Most wedding business owners in major metropolitan markets have probably, by now, been approached to advertise in area venues’ marketing brochures.We first started noticing them popping up around 2007, when a few publishing companies started contacting us to let us know that “Hotel X” and “Country Club Y” had personally asked them to contact us to advertise in their beautiful new brochure.This brochure would be their exclusive marketing piece, we were told, and would indicate the venue’s preferred wedding vendors.
Sure, Hotel X and Country Club Y had previously referred our company based on merit - the quality of our performances and the great relationship we’d cultivated with them over the years - but now, those referrals would come from the brochure. The beautiful, glossy, photo-filled brochure that would become a planning resource for every engaged couple who visited the venue from that point forward. And of course, given our great connection with the venues, it only made sense for us to support them by advertising, right?
So, we bit. We took out advertisements, sometimes very large advertisements, in a couple of the venue brochures, and the referrals continued to come in, though they seemed a little less “personal” than they were before. (I can only guess that instead of gushing about the vendors they liked the best, the venue staff was starting to simply tell couples that their preferred vendors were “in the brochure.”)
And then the following year, the same publishing companies started contacting to advertise in more brochures. And more brochures. And more brochures. I’d estimate it went from 3 to 10 to at least 40 in a period of about three years. Over and over again, we received the same form emails. “Private Venue Z just loves MyDeejay!” “Jane Doe of The ABC Inn asked me specifically to approach you!” Oh, and to make things even worse, Hotel X and Country Club Y had now decided to replace their books with new ones.Time to renew our ad!
By September 2010, we’d had enough - we pulled the plug on all of the venue books. The cost was becoming more and more prohibitive (and we’re a pretty darn successful, multi-operator DJ business; I can only imagine what a burden this kind of expense would be for a single-op company or an individual photographer!) Even more troubling, though, were the ethical implications.
If I had to sum up my company’s issues with the venue brochures, they would be as follows:
- A third party - the publishing companies - are interfering with what would previously have been merit-based business relationships between venues and vendors. They have done this by creating a pretty irresistible marketing product (and, by all accounts, the brochures are striking) and offering them at no cost to the venue. To quote the website of one of the publishing companies, Hawthorn Publications, “The front half of the brochure showcases spectacular events at the property, while the back portion incorporates advertisements from venue-approved event professionals. These advertisements offset the entire cost of brochure production, ensuring that the venue receives a cohesive print and electronic media package free of cost.” Another publishing company, Alchemi Design, states, “The bridal books are produced at no cost to the wedding sites because they are financed through advertisements purchased by their preferred vendors.”
- The publishing companies have created a must-have product, because why would Hotel X not want a beautiful free brochure to market their property, when Country Club Y down the street is already using one? Venues are in competition with one another, just like every other type of business.
- Since the venues are no longer bearing the cost of their own marketing, the cost is carried on the backs of small business owners who rely largely on referrals for their income. The publishing companies charge these small business owners anywhere from $500-2500 per book, and seem to reprint the books every two years or so. With 40+ venues using them in my market alone, that’d be an expense of at least $20,000-$100,000 every two years if I wanted to advertise in all 40. (Keep in mind, all 40 books for which I’ve been approached supposedly felt my company was one of their “preferred” vendors, and thus were supposedly referring me for free before the books came along.)
- The implication that the books represent a venue’s preferred vendors is shady at best. Most venues, in my 15 years’ experience in this business, recommend a small handful of vendors in each service category- maybe 3-5 DJs, 5-8 photographers, and so on. There’s no limit to how long a self-produced preferred vendor list can be, so if a venue is only promoting a few, that’s probably because those are the vendors they really do like and trust. So what happens when those select few vendors can’t, or won’t, pay for the brochure ads? Well, then, the venue has to cast a wider net. Of course, a market as saturated as Washington, DC is going to have a lot of talented vendors (and lots more vendors who aren’t as talented), so I don’t mean to imply that the vendors who end up in the brochures are automatically of poor quality. It’s just troubling to me that referral relationships that are sometimes years in the making can just be dissolved in an instant when a venue is enticed to bring money into the equation.
- On the flip side, what happens when a venue decides to still offer their own referrals verbally — in essence, telling clients which vendors are really “preferred” and just using the books for marketing their venue? Well, that’s great news for the vendors who’ve worked hard to deliver quality services and build a strong relationship with the venue. It’s not so great, however, for the vendors who paid to be in the books. Because, make no mistake, it is implied very strongly to the vendors who advertise that they will be marketed as “preferred.” To circumvent the list, even though merit-based referrals are inherently more ethical, is patently unfair to the paying advertisers who have invested in a promise from the publishing company and the venue.
- Finally, it needs to be stated that tying vendor referrals into a third-party published book takes a tremendous amount of control away from the venue. Say “Photographer John Doe” is listed in Hotel X’s book. Then he no-shows at a wedding, or ruins all of a client’s pictures, or treats Hotel X’s staff poorly. Hotel X is still giving out his information as a “preferred vendor” to (potentially) hundreds of clients every year. What can they do? Use a marker to black out his advertisement in every book? He paid to be there! When a venue maintains its own preferred vendor list — either self-published or verbal — it’s able to exercise so much more power over which vendors receive referrals from that venue.
I want to be clear that I really don’t blame the venues for using these brochures - I truly enjoy working with the venues who have approached us to participate, and that’s why it stings every time another venue pops up with a brochure. I blame the publishing companies who have come up with a scheme to profit off an industry in which they’re not even involved. These publishing companies have found a pretty genius way to make a ton of money by capitalizing on the all-important referral, something which vendors previously earned through hard work. And, since they aren’t actually in the wedding business, it’s no skin off their noses when hard-working, talented, and ethical small business owners go under because they’re drowning in marketing costs. What do the publishers care if all that remains in the wedding industry are big-box companies with inexhaustible marketing budgets? All the better for them!
I don’t know if these brochures will ever be extinct — after all, in spite of our very public stance (which we’ve also discussed privately with reps from both of the major publishers), we still get emails and phone calls all the time to advertise. One publisher, in a rude and incredulous tone, recently asked my general manager, “Do you get many referrals from Venue 123?” (What was the implication there? That the referrals will stop if we don’t advertise? That we’re supposed to be so grateful for the free, merit-based referrals from the past that we should be more than happy to pay for the privilege now?)
What I do hope, however, is that venues and vendors alike will consider the ethical implications of these brochures, their impact on small business owners, and the effect that has on the wedding industry as a whole.