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Brides: Beware of "pay to play" in the wedding biz

payola graphic from

if you are currently planning a wedding, you know all the details you are trying to pull together, the long list of vendors you must keep track of, and more than likely, how overwhelming it can be tackling a project this size. so you look for advice or the tiniest crumb of useful information. You attend wedding shows. You probably start with your friends that have recently been married to find out who they used and liked. (but not your grouchy friend that seems to hate everything). you turn to the internet, to wedding sites and lastly to vendors for more information. you compile all this data to find the best fit for you, both in scope of services and what will fit in with your budget.

bridal fair rapid city

but there is a practice in the business that most brides are not aware of - what i call the pay to play system - or as it became known in the recording industry: payola. I find this practice deceptive to you, the client.

Sometimes it is as simple as wedding planners promising to get discounts from vendors that other people cannot get. (beware of planners that offer this 'special service') I have never in all my years of working in the event industry (22 total now, 11 in my own business), given a discount to a planner simply because she recommended my company. (I do however give discounts to my repeat customers, which includes planners) Our products are priced to be fair and reasonable and I also trust that a planner will find the best fit for their client, not bring a person with a budget of 800.00 for a DJ to a DJ that clearly costs more but will offer a "discount" for referrals. It is a time waster for all involved and it often puts a bride in a position to shift budgets and priorities because the person she is trusting for information is working two angles. It also discourages the vendor from providing top notch service - because if they have to turn down a better offer after discounting your event, they will probably come to your event a little bitter.

a slightly more sneaky way it appears is in paid for wedding magazines. In a magazine that you have to purchase, editorial content should never be dictated by the advertisers. Wedding magazines should be interested in promoting the best events, the newest and most innovative ideas. Like or - even if you are not an advertiser with them, they will gladly feature your work if it meets their editorial guidelines because it only makes them look better and more well rounded. Actually, stylemepretty will feature your work as a vendor and still not "allow" you to advertise if you don't meet their strict vendor guidelines. That is really keeping it 100. But when a PAID subscription based magazine features work and "expert advice" only from vendors who pay to advertise in their magazine - that is not always giving the most accurate or well rounded information available - it is getting information from the person with the money.

another way it rears its ugly head is when vendors ask other vendors for money to be in their "promotional" materials - their menus, websites etc.

table 4 decor advertising

As a business owner, I pay for my own advertising. My look books currently feature photography from 4 awesome local photographers* (and my mom). In each case I asked them to provide me with professional, non watermarked images in exchange for credit in my lookbook. At no point did I ask them to help me pay for the advertising or threaten to not recommend them because they wouldn't help me out. Advertising for any business should be a CODB (cost of doing business) not a way to make money or break even. Brides beware - it is a poor practice for a couple of reasons.

  1. You are not getting the whole picture when you get the information. You are not being told that the book is "sponsored" or how they came to choose their list of preferred vendors. You are being sold referrals that are paid for and not earned.

  2. That money that I have to pay to be in that book will have to come from somewhere, and chances are it will be you. Lets assume I work at 20 facilities in a year, with 10 different caterers, 5 cake people, 10 photographers and 10 DJ's (these are low estimates). And lets assume that each one wants "only 100.00" to be listed as a preferred vendor in their paperwork. That is 55 vendors x 100.00 = 5500.00!!!! That adds up quickly for a vendor in this industry. And I am sure you are all painfully aware in your own wedding budgeting, money has to come from somewhere. In your case, it may be moving money from the dessert bar to the actual bar but in my case, it will be to raise my prices to cover the additional expense.

So do I pay to play and charge you more? My answer is and has always been an emphatic NO. (okay, so I did it once when I was young and naive, before I realized the avalanche of requests that followed) We rely on our reputation and hard work to sell itself. We pride ourselves on our positive vendor relationships that we have not paid for**, but earned through respect for the facility, innovative ideas and commitment to each and every event we participate in.

And don't get me wrong, I am not saying that vendors who trade referrals or have long standing personal or professional relationships are doing something wrong, it is when money exchanges hands that the information becomes muddied.

So next time you get a vendor recommendation (or work with a wedding planner), just remember to ask them if they have been 'sponsored" by anyone - ask them what is in it for them to recommend that vendor? Did they do their research and find the best possible fit or just recommend the person that gives them something in return? Maybe they do pat each other on the back because they like working together - if that is the case, they will openly admit it to you (there are certainly vendors we enjoy a better relationship with than others). But if their list of vendors is based on nothing more than a group of people who are willing to pay to advertise, you may want to get a second opinion.

Transparency is important when working with something as close to our hearts as a once in a lifetime event. And once you are armed with the information, you can make the best decision for you. Memories should not be co-opted to the highest bidder.

* four fantastic photographers that contributed to my look book at no charge to them:

** two amazing venues we are honored to work with through no financial obligation

two other fantastic photographers that we are honored to be refered by (at no charge to us)

three floral designers that humble us with their referrals because their designs are so breathtaking we are jealous

wedding planners that work with their clients to find the best fit (which may not always be us)

our look books were designed by Creative by ME. (and yes, we paid for them)

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