10 Things the Wedding Industry Won't Tell You

Published September 02, 2005

| Smart Money

1. "We'll do it our way."
You've been planning your wedding for months — if not years — and even the tiniest detail is taken into account. Too bad that all too often, the people you hire to help carry out the plans are oblivious to what you want. When Mary Jane Shroyer of Decatur, Ga., arrived at the church on her wedding day, she found that the L-shaped white bouquets she had requested had somehow become Christmas tree-shaped arrangements of large pink lilies and red flowers. The bride had also ordered a single rose for placement at the altar in remembrance of her recently deceased grandmother and a corsage for her husband's stepmother, wanting her to feel included as one of the family. The florist brought the wrong flower to recognize the grandmother and omitted the corsage altogether.

How to avoid mistakes like that one? Jean Picard, a Ventura, Calif., wedding consultant suggests checking affiliations with groups such as the Association of Bridal Consultants (whose members include wedding planners, videographers and caterers), the Leading Caterers of America and the American Disc Jockey Association.

2. "The groom may kiss the bride — and pay the kickback."
Need help choosing a florist, caterer, photographer or entertainer? Wedding planners and others will be all too happy to provide a list of recommended vendors. But don't think they're doing you a favor. More often than not, insiders admit, the businesses that pay the highest price are the ones who get the referrals.

That's right: kickbacks. How does it work? David Danielson, executive chef of catering at Rockefeller Center in New York, says most locations have a "preferred" list of caterers. In many cities, he adds, if a person wants to bring in a caterer not on the list, the caterer has to buy a license to serve in that facility, at the expense of the client.

In order to get on such a list, a business must pay an annual fee "in the range of $300 to $500," says Alan Fields, co-author of the bestselling wedding-guide "Bridal Bargains" — or pay a 5-10% commission. "People who don't want to pay money aren't on the list," says Fields. Some caterers go even further, according to Danielson, and volunteer to organize the vendors for the client. "You're paying a 17-20% service charge on something they would have to do anyway," he says.

3. "We'll nickel and dime you to death."
Allison Gouin reserved her reception site in the Detroit suburbs well before her wedding — 17 months before, to be exact — in the hopes of avoiding surprises. After all, a friend had supplied her own cake and champagne at her wedding and was later charged $1.25 per person for each item as a serving fee. But when Gouin ordered chair covers at $2 each from a rental company, she found out only after the fact that if she wanted them ironed and tied onto the chairs, it would cost her $2 extra per chair. She also discovered that there were extra per-person charges for napkins and tablecloths. It's common sense to go through your wedding contract with a fine-tooth comb, but it's even wiser to look for anything not in the contract. Package contracts may not include every dish or piece of flatware, or the waiters to pour the champagne you bought. The items and services not included are rarely free.

4. "Believe it or not, I expect a tip."
Gone are the days when a tip was an acknowledgment of superior service. More often than not, vendors involved in the wedding will be looking for some kind of handout.

According to The Knot, a wedding-planning Web site, anyone from the civil ceremony official to the chef to the wedding planner could be looking for a donation. "While tipping is for good service," says Knot co-founder Carley Roney, "people also expect it unless service is extremely poor." For a wedding of $25,000, Roney recommends setting aside $1,500 for gratuities to be put in envelopes on the wedding day.

5. "If it's for a wedding, it'll cost you 30% more."
You might have suspected that a wedding costs more than any other kind of similarly scaled event. You would be right. Diane Warner, author of "How to Have a Big Wedding on a Small Budget," tells of a bride-to-be who wanted to test this theory for herself. "She called a service in San Francisco, asked for just what she wanted, and they gave her a bid," Warner explains. "The next day, she had her fiance call and bid on the same items for a party. He got a lower price."

In researching Bridal Bargains, Fields and his wife spoke to several florists who told them that if they get the sense a bride has big bucks, they'll suggest exotic or out-of-season flowers. "If you're wearing a big diamond ring or your fiance is a doctor, it seems you suddenly have to fly in orchids from Hawaii," he says.

6. "We can't keep our weddings straight."
"A bride wants to think she's the only bride in the world," says Gerard Monaghan, president of the Association of Bridal Consultants. "What she doesn't need to see is another bride in the bathroom at her wedding reception." But wedding pileups happen, especially at hotels and catering halls that hold several receptions in one day. Multiple weddings can also cause a location to spread its staff too thin.

Chris Cady of All Star Entertainment in Reno, Nev., arrived to emcee a reception a few years ago and found that the hotel had set aside only one waitress to serve 150 people. "The one girl showed up and cried," Cady says.

"When a location does two functions per day per weekend, it's a wedding factory," says Lynn Broadwell, co-author of the resource book "Here Comes the Guide." "Mistakes will be made." She says a wedding reception may be bounced in favor of a larger function, gifts can get mixed up, guests can end up at the wrong party, or the wine meant for one reception can end up at the one down the hall. "You need to ask, 'Am I going to see the people from the other function? Are we going to be rubbing elbows? Are we using the same bathroom facilities?' And you need to have it in writing."

7. "We own your wedding pictures — in perpetuity."
It costs thousands of dollars to hire a wedding photographer, and it doesn't stop there. Want a simple 8x10 reprint? You could well pay up to $40, since many photography packages don't include negatives. Some photographers refuse to turn over their negatives until 10 years or more have passed — to prevent their clients from reproducing pictures on their own. Others will sell them only at a high price. That's only a problem, of course, if you're lucky enough to have pictures of your wedding in the first place. Sometimes photographers are no-shows; sometimes negatives are damaged or lost.

How often does such a disaster happen? Often enough to have inspired an insurance product called Weddingsurance, underwritten by the Fireman's Fund. The policy supposedly will cover the reassemblage of the wedding party — including travel, meal and hotel expenses, as well as costs for the cake, flowers and reception hall — in the event of a photo mishap.

8. "This is the first time I've ever used a video camera."
How do you know if it's the next George Lucas you've hired to shoot your wedding — or Ed Wood? "If someone was charging $800 for a wedding on a Saturday, I'd be suspicious," says Jack O'Brien of Video Life Productions in Middletown, N.Y. The high-end digital equipment that a professional videographer should use costs tens of thousands of dollars — too much to justify package prices under $1,000.

It's also important to hire someone who will let you have the digital master tape, in addition to the VHS copy. "Anyone who holds a VHS tape in their hands thinking they're going to show it to their grandchildren is mistaken," says O'Brien. He recommends transferring the tape from the digital master to a DVD.

Then there's the question of who owns the footage. On many contracts, it is written that any and all footage becomes the copyrighted property of the videographer's business. So what can a couple do if an unscrupulous or unknowing videographer tries to sell a hideously embarrassing moment on their tape to, say, a TV-blooper show? "They would have a right-of-privacy claim, so it would certainly be a mistake," says Lisa Alter, a New York entertainment and copyright lawyer. "But technically, if you own it, you can do what you want with it."

9. "No matter how you slice it, the cake is overpriced."
Wedding cakes used to be easy. Three tiers, white icing, a couple hundred bucks. Nowadays, you can order a cake "sculpture" with individually crafted garlands of sugar flowers. Prices, too, have gotten more complicated, ranging anywhere from 75 cents to more than $20 a slice. The problem is, no one can agree on how big a "slice" is. What if that $10 piece of cake is paper thin?

10. "While you give the toast, we're getting toasted."
When Michael Sullivan and his wife, Suna, got married in Kenwood, Calif., two years ago, they were in the mood to celebrate. Unfortunately, so was their DJ. He arrived several hours before the reception with a friend and began drinking. "When it finally came time for him to play the music, he was totally blasted and seemingly on drugs," says Lesley Stein, one of two photographers at the event.

Sullivan says the music was lousy, the DJ missed his cues for the father-daughter dance and the cake cutting and guests left early. "It was really obvious that it was not fun for a lot of people," Sullivan says. "He really ruined the day."

"I teach some people who got into the business because they thought they could make a lot of money fast by having quote-unquote fun," says Shelby Tuck-Horton of Exquisite Expressions & Events in Mitchellville, Md. "Those people tend to take the job less seriously, and they don't follow the same rules."

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