Contract Cancellations During COVID-19: How Are You Handling Them?
What do you do when all of your contracts for the year are canceled in a matter of weeks? Regardless of how well-drafted your contract is, do you consider damage to your reputation when you think about holding clients to dates and payment schedules?
Contracts for Personal Services Are, Well, Personal
Put simply, contracts are one thing, professional reputation is another. With everyone reeling from the economic fallout of COVID-19, wedding photographers are thinking twice before strictly enforcing cancellation and rescheduling clauses.
Let’s be clear, wedding photographers pay their bills and put food on their tables by shooting weddings. Like any business, they are entitled to be paid under the terms of the contracts that their clients chose to sign.
When it comes to rescheduling, most of the photographers that I talked with had terms in their contracts that would entitle them to charge a higher rate for weddings postponed into the next wedding season. The majority of photographers also had terms that would entitle them to claim that the contract was frustrated and keep the retainer if the couple wanted to reschedule beyond a certain date.
This may seem unfair to those outside the industry, but wedding photographers booked for a specific date stop taking inquiries for that date. Then, if the wedding is postponed to some other date in the future, the original date is left unfilled. Ultimately, the photographers lose out on the opportunity to make money on the original date, and they book the rescheduled date with an existing client instead of expanding their network with a new lead.
On the flip side, wedding photographers realize that they are providing a personal service. For most couples, choosing a wedding photographer isn’t strictly business.
These couples recognize that they will be spending more time with their photographer on one of the most important and emotional days of their lives than they will with some of their family and friends.
This pandemic has been stressful for many, if not most, of us. A few days at home sounds great for those that feel overworked, but a few weeks or months, without pay, without certainty, can be hard to deal with. Some of us are coping with the medical ramifications of the pandemic — seeing loved ones get sick or even die. Anyone negotiating contractual terms might want to take a moment to consider what those sitting across the table might be facing. Things certainly look bleak now, but a bit of flexibility will hopefully pay itself back with increased referrals — the lifeblood of any successful wedding photographer.
We’re trying to keep these things in mind when we communicate with our clients… There could be much more on their plate right now than just rescheduling their wedding.
— Jennifer Van Elk
Jeannemarie Photography (Hawaii)
Located in Hawaii, Jeanne Viggiano of Jeannemarie Photography shoots primarily destination weddings. Basically, her couples fly to paradise to get married. As a local, Viggiano has an inside track on the most beautiful locations.
In a time of restricted travel, however, this also means that Jeanne’s couples won’t be able to fly in.
Viggiano’s contract contains cancellation, rescheduling, and due care clauses:
Cancellation. If for any reason <Client> cancels this contract prior to or on the wedding date, Photographer shall keep the retainer and any monies paid on the date of cancellation…
Rescheduling. If, for any reason, <Client> reschedules the wedding, the retainer may be applied to the new date. A new contract will be required to reflect the changes. Credit may be applied to wedding coverage within one year of original date provided Photographer is available.
Jeannemarie Photography and/or the photographer will take all due care but liability of Jeannemarie Photography and/or the photographer in the event of any equipment failure or other failure due to non-performance is limited to a refund of all monies paid.
Viggiano explained to me that prior to COVID-19, she would be quite strict about her cancellation policy. Basically, any outright cancellations would see her clients forfeit their deposit/retainer. For rescheduling inquiries, she would permit any money paid to hold an original date to be applied to a rescheduled date as long as the wedding was rescheduled within a year.
However, with the avalanche of couples not knowing what to expect, Viggiano has decided to be far more flexible on how she is handling these situations. Her goal has been to reschedule couples within the year, but is considering periods longer than a year on a case-by-case basis.
As Viggiano puts it:
I’d so rather have a wedding to photograph and peace of mind for my couples than bad feelings.
John and Veronica Photography (Toronto)
John and Veronica Park are wedding photographers in Toronto, Canada. Toronto is under stay at home orders similar to those in the United States and most of Europe. Basically, only essential businesses have been allowed to operate.
The Parks’ contract contains a cancellation and force majeure clause.
Cancellation. Upon acceptance of these terms and payment of the retainer, Photographer shall commit to attending the Event on the specified date, and shall make no other reservations for that date. If <Client> cancels the Event entirely, Photographer suffers a loss, therefore any fees paid previously under this contract is non-refundable.
Force Majeure. If Photographer is unable to attend Event due to fire, flood, casualty, strike, civil disturbance, war, terrorism, Photographer’s sickness, or other acts of God beyond the parties’ control, then Photographer shall return all money paid by <Client> (including any retainer), and this Agreement shall immediately terminate.
Aiming to be flexible in the face of the current pandemic, the Parks have decided to allow their couples to reschedule their date if COVID-19 is the underlying reason for the date change. They are holding their prices to their current rates and simply updating their contracts.
If a change in date is required due to government-mandated lockdown and they aren’t available for the future date, the Parks have decided to return the typically non-refundable retainer.
This is a tough decision for the Parks to make. They are being so flexible in light of the pandemic that they are giving money back — money that they need to pay bills. I’m hoping that this type of approach is met with enough goodwill to fill their schedule for years to come.
Jennifer Van Elk (Indianapolis and Chicago)
Jennifer and Steven Van Elk shoot weddings across two large urban areas, Indianapolis and Chicago. Although Indianapolis hasn’t been as hard hit as Chicago, both Indiana and Illinois are under stay at home orders. Chicago and the rest of Illinois don’t look to be relaxing those orders anytime soon.
The Van Elks’ contract requires their couples to reschedule a postponed wedding within nine months of their original date or provide an additional payment to secure a new date.
As Jennifer Van Elk explained to me,
No one saw this coming, and now, we are scrambling to find a way to help our clients without going under.
Jennifer Van Elk was refreshingly candid and shared her feelings of anxiety at watching their year’s income evaporate. Despite this, the Van Elks are still permitting their couples to reschedule through 2021 without charging rescheduling fees or amending their prices upwards to their planned 2021 prices.
Sam Meggs (Eastern Ontario and Toronto)
Sam Meggs is a lifestyle and photojournalist wedding photographer here in Canada. In talking with Meggs, he explained that it’s been really hard to watch the bulk of his wedding bookings for 2020 migrate to next year.
Meggs’ contract includes the following cancellation and postponement terms:
If <Client> should cancel the event for any reason, the retainer will not be refunded.
If <Client> wishes to postpone or otherwise change the Event date… if the Photographer is available for the desired new date, Photographer and <Client> will execute a new contract, and all monies paid will transfer to the new date. The new date must be within 4 months of the original date or the new contract will be subject to Photographer’s then current rates. If the Photographer is unavailable on the new date, the Contract will be canceled and the retainer will not be refunded.
Despite this strong language, in light of pandemic-related cancellations and postponements, Meggs has allowed his couples to rebook into 2021 while holding his 2020 rates. Although Meggs has seen a full summer of income evaporate, he remains as flexible as possible.
Personal Service Is a Two-Way Street
It’s a tumultuous time, and we’re doing our best to be proactive.
— Jennifer Van Elk
Despite the strict terms of their contracts, the wedding photographers that I spoke with are being as flexible as possible. Keeping in mind that wedding photographers have the right to ask their clients to abide by their contract and pay additional fees for rescheduled dates, allowing their couples flexibility outside the terms of their contracts is kind. It’s humane.
But, allowing couples to reschedule a year or more out means that photographers will be taking an income hit. In an effort to mitigate this, some photographers are asking their couples to repay this flexibility with an installment or interim payment. After all, if the photographers are being asked to make sacrifices in light of the personal service nature of their industry, shouldn’t their couples fulfill their end of the social contract and treat their photographers in a less business-like, more understanding, more personal service-like way?
What are you doing to deal with the drop in income? How are you responding to rescheduling requests?
All images provided by photographers, as noted. Lead image provided by John and Veronica.