This is an interesting category—a hybrid of magazines and wedding planners. Resembling a large paperback book, these fill-in-the-blank planners have spaces to record guest lists, wedding arrangements and so on. Interspersed in the checklists are ads for local bridal merchants. The biggest player in this market is the "Wedding Pages," which has planners for over 80 different cities. To order, call 1-800-843-4983. The Wedding Pages is free but there is a catch: your name goes on a mailing list to merchants in your wedding location. Soon, your mailbox may be filled with unsolicited pitches for bridal shops, photographers, and the like.
BEST FOR: Everything, especially photographers and caterers or reception sites. Who makes the best-tasting wedding cakes? Why not ask someone who attends hundreds of weddings and tastes just as many cakes?
Who is this person, you ask? How about a wedding photographer! That's right, most wedding photographers sneak a taste at receptions. Any photographer who's been around the block should be able to give you at least two to three names of good bakers whose cakes taste as good as they look.
What about a good florist? Asking ceremony site coordinators or caterers will probably turn up a few good prospects. That's because they've seen the florist's work up close and personal. They know who's been late and who's been on time.
You get the picture. "Domino referrals" involve networking with wedding professionals to find other prospects. One couple we spoke to in Los Angeles was planning a wedding in Rhode Island and used this method to find nearly everyone they needed. A band leader recommended several wonderful reception sites, a photographer turned them on to a great videographer, and so on.
The drawbacks to domino referrals: As you can imagine, this method does have a few problems. First, you must find one good merchant to start with. Then, you can use "domino referrals" to help find others.
Political infighting in the wedding business is intense. Competitors jostle for position by aligning themselves with cliques of other merchants—hence you may only get referrals of a certain "type" of business. High-end photographers may only direct you to the most expensive cake baker in town, for example. To avoid this, tell them exactly what you are looking for in terms of quality and price range.
Finally, the major pitfall of domino referrals is the kickback problem. In the Northeast and in some parts of California, catering managers at reception sites receive kickbacks for referring couples to local merchants. For example, one harpist in the San Francisco Bay Area told us that a popular reception site charged musicians a $500 fee to be included on their "recommended list." Of course, this list didn't dis-close to brides that the recom-mended bands and DJs had really paid for the privilege of being on the list. The kickback problem also occasionally crops up with wed-ding planners and some bridal shops. Some unscrupulous mer-chants collect thousands of dollars in "finder's" fees. Wedding busi nesses who are willing to pay these commissions are probably desper ate for work-—not a good sign. If you suspect something's up, ask the merchant if they are receiving a "commission" for every bride they refer.
Nonetheless, we find that the "domino referral" method can result in some very high quality leads. But who do you ask to refer whom? Here's a table with some suggestions:
Ask this merchant
To refer you to these businesses!
Videographers, bakers, bands,
DJs, reception sites, caterers
Photographers, reception sites,
Florists, bakers, bands,
DJs, reception sites
Photographers, invitation stores
Reception sites, bakers, caterers
Florists, reception sites
Bakeries, reception sites
BEST FOR: A few creative ideas, but not much else. Bridal shows and fairs are an interesting experience, but unfortunately, not very helpful for long-distance brides.
What is a bridal show? For the uninitiated, these events are essentially a combination trade fair and fashion show. Bridal merchants set up booths and hawk their wares—from photography to catering, flowers to cakes. A fashion show with the latest gowns is usually the bait the promoters use to get brides into the trade fair.
Typically held on a Sunday afternoon, these shows can range from a small gathering at a local hotel to a massive event that rivals a political convention in size and scope. In fact, in Houston, a local bridal show sets up in the city's huge convention center and draws 15,000 attendants. The aisles at that show were mobbed and made the event something more to be endured than enjoyed.
When are bridal shows held? Most are in January (which just coincidentally corresponds to the peak engagement times of Christmas and Valentine's Day). A few bridal fairs are held in the late summer and early fall.
How can I find out about shows? Shows are typically advertised in local newspapers—check your Sunday paper near the wedding announcements. One national company that does shows in several major cities is the Bridal Expo. Call 1-800-544-3970 for their latest schedule.
Should I attend a show in the wedding location? Or at my : home base? That's a tricky question. First, if you happen to be visiting the wedding location when a show is going on, you may be tempted to go. However, your precious time may be more productively spent checking out reception sites, photographers, and other merchants. Using the above sources may yield higher-quality leads than the merchants you'd meet at bridal shows (see pluses and minuses of bridal shows listed below).
Of course, if you're in town on a Sunday and have nothing else to do, attending a show can't hurt. If you are at your "home base," attending a show is more for gathering ideas than for identifying specific merchants.
PLUSES AND MINUSES OF ATTENDING A BRIDAL SHOW
The Upside: \
- ONE-STOP SHOPPING LETS YOU SEE MANY MERCHANTS IN A SHORT TIME. Instead of wasting your time driving all over town only to find merchants who don't fit your needs, a show enables you to do a quick "screen" of what's out there.
- FASHION SHOWS ARE FUN. Frankly, this is why many brides and grooms go to these shows anyway, to see those fancy $5000 gowns. Seeing what those dresses look like live and in person provides good entertainment.
- CROWDS! Unfortunately, most bridal shows are mobbed.
- A FANCY BOOTH DOES NOT GUARANTEE A COMPETENT BUSINESS. Merchants spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to make their booth stand-out. Unfortunately, this effort does not always extend to making their customers satisfied. For example, at one show, we met a photographer who we thought was very professional—smartly dressed, pretty booth, attractive photo display albums. Then we visited her studio a cluttered mess in a low-rent part of town. The lesson? Always go to visit the merchant after the show at their shop, office, or studio to find out if they are really worth the asking price. Never book a merchant during a bridal show.
- SHOWS TEND TO ATTRACT LOW-QUALITY OR UNTESTED MERCHANTS. If you're looking for the best wedding merchants in town, a bridal show isn't always where to find them. That's because the best tend to work by word-of-mouth. So who's at these shows? Often, it's young companies trying to establish a reputation. While this is OK, you don't want someone learning the ropes at your wedding. Also in attendance may be "low-quality" merchants who are desperate for work.
- DISCOUNTERS AREN'T INVITED. Looking for a shop that discounts gowns? A deal on invitations? Don't expect to find them at most bridal shows, since most show promoters ban these companies to appease full-price competitors. For example, we found most bridal shows have banned Discount Bridal Service from exhibiting for the sole reason that they offer discounts to brides! Full-price shops would rather resort to these dirty tricks than to compete with the discounters head-to-head.
TIPS FOR ATTENDING BRIDAL SHOWS AND FAIRS
- WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES. Convention centers often have concrete floors—murder on feet if you're in heels. Sneakers are the best bet.
- TAKE A CAMERA AND SNAP PICTURES of interesting stuff like floral arrangements and wedding cakes. If you have a small video camera, bring this too.
- THE DOOR PRIZE TRAP. Be aware that when a merchant asks you to sign up for a door prize that you are also signing up for a mailing list. If you want to protect your privacy, pass by that chance at winning fifty pink, personalized napkins.
- PRESS FOR PRICES. Some businesses will pass out price lists, others are more coy. These companies (which just so happen to be more expensive) feel they may scare you off if they tell you what they really cost. Instead, they want to lure you into their studio, office, or shop for a one-on-one sales presentation. Before you set up any appointment, get the company to be specific on prices. Don't let them get away with stuff like "our prices start at $1000." What does that buy you? Tell them you're planning a longdistance wedding and don't have any time for such games.
In the past few years, several "referral" services have sprung up for brides. Some are legitimate, while others are thinly veiled scams. How can you tell the difference?
Here's an example of a good referral service:
The Wedding Library in Orange, GA TJI (714/997-1579) is a free service to brides. Merchants pay a fee to be listed, but the referral company owner told us they check references and screen out the less reputable firms. On the other hand is a DJ company in Dallas that claims to be a "referral company." Instead of providing brides with the names of reputable companies, the DJ comes to your home for a heavy-sales pressure pitch to let them do your entire wedding—they contract with a cake baker, photographer, and so on. Another twist on this scam are advertising publications that offer "free referral" phone lines. When you call, you get "referred" to companies that just so happen to be their advertisers. Is there any screening of merchants or checking of references? Probably not.
What's the lesson? Check out the "referral" company by asking a few questions. Key among these is how they get paid and how they screen any businesses. So what's the best source for merchants to help you plan your long-distance wedding? We believe the highest-quality leads come from "domino referrals" by recently married couples or other wedding professionals. The yellow pages can help you if you get stuck and tourism or visitor's bureaus can lead you to an off-the-beaten-path reception site.
Less helpful but somewhat useful are wedding ad publications and books. Local newspapers can clue you into sales and special bridal editions provide a good overview of who's hot. Finally, bridal shows and fairs can expose you to a wide variety of merchants (and ideas) in one afternoon.
The goal here is to come up with two to three top candidates for each bridal category: ceremony/reception site, caterer, florist, photographer, band, DJ, videographer, and more. But what do you do after you have that list?