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Why Vendors Can Make or Break Your Event

This excerpt is part of's Second-Quarter Startup Kit which explores the fundamentals of starting up in a wide range of industries.

In Start Your Own Event Planning Business, the staff at Entrepreneur Press and writer Cheryl Kimball explain how you can get started in the event planning industry, whether you want to work part- or full-time planning anything from a first-birthday party, bar mitzvah or wedding to political fundraisers and product launches. In this edited excerpt, the authors offer some key tips on finding reliable vendors and how to negotiate a great deal with them.

At the heart of a successful event planner's business is a team of reliable vendors. It can't be overstated: Your events will be marred by even one bad vendor. Just as a bad apple ruins the lot, one bad vendor may leave a bad image in your client's mind of the event as a whole. Perhaps the florist arrives with wilted and faded centerpieces. Or the singer you hired sounds more like a howling dog than a professional songstress. It's hard to erase these images from the minds of your client and the attendees. To find top-rate vendors, you must do your due diligence.

The types of vendors you'll need to hire for events include:

  • Art director: handles design, computer imaging, etc.
  • Caterer/bartender: serves food and beverages
  • Calligrapher: handles lettering on invitations and signage
  • Decorator: provides décor
  • Florist: provides floral arrangements
  • Graphic artist: designs and executes event posters or invitations
  • Photographer/videographer: photographs, records and preserves the event
  • Performer: provides entertainment
  • Transportation/parking personnel: drives and parks vehicles

Even if a mistake is a vendor's fault, the mishap will reflect on you because you're managing the event. That's what makes researching vendors so important. Event planner David Granger picks his with extreme care. "Choosing vendors means knowing them and trusting them," he says. As with most event planners, New York City-based planner Jaclyn Bernstein makes her choices with long-term relationships in mind. She's even had business come her way through vendors who know her.

Joyce Barnes-Wolff, an event planner in Ohio, has "the best Rolodex in the Midwest," she says. So she knows who's right for an event. "I can pull in the best people from across the area," she adds.

When it comes to finding the best vendors, the best idea, successful event planners say, is to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Ask other event planners and clients about their experiences with vendors. The names of the best—and worst—vendors will be mentioned again and again. Keep a list of both those that are recommended and those with tarnished reputations. With these lists in hand, start researching the vendors on your A-list, recording the following information:

  • Vendor name, address and contact information
  • Area of service
  • Prices
  • Lead times required
  • Payment policy
  • Refund policy
  • Discounts offered
  • Specialty items/services
  • Insurance coverage
  • Types of licenses and permits held

This vendor file is extremely important because it can save you hours of research time down the road. By having all this information right at your fingertips, you'll be able to conduct your vendor searches more effectively. Keep building this file as each new event comes along.

Before you hire a vendor for the first time, find out all you can about the company's history. Ask for letters of reference, too. Or ask if you can attend an event at which the vendor is providing a service. Once you're satisfied, make sure you have a document indicating what the company will do for your event. Vendor proposals should include the following elements:

  • Complete description of service
  • Description of equipment vendor will provide
  • Listing of additional services vendor will provide, if any
  • Description of costs and payment terms
  • Scheduling information
  • Proof of insurance, bonding, and other risk-management practices
  • List of vendor requirements (water, electricity, etc.)

In addition, make sure these details all appear in the vendor agreement.

Negotiating with Vendors

There are some points on which you can negotiate when hiring vendors, especially as your experience and reputation grow. As a general rule, the more often you've worked with a vendor, the more leeway you can reasonably expect them to accord you. Consider asking about the following:

Payment terms. Get your required deposit as low as possible. Also, ask about a prepayment (i.e., paying in full before the event) discount.

Complimentary sample (with food-tasting, for instance). This point is especially important either when hiring a vendor unknown to you or when you're asking for some­thing outside the vendor's normal style of service.

Complimentary extra. When you provide a lot of business for vendors, they may be persuaded to throw in something at no charge. For example, a florist who provides centerpieces and other floral arrangements for a large event may pro­vide a free bouquet for the guest of honor.

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