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When it comes to dealing with clients, "everything is a little bit different for weddings," says Jay Ellis, owner of Ellis Tents & Events.

Jay Ellis should know. His Bloomington, Indiana-based firm has been in the floral business for 80 years. Ellis purchased his first tent in 1971 for a client's wedding and then branched out to include full party rental. He now provides tents for nearly 60 weddings every summer, while the floral side of the business will service between 400 and 500 weddings annually.

Ellis is careful to qualify the client before he goes to work drawing up tent plans. "I ask if they have ever been to an event that used our tents," he explains. "Because if they haven't and their idea of a fancy wedding is crackers and pie behind the church, they won't work out for us."

He also believes in establishing a good rapport with the caterer. "I like to find out right away what the caterers like and don't like," he says. "We need to work as a team. That way, I can program their needs into the plans from the start."

When it comes to payment, Ellis has more strict rules for his wedding clients than for others. "Somehow the day after the wedding, people forget they got married," he explains. "Or they got really excited and spent all their money on something else."

To help jog their memories, Ellis collects a 50 percent deposit once the plans are under way and then requires the balance a week before the event. "You're crazy if you don't get your money upfront," he says.

Marjory Eggleston, partner in Bellflower, California-based Unique Tabletop Rentals, agrees about requiring early payment, "and you can put a couple of exclamation points behind that!" she says. "Brides tend to get carried away when they see so many beautiful things they can use. Some just spend too much money."

Unique offers an upscale tableware line for an upscale clientele. It was Unique that provided Sevres plates for actress/singer Barbra Streisand's wedding last July. But that upscale customer base can bring its own upscale problems, such as wrangling over prenuptial agreements. "Sometimes wedding plans blow up over the pre-nup, but you've already booked the china for the event," she explains, one more reason to collect payment early.

Despite these dangers, Eggleston has no hard and fast rules about when she requires payment. "We deal a lot with event planners, and we have confidence in those clients. With others, we play it by ear, depending on where the referral came from and how big the event is," she says. But it's important to remember that "there's no incentive for the bride to pay after the event."

Unique handles at least a wedding a week and may do as many as 100 weddings a year. Eggleston has learned that "the wedding client is also more emotional" than the corporate client. "The brides often seem to think that none of us in the business has any idea of how special their own wedding is. They don't really understand that we do this all the time."

Her solution: "You have to do a lot more handholding with your wedding clients. You have to make sure they get back on track."

In terms of trends, Eggleston sees a move away from "the all-white wedding-which I think is great." Instead, "floral patterns in china are very hot," she notes. "Brides like a pretty, romantic look."

On the floral side of his business, Ellis' brides are looking for loosely arranged foliage. "They don't want anything too structured or tailored," he says. In his tent operation, bridal parties are springing for linings "if they're done right" as well as floors and carpets.

"Having weddings at home is more popular than it's ever been," Ellis says. "They're more personal. The bride knows her wedding isn't just like everyone else's."

Ellis shares one tip-off that tells him he's on a solid footing with a potential client: "If the father of the bride comes along at the very first meeting, I usually can get a quick decision."

* Qualify the client. Find out fast if the client understands the cost of what she or he seems to want.

* Hold your ground. Encourage the bridal party to let you-the professional-do your job. Then they can enjoy their own wedding.

* Coordinate with other vendors early in the process.

* Make sure to collect payment beforehand.

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