Although founded on romance, the wedding industry is a business just like any other—and it's a booming one at that. For many couples, planning a wedding will be the first time they're necessitated to have serious financial talks. Since finance is a taboo topic for many, agreeing on budgets and spending or discussing who is responsible for paying for what can be all it takes to add a whole lot of tension to a day that's supposed to be one of the greatest of your life. Perhaps the stickiest point of contention is one that arises over and over again during the planning process: negotiating with vendors. Some find negotiation a necessary part of high ticket purchases while others find it's uncomfortable and maybe even downright rude.
But long before you find yourselves signing on the dotted line, there are some things that can be done to prepare for the process—the majority of which take place before ever even picking up the phone (or, who are we kidding, blasting out an email) "Effective negotiators know that much of the hard work occurs before the formal negotiation begins," says Brian Farkas, a corporate litigator at Goetz Fitzpatrick LLP and adjunct professor at Cardozo School of Law. Before diving into any meeting or phone call, a couple should research the professionals they want to do business with—and that means doing more than just cost comparisons, Farkas explains. "What is the market value of a particular service? What is the vendor's reputation? Who is the vendor's primary competitor—the company to which they would least want to lose business?" he asks. Real life newlywed Meghan Volpi echoes the sentiment, and says this is the single most important piece of advice she'd give a couple just beginning to plan their day. "Do research prior to booking anything to find out who is more or less expensive and why," she insists. It's only after this crucial stage is complete that you're ready to start negotiation.
After research is done, you may feel the need to practice your stone-cold poker face before the first negation, but that's not the right way to approach the situation says Jessica Boskoff, founder and CEO of the event planning firm 23 Layers. "You know that old saying, you catch more bees with honey? Well, that definitely applies to vendors," she says. Not only does your pleasant demeanor work in your favor for obvious reasons (we like to do nice things for nice people), but Farkas points out there's also a financial implication for vendors. "Vendors are often subjected to folks who are rude and demanding. Folks who treat them like servants," he explains. "Show the vendor that you are reasonable and collaborative…they may show greater flexibility on the numbers if they believe you'll take less staff time and energy than the average client." The easiest way to start building a relationship with the people across from the table? Spend ten minutes talking about the vendor instead of your own personal needs. "Once they view themselves as part of your team, they're invested in your success," says Farkas.
Once you're all on the same page, understand that money isn't the only bargaining chip. If you're working with a new or up-and-coming company, Farkas suggests identifying your counterpart's interests to come up with worthwhile solutions that may seem a bit more out of the box. Some vendors will offer discounts for social media posts featuring their name, while others will negotiate based on truth online reviews after the big day. "These cost you nothing, but might be extremely valuable to the vendor," he explains. Sometimes, it's not a matter of negotiating price, but negotiating what comes with it, points out Boskoff. "Whether it be extra flowers onsite just in case they're needed, or adding a specialty cocktail to the bar package without an up-charge, there is more than one way to get a bang for your buck!"
Of course, there are certain bottom-line tactics that will always hold weight. "An empty venue is bad for business," says Farkas. "Give (your vendor) a 'win' by suggesting a day or time when the venue would be otherwise unused." This certainly held true for the Volpis, who planned a gorgeous wedding on the Jersey Shore in January. "We chose a winter wedding date so some prices were already dropped for a seasonal discount," says Meghan. "We were also able to negotiate prices with our videographers, and got discounts on our part busy, our shuttle transportation, photo booth, and florist by tweaking certain aspects of packages." While wedding trends may come and go, there's one classic question the Volpi's used that never goes out of style: "What can you do for us if we pay in cash?" Whether it's a larger deposit upfront, or an all cash payment, many vendors are willing to take a little off your total for an all cash arrangement or for payments that are provided before the big day. No matter what your strategy, everyone agrees that negotiations succeed not when one party wins or loses, but when both sides happily come to a creative solution.
What happens if a vendor isn't willing to play ball at all? Are there any vendors that simply won't negotiate? Yes, says Boskoff. "Rental and furniture companies are less likely to provide a discount unless it's a trade discount," she explains. Likewise, it's generally considered in poor taste to try to negotiate the payment for religious services that take place in a place of worship. But odds are, you won't have to wonder who isn't open to budge. "If someone isn't willing to negotiate, they will tell you that right off of the bat," says Volpi. "Which is nice that you know from the beginning." And she's right.
Once all the cards are on the table, you can then make an educated decision based on your research, the offers in front of you, and your personal finances. And while you shouldn't make a decision until you have all the information, what you can assess ahead of time is what you'll do if things don't go your way. "Negotiation scholars often consider BATNA, or the best alternative to a negotiated agreement," explains Farkas. "In other words, what will you do if your negotiation with a particular vendor fails and you cannot reach agreement? The research shows that negotiators who do their homework prior to a negotiation, and enter the discussion having already considered potential BATNAs, are less likely to agree to an unfavorable deal. BATNAs give you the confidence to simply walk away." While walking away may sound like you're failing, it really shows you're clear on exactly what you want and are willing to exert the patience necessary to get it. "If you feel like something is too much and you're not comfortable, don't be afraid to ask," advises Volpi. "It's a huge industry and there is someone else out there!"
In the end, price isn't everything when it comes to assembling your all-star team for the big day "Whatever direction you decide to go in, it's important that you work well with the vendors you choose," says Boskoff. "The more you are in sync with your 'people,' the better the experience will be! There is nothing more valuable than keeping your sanity."