Know What You Want, And Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For It

Never be afraid to ask "why?"

by Beth Haas

(Yes, is it completely appropriate to have Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” in your head while reading this post.)

While we were planning our wedding, my then-fiancé (now husband) did not do much of the planning (cut him a little slack, he’s finishing a PhD), but when I did turn to him to discuss something that had become a stumbling block his first question was always, “Why?” He’s getting that PhD in Engineering and he’s an experimentalist in all ways. His job is to ask “Why?” and then figure it out. I jumped head first into planning our wedding with the notion that, “This IS my first rodeo,” and all of these vendors have done this hundreds of times or more and I should trust their judgment. My husband jumps head first into everything as a skeptic and wants to figure out how it works. By the time our wedding day rolled around, I think we had found a happy medium between the two, knowing whom we could trust and what battles were worth fighting.

Our first surprise after booking our dream venue (a historic restored farmstead in the town where we fell in love) was when we were told that only one company was allowed to pitch the tents in the backyard. This wasn’t a recommended vendor (which was the impression we got); this was a required vendor. And a very-expensive-compared-to-other-local-options required vendor. And not the rental vendor that our caterer has been working with for years. So we asked, “Why?” and got vague answers and were basically told that as much as we pleaded, there was no budging on this issue. Fine. So we rented our tents from them, and then rented everything else (from the dance floor down to each knife and fork) from the less expensive vendor that our caterer preferred.

Our next surprise was when we were told that we needed to rent, to the tune of $2,000, a 45,000-watt generator to power everything under the main tent and under the cook tent. My husband said, “We can BUY a generator with enough power to do what we need to do for way less than $2,000.” When we asked why the generator needed to be so big, we were told that it was the smallest generator that they rented. The generator was intended to power the DJ and the lights under the big tent and any cooking equipment in the cook tent. This is when we really started firing the questions fast: Do you rent LED lights? How much power does the DJ need? Can we run one extension cord from the house, a mere fifty feet away, to power the DJ? If we can run the extension cord, can we rent the cord and trip covers? Will The Fire Marshall approve this? What kind of power does the caterer need? Do we need lights in the catering tent, too? Is there anything else we need to power with this stupid generator?

And most importantly, the question we asked ourselves: What are our other options to make this happen the way we want it to happen?

Turns out the rental company doesn’t rent LED lights—so we bought them at Target, twenty-six boxes of them, for less than our quote for renting regular incandescent lights. If you don’t know anything about LED lights, just know that they are CRAZY energy efficient and ALL twenty-six boxes of lights strung together used less power than one 100-Watt light bulb.

I asked the DJ what his power requirements were. The answer: “Less than a blow-dryer.” Okay, we all know blow-dryers can use some serious energy, but they can plug into a wall outlet, usually with no problem. After passing this info on to the venue, and begging to allow us to use one extension cord from the farmhouse, they checked with their electrician (it is a historic property) and they finally gave us permission to run one extension cord from the house, as long it was approved by The Fire Marshall. (We’ll get to The Fire Marshall in a minute.)

Turns out the caterer didn’t need any electricity in the cook tent because they usually use propane warming ovens. They use the power in the small kitchen in the house to make the hot water for coffee and tea (heating water takes a lot of energy). But they do need lights in the tent.

So once we knew what our power needs were, we investigated possible solutions that did not involve renting a $2,000 generator. Our total power need, after confirming that we could use power from the house for the DJ, was about 100 Watts to power the twenty-six boxes of LED lights. But, as I learned from my husband, the engineer, that’s 100 Watts for six hours—the length of the reception plus time for cleanup. I’ll leave out the mathematical details, but we determined that this amount of energy could be provided by two power packs.

So once we determined our eco-friendly, budget-friendly power source, we had to deal with the The Fire Marshall. The Tent Rental Woman insisted that none of our crazy plan was going to work: that The Fire Marshall was super-picky about what could be put into a tent, our LED lights wouldn’t be approved; we had to have EXIT signs with egress lighting for the tent and the cook tent, and they needed power; we needed to have two or three fire extinguishers for the size of our tent (40’x60′) and they had to be mounted on the center poles, right next to the dance floor, at a specified height; there needs to be egress for the servers, etc., etc., etc…. So many rules and regulations about having a tent that I had never heard of before, and frankly seemed ridiculous!

I decided to go straight to the source and call The Fire Marshall myself. Well, let me tell you, the woman at the front desk in The Fire Marshall’s office quickly and professionally explained what the rules were. We did need fire extinguishers for the reception tent, but only one was required, although two were recommended, and they absolutely did not need to be mounted on the center tent poles. Because of the small size of the cook tent, it would not be inspected at all (no fire extinguisher or EXIT sign or egress lighting required), although the propane would be inspected and needed a separate permit. If we wanted to have all four sides on our reception tent, then we would need two EXIT signs with egress lighting, but if we only had two sides on the tent, then we wouldn’t need them at all. We could have an extension cord from the house, but it needed to be outdoor grade and secured to the ground so that it wasn’t a trip hazard. We could use our LED lights, but it was preferable to have the rental company install them. Basically, she confirmed that the Tent Rental Woman was full of bullshit, and now I had words straight from the horse’s mouth to tell her what we wanted.

Armed with new information, I sent a firm email, with quotes directly from the Fire Marshall’s office, and we got what we wanted. We ended up purchasing our own fire extinguishers for about $25 each, (instead of renting them from The Tent Rental Woman for $40 each) and had them at the venue when the tent was delivered. They mounted them on the outside poles, as per our request. We had two sides on our tent so that we didn’t need to worry about EXIT signs and egress lighting. We used a camping lantern and some emergency LED flashlights to light the cook tent (our caterer said it was brighter than what they usually get with the rental company’s light). We rented an extension cord and ran it from the house to power the DJ and had U-shaped pegs that held it in the ground so that it wasn’t a trip hazard. We had the rental company install our lights for us. We used our two little power packs to keep our tent lit throughout the evening. And The Fire Marshall approved all of it, while noting that the fire extinguishers that the Tent Rental company installed were installed at the wrong height (take that Ms. Know-It-All-Tent-Rental-Woman!).

It turned out to be a windy, chilly day, and my mom is probably still convinced that we should have had four walls on the tent, but I was so happy that we got to see the vista of the farm as the sun set. We got tons of compliments on the lighting and the whole feel of the evening, and even though folks were a little chilly, we’re convinced that it got everyone on the dance floor, even if some of our guests were wearing their coats.

I’m so glad we pushed for what we wanted and made the day our own. And even though our vendors had done this hundreds of times before, they hadn’t done our wedding before. So know what you want and go for it. If one vendor won’t do it, find someone who will, or do it yourself. Know when to make peace with what is available and make it work as best as you can. And most of all, know when to ask “Why?”

Photo of Beth’s tent by Jennifer Cabral

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  • Lindsey d.

    This post just makes me glad that we are going with a venue that doesn’t require tents, fire marshals and the like…. Good for you for sticking up to what you thought was reasonable.

    • Copper

      ok, this might be a stupid question but, how does one know if they need fire marshals? When is a fire marshal’s approval necessary, and when can you just have your party and not bother with them?

      • One More Sara

        I am pretty sure if your wedding is in a building that is already up to code (hotels, restaurants, banquet halls, etc), you don’t need inspected. If you are erecting a structure/wedding tent, that is dependent on assembly, which can be screwed up. So, yeah, you want that inspected to make sure the rental company didn’t screw up and that you and your guests are safe.

        • Copper

          If you’re outdoors, but not setting up a tent…?

          • Rebecca

            If there’s not a structure that could catch on fire, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. The concern with tents is that it is a) a structure, b) with people in it, that c) would need to be able to get out safely in case of fire.

            The people getting out safely component is why there are maximum capacities for venues/ rooms. The number of doors, hallway widths, stairs, etc. are all sized for that capacity and how quickly the building is likely to burn in a fire, and exceeding those numbers is has the potential to be not good.

      • “If you’re outdoors, but not setting up a tent…?”

        Since I can’t reply to the actual comment below: I do believe that if you are outside and not using a tent then you would not need the fire marshal at all.

      • Beth Haas

        Our venue told us up front that any tents would be inspected by the town Fire Marshall, and that the fees associated with that were included in our rental fee for the property. So that’s another thing to consider – who is paying for the inspection if it is required? The tent rental company also needs to provide a statement saying that the tents are fire proof (or fire retardant) and the rental company has to be licensed to install the tents. We were happy to comply with all of this, as safety is obviously not something to skimp on, but it was a lot easier to comply with it once we knew what the rules actually were.

  • Karen

    Brilliant!!! What a great reminder to always ask “Why?”

  • H

    Gosh – this post makes me stressed out just reading it over finding a venue and planning those logistics. I’m so glad we went with a place that had everything included in the price, and that I didn’t have to coordinate or worry about any of this. Well done, Beth!

    • One More Sara

      I also went with an all-inclusive venue, but still found it important to question things. For example, floral centerpieces were included with our package (to which I said, meh.), and when I asked what we could get in exchange for the centerpieces, the planner told me that we could get 3 additional apps for cocktail hour. 5 apps (2 were included) were a little much right before dinner, so I asked if the extra 3 could come out after cake-cutting (YAY drunk snacks!). We did it, and those snacks were one of the things that people loved most about the food (at least they were what we heard the most about!). So maybe all-inclusive venues aren’t as logistic heavy, it’s still important to question things and think outside the box.

      • Agreed.

        We went with an all-inclusive place too, but we had a friend who wanted to bake our cake as a gift. A cake was included, so when I said I wanted to take that off our contract, we were able to get the expensive crab cake option as a substitute for no extra cost! My husband loves crab cakes, so it worked out really well.

      • Jacky

        We, too, found that our all-inclusive venue was willing to make substitutions and add/cut things from their packages. All we had to do was ask. For example, they were very willing to purchase a case of a beer we specially requested. And their packages all included a dessert buffet, which we didn’t think was necessary considering that there will also be an enormous cake. So we asked how much the dessert buffet costs, and if we could omit it, and saved some money there.

        We also got 5 appetizers as part of our catering package, and your story gave me the idea to ask if we could send a couple of them out after the cake cutting instead of before dinner! So, thanks! Seems like a great idea.

        • One More Sara

          YES! DO IT! seriously the best thing ever. Quick tip though- if you are going for a dance party wedding, the snacks will probably clear the floor for a few minutes (totally okay! they’ll come back!), so try to think of a song to play that will get everyone running back to the dance floor. We did The Wobble after the snack, and I pretty much danced for 15 seconds by myself (with the DJ) before people realized what was going on, but the floor filled right back up after those first 15 seconds!

          • Beth

            We had soft pretzels and cheese and mustard dip come out toward the end of the evening and everyone LOVED it. We also got married near Philly, so the pretzels made sense. But yes, everyone was very happy to see a snack toward the end of the evening. :)

          • Jacky

            Ah, tha’ts a good point– we are having a dance party, but we have a DJ, so I think as long as we keep him in the loop he’ll be able to think of something to get people back on the floor.

  • This post couldn’t come at a better time! I’m running into a lot of the same issues because the venue we are set on having it at hasn’t done a wedding ceremony, making us their first. Thank you for sharing your experience and words of been-there-done-that advice, it’s definitely appreciated!

    • Beth Haas

      Vanessa – We were only the 3rd or 4th wedding to happen at this venue, and there was a huge learning curve for everyone involved. If the venue is what you really want and you have the energy to possibly educate your vendor on different ways of doing things, I say go for it! It might be a hassle, but in the end it’s all worth it. Good Luck!

  • Brigid

    I think this article is also a great example of the wedding mark up and the great “but you HAVE to” lie. Good for you and your husband for asking all those questions!

  • Laura C

    Makes me glad we didn’t go with the place that involved renting a tent and everything separately. We’ll be in a tent, but a fixed tent operated by our venue.

    But on the general point of pushing for what we want, I hear that! Like, me: “we need to do a tasting before we sign a contract with a venue with an in-house caterer.” Caterer: “you can read reviews of us online if we can’t make a tasting happen.” Me: “I would never sign a contract committing me to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars with someone whose food I hadn’t tried.” Caterer: “I totally agree, but that’s what most people do.” We had the tasting. We decided the food was fine. We will negotiate the crap out of the menu, though, because we care about food.

    • MDBethann

      Agreed. We had our reception last year at a microbrewery/restaurant we both enjoy, so we knew the food and the beer were good going in or we wouldn’t have selected the venue (it certainly wasn’t the most scenic place on our list). However, before we settled on our menu, we definitely did a tasting because the catering menu was slightly different from the restaurant’s normal brew pub fare. And we also did a beer tasting so we could narrow down our choices – that was hard (at least for our families, who helped out on that!).

  • Amy March

    This post seems really down on the tent rental company to me, in a way that seems unfair. Their usual way of doing things sounds expensive and unnecessarily complicated for your needs, but probably suits lots of couples who don’t want to do all of your leg work just fine. But maybe I’m just stuck on it being exactly what you wanted, even though some of your guests needed coats.

    • M.

      “…..but probably suits lots of couples who don’t want to do all of your leg work just fine.” That’s sort of the point though, right? Know what YOU want and stand up and ask for it. In this case, it didn’t suit them. Beth’s story, while way more work than I’d ever do personally, is a great lesson in being able to question things that don’t feel right to you, and in standing up for what you want in the service of herding wily ducks. Infinitely applicable to weddings, relationships, life, etc.

      My personal way of relating to this was hashing out a no social media or blogs or names or faces online clause with our photographer. We didn’t have push back, but it felt amazing to get over being afraid of potential push-back and just articulate what we wanted. Also, we tried to see if our caterer’s insurance could replace our personal liability requirement. No dice, but we were definitely the first to ask and the venue considered it fairly. I felt so….investigative.

      Anticipatory fist bumps to anyone facing this coming up!

    • Laura C

      But it sounds like the tent rental company was using the fire marshal as an excuse for telling them they HAD to spend all kinds of money that it turns out they didn’t. Now maybe lots of people would be happy to spend the money in exchange for not doing so much work. But that doesn’t mean it’s right to tell them it’s a requirement not a choice.

      • Shiri

        My thoughts exactly. The tent rental company wasn’t saying “your guests will be cold, rent our generator”, it was expecting that they weren’t willing to do or interesting in doing the leg work necessary to not have to trust the company and spend the money.

        I, for one, think Beth and her husband are pretty amazing here, and super responsible consumers.

        • E

          Agreed! I find that, a lot of the time, expensive things are expensive because they’re lazier. If that suits you and you’re willing to pay for the convenience, go for it. But I think her questioning was totally warranted! It seems like they did a brilliant job getting exactly what they needed.

  • Jacquelyn

    Thank you for perspective!! We have just now been meeting with the venue we booked for our November wedding. And while overall, the exchange has been pleasant, they are wanting to charge $10 per guest over 200 when it is nowhere in our contract or mentioned in our tour. The only place it is listed is in one line on their website. Figuring out how to politely deal with this has taken way more energy then I want to give it….

    • J

      I would think that whatever your contract says is the beginning and end of this conversation…

  • grace b

    I got exhausted just reading this.

    Sometimes I think there is a fine line between asking ‘why?’ and just giving yourself and everyone else a headache.

    But thank you for being realistic about the complexities of the planning process.

    • KC

      There is a squashy grey area in there, I think. For many people, several thousand dollars is worth a decent amount of calling around/legwork (if it’s 10 total person-hours of calling around and legwork, then that works out to a hundred dollars per hour “pay” for a thousand dollars of savings?). For some people, they’d undergo the effort described to save hundreds of dollars, or even less.

      People get to the “throw money at the problem to make it go away” point at different tradeoff levels, and (especially given that some people have more money than others, and some people have more time/energy than others) I think that’s okay. Obviously, you need to have an awareness of who *else’s* time you’re spending, and consideration for that to some reasonable degree.

      (I also think that tolerance for throwing money at the problem tends to get crushed if you feel like you’re being lied to, as in the case of “fire marshall requires” vs. reality; this may have been mostly a miscommunication [as many places may mean “well, we have gotten this particular setup approved and don’t want to deal with getting a different setup approved”], but I know that I get itchy about even small amounts of money if I feel like someone is deliberately trying to cheat.)

  • Lauren

    Ah! This sounds so much like our venue (outside space, we bring in all lighting and “stuff” and we are the 3rd wedding ever at the location … so learning curve). My biggest concerns right now are (1) making sure we have enough power for everything that has to happen and (2) ensuring we have enough light. Do you mind sharing the calculations for power and also the info on the lights you bought?? (also, are you selling your lights? I would love to take them off your hands!)

    • Beth Haas

      Hi Lauren – These are the lights we used: They are a little more expensive now than when I bought them just under a year ago – but they went crazy on sale during the holidays (or maybe right after), so keep your eyes peeled. I actually went in and bought them all the week before the sale, when I saw that they were in stock, and then did a price adjustment when the sale was actually running. Where are you located? It would be a huge hassle to ship the lights, but if you’re close enough to pick them up, I might consider selling them. :)

      The calculations were done by my husband – I can chat with him and try and get you the details.

      • Lauren

        I’m in NY (upstate) and absolutely willing to drive a reasonable distance to pick them up. Our wedding is at the end of this month so I can’t wait for the Christmas sales (darn…also, a reason why we need to figure out this lighting situation quickly!). I would love to get the information re: power…feel free to email me directly at laurenlisa721 at gmail dot com.

        Also – how cold was it at night? That’s the other piece we’re currently dealing with (to rent heaters or not?)

  • Lindsey d.

    So this article was perfect timing… I took it and ran with it, negotiating a single digital image from my bridal portrait session for $40 instead of 100 images of me for $300. I don’t need 100 digital images of me in a dress!

  • I can just hear the disdain every time you type “Tent Rental Woman.” HILARIOUS!

    So happy you and your engineer were able to make your day come true!

  • Mezzanine

    One of the biggest vendor disputes we had was actually with the church – about where our bridal party would stand.

    Believe it or not, you can have very long and involved conversations about whether the bridal party should be on the platform or down two steps – and, clearly, down two steps is the only way it CAN be done, because it’s the only way it ever HAS been done, so the fact that my fiance and I wanted to have them on the platform with us meant that the world was ending because THIS JUST DOES NOT HAPPEN. They were seriously *baffled* at the thought of us having everyone on the platform with lots of flummoxed “But… how will they see you?” comments.

    My fiance and I, both coming from other churches where everyone-on-the-platform-together is common, assured them that it’d be okay. And indeed it was. But it really showed me how much vendors can get so used to everything being done in a certain way that they become convinced it’s the only possible way to do it.

    • KC

      That is *hilarious*. Pretty sure no safety codes would be at stake there. :-)

      In general, though, when one does things a way differently from how they’ve been done before, there’s an element of risk or the potential for unexpected strange things happening when all the elements come together (candles lighting unexpected things on fire, bridesmaids’ heels getting caught in electrical access cover hinges or on frayed carpet edging), and a lot of people are very risk-averse, especially with weddings. Some people go out of their way to try new things in certain domains and take the bumps and bruises as part of the experience… but if that’s not the way you roll with things or if you really just want everything to go smoothly, not to be an expanded experience, then yeah, everything-exactly-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it is kinda easier.

      But bridal-party-must-always-be-two-steps-down: hilarious. And also a great example of how calcified we can get.

    • Tuppet

      The Jewish bridesmate at our Catholic church wedding was convinced he couldn’t go anywhere near the altar, which included the whole area at the top of the steps. He likes to joke that he’s lucky he didn’t burst into flames just walking down the aisle. Sometimes leaving the bridal party at the bottom of the steps IS the way to go.

    • Elissa

      We’re having a bit of this with our venue. They’re not at all hostile to our ideas – just a little bewildered. Apparently no-one’s ever measured the room before (but how else can I make a diagram and plan a layout?). And the lack of a grand entry to the reception is doing the lady’s head in, also lack of head table, rejection of red carpet down the aisle, etc… :p I’m going to put quite a bit of effort into run sheets and setup diagrams to hopefully head off confusion on the day.

  • Samantha

    Totally needed this. Feeling bullied by our caterer/venue since making the deposit. So two-faced.

  • Sadly there are many businesses that force consumers to use a certain other business, or service, or other so called rules. One thing I abhor is supermarkets with sales as long as you buy a 1/2 ton of what is on sale. Sorry you had a bad experience for planning your wedding.

    • Beth Haas

      I wouldn’t say it was a bad experience. It was just more of a learning process than I had anticipated. I actually didn’t mind putting in the extra work, especially because it turned out the way we had hoped.