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Kerry Lee Doehr

Event Industry Ethics: The Preferred Vendor List

Kerry Lee DoehrIn no other part of our industry does anything create such a passionate stir as the preferred vendor list. 

The original intent of this important tool was simply this: to create a way for clients hosting events to choose professionals who were reputable, ethical and experienced out of the huge unknown sea of other event partner vendors.  To be on a venue's preferred vendor list was a badge of honor--and in many cases, it still is--and one's position on it was warranted exclusively by years of experience, service, and reputation alone.  

Over the years, a new trend has emerged:  the preferred vendor list that requires those listed to pay a fee to be on it. This creates an omni-directional ethical dilemma for all involved. And to be clear, this "payment" to be on a preferred vendor list can look like many different things--from actually paying a fee, to agreeing to provide complimentary services for the venue or vendor in exchange for being on the list, to the subtlety of a lovely published "magazine-like" publication that a publisher will produce at no charge for the venue if the venue promises to only promote /refer those vendors who paid to advertise in it.

 The other new emerging trend?  New employees in new positions who decide to not work with those on the already-existing preferred vendor list they inherited from their predecessor and scrap all of it--or selectively choose with whom they will work and ban the rest--without even trying to work with those on the already existing list or notifying them.

We are approached by large wedding businesses, resorts and wineries as well as smaller businesses on this subject continually, and it's a hot one.  Due to economic challenges, it would appear some are getting desperate and will do anything to make money with little to no regard for the precious relationships that have taken years to build, or for the lack of honesty in portraying true service and professionalism.

Here are the main ways the above violations harm both event supply partner (vendor) and event client:

  • The client is being referred to a service who could afford to "pay" to be on the list--not necessarily the best service provider based on actual experience and quality. This is deceptive to the client unless there is a disclaimer that all listed are paid advertisers.
  • The allegiance of integrity shifts from who is legitimately doing a professional job to who can pay to advertise to be on the list. So, things shift from who can do the best job to who has funds to pay for that spot (and often these are not one and the same).
  • The event supply partner (vendor) who has been on a preferred vendor list for years and has worked hard to stay on the list, often going above and beyond for the clients, investing in the relationship with the venue or vendor who has the preferred vendor list, etc. and who may not be able to suddenly pay to be on the list, is now bumped off of the list and replaced by someone else who may not actually have a great reputation.

All of the above sours the relationship between the venue/vendor with the preferred vendor list and the event supply partner now no longer on the list. 

Maintaining integrity with referrals is essential to good business.  Remember, referrals and business go both ways.  Our events community--even on a national level--is small, and word travels quickly. But besides reputation, there is such a thing as honor and manners.  Put yourself in the client's shoes, in the other event supply partner's shoes.  All relationships take investment and are very fragile. 

If in the position of having to remove a vendor from a preferred vendor list, there are ways to do it--honestly and directly and with open communication.  Even the removal of the vendor from a list carries a requirement for professionalism and integrity. 

While we are supporters of entrepreneurship, does the end ever justify the means?  Or is there another way that the preferred vendor list can maintain its commitment to its original pure purpose: be honest, continue to build and maintain long term vendor partner relationships and also make money? Should making money be the object or even a part of it? 

What are ways you have seen this happen with your own business, and what did you do?  

Kerry Lee Doehr is CEO/founder and CEO of event planning business Santa Barbara Wine Country Weddings and Events, as well as Engaging Inspiration, a business dedicated to marketing, events and training for the special event and hospitality professional. She is committed to progress in the industry that goes beyond trend and design, saying, "Who we are and how we handle ourselves ethically is more of a barometer to business longevity and branding than all the money in the world spent on advertising."

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