Why I Have an Integrity Pledge

March 3rd, 2014

Everyone trusts the vendors when they know they can trust the planner.

Everyone trusts the vendors when they know they can trust the planner.

If you have looked recently at the page on my website that deals with Money Matters, you might have noticed at the bottom that I have my integrity pledge there.  In case you’re not familiar with how this scheme I mention works, let me lay it out for you here.

When I first hung out my (virtual) shingle as an event planner, vendors started getting in touch with me.  They wanted me to refer my clients to them, and for the privilege, they were willing to pay me–in hard, cold cash–a percentage of what my clients paid them for their work.  I understand that this can be quite a good revenue stream for an event planner, but I am not willing to sell out for the cash.  I always insist that the vendor give my client the equivalent discount, instead. It costs the vendor the same amount and it allows me to offer my clients a little bonus.

Taking the “commission” (as they call it) is a problem because I work for the person who is paying me.  If I were to take both a fee from a client and a payment from a vendor, then I would have two bosses with conflicting interests.  I would lose the ability to help my client stay within their budget, since my own personal interest would be for them to spend more.  I also might be tempted to refer clients to the vendor who offers me the largest percentage, rather than the vendor who does the best work or gives the best value for money.

I heard a very telling story from a woman I know who makes and sells eco-friendly event invitations.  She told me that she had been taking her wares around to various event planners.  She was discussing the commission amount with one planner.  The planner pointed to a wall of invitation sample books and told her that those vendors all offered her a much higher commission.  She clearly expected that this woman would offer her more.  And that is a situation that can lead to bidding wars, which can not be good for the planner’s clients.

When I first started out as a planner, I was pretty sure I would never take these kickbacks from vendors.  But the thing that really gave me the resolve came from a very unexpected place.  I took a taxi home from the very first wedding I ever planned and coordinated.  The cab driver was an older gentleman, and we chatted on the way home.  Of course he asked me what I do and where I was coming from.  When I told him that I am a wedding planner, the first thing he said was, “You don’t take those payments from the vendors, do you?”  I assured him that I do not take them.  And I have never been tempted to go back on my word.

Event Planning on a Budget–Part Five: Have a Drink?

February 24th, 2014

This is the last of my recent weekly series on budget event planning.  I’ve discussed budgeting, venues, catering, and–today–beverages.  If you’re on a budget, you might also be interested in my series on DIY weddings about things you can do yourself, and things you should not try.

Champagne toast. Photo courtesy of Artisan Events. Inc.

Champagne toast. Photo courtesy of Artisan Events. Inc.

One way to control costs at your event is by considering the beverages. Non-alcoholic beverages are relatively inexpensive and might be included in your food package. Bar service can either be very expensive or relatively inexpensive, depending on your venue and on the way you procure it. Many venues have bar packages: a beer, wine, and soda package; a mid-price open bar; and a top shelf, among others. Prices are generally either a flat per-person charge or are based on consumption.  If you are on a budget, the beer, wine, and soda option is generally affordable. One way to liven up a beer and wine package is to add a signature cocktail to the package. This can often be done without a large additional cost.

If your venue and/or caterer allow you to provide the alcohol, you have even more options. The least expensive of these is to purchase the alcohol yourself at a liquor store. Be sure to choose a store with good prices that allows returns of unopened bottles. This option also gives you maximum flexibility in your choice of what to serve. There are even a few liquor stores that provide event service. They will sell you the liquor, deliver it to the venue, provide glassware at no extra charge, and pick up anything left the next day to give you a refund or credit. These establishments are becoming a rarity, however, so don’t be surprised if you need to do the heavy lifting yourself.   And make sure that bar glasses are on your equipment rental order.

The one thing I never recommend for keeping costs under control is to have a cash bar. As the host of the party, it is your obligation to provide food and drink for your guests. (Miss Manners would be appalled if you had a cash bar!)  If your resources dictate a limited supply of alcohol, your guests will live with it. The quantity of alcohol served is not a measure of how good the party is.  Serve what you can afford and you will have enough money left over to do whatever else is important to you at your event.

Event Planning on a Budget–Part Four: Let’s Talk About Catering

February 17th, 2014

This is part four of this weekly series on budget party planning.  Last week I gave some tips on keeping catering costs under control.  Here’s an in-depth look at budgeting for the food at your event:

Photo courtesy of Artisan Events, Inc.

Photo courtesy of Artisan Events, Inc.

One very important thing you can do to control your catering costs is to have a fairly firm budget number in mind before you talk to a caterer. Every client I have ever told this to says, “But I don’t know what it costs.” That’s the secret: You tell the caterer how much you want to spend and it is up to them to come up with a menu within your budget. Don’t expect caviar on a frugal budget, of course, and do discuss your target budget number with any potential caterer. A good one will be able to tell you if what you are asking for is even reasonable. If you don’t go in with a budget number, they will start at the high end. You can make adjustments as you go along, of course, but it is easiest to start with your budget amount.

One way to think about your catering budget is to break it down into two (or three parts). First, consider how much per person you want to spend on food alone. Compare your per person price to what you might pay in a restaurant.  At a highest-end restaurant, you could easily spend $100 per person for dinner, or more. But at a high quality neighborhood restaurant, you can get away with $40 per person. Of course, the prices at a restaurant also include a different kind of overhead from the caterer, but this gives you a way to start thinking about the costs.  Float a per-person number with any caterer you talk to and see if they think they can come up with a menu in that price range.  If three or four caterers find your numbers two low, you may have to increase them.  But you should be able to find someone to work within any reasonable budget.

The second part of your catering budget is service–what you are paying for the chef, servers, and other kitchen workers. Most caterers charge service per worker per hour, and they will break this number down on your estimate. A less scrupulous practice is to charge service at a flat cost per guest. This method does not reflect the caterer’s actual expenses and may end up costing you more. A third method is to charge service as a percentage of food costs.  If a caterer insists on charging a flat rate per guest, consider looking elsewhere.

If you want to cut down on service costs, you might consider buffet service, which requires fewer people to give smooth service. On the other hand, caterers generally must provide more food for a buffet than for plated service, which might offset the savings provided by fewer servers. Ask your caterer if buffet is an option for you and see if a buffet will offer you savings. It depends on a lot of factors: price of labor, price of food, number of guests, etc. A conscientious caterer can give you a comparison of the prices.

Depending on your venue and your caterer, the third part of any estimate you receive may be rental equipment charges. These charges should show up separately from food and service on your catering estimate. Some caterers will break out the rental list with prices for each item so you can see what they expect you to pay. Most caterers will not do this, however, and if you want to compare the details, you may need either a rental catalogue and an Excel spreadsheet or the help of a professional. I have actually broken down rental costs for a client and compared them to the prices I would expect to pay to help her to see the true costs of the proposal. Rentals can add up to a substantial sum of money, so don’t overlook the necessity if you are at a venue that doesn’t supply everything you need. There are ways to control cost here, too, although not as many. You can rent flat linens, instead of glossy, and you can rent the least expensive china, silverware, and glassware. You can also shop around among rental houses for good prices. Be aware, however, that there are rental companies that offer good prices but substandard service. Get recommendations or references for rentals so you are not stuck with poor service or dingy equipment.

Always start with your food budget number before you begin your shopping. You may have to revise this number as you get a feel for realistic costs, but don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can’t feed a crowd for less than $100 per person in food costs. If you are creative and are working with a flexible caterer, you can have a celebration to remember without breaking the bank.

Event Planning on a Budget–Part Three: What’s For Dinner?

February 10th, 2014

This is the third in my weekly series on budget event planning.   Today, here are my thoughts on keeping catering costs in bounds.

Appetizing food doesn't have to break the bank.  Photo courtesy of christytylerphotography.com.

Appetizing food doesn't have to break the bank. Photo courtesy of christytylerphotography.com.

After the location, food is probably your largest event cost. And many caterers will try to make sure that you spend at least half of your total budget on food. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. There are many ways you can keep your food and drink costs under control and still have a festive and hospitable event.  We’ll look at food today and next week, and look at beverages in a future post.

Consider Day and Time

The easiest way to control costs is to consider time of day. Breakfast, brunch, and lunch are generally less expensive meals than dinner. I believe that this is as much a matter of social convention as of intrinsic cost, but you can still take advantage of it. A late morning or early afternoon wedding can be followed by lunch. An anniversary celebration can be a brunch party. For the early risers among us, breakfast celebrations are unusual and offer great menu options.

Depending on your event, you might also choose not to serve a full meal, but to limit your food service to snacks. (Miss Manners says, though, that if you’re keeping people at your event at meal time, be sure to feed them.)  Be careful, though: Many caterers will give you the same price for heavy hors d’oeuvres as for a full meal. But a traditional morning wedding used to be followed by punch and cake. You can use or elaborate on this tradition to have a nice, inexpensive party.

Choose Your Caterer Carefully

This leads me to my second easy way to control food costs, and that is your choice of caterer. In Chicago, there are the big downtown caterers and then there are the smaller outfits. The big ones are on the preferred vendor list of every venue in the city. Fortunately, some of the smaller ones have made it onto the lists of various venues, as well. If you can’t figure out with a little internet research which caterer falls into which category, ask an event professional. Personally, I have dealt with enough of each kind of caterer to know one from the other. The smaller caterers are more likely to be willing to work within your budget. They are also likely to have personal service and high quality food. As with any vendor, of course, check their references first and taste their food before you sign a contract and hand over a down payment.

These are some of the easy ways to control your event food costs.  Next week, I’ll talk more depth about your catering budget and how you can use it to save money.