Couples across the UK are struggling to obtain refunds or suitable postponement dates for their weddings because of the measures taken to combat COVID-19.
The government imposed a ban on weddings on 23 March as part of the coronavirus lockdown.
Since then, Which? has spoken to 25 couples and found that a number of venues were flouting the official rules and guidance on refunds.
The couples have faced difficulties with their venues when it came to the cancellation or postponement of their wedding dates.
- 20 told us their venue has refused refunds or has made refunds difficult to obtain.
- 20 told us their venue has not offered like-for-like dates or has not offered to refund the difference in price for a cheaper postponed date.
- 17 told us their venue has charged a fee to cancel or rebook.
- 15 told us their venue has introduced new terms and conditions.
Some couples have now been fully refunded, or have rearranged to a suitable date, but only after weeks of back and forth negotiation.
Here, Which? looks in detail at the problems couples looking forward to their big day have faced since lockdown was enforced and explains your rights are if you’re in a similar situation.
In this story…
- Refused refunds and sky-high cancellation fees
- Finding a new date: like-for-like dates prove unlikely
- Gift cards and ‘non-refundable’ bookings
- Some venues try to impose new terms and conditions
- How to get a refund for a cancelled wedding
- Stay up to date with the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?
Refused refunds and sky-high cancellation fees
10 of the couples Which? spoke to are customers of the Bijou Weddings group, which operates four venues in the UK.
Bijou did contact some of the couples shortly before the government lockdown measures were announced, informing them that their weddings would not be taking place.
It was asking customers to pay an 80% cancellation fee of the total cost of their weddings. Despite the fact it was the venue itself that was cancelling.
In total, the 10 couples have paid more than £194,000 between them to Bijou and now fear they may never get this money back.
Bijou says much of this money will have already been paid to staff and third-party suppliers. It has instead asked couples to pay the 80% cancellation fee and claim for the loss against their wedding insurance policy.
Bijou said: ‘We did not cancel any weddings voluntarily – it was imposed on us – and this is exactly the situation for which wedding insurance exists.’
However, many insurance providers are not paying out.
One couple explained how they’re stuck between Bijou and Debenhams, their insurance provider, with both parties pointing the finger at each other.
The customer’s policy stated that claims could be made if the venue was unable to hold the wedding due to an outbreak of infectious or contagious disease.
However, when the customer tried to make a claim, Debenhams said they would only be covered if someone at the venue tested positive for coronavirus.
UK General, the distributor of Debenhams’ insurance policy, says a government-imposed lockdown was never intended to be part of the cover and advises people who have had their claims rejected to rebook with their venue.
- Your right to a refund If your wedding is unable to go ahead due to lockdown restrictions, you are entitled to a refund. It’s likely the venue can deduct money for any costs incurred preparing for your day.
- Wedding insurance If you’re thinking of taking out wedding insurance, make sure you’re clear on what the policy is offering, particularly in response to COVID-19 claims.
Like-for-like dates prove unlikely
One couple we spoke to, Beth and Marc, were planning an outdoor wedding ceremony, including camping for guests, to take place in May 2020 at The Tournerbury Woods Estate.
Following lockdown, the venue only allowed the couple to rebook without additional charges up until April 2021, but understandably Beth and Marc did not want to risk bad weather and were planning the wedding around Marc’s PhD deadline.
They were told that if they postponed beyond April they would forfeit their fee (the full cost of hiring the venue) and have to rebook again in full.
The venue has since offered the choice of a suitable date and a refund, but this comes after weeks of battling for a solution.
The Tournerbury Woods Estate told us: ‘We have used our best endeavours to try and accommodate each of the couples’ varying needs and requirements to help with postponing their big day.’
It said it has found a ‘fairly swift and workable solution’ for the majority of couples.
- Rebooking must be fair If you want to rebook with your venue, the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) guidance says that any restrictions that apply to rebooking must be fair. Make sure to ask for a reimbursement if you book a date that costs less.
Gift cards and ‘non-refundable’ bookings
Bride-to-be Shantelle told us that she is struggling to obtain a refund for the £3,000 she paid to Whittlebury Park, after her April wedding was cancelled.
The venue told us that if couples don’t wish to postpone their weddings, their booking fee and payment installments will be retained to cover the costs incurred preparing for the event.
However, Shantelle booked the venue for dry hire only and can’t understand what the hotel has spent her money on. She has asked for proof of their expenses on several occasions, but is yet to receive any.
The couple’s guests also booked to stay with the venue for the wedding, at an average rate of £125 per room, per night. The hotel is refusing to refund the guests, instead offering them gift cards that expire in December 2020.
The venue claims that the booking is non-refundable under any circumstances, despite the CMA stating it expects businesses to refund both non-refundable and advance payments.
The venue says its team is ‘working tirelessly to ensure weddings can be postponed to a mutually acceptable date at no additional cost to couples’.
The venue also claims that the wedding industry is ‘united in advising couples to postpone weddings, rather than cancel, not only to prevent personal financial loss and additional distress, but also to protect the suppliers and small businesses that make dream weddings possible’.
- Accommodation booked as part of the wedding If the hotel that’s hosting your wedding is closed due to lockdown restrictions, you’re due a refund. Any costs already incurred by the hotel can be deducted, but the costs have to be reasonable. Make sure you ask for proof of any payments made.
- Accommodation booked separately If you or your guests have booked accommodation separately, you’ll need to check what the company or website you booked with is offering. It’s worth reminding them of the CMA’s guidance around refunds for cancelled services.
Venues attempt to impose new terms and conditions
A number of couples told us their venues tried to introduce new terms and conditions in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which in itself could be a breach of consumer law.
‘The past eight weeks have been torturous’
Marcus Phayer and Georgina Clayton told Which? that they’ve been left bitterly disappointed after Bijou did not offer to refund the price difference having paid extra for a weekend wedding in June 2020 at their Botleys Mansion venue.
When they asked for a refund, in lieu of a suitable like-for-like date, Bijou insisted that the CMA’s guidance does not entitle customers to reimbursement.
The couple also claim Bijou tried to impose new terms and conditions on them.
The new contract terms, sent to us by another couple, appeared on its online wedding planner service and stated that couples could postpone to an equivalent later date if their wedding could not take place due to the coronavirus pandemic.
There was, however, no reference to a refund.
Bijou claims the contract was an unsigned, blank template, uploaded in a ‘linking error’. It says it removed the contract within a matter of minutes and that all contracts have stayed the same as when first signed.
Marcus and Georgina told us: ‘The past eight weeks have been torturous, with the venue now attempting to rewrite history saying they never cancelled our wedding, and that they ‘disagree’ with the CMA publication saying we are entitled to a refund.
‘Only now is it attempting (but still failing) to be reasonable and negotiate with us, but the damage has already been done. We would just like the money back that we have been told we are legally entitled to.’
Bijou has said that Sunday to Thursday dates are one of several options offered to couples, while also recognising that Friday and Saturday dates have limited availability.
Some of the new terms that were imposed on couples contradict the CMA’s guidance for businesses during the COVID-19 outbreak and could also potentially be seen as unfair, as it could reduce the customer’s right to a refund.
The CMA has said, in most cases, it expects businesses to:
- Refund customers who cancel services or are unable to receive services due to government public health measures.
- Refund customers where the business has cancelled the contract and not delivered the service.
- Refund customers for any non-refundable deposits or advance payments.
- Waive any admin fees for processing refunds.
Which? has shared information with the CMA on 12 wedding venues who may not be following its guidance and is calling on all venues to comply.
Adam French, Which? consumer rights expert, said: ‘We’re concerned there could be a serious, industry-wide issue with wedding venues ducking their legal responsibilities on refunds and cancellations by using potentially unfair terms and conditions
‘While many wedding venues might have been financially impacted by the coronavirus crisis, couples who are likely to be devastated at having to cancel their big day should not be forced to bear the cost.
‘The CMA is currently investigating this sector and must be ready to take firm action against venues found to be breaching consumer law so customers have some prospect of getting their money back.’
- Can my venue impose new terms and conditions? If your venue tries to impose new terms and conditions, you should check to see if there was a clause in your original contract that allows them to do so. If there isn’t, the new T&Cs can’t be imposed without your agreement.
- Are the new terms fair? If there is a clause allowing your venue to impose new terms, you need to consider whether the new terms are fair. If they significantly change the terms of the first contract or give the venue too much power, they could be challenged as unfair and unenforceable in court. Use our advice to spot an unfair term and make a complaint.
How to get a refund for a cancelled wedding
If you’re struggling to get a refund from your venue, here’s what you can do.
1. Know your rights
You have different rights depending on whether it was you or the venue who cancelled.
- If your venue or supplier cancels, you may be entitled to get the money back for what has been cancelled. Look at your contract to see what their cancellation terms are and if they’re fair. If the contract is ‘frustrated’ (eg your venue did not cancel, but explained it couldn’t fulfill your wedding due to reasons beyond its control) then you’re entitled to a refund, although the venue may deduct any costs already spent preparing for your day.
- If you cancel or postpone, you’ll need to try and come to an agreement on a postponement date. Your contract may say you have to pay cancellation fees, especially if you’ve cancelled at short notice. The CMA has said it expects businesses to refund customers regardless of who cancelled and you should report any venue that doesn’t comply.
Although deposits may be described as ‘non-refundable’, this doesn’t mean the venue can keep it if it cancels. If a venue or supplier keeps your money, point them towards the CMA’s guidance.
2. Check your terms and conditions carefully
Look carefully at the terms and conditions in your contract.
If any of the terms seem too heavily weighted in the venue’s favour, it could be argued that they are unfair and unenforceable.
You should look out for cancellation fees, rebooking restrictions and force majeure clauses that allow the venue to keep your payments you’ve made if it cancels or can’t provide the event.
For example, if you have booked your wedding at a dry-hire venue and they are charging a large cancellation fee, you might be able to contest this, as it’s unlikely they will have already spent all of that money preparing for your day.
If your venue has sent new T&Cs following the government’s ban on weddings, it may be the case that these terms are unenforceable, too, particularly if they limit your right to a refund.
Check whether your original contract allows the venue to make changes to its terms. If it doesn’t, the new terms can’t be enforced without your agreement. If it does, you could still challenge them as unenforceable if they give the venue too much power.
You can use our letter template for challenging terms and conditions if you feel that this is the case.
3. Make a claim with your bank
- If you paid by credit card, you may be able to make a Section 75 with your credit provider, though you can only do this if your contract has been breached (eg if the contract said you would get a refund if your booking is cancelled and the venue then refuses). A Section 75 claim won’t be possible if your contract is frustrated.
- If you paid by debit card you may be able to make a chargeback claim, which is where your bank attempts to claw back the money from the recipient.
4. Report your case to the CMA or financial ombudsman
Make sure you’re clear on the CMA’s guidance for businesses and consumers.
If you feel your venue is not acting in line with what they’ve said, you can report them to the CMA.
You can also make a complaint to the financial ombudsman if you’re unhappy with your insurance provider’s response.
You’ll want to collect as much evidence as possible, so be sure to keep a record of all your correspondence