10 Things to Look For Before Signing Vendor Contracts
Updated: Jun 19, 2020
You just got engaged and are so excited to start booking vendors for your wedding! You spend hours browsing on The Knot, combing through albums of venues and photographers, tasting cakes and trying on dresses, meeting with potential vendors who are really good at getting you hyped about their services, when bam - they send you a contract to sign with a bunch of legalese that seems so dull and boring in comparison to everything else you're doing, so you just give it all a quick glance and sign your name so you can have your dream vendor.
But wait! There's a lot in there that could actually matter! You might think, "Wow! It's only $1,000? That's a steal!" but you didn't notice that they charge $5 for every mile they have to drive, expect you to put them up in a five star hotel, require five of your $60 guest meals, and only work for 3 hours on your wedding day (with a $250 per hour rate if you want them to stay longer). You know they're a perfect fit for you, but you didn't notice that their noisy crew is going to load in their equipment right in the middle of your uncle's dinner blessing. The details in your vendor contracts can have a huge impact on the flow of your wedding day and on your budget, so it's important to read them thoroughly.
We may not be lawyers over here at Woodland Events, but reviewing legal contracts is still a big part of what we do! Whether we're negotiating contracts for our Planning clients or pulling out logistical details to include in timelines for our Wedding Day Management clients, we review anywhere between 5 and 50 contracts per event we work on!
Since I spend so much time looking at contracts, I thought it might be good to give some insights into what I'm looking for. Below, you'll find some of the most important things to look for in wedding/event vendor contracts. Some will be obvious, like the cost of services, but some will be less obvious, like how many meals or guest seats a vendor requires.
1. Dates and Times of Service
It's important for each of your contracts to include not only the date of your wedding, but the specific time breakdown. When will your vendor be expected to arrive? How long should they stay? If it's a venue, what time can you enter and what time do you have to be out (which is later than what time your reception ends).
Getting specific about the service times will ensure your DJ doesn't walk in and start dragging equipment around in the middle of your ceremony.
2. Deposit and Payment Amounts
Each of your vendor contracts should include the total fee for the vendor's services, as well as detailed information about how and when you should make each payment (including your initial deposit).
Pay special attention to taxes and additional fees. If your contract just says, "applicable taxes," ask them to include the exact percentage you will be taxed and exactly which items are being taxed. If you are being charged service fees, travel fees, delivery fees, or any other additional fees, be sure the vendor is actually writing what those fees are. If you just let them write "travel fees as applicable," what's stopping them from sending you a bill for their flight and hotel stay in New York where they did "research" for your Minnesota wedding?
Also, look for built in gratuities. We always encourage tipping your vendors, but if you give a 20% tip without noticing that 15% was already included in your contract, you're way over-tipping! Some vendor contracts will include gratuity and disguise it as a "service fee". Be sure you get clarification on what exactly the service fee is (in most contracts, it's actually paying the staff their base rate and not a tip).
3. Contingency Plans
Nobody loves to think about what happens when things go wrong, but before you sign the dotted line, you need to ensure there is a contingency plan in place. There are hundreds of things that could happen that might require you to cancel or postpone your wedding or may require the vendor to cancel your booking.
What if your venue is flooded? What if your photographer gets in a car accident on the way to the wedding? What if the vendor goes out of business before your wedding? What if there's a fluctuation in bee populations and now the flowers you wanted aren't available? You need to ensure your contract has a backup plan in place.
When reviewing your contracts, look for words like "liability," "act of god," and "force majeure". These generally point to emergency backup plans the vendor has in place.
Slightly different from a contingency plan, you want to be sure your contracts have a cancellation or termination clause that outlines what happens when either party walks away. If you decide to cancel a vendor, do you get any of your money back? If they cancel on you, are they required to refund your wedding? Be sure you understand the vendor's cancellation policy, and if anything about it seems iffy to you, speak up.
5. Vendor Meals and Accommodations
It's customary to provide meals for your vendors and some will even make it required in their contract. Notice how many meals they expect, whether is must be the same one you're serving to guests, and whether they require seats at your guest tables, a special vendor green room, a vendor-only bathroom, etc.
It's also important to note that many vendors charge travel fees, which may include mileage reimbursements, hotel stays, flights, rental cars, per diems, and more. Be sure each vendor includes these costs in their contract.
6. Detailed Description of Services
This one is super important. Everything a vendor will do for you should be included in your contract. Perhaps your chair supplier states they will deliver the chairs, but will they set them up too? If not, you need to ensure that someone will. Will your planner be on site the full day or just 8 hours? Does your photographer guarantee you'll get a certain number of edited photos back after the wedding?
Try to think through every little detail you expect from your vendors and be sure it ends up in the contract. Remember that if it's not written in the contract, they have no obligation to do it.
7. Who will actually be at the wedding?
Sometimes the actual person you meet for a consultation and fall in love with isn't actually the person you end up working with. If you really really want to work with Jessica from Jessica's Photography, be sure that's included in your contract or she may send one of her employees to shoot your wedding instead.
8. Names of All Parties
Who is agreeing to the terms of the contract? At the very minimum, it should be one client and the vendor. For weddings, it makes sense for both of the engaged partners to sign as the client. What if your parents are fully funding the wedding? It may be good to include them as parties too (it would be awful if you agreed to pay thousands of dollars to a vendor and your parents decided they don't want to pay that much and now you're stuck obligated to pay the remaining balance).
So, be sure every responsible party is named on and signs the contract.
9. All The Things You Discussed In Person
Too often I've heard clients tell me something like, "Our photographer told us he'll add a free canvas print!" To which I'll respond, "Oh, I don't see that in your contract. I'll reach out to them to confirm that," only to find the vendor has no idea what I'm talking about.
If the vendor says they'll do something, be sure it's written in the contract. Don't let them say, "I'll fix that after you've signed" or "Don't worry, I'll remember." Just get it in writing.
Even the most well meaning wedding vendors get busy and won't remember what they promised you at a consultation a year before your wedding. Having it in the contract ensures they have something to look back on and remember as well as something you can point to if they don't deliver.
10. Red Flags
The final thing on this list is certainly not the least important. Red flags abound in vendor contracts and are so important to address and fix. Interestingly, they're usually the easiest items to skim over and go unnoticed. Here are just a few of the red flags I look for in contracts:
A non-disparagement or "gag" clause bans you from posting negative or disparaging reviews against the vendor on Google, Yelp, WeddingWire, The Knot, etc. This is a major red flag for two reasons. 1) If they're afraid someone might post negative reviews, it might mean they've had a history of poor service. 2) This practice is actually illegal. While many vendors still try to slip this into their contracts, the US Consumer Review Fairness Act prohibits such a clause from vendor contracts.
Yes, negative reviews can be really bad for business, but the solution to that is for the business to do great work worthy of positive reviews, not to ban clients from saying negative things.
Full Payment Due 4 - 6 Months Before the Wedding
If a vendor expects you to make your final payment 4 - 6 months before the wedding, you're subjecting yourself to a lot of potential trouble (especially if it's non-refundable). If you see this, ask if you can adjust the payment schedule or walk away. For most vendors, final payments should be due 1 to 8 weeks before the wedding.
Impossibly Fast Rental Returns
I've seen some contracts that say rented items must be returned by 9am the morning after the wedding. I've even seen some that say midnight of the wedding day (side note: it's a good practice to put 11:59pm or 12:01am on a given date, since midnight or 12am on the 21st means the beginning of the 21st to some people and the end of the 21st to others). When you're trying to enjoy your wedding day (and your wedding night), you don't want to be worried about getting rented items back immediately. Try to ask for an extension, even if it's just a few hours.
No Price Ceiling
Does your contract say that your vendor can charge fees for this and that without your consent and no offer a cap on how much this can happen? Yup, another major red flag. Don't be a victim of "Well, you signed the contract and I said I can add all of these services, so I did, and now you owe me an extra $2,000." At the very least, ensure your contract says the specific conditions under which additional fees may be charged and get them to write that they need your prior approval before adding them.
And last, we have what some lawyers love and others hate. Vague language in a contract is a gateway to legal non-performance, confusion, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and more. Some examples of vague language might be:
"and/or" - If you see this anywhere in a contract, ask the vendor to change it to either "and" OR "or". There is no room for "I'll do this and/or this."
"all of the logistics" - When I've looked at other planner's contracts, I've seen some that say they'll handle "all of the logistics". But what does that mean? You getting out of bed the morning of your wedding is one of the logistics of the wedding day. Will your planner give you a wakeup call? When your bridesmaids pack their suitcases and need to remember to bring specific earrings, that's one of the logistics. I've never met a planner who handles that. Be sure your vendors are specifically listing the details of their services and never lumping items into a vague easy-to-misinterpret category.
"some" - I've seen some contracts that say some things like, "Some guests will be allowed to..." or "Some items may be replaced with..." or "Some pieces are included..." If you see "some" anywhere in a contract, demand that the vendor replace it with a specified quantity. When you both agree that "Between 5 and 10 guests will have an opportunity to ride the pony each hour," you'll be much happier than if you had agreed to "some," and thought that meant about 50.
Need Help Reviewing Your Vendor Contracts?
We get it. This is pretty overwhelming stuff! And we don't like when people feel overwhelmed when planning their wedding. So we're happy to help and have a variety of options for couples looking for professional contract reviews before you give your John Hancock.
Just want your contracts reviewed? We provide this service a la carte for $45/hour. You can expect us to take about 15 minutes on each page you send our way as we search for red flags, hidden fees, problematic or vague clauses, review all the terms, and make suggestions for how you can negotiate a better contract.
If you're one of our Wedding Day Management clients, you get this a la carte service for a reduced rate of $35/hour.
Our Partial Wedding Planning clients can ask us to review their contracts as part of their 20 planning hours.
Our Full Wedding Planning clients receive unlimited vendor contract reviews as part of the package. We even negotiate for better terms directly with the vendor on your behalf. Whhhaaat?
Let us know how we can help at firstname.lastname@example.org!