As you plan your wedding, the thought of being a wedding planner can seem quite appealing. Dress fittings, venue visits, menu tastings and wonderful trips to flower markets all seem like the stuff of career dreams.
However, and as someone who spent more than five years as a planner, I can tell you that the reality is a lot tougher than you might imagine. Super long days, a lack of weekends in the summer months, tricky clients, lots of travel and the feeling that if something goes wrong on the day, you can kiss goodbye to your hard-won reputation.
So, I have absolutely no problem with wedding planners charging a fair rate for their work. Now, I’m not here to debate what a ‘fair rate’ is because everyone’s version of that differs and what people have to spend on their weddings is, quite frankly, no one’s business. However, I am here to hear more about the issue of wedding planners receiving commission from suppliers.
Some planners receive commissions, a kind of financial reward, from suppliers when the planner’s clients book them for a wedding and some don’t. On the face of it, it seems like quite an innocuous issue – if you’re running a business, you surely have the right to run it any way you like – but the issue of commission is being talked about more and more in the wedding world, thanks in part to the work of the UK Alliance of Wedding Planners (UKAWP) who are currently fronting a campaign underlining the fact they that don’t agree with commission at all.
The problem around commission really seems to cause issues when, rather than the planner charging a flat fee, they take a percentage of the client’s budget as their fee. So, if you spend more, they earn more, which is fair enough but if the planner is adding commission onto the price you see, you could end up paying more for suppliers (as the figure you pay them includes an element of commission that goes to the planner) and you could also end up paying more to your planner as your overall budget increases.
The UKAWP, a membership organisation for planners, requires that all members sign up to their Code of Business Practice and this explicitly requires members to pass on discounts of commissions to clients (although this isn’t applicable to destination planners) rather than accept the commission themselves.
But why? Why is accepting commission such an issue for some in the world of wedding planning? Does it matter to clients and does the issue of commission need to be at the forefront of your mind when you choose your wedding planner? We spoke to two planning experts, Bernadette Chapman from the UKAWP and Katrina Otter, award-winning wedding planner, who have quite different takes on this subject (although both can agree on one thing that’s super important when it comes to choosing your planner).
Let’s start by hearing a little more from Bernadette and we started by asking her why the UKAWP are focusing so strongly on commission at the moment. Does concentrating on this issue really raise standards or give couples a more positive wedding experience?
“We understand how important each wedding is and believe all planners involved have a duty to act with honesty and integrity,” says Bernadette. “Handing your special day over to a planner takes an immense amount of trust and ensuring that planners are transparent with the way they charge means that the trust is not broken.”
“We feel that taking commission blurs things: a couple needs to trust their wedding planner to recommend the best suppliers for their wedding, and not just the suppliers that will pay them commission to be referred.”
“If you work with a planner who doesn’t take commission, you can be absolutely confident that any supplier referred to them has been done so because they are the best supplier for the job, and not because the planner will be secretly earning extra. We believe that if a planner is charging their worth, there is no need to supplement their income with kickbacks and commission and in most cases, the planners charging commission are earning considerably more over and above their fee. But, what the planner is earning is not the issue, it is the fact that many are not transparent about taking commission. They are recommending suppliers potentially based on profit. And more importantly, clients are paying 10-20% more for their wedding purely to cover the commission.”
“Although the UKAWP and our members have spoken about commission many times, we do still feel it is a subject unknown by couples, in fact from looking on the websites of ten planners known to take commission, we cannot see any mention of commission on their sites. So, unless couples ask, or the planners volunteer the information, how would couples know that the planner is receiving commission?”
And there we can certainly see Bernadette’s point – when you’re planning a wedding, you’re pretty much learning as you go. You don’t automatically know all those questions to ask suppliers and you don’t really know what you’re looking for when you start planning. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle – if you don’t know what to ask, you don’t ask and then there’s no demand for suppliers to provide answers.
However, does effectively demonising some planners who choose to run their business in another way really work? We know that there are hundreds and hundreds of wedding planners in the UK and there are likely to be as many that accept commissions as those that don’t. Does one group have the right to say another group is wrong and essentially not to be trusted given that the vast majority are planning weddings to great reviews from clients?
One such wedding planner is Katrina Otter and, in the interests of full disclosure here, Kat has booked me in my capacity as a wedding celebrant for lots of ‘her’ weddings and I don’t pay, or indeed offer, her (or any of the planners that book me) commission at all so I can say she definitely doesn’t only recommend suppliers who offer her commissions. Her take on the issue of commission is an interesting one and presents a great counterpoint to the views of the UKAWP:
“Back in 2016, I wrote a feature for Love My Dress about transparency, honesty and clarity in the wedding industry covering, amongst other things, the topic of kickbacks and commissions. In this feature, I stated that ‘I personally have no issue with commission… as long as it’s a transparent and honest transaction and any financial impact on the couple is made abundantly clear.’ For me, personally, this is still how I choose to run my business.”
“Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with the Alliance’s campaign that couples should be informed (which is, after all, why I wrote the transparency feature in the first place), I do want to set the record straight on a few misconceptions about planners and commission.”
“99% of planners, whether they accept commission or not, will first and foremost recommend suppliers based on skill and suitability, working for you with your best interests at heart. Most planners are small businesses or individuals who rely on their reputation and the quality of the service that they provide so implying that planners will only put forward suppliers that give them commission is an inaccurate, misleading and outdated statement.”
“If a planner accepts commission, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re dishonest, deceitful, fraudulent or untrustworthy – some planners accept commision and reduce their fees, some accept commission with full disclosure to their clients and others accept commission to be more competitive. A planner shouldn’t be discounted or deemed untrustworthy because they do.”
“I also have to say that accepting commission doesn’t necessarily impact a client’s budget – some suppliers, particularly venues and hotels etc. automatically include an allowance in their fees for commission or give part of their fee back to the planner. Whether a planner accepts this or not, you, as the end client, are still paying, and will always, pay the same. I’d also say that you don’t have to be a paying member of an organisation or have a logo of approval to be able to uphold the principles of transparency and honesty.”
So, with all of that in mind, it seems that actually, what both Katrina and Bernadette want is a more open industry, once in which everyone works in a more transparent manner and this absolutely has to be good for everyone involved right? If we’re all more informed, we can all make better decisions.
“If a wedding planner takes commission from suppliers and the client knows this from the outset, and understands the implications of their wedding planner taking commission, then this is honest and ethical,” says Bernadette. “It’s all about transparency.
Therefore, if we work on the assumption that, when it comes to choosing your wedding planner, knowledge is power, what do you actually need to know? What are the killer questions that you should ask potential planners when you’re casting around for your wedding wonder-woman? Here’s Katrina again:
“To make things are easy as possible, especially in light all all the above, here are some simple steps to hiring a wedding planner that will ensure you work with someone that you trust implicitly, whose style and values are aligned with your own and who will work with, and alongside, you to create an exquisitely tailor-made wedding like no other.”
“Take your time with research – check out website, portfolios, testimonials, Google reviews and Instagram feeds etc. Then, create a shortlist of planners whose tone, vibe and portfolios inspire and excite you.”
“From there, it’s time to dig a little deeper – how long has the planner been planning wedding? How many weddings have they been involved with? Are their portfolios and Instagram feeds their own work or are they just sharing other people’s work?”
“Check out their services and pricing to ensure their service covers everything you need and fits within your budget. Then, get in contact and ask even more questions – what’s the planner’s policy on commission? Can they show you more examples of real weddings, not just styled shoots? Can you talk to previous clients and then take EVERYTHING into consideration.”
“Lastly, be honest with yourself about what’s important to you. Above all, work with a planner because you know they’ll create, organise and plan the day that you want and that you’ll get along and have fun doing so in the process.”
Bernadette offers her take on those essential questions to ask before booking:
“One of the most important things to know about a planner before working with them is can you trust them to produce and design your perfect wedding? Trust and connection is vitally important. Also, get a sense of their style from their website and social media and, when looking at a planner’s portfolio, are the images from real weddings or from styled shoots?”
“You then absolutely should be asking how long the planner has been in business. Also, ask if they’re insured and how much do they charge. You should also specifically ask about commission. Ask them if they’ll only recommend suppliers that they get commission from and ask if they will declare all suppliers that they earn commission from and the rate.”
“If you love a planner and want to use them for your wedding but are worried about commission, negotiate a flat fee for their service instead. That way, if the wedding budget increases, the fee you pay the planner remains the same.”
So, not all planners accept commission, not all suppliers offer it and not all relationships between planners and suppliers are founded on the basis of payments given and received. In my experience people gravitate towards each other based on more than money, they choose to work together because they share values, style and an overall ethos.
That said, I’m all in favour of the sometimes misty world of weddings becoming a little clearer for couples. The whole industry knows that it’s battling the preconception that there’s an automatic ‘price hike’ when couples mention weddings and I can understand that the issue surrounding commissions doesn’t help this so well done to the UKAWP for raising this issue. Weddings, every aspect of weddings, really need to be about personal choice and there’s definitely an argument to say that you need as much information as possible to make that choice.
But, information always needs to be balanced and come from more than one source to make sure it’s truly informative. We hope that this feature has given you food for thought, in a balanced and healthy serving.