Jesse Jones

Covid-19 restrictions wreak wedding chaos for Washington couples

When Jack Sorensen asked Ali Schultz for her hand in marriage, it was followed with a resounding yes! They started planning their dream wedding - and booked their big day at the 162-acre Saltwater Farms in Friday Harbor.

“We can all stay in one place, eat together, sleep together and just have a full weekend of a party,” says Jack.

But now the couple is lawyering up. Not for a pre-nup, but to deal with their venue.

“I can’t get my head around hiring a lawyer to try to get married,” says Jack.

Jack and Ali paid about $16,000 - the high summer rate- for a June weekend ceremony, which included on-site accommodations for guests. However, due to COVID-19, they rescheduled the wedding. But when the couple asked for a similar date and rate in 2021, the venue balked. So they tried for this year.

“Then they offered the Fourth of July weekend, but they asked for $5,000 more dollars to postpone to Fourth of July of this year,” says Jack.

The couple declined that offer.

This is what Saltwater Farms' lawyer says about replacement dates:

“Saltwater Farm depends for its business survival on the revenue it will derive from booking the very limited supply of peak weekend dates in 2021 to new renters, and that constrains its ability to reschedule 2020 events to peak weekends in 2021.”

“We paid you $16,000 for a summer weekend. Coming back to us with ‘how about this Tuesday, or this winter weekend?’ - it’s just not right,” says Ali.

The couple wanted to cancel to keep guests safe. But the clause in the contract regarding cancellations based on safety issues can only be triggered by the owner.

“The contract was drafted by the venue’s lawyer and it’s definitely designed to favor the venue,” says UW Law Professor Jane Winn, who reviewed the contract.

Her take?

“Yes, because of the pandemic nobody gets what they want,” she says.

For example, Jack and Ali signed up for a ceremony later in the summer, but as the date approached the couple worried that the wedding wouldn’t meet government COVID-19 guidelines.

The venue’s lawyer said the event could have been held, but all 150 guests would have to be spread into small groups across all 162 acres of the property.

Jack and Ali didn’t want to risk any more changes to restrictions, so they cancelled and now want a refund. But all the venue is offering is $3,000 of the $16,000 they paid.

“Every single term in that contract is written from the point of view of the venue. If some of those were two sided, if they were balanced, that would be a better deal for consumers,” says Professor Winn.

The owners of Saltwater Farms offered numerous positive consumer reviews of their venue but declined an on camera interview saying:

“... We are truly at a loss to understand why we have not reached an agreeable resolution in this one case.”

Ultimately, Saltwater farm offered Ali and Jack a 50 percent refund if they took down social media posts and promised to stop making disparaging comments about the venue.

The couples' response appears to be this interview.

“Postponing due to Covid is not a problem for us. That’s the right thing to do. Keeping our money and not giving us a fair postponement date isn’t right,” says Ali.

And Ali and Jack are not alone. We’ve also heard from two other couples who tell me they have similar issues with Saltwater Farm.

The owners say they are trying to find solutions for those couples too.

For future couples planning a wedding, Professor Winn says the key to a fair contract is to see who bears most of the financial risk if something goes wrong. And if you are spending thousands upfront, you may want to get a lawyer to look at your contract before you sign the deal.

Here are some more tips for planning events and signing a contract during the Covid-19 pandemic:

Look for the cancellation clause.

Does the contract spell out when you can cancel and get money back, or reschedule without penalty? Will you be able to get a full refund? Or will the venue keep a nonrefundable deposit?

Whose problem is it if something completely unexpected happens?

If something completely unexpected happens, is it always the consumer’s problem, or does the venue owner share some of the risk? Did the venue owner try to strike a fair balance?

Red flag: could you be on the hook for more than your deposit?

Look at how much you will owe the venue if you need to get out of the contract. Is there any chance you might end up owing the venue more than just your deposit? More than the total cost of the event? Don’t sign a contract that would make you liable for more than you would have owed if you’d actually gone through with the contract.

Are there provisions in the contract for Covid-19-related government restrictions?

If you’re planning an event now, this is especially important. In the event the government tightens restrictions on gatherings because of a Covid-19 resurgence, will the venue work with you to change the date of the event? Will you get an equivalent date, or will you sacrifice something? If there’s a mismatch between what the representative is telling you and what’s written in the contract, you should expect to be held to the words of the contract.

What’s in the contract’s “force majeure” clause?

A contract may have a provision that says what happens if something extraordinarily terrible happens like a volcanic eruption or tsunami. These are known as “force majeure” clauses. Read the clause to what triggers it (War? Earthquake? Note: it might not be triggered by Covid-19). If that happens, what are you on the hook for? Would you get back any deposit you paid or not?

Consider context - not just the contract.

Have a face-to-face conversation with the venue operator. Ask direct questions about the contract, and cancellation policies. For example, if there is an earthquake and the venue can’t provide services, how will the situation be handled? Would we have the right to choose between a refund and a new date? Can you point me to the place in the contract where this is spelled out?

Asking hard questions in an in-person meeting and watching how the venue operator reacts gives you a chance to decide whether this is someone you want to have a business relationship with.

Know the people you’re working with.

The more niche the venue - or business - the more risk you might be taking. A big national hotel chain might have a more diversified business model and more resources to weather a temporary downturn. A big hotel may be less charming but in a better position to find a solution when something unexpected arises. A niche business may find it harder to adjust in the face of problems that neither you nor the venue anticipated.

It’s also important to check how long has the venue operator been in business, and how satisfied its customers have been. The risk that a startup venture might fail before your event and leave you stranded will often be higher than the risk that a big national hotel chain might fail and leave you stranded.

If the venue operator is trying to be fair, then think about whether you are being fair.

If it seems to you like the venue operator is trying to be as accommodating as they can afford to be under the circumstances, it might make more sense to negotiate your own deal. If you hire a lawyer, there’s a risk that you’ll end up with no more than what the operator was willing to offer you when you didn’t have a lawyer but you’ll have to deduct the lawyer’s fees from whatever you get.

If a customer starts threatening to sue, the venue operator may feel they have no choice but to file for bankruptcy to make sure the pain is shared equally among all its disappointed customers.

Remember - risk is everywhere. You can’t avoid it, but you can plan for it.

Never commit to spending more money than you can afford to lose. Life is full of surprises and unexpected risks may be lurking just around the corner. Whether it’s a global pandemic, an earthquake, or just a family emergency, there’s always a risk that something truly terrible and unexpected may happen at the most inconvenient possible time.

A fair contract creates a framework within which consumers and businesses can work together most of the time, but nothing can protect you from all the nasty surprises life may send your way.

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