Hidden Bias in the Wedding Industrial Complex

Hidden Bias in the Wedding Industrial Complex

August 6, 2021

Until it’s time to plan a major event like a wedding, there is little reason for most people to know about the existence of vendor lists: the directories of caterers, florists, event planners, D.J.s and others who work with venues to put on events.

They can be a major timesaver: Instead of compiling a team of their own, brides and grooms and their families can rely on a list of preferred contractors. And for those who make it onto a list, inclusion can help with supplying steady work.

But the the lists aren’t public, for the most part, and the process for securing a spot on one is rarely transparent. Because vendor lists are used by venues large and small, including hotels, inns, galleries, barns, museums and libraries, they can mean a permanently closed door for those who are excluded.

“The initial idea comes from a good place,” said Eliana Nunes, who has worked in the events industry for a decade, first as a florist and now as the head of a production studio. Event spaces are “trying to avoid vendors at their venue who aren’t professional” and are “making sure everybody knows what they’re doing and is licensed,” she said.

But the playing field is rarely level. Andrew Roby, a planner in Washington, D.C., who has worked in the events industry since 2005, said that one big problem is that some venues charge fees for inclusion on the lists, a pay-to-play structure. The fees, according to wedding-industry insiders, can run from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands. Some payments are expected annually, and others are collected as a percentage of the costs of an event.

“It’s a huge problem in our industry,” said Sonal Shah, an event planner in New York City. “If you’re new, where do you come up with $20,000? You’re supposed to be spending on Instagram, on Facebook, on marketing. It’s basically like the veterans are on the list, and they always will be. How do the newcomers break in?” (Though Ms. Shah has worked in the industry for 20 years, she said she is not on many vendor lists because her company mostly produces South Asian weddings.)

A second problem with the vendor lists is that they often lack diversity, Mr. Roby said. Last August, Mr. Roby, who is Black, and others, formed the National Events Council, to fight for more diversity and inclusion in the event planning industry.

“After George Floyd died, we had so many people who went to Instagram,” Mr. Roby said. “So many people in the industry were using those black squares as a sign of support. That’s kind of odd. If you look on your Instagram, it’s all white people. If you look in your vendor lists, it’s all white people.”

The layers of barriers to getting on vendor lists are an open secret in the events industry. Access to them is crucial because in some cases, clients aren’t just asked to use preferred vendors, but are required to.

“You don’t know how people get on them, and it can make or break your business,” Ms. Shah said. “We want to have a fair, competitive marketplace.”

Alternative Strategies

Elizabeth Austin-Davis, who works from Atlanta, has been included in lists of the best wedding photographers in the United States and in the world by publications including Brides and Harper’s Bazaar. Her work has appeared in Martha Stewart Weddings, The Knot magazine and Style Me Pretty.

“I wish I could tell you that after everything I’ve accomplished that I’m on a vendor list, but I’m still not on one,” she said. Instead, she has built connections with planners in the Atlanta area, who put her on their lists. (Being added to a planner’s list is helpful, but compared to venues, planners usually organize far fewer weddings.) She has also done other types of photo shoots at venues that she wants to work with. “Brides want to see someone who has worked there before,” Ms. Austin-Davis said.

Ms. Austin-Davis’s experience is not uncommon for people of color in the industry.

“It’s this unsaid thing,” said Sojourner Auguste, who has owned a wedding production company in New York since 2010. “I’ve worked with venues all around the New York tristate area, and I’ll wait until we’ve done, like, two amazing events at a venue before asking, ‘How do we get on your list?’ I’ve been just straight up ignored before. It’s very off-putting.”

William Gilbert, a D.J. in Los Angeles whose is known professionally as D.J. Will Gill, said he focuses on building connections with planners who have their own lists. “When I’m doing events, I more or less crush it,” he said. “When they’re done, wedding planners will come to me. ‘I would love to work with you.’ Venues never approach me afterward. I talk to them, yes ma’am, yes sir and everything. I follow up afterward to ask. I’ve never been put on a venue’s preferred list.”

After the protests over police brutality following George Floyd’s death in June 2020, D.J. companies called Mr. Gilbert to ask about collaborating and media publications asked him to contribute guest posts, he said. But he still wasn’t added to any venue’s vendor list.

During the pandemic, Mr. Gilbert decided to change his strategy. He optimized his online presence for search engines and sought out work as a virtual D.J. “While it would be easy and great to be on the lists of all the venues and all the planners, I’ve got the brides and grooms who are Googling,” he said.

Jennifer Price, who runs Events Shoppe Chicago, has worked in events for 15 years. She has produced galas and fund-raisers at high-end hotels in the city, and averages about 30 weddings a year. So far, she said, her company is not on any preferred vendor lists.

“When we first started out, I did the rounds and tried to chat with people,” Ms. Price said. “Now it’s not a part of our strategy anymore. Instagram has been a go-to.” Besides that, she is part of an informal group of planners in Chicago who share progressive politics and recommend each other for jobs.

She believes that a pay-to-play structure “excludes a lot of smaller mom-and-pop stores, a ton of companies of color or minority-owned companies,” she said. So she keeps her own list of nearly 200 vendors for clients to choose from.

“Our clients come from so many cultural backgrounds — Taiwanese, Polish, Nigerian-American, Black American,” she said. “They can’t all use the same caterer.”

Consumer Demand

Industry professionals may commiserate about the gate-keeping of vendor lists, but they said that confronting venues about their lack of transparency often feels futile and carries a risk. “We can’t create bad blood,” Ms. Austin-Davis said. “This is our livelihood. This is why a lot of people of color don’t make a big deal out of it.”

Of venues, she said: “They have access to what we need, and they can stop us from working.”

The New York Times reached out to more than 80 venues across the country with questions about their vendor lists: how often they’re updated, how many vendors they include, how those vendors are chosen, and whether the vendors have to pay any fees. Six venues responded. The lists these six venues keep have as few as eight vendors and as many as 67. One venue updates its list annually. Others said they review them monthly or when they work with someone they like. Two said their lists are public.

Ellie Tumlinson is the director of catering at one of these venues, the Alida Hotel in Savannah, Ga. Ms. Tumlinson said she currently has a list of 67 vendors, which is available on the hotel’s website, and updates it whenever she works with someone she thinks is a good fit.

If she adds a contractor to her list, she said it means that “you’re good at what you do and I feel comfortable suggesting you for couples for the biggest day of their lives.”

Cera Stan has owned the Stan Mansion in Chicago for 15 years; she does not charge her “dream team” of vendors a fee to be on her suggested list because she thinks the cost will be transferred on to her clients. But she understands why some venues do. “We spend a lot of money on advertising, and that’s probably something to offset their costs,” Ms. Stan said.

Ms. Stan reviews her vendor list once a year, but if she really likes someone’s work, sometimes she adds them immediately. “I go by recommendations,” Ms. Stan said. “I Google them. I also call other venues. ‘How do you like them? Do they arrive on time? Are they polite?’”

She prizes different backgrounds among event contractors and considers that when hiring. “We live in a country where everybody is welcome and you have people from all over the world,” Ms. Stan said. “They want to customize this special date. You have to offer that possibility.”

Besides individual change or intentions, there are a few broader efforts to address the vendor list system.

The National Events Council has started a diversity survey, issued a call to action to major companies to commit to a pledge that 20 percent of the people they’ll hire for events will be Black, Indigenous or people of color, and has begun work on a mentorship program.

The Knot Marketplace, a directory of contractors, began offering diversity-based filters in its vendor directory in January. Businesses can self-identify as Black owned or female owned, for example, making it easier for interested users to find them.

Ethos Collective was formed last June with the purpose of elevating the profiles of Black wedding and events professionals. Those who wish to become members can apply during open-call cycles.

Ivory Perkins, a makeup artist in Washington, D.C., has found a more informal solution: a group chat with about two dozen people who pass business to each other. “For people of color, it’s a comfort to see other people of color,” Ms. Perkins said. “You go into a room, you look for your people. It’s part of us to seek each other out and support each other. When we’re not in spaces where we’re welcomed, we create our own. In those spaces, we have allies.”

While these initiatives certainly help, clients can make a difference, too, using a crucial power: the purse.

Rhianna Green hired Mr. Roby, the Washington-based planner, for her April 2022 wedding. “I think it’s important as a Black couple, knowing that there are vendors that look like us that do great work, to highlight and support that,” Ms. Green said. “Keeping that money in the Black community is also very important to us.”

Dr. Meera Shah, the chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood in the Hudson Peconic region in New York, said that she wanted her wedding, which will take place this month, “to celebrate our cultures, but I also want to make it about commitment and equality and an extension of our values.”

Dr. Shah is working with Jove Meyer, a New York City planner who created an ally pledge that he asks every vendor he works with to sign and that he displays on his website. All of the vendors he has suggested for Dr. Shah have been people of color, identify as women or come from a historically marginalized group. Dr. Shah will have a female Hindu priest as her officiant. “She’s one of a kind,” Dr. Shah said.

Ultimately, the weddings industry can change only when people who are having weddings demand it, according to the vendors and planners interviewed for this article.

“Push back on the venue,” Ms. Price said. “Say, ‘I noticed there’s no one on this list who looks like me or has my moral compass. I can’t tell if these vendors are L.G.B.T.Q. friendly. How do I know that and how can you guys add more so I feel comfortable?’ Your buying power has a very strong voice.”

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