Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Long Distance Wedding: Screening Merchants (Part I)

Okay, admittedly, that last post was the easy stuff. Sure, coming up with a list of "hot prospects" takes some legwork, a little homework, and perhaps some time at the local library. But this is where the rubber really meets the road—when you screen through your list to find the "right" site, photographer, caterer, and so on for your wedding.

But how do you do this long distance? Well, we believe it can be done, with some careful screening. By asking the right questions, you can often separate the cream from the rest of the crop.

At this point, we are going to assume that you are in one of two categories—those couples who are:
  • ABLE TO VISIT YOUR WEDDING LOCATION AT LEAST ONCE. Hence you will use this post to screen your list of prospects. This will narrow down your choices to one to three merchants per category that you later personally visit
  • STUCK AT "HOME BASE." Without being able to visit your wedding location, you have two choices: choosing merchants by phone or using a "surrogate" planner to do the on-site visits for you.

Either way you must narrow down that list of "hot prospects" to a final list of "real possibilities."

Here's how you do it:

PHONE SCREENING: ASKING THE TOUGH QUESTIONS
The phone is certainly an imperfect machine. While you can hear the voice of that photographer, you can't see the facial expressions when he rolls his eyes at the mention of your ceremony site. Sometimes you can't even speak to the owner and are sidetracked by a pesky "gatekeeper" disguised as a "marketing representative" or merely a receptionist instructed to intercept all calls.

As a long-distance bride and groom, you have no choice but to use the phone. Despite the drawbacks, phone screening can still provide clues as to whether this merchant is worthy of your business. Here are our steps to screening merchants by phone:

The First Call

IMMEDIATELY TELL THEM YOU'RE PLANNING A LONG-DISTANCE OR DESTINATION WEDDING. This way you probably won't be put on hold. It also signals the merchant that you can't just "drop in" for more information.

TELL THEM HOW YOU HEARD ABOUT THEM. Doing this puts the merchant at ease. If they know you were referred by a past client, this provides a common frame of reference. If you saw a big promotion or ad they did, this makes them happy that their marketing dollars are working.
Either way, they'll hopefully drop their guard and give you the information you need.

ASK IF THEY HAVE YOUR WEDDING DATE OPEN. Don't waste lots of time (and money) finding out all about a merchant who may already be booked for your date. While some businesses can only do one wedding a weekend (photographers, for example),. others can do multiple events (florists and bakeries). As a side note, don't get discouraged if a few merchants are already booked—just move along to the other names on the list.

REQUEST THEY MAIL A PRICE LIST, BROCHURES, CONTRACT and any other promotional materials. Most professional business- es will have these materials on hand. Tell them to send it as soon as possible. If you have a fax, have them fax it to you (and mail a hard copy), Unfortunately, getting prices is not as easy as it sounds (see the "price quote run-around" section later in this post.)

ASK TO SPEAK TO THE OWNER or manager if you get the run-around. Sometimes you don't get tire top banana when you first call and may be "screened" by a well-meaning assis- tant. However, if they balk at sending you information or are difficult to deal with, just go to the top.

Second Call

CLARIFY ANY QUESTIONS ABOUT THE PRICE LIST OR CONTRACT. Most agree-ments and price lists have at least one or two ambiguous points. What type of album comes with that photo package? Is there a delivery or set-up fee? Asking point-blank if there are any other fees that are not listed is a good way to ferret out any hidden charges.

ASK SOME OF OUR KILLER SCREENING QUESTIONS. Below is our list of "Killer Screening Questions," so named because we believe they cut through the clutter.

GIVE THEM AN IDEA OF YOUR BUDGET AND GAUGE THEIR REACTION. Listen carefully! There may be silence if your budget is below their "standard fees." Other times, the merchant can't restrain their enthusiasm. If they say they don't have anything for that price, ask them if they can design a "custom package" for your wedding. This is a subtle way of saying "work with me and I'll give you my business."

IF YOU PLAN TO VISIT THE WEDDING LOCATION, INFORM THEM OF YOUR IMPENDING VISIT and ask if you can set up an appointment. Read later on on-site visits for tips on the timing of appointments.

ASK IF THEY WILL HOLD YOUR DATE UNTIL YOU SEE THEM (or make a decision to hire them by phone). Suggest they call you if some other bride is interested in the date—this is a common courtesy professionals will extend to potential clients.

WHAT IS THE SMALLEST DEPOSIT I CAN PUT DOWN? Most merchants will only hold a date if you give them a deposit. This may be only $25 or as much as several hundred dollars. Our best advice: always pay by credit card. This will enable you to get a possible refund (or credit on your bill) if the merchant disappears or fails to deliver what is promised.

ASK FOR A FEW REFERENCES FROM RECENT BRIDES. Get the phone numbers of recent past customers. Later in this post we will tell you how to check these references.

IF THINGS ARE GOING WELL, ASK FOR SOME REFERRALS of other wedding professionals. This enables you to get some of those "domino referrals" mentioned in the previous post.

KILLER QUESTIONS
If you read our book Bridal Bargains or any bridal magazine, you are probably familiar with the many questions to ask various merchants. In most cases, we assume you are going to ask many of those questions in a lengthy face-to-face meeting. When you plan long distance, however, your first "meeting" with the business will be over the phone. In order to save you money on long-distance phone bills, here are some of our "killer questions" to cut to the chase, so to speak. By honing in on these questions, you'll be able to weed out the inappropriate merchants.

Photographer/ Video

WHICH PHOTOGRAPHER OR VIDEOGRAPHER IS AVAILABLE FOR MY DATE?
CAN I HAVE THAT NAME IN WRITING IN THE CONTRACT?
The biggest scam with photography studios are those that promise expert photography and then only deliver amateur prints. How. is this done? After baiting you into a contract with the studio, your wedding is assigned to a "stringer" or no-name associate who just graduated from photography school last week. -The resulting pictures are, to say the least, a major disappointment.

Protect yourself by asking the above question at the outset. If the photographer refuses to identify who is available for your wedding date, move along to the next studio. If he or she says they are available for your wedding, getting that commitment in writing will be crucial.

Florist

DO YOU MERELY DROP OFF THE FLOWERS OR WILL YOU STAY UNTIL THE START OF THE CEREMONY?
This question gauges the extent of service that the florist offers. What does it mean for you if the florist just "drops off" the flowers? Well, what if your cousin decides he wants a boutonnière, leaving a groomsman flower-less? What if the altar flowers aren't what you ordered? If the florist just drops off the flowers, then your ability to fix problems is limited.

An indication of their commitment to weddings is whether they stay until the start of the ceremony. We often find that florists who offer this "full-service" also just happen to offer the best wedding flowers overall. Not only do they pin on corsages and boutonni√®res, but they also do last minute fixes—making sure everything is as desired. Florists who just drop off flowers may be stretching themselves too thin, rushing to do too many weddings on a Saturday.

Does it cost extra for this "full service"? Surprisingly, many florists who do stay until the ceremony starts don't charge any more than the "dropoff" guys. Even if they do charge an extra fee ($25 to $50), it may be well worth the additional cost.

Cakes

ARE YOUR CAKES BAKED FROM SCRATCH OR A MIX?
You might be surprised to learn that many commercial bakeries use "shortcuts" for their wedding cakes. The most notice- able shortcut is making the cake from a mix. Instead of using fresh ingredients, bakeries just add water and eggs to pre-made mixes—the results are cakes that lack texture and flavor. We've always been shocked at how many big, "famous" bakeries who use mixes. Obviously, mixes enable a bakery to do big volume, cranking out a dozen or more cakes a week.

HOW SOON BEFORE THE WEDDING ARE CAKES BAKED?
Are they frozen? Another shortcut bakers may use is to bake a large number of cakes several weeks in advance of the delivery date. Then, the cakes are frozen until a few days before the event, when they are thawed and decorated. As you can imagine, any cake that is frozen almost always loses moisture in the transition. Once again, bakeries who do this are trying to build volume. Even if the cakes are from scratch, freezing can destroy that advantage. We recommend you choose a bakery that bakes its cakes from scratch a day or two before the event.

Entertainers

IF YOU HAVE A DEMO TAPE, WAS IT RECORDED LIVE OR IN THE STUDIO?
The latest scam making the rounds in the wedding music world is what we call the "Milli Vanilli" demo tape. Just like the infamous duo that faked their album, these wedding entertainers are faking their demo tapes! A Boston musician tipped us off to this scam, charging that several area bands were using different "studio" musicians (not actual band members) to record fantastic soundtracks for those audio and video demo tapes.

Even if the actual band is playing the music, audio tapes can be altered with studio wizardry. Reverb can be added to give a sax solo more presence and machines can actually improve the background harmonies. The bottom line about all these tricks: see the band live to see if they are really worth their asking price. If you can't see them during one of your on-site visits, have a surrogate planner attend a reception or party where they are playing.

DO YOU HAVE DIFFERENT BAND MEMBERS OR DJ CREWS THAT PLAY RECEPTIONS?
WHO'S AVAILABLE TO DO MY WEDDING?
Some dishonest band leaders or agents use "pickup" bands to dupe consumers. By putting together bands together at the last moment (picking up a drummer here, a keyboardist there), they are able play more events. The problem: unrehearsed musicians thrown together at the last moment tend to sound a step or two below your neighborhood teenage garage band. Asking who will be playing your wedding (and getting background experience information on those players) will prevent problems. The most honest band leaders will put in writing the musicians who will be at your wedding.

Similarly, disc jockeys run a version of this rip-off by using several "crews" to do multiple receptions. If you are the unlucky bride and groom, you might get a second-string DJ who is just learning the ropes. As with any entertainer, confirm who will be the actual DJ at your reception. Seeing potential DJs play before booking is prudent, since the quality may vary greatly from one crew to another. Sometimes the DJ equipment may vary, too: the company has a good system they send out to some, weddings, while other clients get the "back-up" system—which sounds like a back-up system.

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