Rob’s Rules: Walking the Line – Tips for Planner/Vendor Relationships

June 1, 2008


Featuring Rob Schaefer

Walking the Line: Tips for Planner/Vendor Relationships

When it comes to the planner and vendor relationship, I have three words: budget, bonding and balance. Over the years, I have seen some very healthy relationships form and others end in dramatic disasters. Fundamentally, you can do everything right, but you need the right people in place to make your client’s event a success.

The source of most angst is often the budget. I have noticed that when shopping for vendors, planners tend to let price be their first priority. Let me tell you, when your event is starting, the last thing you think about is cost, and the only thing that matters is service.

Lori Hill, president of Lori Hill Event Productions Inc., a firm in the Baltimore – Washington D.C. area, agrees about value. “I’m willing to pay a higher price if I know I’m going to get a quality product that makes the event I produce look good,” says Hill.

The relationship between planner and vendor starts with realistic and achievable expectations. While cost is an important part of this, letting price make your decision isn’t always the best route. You cannot put a value on service, and quality isn’t always cheap. Shop around and compare prices. Just like finding a beautiful pair of shoes on sale, the purchase has no value if it isn’t a good fit.

Before contacting vendors, educate yourself on the costs associated with the level of event you are producing. Most facilities have developed meeting planner packages, which can be a very helpful starting point. Planners need to do their homework by reviewing services, Web sites and pricing. Keep in mind, there will be a dramatic difference in cost between the caterer who brings barbecue to a picnic pavilion and the one who serves vichyssoise at a four-star hotel. In every price category, there is someone who can do it for less – and less is often what you get! It is in your best interests to select quality vendors who deliver quality products.

How vendors respond to that initial call is pivotal. A vendor who responds with patience and seems more interested in the client’s interests than their own is the one I would want to hire. Many people will be happy to tell you why you can’t live without their product or service, and I am always leery of the words “I will save you money” when spending your money is required!

Of course, pay attention to what a vendor offers in return for your money. For example, if I were planning a corporate dinner and I needed centerpieces, I would call a florist I was referred to and say, “I understand you do incredible centerpieces and this is my budget for 20 tables.” The rest will just happen. If budget does not permit roses, ask for alternatives. You will be astonished at what you can find out.

There is a special balance between a client’s budget and the vendor’s abilities. During Hill’s 12 years in the business, she has had many experiences finding that balance. “I try to respect the vendor’s needs and bottom line, but many times, they are very respectful to my clients’ limitations and are willing to work with me, she says. “If someone isn’t willing to work with me, I probably won’t work with them again.”

Bonding with your vendors is critical, not only for the success of the event, but also for your peace of mind. Make it a win-win situation. I have found that there is a fine line between service and servant – don’t cross it. Avoid “demandments” and “my way or the highway” attitudes. Everyone who is an expert in their field will have advice based on their experiences. Allow everyone to do what they do best. As a premier caterer, I know the culinary business. With a high concentration of events each week, I know what works and what doesn’t. Like my mother used to say, “If you aren’t cooking, stay out of the kitchen.”

Over the years I have seen the lines of communication fail because planners don’t want vendors to communicate – call it the control-freak personality. Unfortunately, all that accomplishes is fear, resentment and failure.

Instead, start by getting everyone on the same page and MAKE YOUR VISION CLEAR. Adopt proper phone etiquette, document conversations, create deadlines and stay organized. Planners who constantly make changes and revisions earn a reputation as being disorganized. Make it your goal to plan well in advance and have limited revisions. However, when you do have a change or update, be sure to copy all vendors.

Part of your success as a planner is guiding the client through exciting but practical decisions. We have all had clients who go in fifty different directions and want over-the-top ideas. I assure you, over-the-top takes work and money and sometimes those expectations are not always realistic.

Hill has been through this a few times and offers this advice: “I’ll tell the client that I’ll check with the vendor. I’ll then approach the vendor as a fellow event professional and say, ‘Look, my client wants X and I realize that is asking a lot/is ridiculous, etc. What answer would you like me to give them?’ I want to respect the professionalism of the vendor AND make them realize that I’m a professional, too, and realize that the request is unacceptable. I want them to know that I’m trying to work with them.”

Being honest with your vendors while developing solutions together builds a bond that will last long into the future. In the end, clients will receive higher quality service when everyone is on the same page.

When you have found a vendor who does his or her job well and is a pleasure to work with, be sure to reward that. Building a relationship with vendors also means sustaining a relationship. Make referrals, praise your vendors, send thank you notes and use their services again. They will reciprocate and both of you will benefit. MM&E

Rob’s 10 Rules for Planner/Vendor Relationships

1) RESEARCH – Be professional and knowledgeable by understanding prices and services before contacting anyone.

2) RESERVE – Secure your venue and vendors early to ensure you get what you want.

3) RETAIN – Take thorough notes and keep contracts organized. Know what the terms and conditions are for any service. It sends a red flag when you call and ask for another copy.

4) RECORD – Document your conversations with all respective parties and save all e-mails and written correspondence.

5) REPLY – When someone calls or e-mails, answer immediately or tell them when they can expect an answer. Time is valuable.

6) REHEARSE – Plan in sequential order and think in terms of the natural progression of an event. Go over the event from beginning to end and create a thorough time line.

7) REJOICE – Celebrate your event and look like you’re having fun even if you hate it.

8) REVIEW – Follow up with all vendors to get their feedback on the event.

9) REWARD – Send thank you notes and any other expressions of appreciation.

10) RELAX – Be able to walk away from the event knowing you did your best, and treat yourself to some R&R. If things did not go according to plan, move on. Focus on the future and the next great party.

This column is meant to provide you with practical advice, tips and rules of engagement you need in the meeting and event planning industry. If you have a question, whether it’s how to dress, how to address your guests or what to serve as the main course, e-mail Rob at [email protected]. Your question might just inspire the topic of his next column! Rob Schaefer is Vice President of Steven Becker Fine Dining in St. Louis.


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