooked up some ready-made proposal plans with Ruth's Chris Steak House and the Hippodrome Theatre.

Under a partnership forged about four years ago with the steakhouse, a man with a black suit, sunglasses and an attaché case handcuffed to his wrist will appear tableside to present the ring.

"It's really funny stuff," said Rhoula Monios, senior sales manager at Smyth's in Timonium, adding that there is no charge for an appearance by "the Smyth guy."

Smyth's deal with the Hippodrome allows for a public proposal at a show. During intermission, the man leads his girlfriend into one of "the fancy boxes on the side," Monios said. "The bride just thinks she's going to have a drink or something, and whammo: spotlight." The man grabs a microphone and makes his pitch.

If neither of those proposals appeals to a customer, Smyth employees will "shoot ideas around" at the morning staff meeting, she said.

"We do all kinds of crazy stuff," Monios said. "We had a guy propose in a hot-air balloon."

The trick is to make sure the proposal reflects the couple's style and interests, Monios said. For someone who loves Disney, for instance, she's suggested presenting the ring in a Waterford crystal glass slipper.

Not that a trip to the Magic Kingdom itself would be out of the question for some. You've heard of the destination wedding? We have entered the era of the destination proposal.

Mary Eve Vonberger, owner of The Cruise Lady in Canton, recently helped a customer take his girlfriend on a surprise trip to Paris; she thought they were flying to visit her parents in Chicago. He asked her to marry him atop the Eiffel Tower.

"It's very nice to see some guys be very creative and that thoughtful," Vonberger said. "He was so into this. He was very cute about it."

Vonberger also has had a couple of customers take advantage of a proposal service offered by Princess Cruises called "Engagement Under the Stars." While aboard the ship, the man meets with a videographer and records his proposal. In the evening, when a crowd gathers on deck to watch a movie, the woman is called to the front, and the taped proposal is played.

"They get her up there on whatever pretense, and it's a surprise," Vonberger said. The proposal package, which also includes champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries, dinner for two, a couple's massage and more, costs $695 — plus the cost of the cruise.

Of course, the more elaborate and public the proposal, the greater the disappointment if it is not well received. Even getting down on one knee over dinner can feel like going foolishly overboard if she says no.

Charleston restaurant in Harbor East has seen its share of attempted engagements, successful and otherwise.

"The memorable ones are the disasters," said restaurateur Tony Foreman. "I recall this girl screaming, 'It's our third date!' That was great. …

"My favorite was a guy who was very Zen about the whole thing. He was very dressed. She was very dressed. … And she said no. She collected her purse. Then he proceeded to ask for a menu and drank the entire bottle of Cristal and a couple glasses of port. He ate, like, a three-hour dinner by himself.

"When things go beautifully, it's beautiful for everyone to see," Foreman said. "And when they don't, it's very interesting for everyone to see."


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