Sometimes the bride, or the groom, has second thoughts and cancels at the last minute, as golfer Rory McIllroy did recently, shortly after invitations to his impending marriage to tennis player Caroline Wozniacki were sent out.

Pretoria - Couples planning a wedding and honeymoon seldom contemplate what will happen if, for some reason, they don’t get married as planned, or at all. But as my inbox – and apparently that of the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman as well – proves, wedding cancellations are common.

Sometimes the bride, or the groom, has second thoughts and cancels at the last minute, as golfer Rory McIlroy did recently, shortly after invitations to his impending marriage to tennis player Caroline Wozniacki were sent out.

More often, illness, death, or financial problems lead to a wedding being called off or postponed.

And that’s when, for the first time, the couple discovers what the venue, the honeymoon accommodation, the caterer or wedding photographer had in mind when they asked for the payment of a deposit.

About 190 000 couples tie the knot in South Africa every year, and the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman Neville Melville estimates that between 10 percent and 15 percent of weddings don’t go ahead as originally planned.

“The cancellation of a wedding creates problems not only for the wedding venue management, but also the party that made the booking. “For vendors in the wedding business, damages from a cancellation can range from losses on food that spoils, to alteration costs on gowns, to lost revenue opportunities.

“By holding a date open for a wedding, vendors may have to turn down other jobs on that date. And by the time the contract between consumer and supplier is concluded, the vendor may have spent a considerable amount of work on the event.”

On the other hand, Melville said, “the booking party may feel it is their right to receive back their money for which they perceive they have received little or no value.

“It’s necessary to find a fair balance between the competing interests of the venue and of the booking party,” says Melville. “The idea should be compensation, not punishment of the couple.”

The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) provides guidelines for suppliers in terms of cancellation policies and gives consumers the right to cancel an agreement under a limited set of circumstances.

Essentially, consumers have the right to a return of their deposit, less a “reasonable” charge for cancellation.

“Reasonable” is open to interpretation. Both the soon-to-be-wedded and the service providers should be clear on the terms of the refund of that deposit, in order to avoid nasty surprises and disputes, should the wedding be called of.

A survey conducted by the ombud showed cancellation penalties of wedding suppliers in South Africa ranged from 15 percent to 100 percent of the deposit paid, depending on the nature of the goods or services that were reserved or booked, the length of notice they were given by the consumer and the reasonable potential that they could find an alternative booking.

And here’s something to remember – according to the CPA, suppliers can be asked to show what their direct losses and costs were because of the cancellation, including time spent with the couple, an apportionment of the costs of marketing and administrative costs.

“It can be particularly difficult for vendors to prove monetary loss for missed opportunity, but they need to show how they calculated a fair charge for their losses.”

Ultimately, the higher the chances of the venue being able to find a booking to replace the cancelled one, the bigger the refund should be.

“The prospects of the venue being able to rebook are better if it is a multi-purpose venue or a popular time such as November or December.

“In contrast, it is unlikely to be possible to offload a winter wedding in a remote location,” Melville says.

Still, a surprising number of wedding venues, apparently stuck in a pre-CPA time warp, insist that deposits are non-refundable under any circumstances.

I spoke to the owner of one such venue in Muldersdrift this week following a reader’s complaint.

“He required a 30 percent deposit for a December wedding and said it was fully non-refundable even if reasonable notice is given,” she said.

When I called him, he claimed not to know that such a blanket policy has been illegal since the CPA came into effect more than three years ago.

Melville advises couples to compare not only prices of wedding venues and suppliers, but their cancellation policies, too.

“You can also consider taking out cancellation insurance,” says Melville.

“The upfront cost is minimal compared to what you may lose should your wedding not go according to plan.” - Pretoria News

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