ISES Quick Tips For Event Planners: March 2016

Putting on a great event while setting expectations and limiting liability.

How can an event-planning professional put together a great event while setting expectations and limiting their legal liability? ISES member and lawyer Mary Ellen Reihsen explains:

The Client Contract, Nothing Is More Important: There is no industry more emotionally charged, or time sensitive, than the weddings and events industry. By far, the most important step you can take in maintaining good relations and managed expectations is to have a pleasantly worded, clear but thorough, client contract. A well-worded contract will accomplish many things. It lays out what services you will be providing to clients and it gives you an opportunity to draw a line in the sand by making clear what services you won’t provide, or when additional costs may be applied. Most importantly, a good contract will meet all the legal expectations in the state where you conduct your business. If things do go wrong, and you find yourself standing in front of a judge, you want to know ahead of time that your contract says all the things that limit your liability.
Have Only One Point Of Contact: Planning an event can get complicated if there are too many cooks in the kitchen, or too many family members trying to participate in the planning process. It is important to know that your relationship is legally with whomever you entered into the contract with, meaning whoever is signing the client contract. Frequently when weddings are being planned, parents want to contribute money and input. In messier situations, parents will contribute the money and sign the contract. Now everyone is a party to the contract with legal authority and the right to potentially sue. I recommend that planners only allow the couples to sign the client contracts. Be friendly but firm that the couple is the only party that you will correspond with or take direction from, and the couple is responsible for paying the fees regardless of where the money originates.
The Date Reservation Fee (Non-Refundable Deposit): In contracts that I write, I always lay out a defined payment schedule and make clear that all the payments are absolutely non-refundable. It fact, I don’t even use the word deposit since that word implies they have the opportunity to get that money back. I call the payments “date reservation fees” because that’s really what they are and why you get to keep them. A Saturday in June is a valuable thing to a planner, you are being paid an incremental fee to reserve that date for your client’s special day and services. The client makes payments on the date reservation because it will become increasingly hard for a planner to turn around and make money off of a day if there is a cancelation. A non-refundable deposit can be found unenforceable if it is determined to be a punishment for a client canceling. It’s important that planners understand, and be able to explain, that the date reservation fee is something you get to keep in order to make you legally whole when you have the lost opportunity to make your fee on another event.
The Power To Be The Fixer: Executing an event can be complicated. Frequently as things are happening your client is either unavailable or you just don’t want to stress them out. It’s important that you always have the authority to make sure your events go well. I routinely include provisions in contracts that give them discretionary power to deal with unexpected issues. Stating clearly that you have discretionary power to make decisions, and spend a reasonable amount of money, can make all the difference. For example, you will want the authority to decide to bring in additional employees to work on an event if something has happened that requires extra labor. You don’t want to have to debate bringing in extra labor if you know it will be the difference between your event, with your name attached to it, being a success or a failure. You also want the power to spend money on reasonable problem solving measures. If a flower girls dress tears, or a case of wine breaks, or whatever else, you want to be able to make the decision to fix the problem. You can work with your couple in advance to make sure they are comfortable with your discretionary power by putting a spending cap on the problem solve, and always agreeing to inform them whenever possible. Your couples will thank you for your foresight into problems that can occur, and your plan for addressing those issues in advance. Better still, you will have contractual authority to do spend some problem solving money, and you wont be in the position of spending your own money and not being able to get reimbursed by your clients.

A member of the ISES Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter, Mary Ellen Reihsen is owner and managing attorney at Reihsen Law and Weddings & Events Law, LLC, a business attorney focused on the legal needs of small businesses, with special emphasis on the wedding and events industry. Reihsen Law and Weddings & Events Law offer services in the following areas: hospitality law; business formation; all manner of contracts; employment law policies and practices; compliance; employer immigration; terms and conditions; legal website review; and small business mergers and acquisitions.
The International Special Events Society (ISES) is the world’s largest community of event professionals with over 5,000 members worldwide. The Minnesota chapter of ISES is comprised of leading professional in every aspect of the event products and services industries. For more information on how an ISES professional can help you with your event, please contact