When event planners and their vendors develop good working relationships, profits will follow.
By Stacy Stern, CSEP
As our industry evolves with new equipment and ideas, there is—and always will be—one consistency: the vendor-client relationship. Often, vendors’ best clients are event planners. “A good planner or producer can make your job easier if she knows what she is doing,” says Dana Coates, of Eventmakers International in Stuart, Fla. “She knows which sandbox is hers and which is ours.”
Planners are the event professionals who understand the needs of the client as well as the vendors. The planner is the maestro. He or she is the one who conducts, bringing together all the elements that make for a successful event. Of course, the elements, or vendors, are the ones that actually make it happen. They are the experts in their respective fields and have what it takes to make a fantastic event. But in the end, both have the same goal: to produce the best event possible.
Be a team
A cohesive partnership between vendors and planners makes the entire event process work smoothly. Situations happen—it’s Murphy’s Law. But if both parties communicate as soon as they become aware of a problem, finding an appropriate solution becomes much easier. Vendor contact lists are great communication tools. Creating a list with all your vendors’ names and contact information, and then sharing it with the event team, enables vendors to resolve problems that they may have with each other, without the planner’s assistance. In my experience, I have come across several instances when a decorator and a lighting company have both needed a Genie lift. Instead of renting two Genies, they used the list to get in contact with each other and worked out a schedule to get both of their jobs done in time.
The vendor contact list has an even greater value when it comes to referrals. “I have referred back to vendor contact lists when one of my clients is looking for a decorator,” says George Centauro, owner of Tents ‘n’ Events in Pompano Beach, Fla. “I will only recommend decorators that I have worked with in the past. Since we already have had a good working relationship, I feel safe giving out their information.”
For me, knowing that I have helped a vendor get a job by creating this list makes me feel that the time I put into it was well worth it.
Aside from contact lists, timelines are one of the most important items to distribute to the event team. It may take time to create, but doing so ensures success. Before making a timeline, a planner should ask several questions of every vendor. How long will it take you to set up? How long will it take you to break down? How large is your truck? How long will it take you to load and unload the truck? What other event elements do you need in place to do your job, and by what time do you need them?
An event is a big puzzle and a planner has to make all the pieces fit. A timeline is the tool that explains how the puzzle works. Once a timeline is completed, it should be distributed to all vendors a week ahead of time, with a note to review it and let the planner know immediately of any errors or necessary changes. Everyone has his or her own perspective and challenges. By giving your vendors the timeline in advance, they can foresee a problem and fix it (or at least account time for it) before it occurs. There have been many occasions when one of my vendors has contacted me to say he or she had read the timeline and needed to make a change. This gives me a chance to incorporate the change into a new timeline and tackle potential problems before they’ve arisen.
Because my vendors are used to getting timelines from me, it also makes them more responsible for the planning process. In one case, a vendor told me the day before the event that he needed the generator two hours earlier than was scheduled. I explained that I would try to make this happen, but then I asked why he hadn’t already told me, since the timeline was sent to him a week before. I heard silence on the other end of the phone, followed by an apology. He admitted that he never looked at it and said that he would do whatever it took to make sure everything was on time. He realized that he was part of our “team” and that his input counted.
“Timelines help me schedule my installs and strikes as well as manage my client’s expectations,” Coates explains. She recommends that the scheduled timeline should finish one hour before the event to allow for any unforeseen problems such as late deliveries, damaged equipment or items left off the truck. “It’s happened to everyone,” she says.
When planning any event—especially the large ones—it is always a good idea to get the whole team together. This is especially important when hotels are involved, because you are meshing two teams together to create one. It gives everyone a chance to meet face to face, which allows them to be seen as a person and not just someone on the other end of an e-mail or phone call. At this meeting, the creative process is invaluable—once everyone is in the same room, the ideas seem to flow. Invite open discussions. Are they workable in practice? Will they fit within your budget constraints? You will be amazed at the synergy this creates throughout your entire event planning process.
Refer each other
Treating your vendors right and vice versa creates good will and referrals. If planners have a good reputation among their vendors, then the vendors are likely to refer them on new jobs. “Referrals are how we have achieved a successful business for over 19 years,” says Centauro. Similarly, most of my business is from referrals. In fact, I got a million-dollar client from my balloon designer, Aimee Zadak. “I told my client that if they wanted this event to happen in six weeks, [Stacy] was the only one that could make it happen,” says Zadak, owner of Balloonatics. Not only did I get the client, but I also hired Aimee to do all the balloons for the event. Once the event work was done, I threw a dinner party for all of my vendors, with champagne and gifts for all. After all their non-stop work, it was well deserved.
I am constantly recommending my vendors to others. I want to keep my vendors busy so that they will stay in business. When I recommend a client to a vendor, I tell the client to be sure and mention my name. This lets the vendor know where the referral came from. If vendors know that a particular planner will not only give them business directly, but refer them business, guess who they would rather work for? Vendor referral is the best way I know to find companies to work with. I found my tent company through a recommendation of my rental company 10 years ago, and we still do lots of business together. My generator company recommended me when he realized that his client’s event was getting out of control. This simple event turned out to be worth $75,000.
Another way of generating referrals is to write old-fashioned thank-yous. Planners should always write a thank-you note to their vendors. These days, we tend to write e-mails, but vendors are less likely to reproduce an e-mail and use it for a referral letter. You never know when a potential client will read a letter of yours and contact you because of it. It has happened to me on more than one occasion. In one case, my mover’s girlfriend was planning a $100,000 birthday party. When interviewing a photographer, she saw one of my letters. She instantly recognized my name and hired me immediately. It’s a great piece of inexpensive marketing.
There is always the question about what a vendor should do when a planner’s client approaches the vendor directly. Many planners feel that a vendor should protect the planner and tell the client to go to the planner. In other cases, it may be appropriate to ask for a commission on the event. “We always pay a 10 percent commission to an event professional if we get hired,” Centauro says. One day I received a call from Tents ‘n’ Events informing me that one of my clients had called the company directly, and the team wanted to know how they should handle it. Since they were honest and proactive about the situation—and because they offered to pay the commission—I felt Tents ‘n’ Events should go ahead and deal with the client directly.
The relationship is not always black and white, but the bottom line is: Planners are only as good as their vendors and vendors are only as good as their planners. We all need each other to create, set up and execute an event. If we make the right choices and respect each other, together we can create unforgettable and profitable events.