While this can seem like a total catastrophe, it doesn’t have to be! If backup provisions are discussed ahead of time and the terms are clearly laid out in your wedding contract, you’ll walk into any unexpected situation with a plan already in place. Read on for everything you need to know about how to handle a last-minute vendor cancellation, including advice from the experts on how to protect yourself in a contract, tips for finding last-minute replacements, and when you’re entitled to a refund.
Meet the Expert
• Nicholas Sandercock is a licensed attorney with Gross McGinley LLP in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He launched the firm’s wedding law practice, which provides contract law services to couples and vendors.
• Regina D. Brooks is the owner of and lead event producer with Régine Danielle Events. Based in Chicago, she also holds a J.D. from the Howard University School of Law.
• Jessica Manns is the owner and principal photographer of Jess Manns Photography. She is based in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
How to Protect Yourself in Advance
Discuss a Backup Plan
While no one likes to think about worst-case scenarios, it’s important to discuss these early on—ideally in your initial consultation with each vendor. Ask what would happen if they needed to pull out of the day, how much advance notice they would provide, if and how they would secure replacement services, and the circumstances under which they would refund any or all of your payments.
“Ask about this before signing a contract,” says event planner Regina D. Brooks. “It’s important for couples to know what would happen, for example, if a vendor got COVID.” For her part, Brooks includes a clause in her contract specifically naming two options for alternate planners should a need arise, and she also stipulates the conditions that might constitute the need for an emergency replacement. This, she notes, has been especially important when it comes to family planning, and she does include pregnancy in this section.
Whatever the backup plan may be, make sure the terms are clearly stated, in as much detail as possible, in your contract. That way there will be no question of what will happen should a last-minute cancellation arise.
Know You Can Negotiate
Even if your vendor does present a backup plan, you don’t have to accept it as is. Not a fan of their suggested alternative? Request more options, or request the option to reject their choice of substitution should the need for one arise. Feeling like they aren’t doing enough to ensure you’re taken care of in the event of a cancellation? Ask for a larger refund. In the majority of business transactions, contracts are a back and forth process, and the terms aren’t binding until both parties have signed on the dotted line.
Consult a Contracts Lawyer
While your wedding planner may wear many hats, if they are not also a legal professional, they cannot legally advise you on the terms of a wedding contract. If you’re having trouble parsing the language, or feeling that the terms aren’t just, consult a contracts attorney—ideally someone from a firm with both transactional and litigation arms. (This means they’ll not only be able to help you craft revisions to the contract, they can also defend the terms in court.)
“My clients often see a contract as protecting a vendor or a venue, but in reality it should protect them as well,” says attorney Nicholas Sandercock.
Contract law varies by state, and what may be upheld in a court in California won’t necessarily be considered valid in a court in Pennsylvania. For this reason, Sandercock suggests consulting a lawyer barred in the state where your wedding will take place, as that is likely where a lawsuit arising from the event would need to be settled.
Things to Keep in Mind When Signing a Vendor Contract
When it comes to last-minute cancellations, there are three main clauses to look for:
This is likely where the details of your vendor’s backup plan, otherwise known as substitute services, will be listed. That said, it may also grant your vendor the ability to change things about your event, so read carefully. “What power does the vendor or venue have to substitute the food, the entertainment, or to even substitute the date or facility itself?” warns Sandercock. “I’ve had clients show up to their venue because they’re told that their wedding will go on, only to get there and find that the doors are actually locked, and there’s a tent set up next door.”
The more specific the language of a substitution clause can be, the better. “If it’s not there, ask for something to be put in,” Sandercock continues. If the requested menu items aren’t available, what’s the process for picking new menu items? If the back-up DJ is more expensive than the original DJ, who will cover the difference? These are the types of questions that warrant defined answers.
Force Majeure Clause
Otherwise known as an “Act of God” clause, this relieves the contract parties from performing their contractual obligations if they are prevented from doing so because of a larger-than-life, outside-of-their-control type event. Pre-COVID, this most typically meant hurricanes, tornadoes, or other natural disasters, but many wedding pros are now updating the language of this section to specifically include pandemics and government mandates resulting from pandemics as well. Reason being: some states follow very strict interpretations of this clause. If the specific type of “act of God” isn’t listed—and, pre-2020, a pandemic rarely was—it might not be upheld as a valid reason for a cancellation in court.
This section, which may also be titled Default Provisions, Dispute Resolution or Venue Resolution, lays out the terms of what a default, or failure to provide services, would look like. “If a vendor doesn’t do X,Y, and Z, that constitutes a default, and these are the remedies that the couple will be entitled to,” says Sandercock. (This is likely where you’ll find information about refunds and reimbursements.)
This section would also lay out what law is applicable to the contract, and as Sandercock goes on to explain, “where disputes would have to be brought, and whether that’s a certain court circuit or an arbitration-type setting.” In layman’s terms: You’ll consult this section to see where you could geographically bring a lawsuit against the vendor, and whether you’d have to first attempt to remedy the situation privately, or if you could go straight to court. If a location isn’t listed, it’s usually the state where the vendor’s business is located.
What to Do When a Wedding Vendor Cancels Last-Minute
Have Compassion and Practice Trust
“It’s important for couples to recognize the difference between small businesses and larger corporations,” says photographer Jessica Manns. While her services are often more personal, she explains, it also means she may have less resources at her disposal during a last minute-emergency. The good news: No matter the size of their business, nothing is more important to a wedding vendor than their reputation. If they want to protect that, they’ll work to ensure you’re also protected—even when the circumstances are less than ideal.
“At a wedding in the spring, I fell down a flight of concrete steps. I had a hairline fracture in one shin, a sprained ankle in my other leg, a sprained wrist, and a bruised tailbone,” says Mann. “For the following weekend's wedding, I was unable to go since I couldn't walk. Per my contract, my scheduled second photographer”—whom, Manns notes, she requires to be a full-time wedding photographer—“became the lead and one of my other photographer friends stepped in as the new second photographer. If I’m ever unable to find another second photographer because of a last-minute emergency, the couple would be refunded for the second photographer fee, but the good news is they still have a skilled photographer to cover their day.”
Consult Your Other Vendors
Working with a wedding planner? They’ll take point on securing a substitute. “I would never want my clients to make a vendor selection out of fear or desperation,” says Brooks. “As a planner, I’m a little more emotionally removed, which helps ensure a good fit.”
If a planner isn’t in the picture, Brooks suggests reaching out to a vendor with similar styles—maybe even someone you considered in your initial search. “If they aren’t available, they’ll likely have recommendations,” she says.
You can also tap into the rest of the team working on your wedding. A hair stylist will know makeup artists, a rental company will be well-versed in florists, and videographers will overlap with a network of photographers. Exploring their suggestions first will help ensure any replacements mesh well with the existing team.
Know You Can Forgo Certain Things Entirely
While a wedding won’t feel like a wedding without the caterer or band, the show can still go on sans other booked services. “All vendors are important,” says Brooks, “but for some of the ones that aren’t required for the day, such as a photo booth or late-night snack, your guests will never know that they did not happen.”
Adjust Timelines as Needed
As the world continues to ride a post-pandemic wedding surge, one of the regular problems events now face is staffing shortages, particularly in catering and set-up. “In these cases, it’s important that the venue allows extra time for load-in and strike,” says Brooks. “If something takes an hour with eight people, you’ll need twice as long with only four.”
If faced with a wait staff shortage, Brooks will also change the flow of the main event. “We may do stations at cocktail hour, which will allow some of the staff that was supposed to be on the floor passing trays to be in the back helping with the main meal, which is probably more important to the client. I’m probably also going to have to extend my time for dinner, and I might adjust my timeline with speeches and dances between courses so guests don’t feel the dead air.”
Can I Get My Money Back?
It depends—largely on the terms outlined in your contract, but not only on the terms outlined in your contract. While some vendors do require non-refundable deposits, this is largely to protect them in the event a client cancels. If they are the ones canceling on a client, the vendor may also opt to return the deposit. Or, if a photographer finds a substitute that charges $2,000 more, they might opt to cover that $2,000.
The terms of a vendor contract, especially if they are particularly punitive terms, also might not hold up in court. “Just because something’s in a contract, doesn’t mean it’s enforceable under Pennsylvania law,” Sandercock says of his home state. “Pennsylvania law, for example, does not allow for a cancellation policy that punishes someone for canceling. Something that says ‘if you cancel, no matter when you cancel, there’s a $10,000 penalty,’ typically wouldn’t be an enforceable cancellation provision.”