Toronto·MARKETPLACE

Couple fights back against $25K wedding rebooking fee amid COVID-19 pandemic

Brides and grooms across Ontario are choosing to postpone or cancel their weddings in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and businesses are facing the pressure to accommodate those needs. But some venues aren’t as helpful as others, so experts are sharing tips on how to negotiate during these uncertain times.

GTA venue is now changing its policy to accommodate some clients

When Mandy Duong and Jonathan Pham got engaged, they never expected a worldwide pandemic would turn their wedding plans upside down. (The Mariner Agency)

When the height of the pandemic hit, Torontonians Mandy Duong and Jonathan Pham knew they would have to postpone their wedding. What they didn't know is that it could have cost them nearly $25,000. 

Brides and grooms across Ontario are choosing to postpone or cancel their weddings, and businesses are facing the pressure to accommodate those needs. But some venues aren't as helpful as others.

Duong and Pham booked their wedding for July at their dream venue in King, Ont., at The Manor byPeterandPauls.com, a company owning 11 venues, three restaurants, and additional wedding services across the Greater Toronto Area. 

"We've been planning this for two years. I was planning our wedding before we were even engaged," Duong told CBC's Marketplace.

"I had always envisioned a summer wedding with an outdoor ceremony on a big, green grassy lawn in front of this little pond ... and this particular venue had a little wooden gazebo in front of [a] pond!"

Mandy Duong had always dreamed of an outdoor summer wedding by a lake. When she found The Manor byPeterandPauls.com, she thought it was the perfect venue. (The Manor Event Venue)

But when Pham was quarantined during a vacation in Israel after testing positive for COVID-19 at the beginning of March, the couple knew they would need to postpone their dream date. 

"I see first-hand as the pandemic is unfolding," said Pham through a video conference from the hospital where he was quarantined. 

"I'm younger so I had more milder symptoms, [but] my parents and relatives, a lot of them have underlying diseases ... They don't feel comfortable coming to our wedding."

"It's been a nerve wracking situation," said Duong, who is currently self-isolating and working in New York, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. "[Pham] was very sick, he had a high fever, had shivers and everything."

Pham was quarantined in Israel for over a month after testing positive for COVID-19. He says he ran out of clothes, so the doctors let him borrow scrubs. (Submitted by Jonathan Pham)

So, from more than 9,000 kilometres apart, Duong and Pham reached out to their venue to hear their options for postponing their date. But what they heard was unsettling.

The venue was allowing couples to postpone weddings, for no extra fee, until March 2021. But Pham and Duong say they paid a premium for a summer date, a premium that the venue was initially unwilling to refund. 

The couple got engaged where they first reconnected years after high school: at their local GO station. (Dhruv Dave)

"Although a winter wedding or a fall wedding would have applied at a lesser rate, in our efforts to void all postponement fees, the conditions of our offer do not include revising guest counts and rates," the venue stated in an email to the couple, shared with Marketplace. 

"Our willingness to offer future dates and lose future business is very commendable as a company."

To keep a summer date and postpone the wedding after March 2021, the venue said that even though they have summer dates available, the couple would have to cancel their initial booking and rebook. A process that would cost around $25,000.

That cost includes 60 per cent of their total wedding cost with the venue, plus a $2,500 administration fee, plus tax. 

"At this point they had not performed any service at all for us," said Duong.

"I mean, this is a huge corporation ... and we're like two little potatoes in the big wide world," she said 

Pham was quarantined for over a month in Israel, where he had travelled in early March, after testing positive for COVID-19. In early April, he was fully recovered and able to return home. (Submitted by Mandy Duong)

"All of our vendors, [when] we reached out to them, they've all basically thrown their contract out the window and said, 'You know, don't worry about it, we will allow you to postpone to any date in the future as long as we're available, with no additional fees.'

"We just don't understand why the venue can't be a little bit more empathetic and understanding of the situation at the moment."

Negotiating with wedding venues is "uncharted territory," consumer rights advocate Ellen Roseman says.

"There may be a lot of couples who are really changing their wedding plans, and it might be harder for these venues to book," she said. "They should be glad to have someone who is a loyal customer, who's willing to accept some changes, but doesn't want to pay penalties to make the changes."

Consumer affairs advocate Ellen Roseman says negotiating with wedding venues is uncharted territory, and suggests establishing a personal connection with the company to negotiate the best deal. (Submitted by Ellen Roseman)

Roseman has seen couples around wedding season make compromises with businesses, such as postponing for a later date, and businesses offering a refund if that date is unavailable. She's even seen an uptick in virtual weddings.

For couples negotiating with venues and vendors around their big day, Roseman suggests establishing a personal connection with the company.

"Keep calling until you feel that the person on the other end of the phone has some rapport with you ... Ask them how their day is going, what it's like being in business right now ... Strike up a conversation." 

Roseman reminds customers that businesses are struggling too. 

"Companies are sensitive to customers on a one-on-one basis, so try and approach them that way and say, 'Look, I'm looking for help. I know this isn't your policy but I'm hoping that in my case you might consider it because of my challenges that I'm facing right now.'"

Just days after Marketplace reached out to The Manor Event Venue inquiring about their policies amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple received an email saying that the venue has changed their policy, and is allowing them to postpone their wedding until June 2021 without any financial penalty. 

"We look forward to fulfilling their dream wedding in 2021," said the venue.

"We remain committed to working closely with our clients to navigate through these unprecedented times with the utmost care and consideration."

The venue said they are extending this policy to all couples with an early July wedding date, and will continue to adjust their policies as the situation progresses.

The venue also said that new government restrictions played a role in its policy change.

Another silver lining is that Pham has recovered from the virus and has flown home. Now, he's giving blood for plasma and antibodies research. 

"It feels great to be home and to be able to help out with plasma donations. But the real admiration is for the health-care workers who are putting themselves at risk by collecting blood samples from coronavirus patients all over town."

 

An earlier version of this article said that the venue was offering postponements into the summer of 2021 for all July 2020 clients. The article has been updated to reflect that at the time of publishing, postponements are only being offered for clients who had booked their wedding within the first two weeks of July.

About the Author

Jenny Cowley is an investigative journalist in Toronto. She has previously reported for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at Jenny.cowley@cbc.ca.

With files from Jeremy McDonald

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