Monday, June 29, 2009

Long Distance Wedding: Tracking Down the Best Bridal Prospects (Part II)

Where Do I Look?
Now that you have a copy of the yellow pages (or have located a Phonefiche), where do you begin? First, let us start by saying that each directory publisher has their own idea of indexing. As a result, in one phone book, you can find tuxedo rental places under "Tuxedos" while another lists them under "Formalwear Rentals-Men."

Here's a tip: look at the index in the back. Most topics are referenced and this will save you much time. There are three general sections you want to find:
  • WEDDINGS SUPPLIES AND SERVICES: Perhaps the most important category to locate, this section will be a potpourri of different merchants who are targeting the bridal market. You'll find florists, photographers, entertainers, bridal shops, and more. While there are many bakeries in most cities, the bakeries listed here will be more apt to specialize in wedding cakes, for example. Nearby this section could be another category, "Wedding Arrangement Services," a big catch-all for some all-in-one companies and wedding planners (although these businesses may also be under "Wedding Consultants.") In one yellow pages, we found more useful leads under "wedding arrangements" than the "wedding supplies and services" heading. Nonetheless, copy all of these sections.
  • BRIDAL SHOPS. You'll note that we recommend you buy your bridal gown in your hometown and not in the wedding location. So why should you copy this section? That's because bridal shops are great sources for other service referrals. Later, we'll talk about how your surrogate planner can canvas these stores for business cards and local advertising publications. Also, bridal shops tend to sponsor (dominate is anodier word that comes to mind) local bridal fairs, as we'll explore later.
  • PHOTOGRAPHERS-PORTRAIT. Directories tend to divide photographers into two categories: commercial and portrait. Wedding photographers tend to be classified into die latter section.
  • OTHER STUFF. While you're more likely to find merchants who specialize in weddings listed in "Weddings Supplies and Services," other sections may have bigger ads (and more information) about some of the same companies. Key categories may include "Bakers-Retail," "Caterers," "Florists," "Entertainers" (or "Disc Jockeys" or "Orchestras & Bands"), and "Video Production Services." (Category headings will vary, of course.)
How Do I Narrow This Down?
The number of listings in the Yellow Pages can be daunting. For example, in the Dallas, Texas, directory under "Photographers-Portrait," there are a whopping 253 listings! How do you narrow this down?

  • KEY ON "WEDDING SPECIALISTS." For example, with photographers, note how many studios list weddings first in their ad. Some list "families" and "children" before weddings—wonder what their priority is?
  • Remember this isn't the "end all." You're going to use the yellow pages as a cross-reference—for example, to find an address or more info about a company you find through another of our sources. Don't get discouraged by the large number of prospects—we'll narrow them down shortly.

WHERE'S THE ADDRESS? You'll notice that some listings omit address information, giving just a phone number. Typically this flags an "out-of-home" company. Is this bad? Not necessarily. Some very talented merchants work from home. In some cases, however, it may be illegal—bakers and caterers are forbidden to operate out of their homes by some municipalities.

A BIG AD DOES NOT MEAN "HIGH QUALITY." It probably means "high volume." That's because those large ads are very expensive. To pay off those ad bills, the business may have to do big volume.

EVERY BUSINESS THAT HAS A BUSINESS PHONE TYPICALLY GETS A FREE LISTING IN THE YELLOW PAGES. You'll notice that some companies just have a plain vanilla listing— no ad or even bold print. That's because it's free. Some businesses put their money into other marketing outlets while others don't advertise at all and work by word-of-mouth referrals.

INFORMATION CAN BE OUT-OF-DATE. Yellow pages typically stay "on the market" for a year. In that time, listings can become out of date. Businesses disappear, locations change and more. Always call ahead to verify information before making a trip.

THE PERSONAL "NAME." Look for companies that list the owner's name in the business name. Why? Because the best services exist on the owner's personal reputation. When we encounter a "generic name" business we wonder what they're hiding? Inexperience? A faceless corporation? For example, "McCoy's Photography" or "Wedding Cakes by Carol" are better prospects than "City Photographers" or "The Wedding Cake Bakery."

AD CLAIMS ARE NOT CLOSELY MONITORED FOR TRUTHFULNESS. As you might have guessed, claims made in directory advertising are rarely verified by the publisher. "Free estimates" may really mean "free if you spend $1000." "Wedding Experts" may turn out to be "brand new in the business."

Local Newspapers.

BEST FOR: trendy and top quality bridal stores and services. The newspaper in your wedding location may be a surprising source for merchant leads. Here are three examples:

Special Wedding Sections
Mainly filled with ads (and sometimes with mind-numbing "advertorial" stories), these sections usually appear in January or early spring. If the section is not purely ads, note who the editors and reporters talk to as sources—these businesses are probably considered at the top of their field. Be aware that fashion editors typically stress exclusive (read: expensive) bridal shops and services.

How do you get your hands on one of these? It may be as simple as calling the newspaper—try the advertising department, since they typically keep extra copies as sales tools. If that fails, call the editorial department and speak to the feature section. If they won't send you a copy, ask for the issue date and have a friend hunt it down in the local library (or see if your library carries that paper).

Sunday Bridal Advertising
For some reason, bridal businesses tend to advertise on Sundays. Some papers even have boxed "wedding directories" with local ads—these usually appear in the feature or lifestyle section. Most of the ads appear after Christmas and run into the spring; this is the prime "wedding planning season."

Wedding Announcements
Want a sneaky way to find the best bands for receptions? Check out the wedding announcements of other brides and grooms. Typically running on Sundays, some of these announcements are quite lengthy, listing the bride, groom, families, what the bride wore and (you guessed it) which musician(s) played at the ceremony and reception! Since these lengthy descriptions . (which are actually paid ads) are often taken out by society-type families, the bands may be pricey, but what the heck. At least you know who is considered "hot." Note: here's a way to find the names of some of the photographers who do those "high society" weddings. Some of these announcements have large pictures of the bride. If you look in the corner, the photographer may have signed his or her name.


BEST FOR: just about everything, but screen the referrals carefully. If you have any friends or relatives at the wedding location, ask them if they have any suggestions. Okay, we realize that your grandmother may not know who the hot wedding photographers are in town, but she may have a friend whose granddaughter got married recently. Investing time in tracking down these leads may pay off big time down the line.

One limitation of this approach is, of course, the "clashing tastes" problem. While you might have found a recent bride who can give you referrals, her wedding may have been substantially different than yours will be. Hence, some of her choices may not fit your needs. If you don't know the person real well, ask a couple of innocuous questions:

Was your wedding large? While you don't need an exact guest count, this clues you into whether the event was similar in size and scope to what you are planning.

Where did you hold it? Whether a posh hotel or simple park site, this will give you the idea what type of price range the other bride shopped in.

Obviously, you need to do this not to be snobby, but to tell if the types of services you are looking for are similar to the ones the friend or relative used. A florist referral who did small bouquets for a garden wedding may not be able handle a large hotel wedding with elaborate table centerpieces.

As consumer advocates, we're not big fans of the national bridal magazines. The advice is often so out-of-touch, it's quite sad. During the height of the last recession, the magazines ran pictorials featuring gowns that averaged $2000 in price! Most of the articles are slanted toward weddings in the northeast, heavily recommending sit-down dinners, for example. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the magazines (including industry leader Bride's) also admitted to blocking ads from discounters and gown renters. While these rags do take ads from men's tux rental firms, women looking for rentals are out of luck!

So why have we even mentioned them here? Despite their flaws, most of the magazines do have regional advertising sections, with ads from "local merchants." Most brides are unaware that the magazines have several regional editions. If you're in California, you get the "western edition" with a special ad section from local merchants. You'll note many of the gown ads list stores in that part of the country. According to our research, the biggest regional sections are in the Northeast versions, followed by the West. The South and Midwest regional ad sections are much smaller.

Of course, getting the "northeast edition" of a bridal magazine isn't easy if you live in say, Florida. You may have to have a friend send you a copy via the mail or pick one up when you visit the wedding location.

How can you use the magazines without lining their coffers? Visit your local library—most carry a bridal magazine or two. That way you can glean the information you need without giving your money to these publishers.

This category hits close to home—that's how we got into this crazy wedding business to begin with. We wrote a series of regional wedding guides to cities in Texas, Colorado, and California.
Now there are dozens of local bridal publications out there to help you plan your wedding. Here's an overview of what is available:

At last count, we found about fifteen paperback books that are local "wedding guides." Most offer information about local bridal merchants and wedding sites. Some are true consumer guides (with no advertising) while others are filled with glossy ads. Beware of those books that are disguised as unbiased editorial, but are really paid-for ads by the merchants. For example, we found one bridal guide for Portland, Oregon that said it contained "factual and descriptive information on area (bridal) businesses." What the publisher forgot to say was that not only did each business pay up to $1000 per page to be in the book, but the merchants also wrote their own copy. Hence, most of the information turns out to be puff pieces about how great every merchant is.

Nevertheless, if you take these books with a grain of salt, they may be helpful in identifying a few potential sources. Most books are for major cities—if you're planning for a smaller metro area, you may be out of luck. How can you find them? Most books are available from local bookstores or from bridal shops. For a listing of the most current regional books, seek out "Books in Print" at your local library. Look under "Weddings" in the subject guide for a complete list. You may be able to find the publisher's phone number to order a book by phone.

In the past few years, a whole crop of local bridal magazines has sprung up like weeds. Usually found in big metro areas, these glossy magazines are filled with ads from local bridal merchants. New England Bride is a prime example in the Northeast. Unlike books, most of these magazines have no pretense about providing consumer information—they are simply a vehicle for merchants to flout their wares. Most articles provide generic etiquette advice or vapid observations about the local wedding scene. On the upside, local bridal magazines at least provide a starting place to find good merchants.

Some articles are "advertorials" for merchants— ads disguised as editorial articles. For example, one recent issue of a regional bridal magazine touted the advantages of shopping for a band or DJ via videotape. Surprisingly, next to the article was an ad for a music agency whose major selling point is a large library of videos of local bands!

Regional bridal magazines are a little tricky to find. Try local bridal shops or perhaps a newsstand with a large collection of regional periodicals.

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