9 Tips to Negotiate a Vendor Contract, According to a Wedding Planner
Wondering what aspects of your wedding vendor contracts are negotiable? Get perspective and advice from a wedding planner on approaching a contract negotiation respectfully.
Is it ever appropriate to negotiate a contract with a wedding vendor? I’ve had this situation happen several times during my six-year career as a wedding planner. A couple interested in hiring me will review my contract and have a few questions or want me to change a certain line item. What do I do and was it even appropriate for them to ask?
Here are my tips to make this a helpful and healthy conversation for all involved.
How you ask matters.
Let’s start with whether it’s even appropriate to ask. Short answer: Yes, it is appropriate. Long answer: How you ask matters.
A couple who comes to me and says “Do this this way” is not going to get the answer they want. The same is true for a couple who tries to guilt-trip me into making a change that violates my own boundaries. This happened recently with a couple who wanted a refund on what was clearly a non-refundable service — a risk we had discussed at length when they purchased that service from me.
So yes, you can ask but be cognizant of how you ask. Are you coming from a place of hostility and scarcity, or a place of empathy and abundance? If you received this same email from your boss, how would it make you feel? What’s the context that is prompting you to make this request?
Set a deadline.
Because we live in a world where we’re constantly being asked to do everything yesterday, I highly recommend that you set a deadline for any request you make regarding potential changes to a contract. For example, “Ideally, we would hear back from you within the next week.”
Depending on the extent of the changes and the urgency of the situation, you might add, “If we don’t hear back by [insert date], we will proceed with [insert action such as “proceeding with other interviews” or “assuming you would prefer not to move forward”].”
I suggest a deadline so strongly because, in my experience, many vendors do not set their own deadlines. Instead, they send contracts that don’t have expiration dates — which sets them and the clients up for failure if, say, said client comes back after six weeks of ghosting.
The way I avoid this in my own work is a set a one-week hold on the client’s wedding date and in my contract, I explicitly state that if one week passes and I haven’t received a signed contract and a deposit, I will release the hold on the wedding date and be under no obligation to fulfill the contract.
Wield your power responsibly.
Couples often forget how much power they have when it comes to their own wedding. This is particularly true when it comes to interviewing and hiring vendors. You are, in many ways, an employer now. You are somebody’s boss. Please wield this power responsibly.
If you are hiring a vendor who is newer to this career, please take extra precautions. The wedding industry is an extremely unregulated industry, which means that it’s very easy for abuses of power to happen with few to no ramifications.
A common example: Newer vendors often offer lower rates because they want to gain experience. While this can be a great thing for a couple (yay! less money!) please consider how many hours of labor you are buying from this person. Then, divide that number of hours by the amount you are paying them.
Is the result lower than your state’s minimum wage? Is that choice in-line with your values as a couple? Or is there something you can offer this person to make sure they are compensated more equitably such as more money, a tip, and/or a series of glowing reviews? (This same advice works well if you’re considering hiring a friend or a “friendor.”)
Can you swap out different services?
Sometimes, couples will want to swap out different services from a vendor. For example, as a wedding planner, I’m sometimes asked if I work hourly or if I’ll remove my labor for a wedding rehearsal to reduce the overall fee. I encourage couples to ask these questions because they are entitled to learn more about what they’re buying. However, in both situations, my answer would be no.
This is likely true for other vendors you may be interviewing. For example, unless a vendor tells you that certain services can be swapped in and out, it’s unlikely they can be.
This doesn’t mean don’t ask. For example, a photographer or videographer might offer two different options when it comes to their overall labor such as booking either a one-hour engagement session or adding an extra hour of coverage on the wedding day.
In my experience, if this is an option, it will be very clear in the wedding vendor’s contract. But if it’s something you’re interested in negotiating, you can ask — with empathy and knowing that the answer could be “no.”
What about negotiating price?
Like many wedding vendors, my work is seasonal. Where I live (the Pacific Northwest in the U.S.), I experience the most demand for weddings between the months of May and October, with less demand from November through April. This is also true for days of the week; weekends are typically most popular as compared to weekdays.
As such, I price on a sliding scale. In most situations, I’m going to give a weekday wedding in February a lower quote than a Saturday wedding in September with no quote going lower than my lowest rate. (As of this writing, my lowest rate is $2,400, a number I got because my starting hourly rate is $60 an hour and on average, I work 40 hours on a wedding).
This context is important because it means that I very, very rarely change my quotes after I send them. Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t ask a vendor why they charge what they charge and if you get a number back that doesn’t make sense or have any context attached, I encourage you to ask where that number came from. It’s also rare that a vendor didn’t put a lot of thought into that number before they sent it to you so proceed accordingly.
Be prepared to hear “no.”
One of the few positive consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is that wedding vendors feel more empowered to tell people “no.” This is a big deal for folks in the service industry who, for generations, have been told that the only way to get ahead is to always say “yes” even when it harms them as human beings.
The downside for couples is that you can expect to hear “no” more often than if you’d planned a wedding five years ago. Take this as a positive: You are hiring people who will serve you better because you are treating them with decency and humanity.
Of course, we can know this and also simultaneously feel an immediate impulse of “I don’t like that they told me no.” That’s OK. We can feel those feelings and also move past them. Believe me, your contract negotiations will be better if you don’t only center yourself.
There’s a reason that’s in there.
In my experience, if a couple has a question with my contract, it’s usually about one of two parts: They don’t understand why any payments made to me are non-refundable and/or they don’t understand why I charge a rescheduling fee.
If you’re a wedding vendor, you know that these requests are standard because of how we make our livings. Deposits don’t buy my labor, they buy the date off my calendar (i.e. the extremely limited inventory I sell as a wedding vendor).
Balances are what cover my labor, which is why those are due closer to the wedding date. As such, any money given to me is non-refundable because it’s covering something the couple has already consumed — even if they don’t realize they have.
A rescheduling fee, meanwhile, acknowledges that a couple has bought not one but two items from me (i.e. two dates off of my calendar).
That’s why these items are in my contract. This same logic also applies to other standard (though, often unexpected) contract details such as providing a meal for a vendor who is working a certain length of shift or covering travel expenses. These items are in there for a reason.
If you’d like to know what that reason is, ask. A vendor will happily tell you! One way to ask: “I was curious about [insert section of the contract]. I imagine there’s a reason why this is in the contract; would you be willing to share it with me?”
Quality vendors have quality answers.
I firmly believe that quality vendors have quality answers — even to awkward questions about something as fraught as a legally binding contract.
If you are met with a response that doesn’t answer your question or, as sometimes happens, you receive no response at all, that’s usually an indicator that you don’t want to enter into a legal agreement with this person. (For what it’s worth, the same is true on the vendor’s end; we pay attention to things like tone, response time, and overall kindness in deciding who we want to work for.)