No wedding bliss in financial fall-out

Few consumers focus on the “what if” of a happy event not happening; a holiday being called off due to illness or work commitments or a wedding being cancelled.

And because they’re so focused only on warm fuzzies of the much-anticipated event, they don’t look for or discuss the “out” clause in the contracts they enter into with airlines, hotels, wedding venues, photographers, caterers and the like.

Particularly when it comes to weddings, devoting time and energy to the awful prospect of the happy day not happening may seem negative or a bit of a jinx.

The reality is that 10 to 15% of weddings don’t go ahead, either on the original date planned, or at all – that’s the estimate which the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman (CGSO) came up with a few years ago on crunching the numbers.

Suffice to say there’s a lot of wedding-related booking cancellations happening – not a week goes by without me receiving at least one e-mail from someone who is grappling with the financial fall-out of cancelling with a service provider.

The reasons they cancel vary from a close relative falling ill to the couple realising they can’t have the wedding of their dreams or one of them deciding against getting married at all.

Others don’t call off their wedding, but have second thoughts on the venue or their original choice of photographer or wedding planner.

And that’s when, for the first time, they discover what the service provider had in mind when they asked for the payment of a deposit.

In many cases, they’re told “the deposit is non-refundable”, or “we’ll only refund, minus a handling fee, if we get another booking for that day”.

Sometimes that’s included in the contract but often it’s not.

Michelle Robb’s case is one of the more extreme examples of a dysfunctional deposit I’ve come across.

On January 28 she made an August booking with Jo’burg wedding venue Makiti, paying a deposit of R3000.

Just two days later, she contacted the venue to say that the wedding had to be postponed as a close family member living abroad had revealed they couldn’t make the trip this year.

“I expected to get my deposit back in full, but I was told that it’s a non-refundable deposit, and that I’d agreed to the terms and conditions when paying the deposit.

“We didn’t sign a thing and the terms and conditions were not discussed,” Robb said.

“Why should I settle for moving the date to next year?” Robb asked In Your Corner.

And the Consumer Protection Act works for her, as it makes blanket “non-refundable deposit” policies illegal.

Consumers can cancel an advance booking of any kind and get a refund of what they’ve paid, minus a “reasonable” cancellation fee.

Given that “reasonable” is open to interpretation, the supplier should spell out their policy in detail to whoever is paying – in writing, in the form of a sliding scale of refunds, from 100% to zero.

And vendors, such as wedding venues, must prove monetary loss for missed opportunity, according to the Ombud. It can’t be a thumb-suck.

They need to show how they calculated what they are charging for their losses.

Essentially, the greater the likelihood of the venue being able to find a booking to replace the cancelled one, the bigger the refund should be.

To put it in legal-speak, there needs to be a fair balance between the competing interests of the venue and of the booking party.

So clearly in Robb’s case – the cancellation of a wedding booking just two days after it was made, for a date eight months away – there would no justification for withholding any of that deposit.

I put that to the venue and got a short and to-the-point response from venue manager Annemarie Gomes.

“We had a meeting ... the refund will be done.”

One hopes a revision of the blanket non-refundable deposit policy will also be done.

WHAT TO DO

Always, always ask the “what if we cancel” question when making an advance booking and paying a deposit. And ensure that the refund policy is spelt out in detail, to protect both parties.

You can also take out cancellation insurance – the upfront cost is minimal compared to what you may lose should your wedding not go according to plan.

But as always, read the small print: the policy may cover wedding cancellation due to illness, death or venue closure, but probably not change-of-heart cancellations.

The CGSO mediates disputes between consumers and suppliers of consumer goods.

It’s a free service. Sharecall: 0860-000-272 (CPA) or e-mail: info@cgso.org.za

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