TORONTO - Long before plotting out his proposal to Erin Chia, Brian Yau had already set the bar high for himself when it came to romantic gestures.
When asking her to be his girlfriend, he organized a special scavenger hunt. For their first anniversary, Yau wrote a note representing each month that included something he liked or appreciated about Chia. He tied each note to individual roses and enlisted friends to bring her three flowers at a time — while he personally delivered the last set.
But when the time came last summer to pop the question, Yau upped the creative ante yet again.
The elaborate experience kicked off with a surprise visit to Chia in her hometown of Chatham, Ont., and spanned three cities and three days stacked with activities — and even a few decoy rings.
The big moment culminated at the Toronto Music Garden along the city's waterfront where he asked to borrow the guitar of a friend disguised in a wig, sunglasses and a drawn-on beard playing the role of a busker. The medical student started performing a mashup of Taylor Swift's "Love Story" and Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" with lyrics customized for his would-be fiancee.
"When I was singing to her, she just kept looking around thinking, `Is this really happening?'" recalled Yau, 23.
Chia was presented with a scrapbook which included the special song lyrics and photos snapped throughout the course of their relationship — including images Yau had taken in the days leading up to the proposal.
"I was definitely touched," said Chia, a 23-year-old nurse. "He knew what I liked and he went out of his way to do that for me."
The engagement ring was tucked in a compartment in the back of the scrapbook. As Chia reached the last page, Yau got down on one knee. They're tying the knot on August 4.
Toronto-based wedding and lifestyles photographer Chris Luk posted details of Yau and Chia's unique proposal tale on his website, along with engagement photos he captured of the couple.
"From a standpoint of complexity, I think, it's definitely high up there," Luk said of the proposal.
The shutterbug regularly features stories of how couples met, fell in love and got engaged on his business's website, Christopher Luk Photography.
While public proposals often draw attention, Luk says most of the people he's worked with prefer the private route.
"Most couples, that's just their personality to keep things intimate and small and kind of in-house; so I'd probably say the majority of them are still very much the very private, very intimate, just them two plus some close friends. But yeah, there are some that are a little more elaborate," he said.
"I think some of the personalities of some of the brides... some of them are very quiet kind of people, and if they were to do that in front of a couple hundred people, they would just freak out."
That's a far cry from some proposals featured online, where a string of viral videos are popularizing innovative ways to pop the question.
A choreographed lip-synched proposal to the Bruno Mars track "Marry You" which features about 60 people dancing has racked up more than 13.5 million views on YouTube since it was posted in late May.
Earlier this year, an Atlanta filmmaker created a stop-motion Lego proposal for his girlfriend pieced together using thousands of photographs. And last year, another man popped the question through a custom film trailer that screened while the couple was at the theatre.
"It used to be that proposing on a JumboTron or in the middle of Times Square would be sort of an epic proposal. These are kind of, I think, the new ones for this digital age," said Alison McGill, editor-in-chief of Weddingbells Magazine.
Still, McGill doesn't necessarily think the growing presence of such videos is adding pressure on those doing the asking since it's not a style suited to all tastes.
"I think all of these public proposals and the videos and the flash mob — I think all of that's fun," she said. "I am a little bit of a traditionalist ... and I think that having that moment being intimate between two people and — maybe what would be deemed conventional in this day and age — is absolutely fine."
For his part, Yau said while the proposal story is one he'd enjoy sharing with loved ones, being a viral video star didn't cross his mind.
"To be honest, I didn't really think much about making something public," he said. "I would have liked to share it with certain people, but I guess I'm not the kind of person that would do something to document it and put it in YouTube."
Some of those in a creative funk are turning to professionals to help customize the ideal setting and scenario.
Certified wedding planner Erica Hancox decided to expand into the proposal planning business this year after noticing a demand for such services.
So far, Hancox said the consulting services have been the main draw. But prospective clients can enlist help in executing an idea they already have in mind or to come up with and carry out a unique proposal from start to finish.
"It's easy for them to get the ring but they know that there's this added pressure... to make it perfect, so they get nervous and they don't know where to even start," said Hancox, owner of Project Ever After, a Toronto-based wedding and event planning company.
She has clients fill out a questionnaire asking what the woman's favourite flower or movie genre is to help get a sense of their personality. There are also coaching sessions to help ensure those who are proposing aren't stumbling over their words when it's time to ask "the question."
Hancox's advice to would-be brides and grooms plotting a special proposal to make the moment relate to the couple's experience.
"Is their partner a spontaneous, adventurous type or are they more quiet and laidback? If they're a little bit more quiet and laidback then I don't think a viral video would be as memorable for them."
It's a sentiment echoed by Chia who appreciated the thoughtfulness of her fiance leading up to and including the proposal.
"The stuff throughout the day — like watching a show different things like that — that was totally me. And for him, (it) was the extravagance of the CN Tower and the nice dinners at nighttime," she said. "He made a really good mix of both of them and brought them together with the engagement to make it us."
That's not to say breaking out the ring over a meal should fall by the wayside — just consider adding a fresh twist, noted Hancox. Rather than sliding the sparkler into a champagne glass or with cake at dessert, she suggests considering a private dinner on a rooftop with the waitstaff involved.
McGill said the No. 1 thing to bear in mind before making the "Will you marry me?" query is to know your audience. If you're considering a more public proposal or something off the beaten path, gauge the opinion of someone close to the bride first.
"This is an important moment in your life. You want it to be happy and celebratory and you certainly don't want it to be stressful for anyone — and that includes the groom."
Regardless of their creative talents or ability, Yau said individuals can't go wrong by staying true to their own style.
"I think everyone can think of something creative if they really search deep enough. And sometimes, it will come in the most unexpected inspirations."
Christopher Luk Photography: www.chrisluk.com
Project Ever After: www.projecteverafter.ca