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I'm currently organizing my wedding and it seems as soon as you mention the W word to any restaurant or caterer etc. the price immediately double. I'm not even kidding either - I've even gone to a restaurant who had banquets on their website for like $35 and they told me those wouldn't be available for a wedding and that the wedding ones start from $60+.

Can someone explain from an economic supply/demand type point of view why it is like this?

In any other situation, you would think it should be less per head to cater for a wedding than to just go to a restaurant. For one, there's massive economies of scale. I've been to weddings where it's a two/ three course meal with alternative dishes - so basically, they need to just cook two meals.

As opposed to if I just went to the restaurant, they would need to cook whatever dish I picked from the menu even if they weren't making this dish for anyone else.

There's other savings like the fact they know in advance the food they need to serve which I assume would help them optimize their costs, reduce wastage. They also have the guarantee that the restaurant will be packed out (most likely with happy guests not shy of taking advantage of a free bar tab) and know in advance how much they will be getting.

So is it just that the restaurants know that most ppl MUST have a wedding and they know that every other restaurant will ask a high price and therefore they can do it? Sort of like a cartel that inflates the prices? I find that hard to believe as there's many, many restaurants out there - and the cartel would break up easily as soon as one or two of the restaurants start lowering their prices.

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    They know weddings will happen even if they jack up the price, you aren't going to postpone so they try to extract maximum. Then wedding arrangements and the ruckus created during and afterwards might be on their minds. – DumbCoder Jan 6 '13 at 10:51
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    Here's some advice, have absolutely no food at the wedding save a loaf of bread and some jam. Then announce that you gave $3000 in charity to feed hungry chidlren instead of spending it on the wedding. (Of course you actually give the charity you don't make up a story!) Start the revolution. – user7969 Jan 6 '13 at 17:05
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    In addition - the turnover is far faster for normal meals than for a wedding. In the time it would take to service the wedding party, the restaurant might serve 2 or 3 sets of customers. – JoeTaxpayer Jan 6 '13 at 18:12
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    @Raindrop - lol I'm sure though as soon as you mention it's a wedding, that loaf of bread will suddenly become special "wedding bread" and cost $25 per head. – Joe.E Jan 7 '13 at 5:42
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    The other factor is that almost all weddings happen on a Saturday, April-September - which means that in actual fact there is a lot of demand for wedding venues, and if you don't like their prices there will always be someone else willing to pay them. A really good way of cutting the cost is to hold your wedding during the week. You will suddenly find yourself being offered all sorts of discounts. – DJClayworth Jan 8 '13 at 16:51
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Weddings are a lot more work for service professionals than other events. The drive to get everything right for a once-in-a-lifetime-event takes means more meetings and pressure. For example, a florist describes the difference between a corporate event and a wedding in a Huff Post article.

A corporate event usually involves a couple phone calls and maybe a sample arrangement, she said. The florist then drops the arrangements off at the venue and their work is done.

“When a wedding comes around, it’s not that at all,” she said. “We explain to the client that we have multiple phone calls, in-person meetings and then sample meetings with an entire table set-up. We’ll have constant back-and-forth email exchanges, probably up to 40 or 50 times.”

Furthermore, there is variance in how intense the bride and groom are about getting every detail correct.

Almost all weddings are more work for the vendor than a corresponding business event. They are usually not 3x the work but usually at least 50% more work. However, every once in a while the vendor gets a really high-maintenance wedding that it is 10x the work (the "nightmare" client). This high-maintenance wedding has a wedding couple that is bickering, dueling parents, and super high emotions.

Because of the occasional "nightmare" wedding, vendors need to increase their prices for everyone so that the vast majority of people end up subsidizing the few high-maintenance ones. (source)

Wedding professionals can't identify the difference between reasonable couples, and impossible ones, so they have to charge higher prices for everyone.

Since couples do actually have lots of options on locations and vendors competing for their business, the more work explanation makes more sense than some sort of monolithic wedding-industry-cartel colluding to increase prices across the world.

Another plausible explanation does involve wedding vendors profiting. The idea is that demand for a specific venue or cake artist is inelastic, insensitive to price. Once a couple sees that beautiful red barn with fireflies and imagines all their friends and family drinking from mason jars there, they might no longer see other alternatives as good substitutes. They'll be less likely to balk at the price tag and go elsewhere. This New York Times article describes the problem:

Which brings us to the matter of those wedding-dream-board makers. Strong consumer preferences — about the flower type, bridesmaid dress, cake decorations, music style, whatever — mean less price sensitivity (what economists refer to as greater demand inelasticity). If the cocktail napkins must be blue, the happy couple will be willing to pay more for blue. So if there are enough brides out there with strong and specific preferences, who want their weddings to be the special day they always dreamed of, that’s going to push equilibrium prices higher, no matter how transparently they are displayed. In other words, the Bridezillas keep prices high for the rest of us.

This explanation also makes sense, even in a competitive environment. A venue owner would only lower his prices to help book more weddings. If most couples aren't booking primarily based on price, the venue owner is less likely to entice couples away from other venues with lower prices. This leads to higher equilibrium prices. Meanwhile other non-wedding events are hosted by people far more sensitive to price, so it makes sense to keep prices lower for them in order to keep the venue booked every day.

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    +1, this is the first reasonable explanation I've heard for why vendors charge more for weddings, other than "because they can". – Nuclear Wang Mar 18 at 14:59
  • Caterers, decent ones, do not charge more. Birthdays have vendors as well, and DJ's. A decent restaurant will NOT charge more for the type of event, only what the event entails. I know from firsthand experience. – paulj Mar 18 at 19:08
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There is the price they want and the price you pay. Everything is negotiable when its a service (always possible, but usually harder with actual "goods").

You should always haggle and price match your vendors. You can also try going to different vendors and not telling them its for a wedding and see if there really is a price difference. For example, call up a florist and say you need X, Y, and Z for a corporate banquet or for a special event for which you cannot give the details. If you then tell them its actually a wedding, and they blindly raise it without a good justification, move on.

That said, they jack up the price because they know most people will says "it's my wedding", "it's once in a lifetime", "it's MY special day", etc.... The same is true about diamonds, their price does not reflect the actual supply and demand ratio, just the perception that has been created. However, as mentioned in some of the comments above, the service provided at a wedding may be different or more involved than just a normal dinner

The more important issue is ensuring there are no back fees, no hidden fees, and you have well written, well reviewed contracts. For example, we know a couple whose caterer added a mandatory 20% gratuity, regardless of the service which was provided.

Most venues or restaurants will not be making the bar a lose-leader, but they will charge for other things.

You can also save money by buying used or looking on ebay for prices closer to wholesale for the product.

I think a good analogy to this is the Recent Time Magazine article on the price of healthcare - it costs a lot because its a small market and its harder to navigate, and most are not experienced shoppers in the area or don't have control over the individual item costs.

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as you mention the W word to any restaurant or caterer etc. the price immediately double

Many restaurants will either close doors to other customers during a wedding, or provide you with a dedicated room, so you're paying them for their lost benefit. They also may expect you to stay longer than random people having a meal, which again means they will serve less clients.

If you don't mind having other people around (and won't disturb them by wedding games, fireworks and the like) and you don't plan to stay for many hours, you absolutely don't have to mention the W word. That's what I did, and it worked out great.

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    The OP is asking about the increased price of food on a per-plate basis, even for catering jobs that aren't done at the restaurant. There will of course be a fee to rent out any space, which should cover the "lost benefit" of other people not being able to use the space. – Nuclear Wang Mar 18 at 17:54
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Firsthand knowledge, not all restaurants will jack up the price on the type of venue. Factors that affect cost, regardless of event type:

  1. Time and day
  2. Event length
  3. Prep work (table settings)
  4. Entertainment
  5. Drinks
  6. Party size

Drinks are important because most establishments may insist on open bar for weddings. i.e. Fixed price per person.

Time and day have been discussed. Ask for an afternoon instead of night. Event length. Try to limit to 4-5 hrs.

I disagree highly with other answers...firsthand knowledge with a great deal! Awesome venue, awesome food, awesome price.

If you are having an intimate wedding without entertainment, $30 + open bar will push it to $50 pp. The open bar is the big ticket.

Also had detailed honest conversation with larger establishment. A catering hall will require so much just to open the doors. So if your party is small, that cost will be higher per person.

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