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Disparate Arrangements for Pandemic-postponed Wedding Banquets Pay Heed to Contract Terms and Deposit Clauses to Avoid Loss
During the pandemic, social distancing measures such as the prohibition on group gatherings and "no dine-in" restriction after 6pm have completely overhauled our daily lives, and even postponed or cancelled many wedding banquets. To understand potential difficulties and consumer disputes encountered by soon-to-weds planning to host wedding banquets, the Consumer Council has conducted a mystery survey on 10 catering premises, enquiring into the payment details for a Chinese wedding dinner reception for 12 tables to be held in late 2021, and the contingency arrangements should it be affected by the pandemic. Despite the fact that all 10 surveyed venues claimed to allow making special arrangements in accordance to changes in the outbreak situation or the Government’s social distancing measures, and even offered “free” postponement, it was found that the premise of “free” did not mean the customer could enjoy the original privileges or menu price. Besides, there was considerable disparity in the number of postponements allowed, the earliest date to make a date change request, and the maximum postponement period between different catering premises. Consumers should enquire about the specific service details and request the trader to clearly stipulate it in the contract to avoid any mishaps.
Based on the complaint cases on “Wedding Services” received during the pandemic last year, the Council surveyed the service contracts of 10 catering premises and found that the contract terms and conditions provided by all the complainants did not stipulate the postponement arrangements under pandemic circumstances. The Council reminds consumers that uncertainties abound for weddings scheduled to be held during the pandemic. Once signed and confirmed by the consumer and the trader, the contract is binding. The consumer cannot unilaterally request a change to the signed contract and is obliged to pay the trader and hold the banquet on the set date, unless the contract clearly stipulates the contingency arrangements, or unless the banquet is confirmed to be unable to be held on the date stated in the contract. Moreover, traders should detail the related services in the contract, including postponement/cancellation terms, paid and outstanding payment arrangements should the wedding banquet be unable to take place as scheduled. Traders should also proactively communicate the details to safeguard consumer rights.
The mystery survey was conducted this January by Council staff posing as general customers to survey 10 catering premises. The enquiry was based on the pretext of a Chinese wedding dinner reception for 12 tables to be held on a weekend in November or December. The payment details, alternative arrangements and options provided by the traders were obtained for comparison. The Council also examined whether the wedding service contracts of the catering premises included applicable terms on how both parties should perform the contract if impacted by the pandemic.
In the survey, all catering premises expressed that the dinner banquet could enjoy “free” postponement in the event of a “no dine-in” restriction for the dinner session. However, the Council reminds consumers that the “free” postponement claimed by the premises simply meant that the postponement’s handling charges would be waived. It did not mean the customer is guaranteed the original privileges or the same menu price in case of price increase. 4 catering premises stated that the price and privileges after postponement would be subject to the postponed banquet date, and not only will the banquet price not be lowered, the customer might even need to pay the difference due to the increase in minimum catering charge and menu price. The remaining 6 catering premises gave a verbal promise that the price and privileges would remain unchanged if the banquet is postponed to within the “designated period”.
The “designated period” for “free” postponement offered by the 10 catering premises also varied. 4 premises allowed a shorter maximum postponement period of 2 or 3 months respectively; another 4 premises allowed postponement by half a year or 1 year; only 2 premises claimed to offer an unlimited period, but reminded the customer that the minimum charge and menu price were likely to increase after postponement, while the privileges and complimentary services might also differ. During the “designated period”, 2 premises only allowed postponement for 1 or 2 times, while the remaining 8 premises claimed to allow free postponement for unlimited times as long as the pandemic was the reason for postponement.
Anti-epidemic restrictions imposed on catering premises may be tightened or relaxed and may also affect the banquet’s dine-in arrangements. All catering premises would confirm the wedding banquet details with the customer ahead of the banquet date, as well as whether postponement is required. 8 premises could confirm 1 to 2 months before the banquet at the earliest, while 2 premises could only confirm 2 to 3 weeks in advance, which proved to be rather hasty for soon-to-weds. The survey found that if the banquet postponement request was initiated by the customer during the pandemic, 5 premises expressed they would not entertain the request, 1 premise stated the decision would be based on the situation, and only 4 premises could arrange for postponement in advance at their discretion, but a flat $6,000 charge or an administrative charge of 5% to 10% of the overall banquet expenses will be imposed respectively.
To meet the sudden changes in anti-epidemic restrictions, catering premises offered various arrangements in order to allow the banquets to be held on the scheduled date. For example, if the Government imposed dining restrictions of half the dine-in capacity, 2 premises expressed that they could provide an extra banquet hall to accommodate the guests, while 2 premises could split the banquet into different sessions, allowing guests to dine in at different time slots of the same day. If a maximum of 20 persons is allowed at a wedding reception, 1 premise could divide the venue into sections for 20 guests each, using partitions, and the staff would escort the newly-weds to meet and greet their guests in the different sections. In the scenario where no more than 6 people are allowed at each table, 8 premises could still arrange for 12 people to be seated at a table by dividing it down the middle with a clear plastic partition, with 6 people per side. If the restrictions are tightened to only groups of 2 or 4 people, 8 premises could provide square tables for 2 or 4 guests each in accordance with the regulations. However, the Council reminds consumers to ascertain whether such arrangements to steer around the prohibition on group gatherings are legally sound before accepting. In case of doubt, the customer should consult with the District Environmental Hygiene Office of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.
In the event that the special seating arrangements could not accommodate the number of guests stipulated in the contract, or if guest attendance is insufficient, only 1 catering premise could waive the minimum dining charge clause and charge by table instead; 7 premises allowed holding over of the unused food budget for up to 3 months to 1 year; 2 premises did not provide any special arrangements or exemptions for customers choosing to hold the banquet as scheduled, and hence, only suggested customers affected by the dining restrictions to postpone the banquet.
However, the Council reviewed the complaint cases received in 2020 during the pandemic as well as the wedding service contracts from the 10 aforementioned catering premises provided by the complainants. It was found that the arrangements for wedding banquet postponements were not set forth in the contract terms. All the information acquired during the survey were only verbal promises made by the staff.
On inspecting the wedding service contracts, the Council found that various clauses proved unfavourable for consumers. For example, 8 contracts stated “no refund in any circumstances” without clear indication of how the customer’s paid portion would be handled in the event that the catering premise could not perform the contract; 6 contracts did not include applicable terms on both parties’ responsibility in performing or terminating the contract in the event that the trader could not fulfil the contract due to unforeseeable or uncontrollable factors. Although the 4 remaining premises set forth force majeure terms, parts of the clauses posed clear disadvantage to the consumer, such as, the trader had the right to unilaterally terminate a contract that could not be fulfilled, or reserved the right to the final decision for providing services, in which circumstances not only will refund not be made, the customers could not file a compensation claim. Another example was that traders could unilaterally reschedule the banquet date and arrangements without the customer’s consent.
Despite the fact that all the wedding service contracts stipulated the number of banquet tables, selected menu, minimum dining charge and payment date, they did not set forth the proposed contingency solutions in case the banquet format or number of tables could not be provided as stated in the contract. In theory, should the trader be unable to perform the contract during the pandemic, it is a breach of the contract and affected customers could file a compensation claim to the trader. On the other hand, all the contracts did not grant customers the right to change the contract, amongst which 3 premises even stated that the customers could not unilaterally terminate the contract. Should the customer opt to terminate, all contracts stated that the trader reserved the right to pursue the customer for the full payment and/or all losses incurred to the trader.
The contracts of all the surveyed catering premises stated that the customer would have their deposit forfeited and even be liable for compensation claims should they request for termination of contract. Therefore, consumers should pay heed to the following when engaging wedding banquet services:
- Understand the service terms and conditions carefully and thoroughly before signing the contract. Retain all relevant records and important information such as promotional flyers, quotations, contracts or receipts, to be used as evidence and for follow-up in case of future disputes;
- Request the trader to set forth all verbal promises in written form on the contract, and request all future phone and text communications with the staff be reconfirmed in form of an official company email;
- Should the catering premise and customer mutually agree to postpone the wedding banquet, the better practice is to set up a new contract which clearly states the payment schedule after postponement, as well as the arrangements in the event that the banquet is once again affected by the pandemic;
If the customer fails to reach a consensus with the trader regarding the banquet arrangements and resorts to legal action to seek compensation from the trader, litigations for claimed values over $75,000 must be heard by the District Court, which incurs heftier legal costs, expenses and lawyer's fee. Hence if situation allows, consumers are advised against paying deposits of over $75,000. This also reduces financial loss in the event that the catering premise shuts down before the banquet date.
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