Pay to Play?

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Pay to Play: Were Your Wedding Vendors Recommended for Merit or Money?

For many years, there has been an ongoing practice at certain facilities (country clubs, hotels and other event sites) commonly known as ‘pay to play’. Essentially what this means is that in order to fund marketing costs (or in some cases just because), venues will ‘ask’ the vendors (bands, DJs, Photographers, Planners, etc) to pay for advertising in their brochures or marketing materials. What this means is that the vendors at certain venues are not recommended necessarily on merit or quality of service, but on their willingness to fork over money – typically in upwards of thousands of dollars – in order to be recommended.

This presents two problems.  Speaking from first hand experience, our DJ Company is recommended at over thirty venues across the Delaware Valley.  Now imagine if we were required to pay $1,000.00 to each of these venues.  That would mean we would have to pass on these costs to our customers, making it harder to be competitive in this market. The second problem it poses is that the client is led to believe that these are the best possible choices based on service and quality, when in fact it has nothing to do with either, but instead which vendors are willing to pay.

Towards the end of 2010, I was approached by a company in Lower Bucks County that represents about five venues.  Upon my initial contact with them, I genuinely believed that our services were being sought out by them based on the caliber of our work.  It wasn’t until a second meeting that I was told that in order to be recommended at their facilities or attend their open houses that my company would be required to pay.  After a good night’s sleep, I emailed them to decline, explaining that I was uncomfortable paying to be recommended.  A few days later they responded telling me my company would no longer be welcome at their open houses, which we had been diligently attending for several weeks.

I am against ‘pay to play’.  I believe that facilities that require it are not forthcoming in disclosing that their list of recommended vendors are paid advertisers.  No warranty is being made in regard to quality or excellence of service or product.  I am not alone in feeling this way, as many well-respected wedding and event industry vendors share the same sentiment.

What if the rest of the event industry decided to turn the tables on the venues?  What if each photographer, planner, florist, DJ, lighting and entertainment company decided to charge the venue a fee to refer them? This one-way attitude of referral is not only misguided but shortsighted on the facilities’ part.  With all the means of marketing available today, is this the best you can do?  Perhaps a magazine-quality brochure isn’t the most sophisticated manner of exposure in which you can increase your bookings. It all comes down to business ethics.  If you insist the return on investment is significant, than man up and disclose in writing in the brochure that all are paid advertisers.

Below are examples of how a few other respected and talented Philadelphia area event professionals responded when being approached by event venues to participate in ‘pay to play’.

We are firmly against pay to play. These magazines are sold to venues and paid for on the backs of wedding professionals, we work (occasionally at some) with over 300 venues across the greater Philadelphia, South Jersey and Delaware region as a small consulting business we could NEVER afford to place ads in all of those books.

We are referred to couples based on the quality of our work and the relationships we’ve worked hard to build.

I’m hoping that venues wake up and steer away from these pay to play ad books – as if the reverse were true and I and other wedding professionals who refer venues to couples asked a referral fee every time I brought a wedding to a venue the venues would not be happy.

~Mark Kingsdorf,  Queen of Hearts Wedding Consultants

Don’t get me wrong – I do understand the benefit to your venue.  You get slick marketing pieces for little to no cost because the fee is picked up by your vendors.  But please look at it from our perspective as a small business.

I don’t know what these publishers charge these days to be a “preferred vendor” but years ago when I was approached; it was in the $1000 range.  We are already a preferred vendor in more than 30 venues around Philadelphia – all by merit.  Imagine if the precedent is set that we had to pay to be on everyone’s list.  $30,000 per year would choke us.  Or we would have to raise our prices to our clients who are already feeling a pinch in these times.

If we are removed from your list because we are not supporting the ‘pay to play’ model, that would be a shame.  We will continue to deliver the best productions in the Philadelphia area and hope we are on your list by merit and nothing else.  A merit-based system is more honest and more cost effective for us and our clients.

~Dave and Sheryl Williams,  CinemaCake

Be sure to ask your facility or venue if their “preferred vendor list” is comprised based on relationships, or if it is made up of paid advertisers. Do your own research and due diligence in researching the vendors and services you hire for your wedding or event, and be certain that they are being recommended on merit, or instead in fact for a kickback. Most successful vendors who deliver a quality product do not need to participate in strong-arm pay to play, because their work speaks for itself.

Craig Sumsky
Cutting Edge Entertainment

26 Responses

  1. Craig,
    As an off premises catering company with a Specialty or Niche, we have experienced this for the 28+ years in business. What is the best way for a venue to handle this, I do not know?

    As caterers, we experience, fees to be listed, fees to use a kitchen, % fees of our total invoice to customers. It seems many venues change from year to year, or manager to manager.

    Just imagine if you had to give a % of your job each time, in addition to the advertising fee (or referral). Or have to pay to plug in your equipment.

    That is why the price to the customer ends up being more as you stated.

    Should a venue, just raise their price to a proper level? Charge what they need to make, and recommend the BEST? In a perfect world probably they should.

    When you find the answers, many of us as off premises caterers would love to here it.

    Good Post!

    The Gourmet Vendor Inc

  2. Brad,

    I wish I knew the answer. I am aware that many of you off-premise caterers fall victim to this in ways far and above other event vendors, but I agree that a % fee is completely unethical. At least with planners, DJs, bands, photographers, florists and videographers we can still work at the venues (in most cases), but just can’t be recommended unless we ‘pony up’.

    It sounds as if you pay each time you are there, regardless.

  3. Great post Craig. Bravo to you for exposing these types of marketing. We refuse to participitate in any type of “pay to play” be it a “book” at a venue, a charge to be on a venue’s Facebook page or any other type of scheme.

    When a venue or other entity asks me to be involved, I respond with the following questions that are good food for thought when someone is contemplating such a business arrangement.

    What happens when the venue’s “trusted partners” all deciede to not do the book? Do they loose all of their good vendors to those who may not be as good, but willing to pay? Then the venue is referring 2nd or 3rd rate vendors or even worse vendors that they dont like working with, but have to now that they are in the book they distribute.

    What happens when one or more vendors majorly screws up and the venue doesn’t want them back in? Who will pay to reprint the books? Or will they just get thrown away and leave all of the other people with nothing to show for their money (This happened to two venues that tried a book) Or does there become a “second list”, which is the real preferred list that the venue gives out (This has also happened three tiimes that T know of)

    But most importantly, vendors frequently have influence in a couple booking in a certain place. We are constantly asked about places or other vendors and we always give our honest opinion based on our experience with the particular entity. You should always ask the person who is doing the book if they will pay part of YOUR advertising cost, since you are a partner in their success as well.

  4. The success of my business, Evantine Design, was built soley and solidly on referrals from other event professionals, venues and happy clients who know the kind of work we perform. When “pay to play” first reared it’s ugly head, we took the clear and firm position that we would not participate. The reaction was……interesting. Facilities who feel the need to publish these “magazines” are missing the point and behind the times. I encourage all event venues to resist the efforts of these publishing companies and consider how it affects their credibility in the market.

  5. Thank you for this post! I have never and I will never pay for advertising to be recommended. The same is true for all the ads on bridal resource sites. If you pay, you get a featured spot. That doesn’t make you good. I am VERY good at what I do and well respected in the industry. However, I get sideswiped all the time by those that “fork over” the money to be recommended. This is great information! Keep it out there.

  6. This is something that can’t be promoted enough. There is nothing wrong with kick backs, so long as everyone involved is up front about it. If XYZ Venue promotes specific companies, then both the venue and those recommended need to mention that.

    It’s up to the bride to decide if they’re recommended on merit, or because they pay the best.

    Nick Logan
    Auckland DJ

  7. I agree with your call to action – if all professionals stopped paying to be included in these lists, they would go away. Industry associations (DJ associations, wedding planner associations, local networking groups) need to issue policy statements to members, appeal directly to venues, and issue statements to the clearinghouses that solicit the participation in these advertisements. As long as some agree to “pay to play” the industry will suffer.

  8. Sid Vanderpool

    To avoid confusion I offer the following. As the owner of a Dj company that has paid to be in one of these marketing pieces and the publisher of a real wedding magazine for over 19 years I can tell you there is a huge difference between the two.

    Our magazine is published once a year, designed and printed locally. All our vendors are local and we charge a very reasonable price for advertising. This includes a web listing, etc. We personally distribute the magazines and our advertisers have them on display and hand them out. We know they get into the hands of the brides.

    Now on the other hand, the pay for play marketing pieces… In our area at least, the sad thing is that venues have such a turnover in staff. These marketing publications get lost in the shuffle and most of the time never used. Once they are discovered in a closet they are old and useless. This makes them a total waste to anyone that paid to be in them.

    I would suggest anyone that even thinks of paying to be in one of these pay for play marketing pieces they get in writing that the publishing company will provide proof the piece is getting to who they say it is. This proof for me would be a monthly list of the brides and and contact information. then it might be worth it.

    When you have lemons…

  9. Hi Craig,

    Thank you very much for speaking out against this horrendous practice. Unfortunately it has been around for far too many years.

    There was a wave of publication companies about 5-10 years ago (Black Tie, Black Sheep, Hawthorne, just to name a few) who moved into the Philadelphia area with “marketing opportunity.”

    What bothers me the most is how they misrepresent the actual facility or Country Club of which they are putting the publication together. “Hi, I’m ______ from _________ Country Club and working with ______ there.” Are they really working at the club, and truly hired by this particular venue? Sometimes they didn’t even mention they were with a publication company at all.

    As fellow owner of an entertainment company here in the Philadelphia area, I do not and will not condone this form of “advertising,” and shun this altogether. In addition, over the years I have spoken with and have e-mailed with numerous DJ entertainers and company owners about this practice. The general consensus and sentiment was shared almost unanimously.

    While I do not want to repeat everything that was stated in your post, the most important point I wish to recant is this:a preferred vendor or partner should be just that. It is a company that is recommended to prospective customers based on the merits of their performance and ability, rather than who has the largest advertising budget.

    Here’s to continued and future success in our respective businesses. Please take a stand with me and do not support these publication companies who really have no interest in, and more importantly, knowledge of our companies, and consequent future success.

    Scott J. Goldoor
    President/Signature DJs

  10. Great article bringing to light a pervasive problem in this industry. 2 years ago one venue in the Southampton area wanted $1,500.00 This is the same place I got married! So as you said Craig, just because a venue recommends a vendor/photographer doesn’t mean it means anything other than it’s a paid advertisement!

  11. Good for you Craig for airing the dirty laundry. But really, are these “Pay to Play” magazines and books the BEST way to reach clients these days? Whenever I’ve gotten these requests, the first thing I’ve said is “Who’s reading them?” Not once have I had a client walk in the door with one of these books under their arm. Bottomline, there is no reason to pay to appear on any kind of referral list. Referrals should be based on the quality of service provided. And as soon as ALL professionals stop participating in any pay to play programs, we’ll see the last of them.

  12. Craig,
    Nicely and convincingly written! Like the other commenters, I agree completely. I have been approached for Pay-to-Play too and aside from the fact that we don’t want to spend that kind of advertising money for something that may not really work at all, I think it’s dishonest primarily because the businesses are presented as “recommended vendors” rather than “advertisers” or something similar. Paying for advertising is one thing, but doing so in a way that tricks couples into thinking things that are not necessarily true… Don’t like that.
    Molly Rouse-DiCioccio
    Wedding Planning & Design

  13. Jose Otero

    As long as there are vendors willing to pay, the practice will continue.

    I’m NOT one of those vendors who are willing to pay.

  14. Kevin York

    I don’t think I can say much than has already been said. I want to be a recommended or preferred professional because people know and trust me not because I paid a fee.
    Great job Craig!

  15. Craig,

    You have conjones brotha and posting this proves it! It happens to be accurate. This industries growth and strength, especially in a economy being repaired each day, requires on “the strength of many” not the few. People, who wish to place boundaries on allowing other vendors to truly network in their venue, are only missing out on the greater opportunities of the finical gains true referrals.

    The clients are not as blind as the venue may perceive them to be. Referrals come from more than just the venue when it comes to caring about the true talent of any entertainer, photographer, videographer, decorator etc… As long as that still exists, the “pay to play mentality” is considered a failing effort. However, I will say that out of the 30 or so venues that I have had great relationships with whomnowhave the pay to play mentality, you will still find that their catering directors and sales executives still have a mind of their own and refer business to people who network with their venue whether they’re on the brochure or not. Because we still get referrals from half of them simply on the basis that “killing with quantity” still supersedes the magazine. They know that a good hand shake and networking are more powerful for their own commissions when booking future work then a 5×7 full color glossy picture.

  16. BRAVO Craig! SO true, Pay to play is a load O Poo… it is unfair to smaller companies. I was actually “referred” by a vendor once and he flat out said to me, “This venue needs your services for their event. I dropped your name at a meeting there, so call and follow up… and whatever you book with them, throw in ten or fifteen percent for me.” Excuse me! But who the heck are you to dictate how I “thank” you for a referral? I refer people in this business all the time, and I NEVER expect a dime for it. I refer people because I believe they are great at what they do and they deserve the business, not because they will grease my palm. But hey – I guess Pay to Play is for the guy who can’t get the work by merit. DOH! Sorry, but I call it like I see it.

  17. Great post.

    A couple things I’d like to add. Unfortunately there are still other wedding professionals who participate is this unethical business practice. I was approached by a well known wedding photographer a couple years ago who said she wanted to recommend me and that we should get together for lunch to discuss her fee for doing so. And there are also wedding professionals who will recommend each other simply because they get along – “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”. Similar to pay-for-play this form of recommendations does not have the best interest of the couple at heart.

    The other thing I’d like to point out is about the treatment of non-paying professionals. There are many halls that treat their pay-for play professionals much better than those who do not pay. There are many areas where this has applied, but the most common has to do with the vendor meals. Imagine how it feels to watch the photographer eating a filet while we get served cold sandwiches on stale bread with a bag of potato chips. And knowing that the couple probably paid the same price for both.

  18. Pay to play is more prevalent than you may think.

    Some venues have now taken possession and printing their own brochures and the costs are even harder to swallow. Plus the ROI is at best a wash. Not fond of working without a profit.

    However, the big hit to caterers is the “kitchen fee” that these venues are charging. Upwards to 15% of the ENTIRE invoice. That equates to thousands of dollars per event. They should adjust their rental fees to make the profit needed.

    Next topic: Donations….
    We need to stand & unite, donations are out of control. We’ll always have to participate in them but we should ask for a stipend to cover costs.

    Craig- this is a great topic and should not stay within this blog- it needs wings and be brought out in the forefront. I am willing to be a part of a brainstorming committee.

  19. Thanks for this post. I received another request LAST WEEK to pay-to-play. I sent your blog post in response, as I too am a believer in being recommended because of merit. As a wedding consultant, it is important to me to recommend the best wedding professional to my clients, and I want to be recommended by others in the same way. No pay-to-play!

  20. I agree with so many of my friends in the industry who have posted their opposition to pay to play. This practice is quite prevalent in other markets mainly New York.
    There it is even more insidious and overt. Venues take a cash outlay directly to keep out other vendors and maintain exclusivity, an exclusivity earned only by the output of cash and not performance.

    Gratefully this has not taken hold here.
    However lets not be naive. We all pay to play in our own subtle ways. We wine and dine the catering executives, we send gifts and hold receptions and events for these influential recommenders and do what it takes to keep them on our side. These books have just codified this practice in a much more overt and crass way.
    There is still nothing better or more effective than the heartfelt recommendation of a client for whom we have gone to the mat and given our finest effort. It is from our satisfied clients and maintaining a standard of excellence and consistency that we will find our success. Not from some glossy ad that artificially levels the playing field allowing the bottom feeders to look as competent as the best in the business.

  21. Cheers Craig…another great blog. I think/hope Pay to Play will end once venues see that they’re recommending less than reputable vendors which in turn makes their clients suffer.
    What is worth more…your reputation as a venue or a fancy vendor book?

  22. John Parker

    Even many venues without a “book” still want $$$ to recommend vendors – they either want a % or fixed amount for this “service”. Clients are told “these vendors do the best job” yet often clients tell me they don’t at all like the vendors being foisted upon them, and that the venues – when they don’t outright “forbid” it – very actively dissuade them from bringing in “outside” vendors – telling them not to take the “risk” of not using the (crap) from their list! It’s really pathetic sometimes. Yet a certain few make a boatload from the practice & the venues do too. so it’s likely here to stay..

    So the big question is, how do we as vendors educate clients without sounding “sour grapes” or alienating venues entirely? I’m sure many of us appear on legit, 100% merit based, “preferred vendor lists” without paying anything – yet how does a client discern between the two? (“paid” vs “merit”) It’s not like venues put up a sign “all vendors on this list pay us $$ or paid to advertise in our book” That would be great, though I don’t look for that happening anytime soon.

    Great topic – Hopefully someone will come up with a bright idea on how to deal with this. Cheers!

  23. Sara Neal

    I think the scariest part about all of this is that brides, clients etc. get confused easily when they are making huge decisions about their ‘big’ day, whatever the occasion may be. If a ‘pay to play’ book is presented, how does the client without the industry knowledge that so many of us have, know it’s based on dollars and not actually performance. It’s a very slippery slope. Thanks for posting!

  24. BOB

    We have the same issues with wedding consultants in my area. They take hundreds of dollars under the table to refer certain vendors. That is even more deceptive because the bride thinks she is paying to get the planners best advice but what she is getting is the vendor that is willing to pay the most.

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