What is a preferred suppliers list?

I’ve been thinking about preferred supplier lists over the past few days as an opportunity came up to join a venue’s Hampshire wedding suppliers list. After enquiring with the venue, it turned out that there was an expectation that I pay for an aspect of being on the list. I realised that there are quite a few different ways that suppliers recommend one another, but it isn’t always clear to couples what the relationship is between suppliers e.g. is there payment to be on a list, commission taken, or is it completely free? So in this post, I’ll break down a few of the different ways that I know venues manage their Surrey and Hampshire wedding suppliers’ lists, give you some questions to ask if you’re concerned, and point you in the direction of some good wedding suppliers.

Why does it matter?

There are some very common wedding supplier directories – Hitched, Bridebook, UK Bride, and of course lots of the main wedding blogs also have their own directory too – Whimsical Wonderland Weddings, Green Union, etc.. It’s the modern equivalent of advertising your business in the Yellow Pages. It costs money, 99% of couples recognise that suppliers pay to be listed, and you can pay more or less to get more or less exposure e.g. bigger advert. These places advertise nationwide and open businesses up to a large potential market.

When you think locally, the biggest ‘potential market’ of customers comes through venues – really, everything revolves around them. They organise showcases/open days so that couples can visit the venue, and imagine what it might look like for their dream wedding. It’s also difficult to book any other supplier without first knowing your venue. So a local venue is the first place couples go in their wedding planning journey, and once that is ticked off, they will move on to other suppliers. This makes venues really well placed to ‘add value’ (read: look good) for their couples by making their planning process easier – they provide couples with their ‘little black book’ or recommended or preferred suppliers:

Recommended and preferred are often used interchangeably, which is confusing. But there are two types.

  • With preferred suppliers, this in theory relates to the suppliers that a venue offers for you to choose from – you generally have to choose one of them, or pay a larger service fee. This type of supplier most commonly happens with dry hire venues and caterers. So, Gate Street Barn for example have a number of preferred caterers that they work with because they have worked with them before, can trust them to respect the venue/kitchen, and know they will deliver for you. You’ll notice that there is a lot of variety in the suppliers available, offering different cuisines and price ranges. Most of the time, you can use your own supplier, but the venue is likely to charge you an extra fee to do so. They’re preferred, because the venue would prefer that you use them!
  • With recommended suppliers, this in theory relates to the suppliers a venue likes, and thinks is worth the mention. You don’t have to choose one of them, there aren’t any fees or issues if you don’t use them. It’s just a list of businesses to save you some googling. They’re recommended because the venue thinks they’re worth recommending.

Neither of these types of suppliers, recommended or preferred, is an issue, so long as you have the choice of which to pick (from the list or completely your own) and/or the options presented to you are good/the best suppliers. Unfortunately, I don’t think the wedding industry is as transparent as it should or could be which is where the issue comes up.

I would estimate that 1/3 of venues have a ‘preferred supplier list’ or ‘recommended supplier list’ where there is some financial implication. And that really muddies the waters. Because now, the list is made up of suppliers who meet 2 requirements – 1) is a good supplier and 2) is willing to pay. Not every good supplier is willing to pay to be on a venue’s list. Not the worst thing in the world, it just means that you don’t have ALL of the crème de la crème of Surrey or Hampshire wedding suppliers on the list. However, not everyone that is willing to pay is a good supplier. And this is where the biggest issue happens, because sometimes, bad suppliers are on preferred supplier lists, and venues may be picking the suppliers willing to pay over the good ones.

The higher the value of the recommendation (i.e. £), the more likely someone is to change their behaviour. You also have that icky feeling of ‘has the venue recommended this supplier because they will earn something from it or is it really their honest recommendation’?

So let’s look at the different ways I’ve seen Surrey and Hampshire wedding suppliers’ lists work, from all about the money to not about the money. All of these lists will be referred to as ‘preferred supplier lists’, ‘recommended supplier lists’, ‘approved supplier lists’ etc. – there isn’t any phrase that tells you which way their supplier list works…

Legitimate Reasons for Supplier Related Charges

In some cases, there may be a good reason to charge for using non-preferred suppliers because it may cost the venue more in time or money to allow other suppliers. Sometimes, there may be insurance implications. This is a common excuse that’s unfortunately misused, but there may be some occasions where a venue might need different insurance based on the suppliers you hire e.g. to add pyrotechnic cover. There might also be different costs they have to pay if you hire certain suppliers e.g. acquiring an alcohol license because only their in-house bar is covered. Finally, there may just be more admin time required when using suppliers that haven’t worked at the venue before or who aren’t part of the internal team e.g. liaison upon setup, management during the day. Most respectable venues will be upfront about charges before you make decisions, and will only charge more when there genuinely are greater costs to them.

Dining Table in Front of Pond - Autumnal Wedding

Photo by Masha Unwerth

Types of Preferred Supplier Lists

Subcontracted Suppliers

These aren’t strictly preferred suppliers as there aren’t any options for you to choose from. But it’s worth noting the way this might work as it can mean that the supplier you meet during a showround, consultation or sampling isn’t the same supplier that would work your wedding. With a local barn venue for example, the catering staff (chefs and front of house) are provided as part of a catering contract which will be revised every few years. The venue will ‘go out for tender’, basically inviting all contract caterers to pitch for the contract. They’ll choose their preferred supplier and this company will solely be responsible for delivering catering at the venue. 99% of the time, the actual cooking team will stay the same, but there is always a short period of handover between contract companies, which isn’t always seamless. You have to use this supplier as they are the only caterer allowed at the venue, and they are basically an internal team. In the rare likelihood that there is a change of contractor and you weren’t happy with the new one, you wouldn’t have any other options.

 

Pay to List A.K.A. The Wedding Supplier Directory

This is the most straightforward paid list. A supplier pays an annual fee to be a ‘preferred supplier’ at a certain venue. It could be a small amount e.g. £20 or a substantial amount e.g. £200. Suppliers don’t necessarily have to meet any other requirements (e.g. recommend reciprocally), they are essentially advertising with the venue. Their name goes on the list, whether that’s a PDF, webpage or otherwise.

 

Pay Commission

This type of list is the best paid option for suppliers, as there’s less risk. If they get bookings from couples at the venue, they pay a % or set £ amount of the booking value. Otherwise, they pay nothing. However, this does raise the question of ‘where does the money come from to pay the commission’ – are the supplier’s costs inflated to account for commissions they may pay, do they take it out of their profit, or do they just accept a lower rate? The payments could be called ‘kickbacks’, ‘commission fees’ or ‘finder’s fees’. They could be paid monthly back to the venue or could be used by the venue to redeem against their own future bookings. Alternatively, the venue/supplier might agree a price that the couple pay e.g. £250, as well as the commission e.g. £25 / 10%, and the couple will pay the venue, who then pay the supplier less the commission, so £225. This is also one way things work for suppliers who provide part of a package for the venue.

I haven’t seen it done yet, but another great option would be for the supplier to donate to a relevant charity. So long as every supplier donated the same amount, and the charity was relevant to the venue, this would be a nice way for a sustainable or ethical venue to give something back through their supplier list.

In theory, this isn’t the worst approach. Imagine a venue recommends 5 really good cake suppliers who all would have to pay £20 if the couple booked. It’s a reasonably fair market, and all suppliers are really good so the customer still gets a good supplier even though the cake designer paid the venue a ‘finder’s fee’. That works: the venue earns a small amount of money for their time sharing recommendations, the cake designer makes an extra booking, and the couple still get a good cake. In reality, some commissions may be higher than others, and it’s the venue that benefits from the relationship. The UK Association of Wedding Planners disallow their members from accepting commission payments because they recognise it shifts the dynamic. This is good news if you’re working with a UKAWP planner, because it’s unlikely they will have any financial incentive to recommend certain suppliers.

 

Contribute to Costs

This is a common ‘workaround’ to the ‘pay to list with us’ approach and I would cynically say that it’s for 2 reasons. 1. Suppliers don’t want to pay to be on a list because it feels a bit disingenuous and they’d rather spend their advertising budget elsewhere. 2. When asked if suppliers pay to be on the list, the answer is ‘no’. The description of this method is, ‘we don’t charge you to be on our list, but we do expect you to pay £xx to be in our brochure’. With this approach, venues can cover some of the costs they might have in recommending suppliers e.g. fancy printed brochures, and suppliers feel like they’re getting something for the money they have to pay. Again, in theory, this doesn’t sound unreasonable, but like most things, some people take this to extremes.

I have personally spoken to one Berkshire wedding venue who were more than happy to add me to their supplier list (even though I’d never delivered a cake to their venue, nor spoken to them before), so long as I paid £300 to be featured in their brochure. Another venue that I spoke to in Hampshire, again who I hadn’t worked with before, would consider adding me, so long as I committed to attending at least one wedding fayre a year at a cost of £100. Depending on how many suppliers they showcased on the day, let’s assume 16, that’s a ‘budget’ of £1600 for them to host an event where they get visitors to their venue, they manage the sign-ups/contacts of visitors on the day, and it makes them look better to have the venue decorated with all of the possible things a couple may want to see at their wedding. Of course, there are advertising and printing costs for the event, no question, but venues will always need to print brochures for their couples and host open days. So the question is, does the event add an extra £100 per supplier to the venue’s costs for the day? Or does it represent a fair proportion of the whole costs for the event? If not, there’s certainly an element of a ‘listing fee’ which is a bit more complicated and tips into a greyer area.

 

Provide Perks to Our Couples

I personally really like this approach. It’s very focussed on the supplier relationship improving the deal for customers, rather than benefitting their own pocket. Almost like the business is using its purchasing power (i.e. buying bulk) to reduce the price for each customer. Some venues ask suppliers to give a discount, or a free added bonus e.g. free delivery, free consultation, or something completely different. This is the other way that things might work for suppliers who provide part of a package for the venue. There are a couple of venues that I know of who opt for this method.

 

Recommend Reciprocally

If you recommend us, we’ll recommend you. Or similarly, if you link to our website, we’ll link to yours as this is great for both of our Google rankings. This is a simple one. There isn’t any money involved, but there is a small incentive which can affect the suppliers’ decision to recommend a supplier or not. If the relationship is solely based on this, i.e. I don’t care who you are, but if you put us on your website, we’ll put you on ours, then it certainly misses out on what I personally feel the point of a preferred supplier list is. However, when two suppliers really like working with each other, and think one another is a great supplier, this will naturally happen anyway.

 

Be a Great Supplier

This category is how most couples think a ‘preferred supplier list’ works, and for 2/3 of venues, this is absolutely true. The venue will look at the suppliers who are regularly visiting the venue that they think are doing a good job and couples say they are happy with, and put them on their list. The only downside of this approach is that sometimes venues don’t proactively look for new suppliers, so their list is compiled of the first 5 people who ask to be on the list. It isn’t perfect, but these lists are generally a good sign that the suppliers are reliable and trustworthy. There’s no incentive for the venue to recommend the supplier (because no money changes hands), so in most cases the venue truly believes the supplier will do a good job for the couple. If the venue ever has an issue with the supplier, they’re likely to be removed from the list.

This is how I manage my Surrey and Hampshire wedding suppliers’ list – there isn’t anyone on it that I’ve worked with less than x2, and I genuinely think they are a professional, honest, talented bunch of suppliers. No-one pays to be on my list, nor offers any other incentive for bookings made. It’s also the way that the Aviator in Farnborough runs their Hampshire wedding suppliers’ list which I really respect.

 

Which way is right? Honestly, that’s down to your personal preference! But I think most people would be happiest if they knew that the foundation of every recommendation was ‘they really are a great supplier’. Beyond that, people aren’t generally too worried, and it’s the same for most respectable suppliers. However, money and all of the other things on this list definitely make things a little bit more complicated, which is why it’s an interesting topic to talk about!

Questions to Ask

At the moment, there isn’t enough transparency in the industry and venues aren’t very upfront with couples about how they choose their preferred suppliers. So it’s always worth asking a few questions to gauge whether the list is more of a paid list or free list. That way, you can decide how much extra research you’d like to do, or how much you trust the venue’s recommendations. I’m personally really bold and will ask outright to get the answer I need, so I’ve given you some direct questions worth asking. If you’re a bit more subtle than me or would feel uncomfortable asking directly, there are some more exploratory questions you can ask:

  • Do suppliers have to pay to be on your preferred suppliers’ list? (if you’re bold like me!)
  • Do these suppliers give you a commission if you recommend them? (again, if you’re bold!)
  • Will we receive a discount for using suppliers on your preferred list?
  • Do suppliers have to work a minimum # of weddings with you before you make them a recommended supplier?
  • Are there any costs if we want to use our own suppliers?
  • How many weddings have you worked with this supplier?
  • What criteria does a supplier need to meet to be on your list? E.g. perform # weddings, recommend you back, certain quality standards?
  • Have you sampled that supplier’s food/cake/service?

Legal Rules

There aren’t any legal rules that I know of which dictate how business recommend one another and kickbacks/commission are perfectly legal ways to encourage fellow suppliers to work with you. However, when speaking about other suppliers on our websites/social media, then it can touch on the ASA’s rules on advertising, and making it perfectly clear to consumers what is an ad (i.e. paid for, advertiser approved) vs. more editorial is really important. Where suppliers are providing (commission paying) links or discount codes for other suppliers’ products and services, i.e. affiliate marketing, then there are times when this must also be declared. Alongside setting the rules/standards for advertising, the ASA’s role is to listen to your complaints as a consumer if you feel that something has been misrepresented to you.

In every case, the quality of the list is completely dependent on how thorough and exacting the venue are about the suppliers they want to work with. Some venues don’t charge anything but will still be incredibly strict about who makes it onto the list. At the other extreme, some venues don’t care who is on the list, so long as they pay the fee(s). I’ve worked with plenty of suppliers who recommend others based on one meeting, without having ever sampled the product/service or seen them in action. You will also find that many venues try to have variety on their lists – so you will find a cheaper option or a more expensive option, a lower quality option or a luxury option. And that means not every supplier may match what you’re looking for.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how the preferred supplier list is put together. What matters is that couples are aware and can factor that into their thinking. If the list is truly to make things easier for the couple, provide the absolute best supplier recommendations, and the couple’s best interests are at play, regardless of the relationship, that’s great. But clearly, there is some space for the venue to make money, jeopardising a customer’s faith in the quality of the selection, and perhaps losing sight of the couple’s best interests. So I hope this post has made you aware of some of the different ways your ‘recommended’ suppliers may have become ‘recommended’ suppliers. And it gives you some questions to ask if you want to figure out how the venue has chosen its suppliers. If you want to see some of the great (and truly recommended) Surrey and Hampshire wedding suppliers that I’ve worked with, head over to my suppliers page. Best of luck with your wedding planning, I’m here if you need me.

 

With love from lila xx