Want a stress-free wedding? The relationships that you have with your vendors are key. From your venue to the person delivering your chairs, all of your vendors have the ability to make or break your wedding. Will you have brunch with the person creating your wedding cake every Sunday - probably not (but you never know!) - but you should still feel comfortable with them being a part of your special day.
One of the reasons that I always recommend working with a professional wedding planner, is the relationships with local companies. Your wedding planner rubs elbows with the best of the best in your town/suburb/city and therefore can make sure you have the latest and greatest products, the best pricing, and spectacular service. Can you still have all of this without a professional planner? Yes, by doing your homework!
Where to start? Recommendations from friends or co-workers who are recent brides or who entertain are always the best. You have a first-hand account of a vendor's interaction with a client and you can see the finished product (or pictures) in an un-biased way.
Another great idea is to look at the websites of professional organizations - whether national or local. Vendors who take the time to be part of these kinds of organizations value their craft and work to educate themselves at being the best caterer, florist, etc. that they can be. A good place to start is the International Special Events Society (http://www.ises.com/) where you can search for planners and vendors alike. The Association of Bridal Consultants (http://www.bridalassn.com/) again has listings of planners and vendors in different regions. For caterers you might try the National Association of Catering Executives (http://www.nace.net/). The Knot also produces an annual vendor guide for different regions across the country.
Search like a professional, my number one resource for vendors is BizBash (http://www.bizbash.com/), a magazine for event professionals with publications in New York, Los Angeles, Florida, Toronto and soon to be Washington, DC. You can search their sight for mention of a vendor you are considering, or look through their directory for ideas. The pages of BizBash also present some fantastic inspirations for flowers, decor and catering!
Once you've narrowed down your choices, it is important to meet with your vendor. Know what your budget (or range) is and have an idea of what you are looking for. Even if you know nothing about flowers (or what is available during the season of your wedding), look through magazines and have an idea of what you like. Know what colors you are interested in working with, or what the color scheme of your wedding will be. A professional will be able to share their knowledge with you, walk you through what works for your budget, and most importantly take the $3,000 centerpiece you have a picture of and create something equally beautiful for your $300 budget!
Trust your gut. A professional should treat you with the same respect whether you have a $100,000 budget or a $15,000 budget. Meet with a few vendors and choose someone who understands your vision, who keeps in contact with you, and who you get a good vibe from. If the bad vibes start during the initial interview, chances are they will not get better. Like I said above, they may not become your best friend forever, but they will do their best to provide you with a great product, on budget and delivered on time.
Even if you have a great relationship with your vendor, make sure to protect yourself and your investment. While you may not want to think about problems on your wedding day, a detailed contract will help make sure that your wedding is flawless (again, if possible, it is always great to have the advice of a professional wedding planner during vendor negotiations). Be as detailed as possible in your contract. If you are certain that your guests will be creating long lines at the bar, make sure you have noted that you need 2 or 3 bartenders per bar. If you aren't sure what is included in the price, ask questions. Most vendors have a system for figuring out have many waiters, how many bartenders, etc. based on the number of guests. But you know your crowd, if you will need extra servers to cater to your picky eaters, or more attendants stationed around the large venue to help elderly guests, make that known! See our upcoming post for details on contract negotiation.
Pay particular attention to how you get along with photographers and videographers. These are the people who will be mingling with your guests and corralling your entire bridal party. I once sat with a bride who was interviewing a photographer. She had a recommendation from a friend, but when we met with him he tried to convince her and her fiancee that they didn't want group photo shots. He wanted to do mostly candids. This style is great, but my bride was interested in having the traditional group pictures. After leaving the meeting, the couple realized that they couldn't hire someone who was trying to impose his vision on their wedding. It doesn't diminish the quality of his pictures, their styles just didn't match.
If you will have both a photographer and a videographer, ask the two to meet. Often it is important for them to work together so that they stay out of each other's shots. Talk about which moments in the wedding you want on camera and which you would like still shots of. Try to create a sense of priority for one or the other during various moments of the wedding. You want the team capturing your memories to work well together! If you can find a company that provides both services, all the better, so that you have a team that is used to working together.
Lastly, always ask for references. The pictures that various vendors will show you might have been from 5 or 10 years ago (though most won't be). They may have also been from a wedding costing 10-50% more than your budget. Ask questions: ask to see examples of work that they have done in your price range, ask to speak with brides who had similar budgets. Send a quick email to a past bride. Ask about her experiences with the company and with the final product (in the case of photos or video, etc.) Though bad moments may happen, great vendors should have a host of great references to supply you with.
Some of my favorite vendors (based in New York):
How Sweet It Is http://www.howsweetitispastry.com/
Drape Kings http://www.drapekings.com/
Union Square Group, Ltd. http://www.usg-events.com/ (for custom pieces)
Broadway Party Rentals http://www.broadwaypartyrentals.com/
East Six http://www.eastsix.com/ (invitations and stationary)
Heather Smith Designs http://www.heathersmithdesigns.com/ (wedding websites)