Wedding venue defends business amid COVID struggles
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- A Berrien County couple is defending their family business following complaints from clients over their handling of wedding postponements due to COVID-19.
Following ABC 57’s initial report on bride Randi Hoffman and her fiancé’s financial battle with the Blue Dress Barn, a dozen couples sent tips about similar experiences with the venue owners.
Hoffman had her wedding scheduled for June 19, but with social distancing measures, occupancy limits and mask requirements set in motion for subsequent months in Michigan, she realized holding a wedding for nearly 300 people wouldn’t be possible.
So, she looked forward to 2021, but that’s when she says the problems began.
“She gave me dates for 2021 at the Blue Dress Barn and in order for us to take it, we would officially have to cancel our 2020 wedding, forfeit our $4,500 then pay another $4,500,” said Hoffman.
The additional couples who sent news tips also say they’ve had similar problems rescheduling with the owners. Some saying that while they paid for a weekend date, the owners only offered them Thursdays – and without any money back for switching from a weekend date to a work-day wedding.
When some couples tried rescheduling their wedding to 2021, they say they got the same response as Hoffman – forfeit all of the money paid for the 2020 wedding and re-pay the entire balance for booking a new date.
One couple even saying they were able to move their wedding at Millcreek Wilde, a sister venue, to September but were asked to sign a document saying if for whatever reason the event is cancelled they won’t get any money back.
“We didn’t really want to sign that, but at the time it was either sign this and get a new date, or don’t sign this and lose the money anyway because you’re going to lose your June date,” said bride Kelly Tomaska. “Multiple emails were written requesting the possibility of a refund. They sent another contract stating that if this is not signed our date would be lost and there would be no reissuing of the funds we paid in full,” said groom Anthony Miniscalco.
But Amy and Kirby Briske are coming to the defense of their business. The couple started doing weddings at the Blue Dress Barn nearly 20 years ago, after Amy purchased – and restored – the abandoned barn in Benton Harbor. The Briske’s, even getting married at the Blue Dress Barn themselves.
They say in all their years of business, this is the first time they’ve had to hire an attorney.
The Briske’s say they offered any available weekend dates in 2020 to couples who had to move their weddings, but all the remaining dates were quickly booked. So, they then offered Thursdays – a day that’s not normally open during their season – to try and help clients walk down the aisle.
“We’ve moved more than 50 weddings forward to new dates already, with tens of thousands of dollars lost in the process,” said Kirby Briske, “Because each date we move forward to the new year represents a day that’s not available to new clientele.”
They also offered another option to couples wanting to reschedule in 2021, an option they say was originally brought to them by one of their own clients.
“To cancel their date, forfeiting the moneys that they’ve paid to date,” said Kirby. “They’d put down a new deposit, with a new rental agreement to choose the date that they want – as available based on the calendar – and we give them a discount of $1,000. It still represents a $1,000 loss to us.”
And while that $1,000 discount may seem like a good faith gesture to some, the couples complaining say it’s not good enough.
“The contract describes a 25% cancellation fee if we rebook our date; $912, which we were willing to pay,” said groom John Alsterda. “However, Blue Dress Barn’s new policy would require us to pay $3,750 to rebook and that’s not including the $4,500 we already paid.”
ABC 57 was given a copy of Randi and her fiancé’s contract that they both signed. The contract clearly states that there is a no refund policy and no force majeure – a contract clause that would allow the couples to cancel.
“We are protected by the technicality because the insurance industry does not sell any policy that covers pandemics,” said Kirby.
But Berrien County attorney Mark Miller says there may be light at the end of this long tunnel for the couples.
“Michigan does have a rule of law on contracts regarding ‘Has a contract become impossible to fulfill?’ which it is in part here, because it’s a contract for 250 people to go to the wedding. I can tell you even at the beginning of March or mid-February none of this was reasonably foreseeable, and this couple signed their contract for the Blue Dress Barn a long time ago – a year ago,” said Miller.
However, no one wins in this story. Because if the couples don’t pay, the venue owners say they will suffer.
“If anybody thinks that we’re not financially impacted by COVID, they’re wrong,” said Amy.
The Briske’s don’t qualify for a small business loan and are receiving no financial assistance, those are issues on top of the money they’ve lost for re-booking and the hundreds of thousands they spend each year to maintain all three of their venues – Blue Dress Barn, Millcreek Wilde and Sundance.
Multiple couples have also come to the owners’ defense:
"The Blue Dress Barn has been nothing but helpful to make sure my fiancé and I get the wedding of our dreams! We booked our wedding at the Blue Dress Barn back in November of 2018 for the date of June 27, 2020. Obviously nobody expected or could plan for a world pandemic. We contacted Kirby and Amy back in April to make sure we were still set for our June wedding but as time went on we realized it was not safe to have all 250 of our closest friends and family to gather in June for our wedding. We then made the decision to try and reschedule our wedding. Kirby was able to move our big celebration to a later date in hopes we will be able to celebrate with all 250 of our guest! I was so happy but also very sad because I’d been planning our wedding for 2 years now! With my bachelorette party and my 2 bridal showers also being rescheduled I was a little sad COVID was ruining our wedding fun. I reached out again to Kirby and Amy to see if there was any way possible we could still have a mini ceremony on June 27th at the beautiful venue, AND THEY SAID YES OF COURSE! Now we still get to get married at the Blue Dress Barn on our original wedding date AND we get to celebrate again in September with all of our friends and family! We are so thankful for all the support through this whole process and so grateful for the owners of the Blue Dress Barn for doing their best to help out all of the couples planning to get married at the Barn! " - Megan Cockin
"These are truly unprecedented times. While we were certainly disappointed by the various ways COVID-19 impacted our ideal vision for one of the most important days in our lives, I cannot imagine the stress of managing a small wedding business, upon which my family's livelihood depends, in the current environment. Though we ultimately moved forward with a much smaller ceremony in a family backyard on our original May 30th choice, we are thankful to have been met with flexibility in reserving a later 2020 date and recreating a celebratory reception with all of our dearest friends & family. Thank you to Amy and Kirby Briske for working toward a solution with us. To all the other 2020 wedding couples who have been forced to change plans, please remember that love is NOT cancelled, and it can overcome all things." - Mrs. and Mr. Emma & Nate Barnes
"A global pandemic was not something that my Fiancé and I expected to encounter while we were planning our wedding. When we first made the decision to postpone we expected to run into many bumps in the road, however that was not the case at all. Amy and Kirby were more than flexible throughout the "change in plans" process. They were quick to respond and help find a solution that was safe (and more than satisfactory) for all parties involved. We could not be happier that we found Sundance Studios and her sister venues when we first started planning. Can't wait to safely have our wedding here soon! Thanks again!" - Hannah McKee-Boyes
Additionally, other business owners the couple has worked with throughout the years also wanted to come to their defense.
"As a wedding coordinator at Blue Dress Barn, Millcreek Wilde, and Sundance & The Secret Garden - I have personally had 6 couples moved successfully due to this pandemic. The venue owners & couples have been understanding of each-other, which is what weddings are about, teamwork. - O'HoneyMy name is Bryan Kaylor, and I am the owner of Bee Entertainment. We provide wedding and event DJ services for couples across the state of Michigan and in Chicago, IL. Over the last several years, we have worked with Amy and Kirby, owners of three wedding venues in Southwest Michigan. We have LOVED working with them at their venues, and every mutual client we have worked with has loved their wedding. Amy and Kirby have poured their hearts and souls into making couples' wedding visions come true, and we are honored to be partners with them. During the 2020 pandemic, many of Bee Entertainment's couples rescheduled their events. Bee Entertainment had mutual clients with Amy and Kirby at the following venues that postponed: 3 at Blue Dress Barn, 3 at Sundance Studios, and 1 at Millcreek Wilde. These postponements allowed Bee Entertainment to keep those clients and keep the sales instead of losing them. Please contact me if you need any further information.I am writing to support the hard work and financial commitment I have seen demonstrated by Blue Dress Barn, Sundance Studio and Millcreek Barn. We have had 20 plus weddings successfully postponed from May and June 2020 dates to later dates in the year and some moved to 2021. These moves not only supported the bride and grooms venue arrangements but also their food catering needs arrangements with us. We are thankful to these venues for working so hard to make these dates work for everyone." - Angela Lee, White Horse Farm Catering
And the Briske’s have needed the support – after receiving threats to their business.
“We have had people threaten to burn down our barn. We’ve had to dismantle all of our Facebook accounts to stop attacks on our character and our business,” said Kirby. “We are, I believe, seeing people who would normally book with us not do so because of the backlash. We honestly and sincerely feel like we’re doing everything we can to find solutions for our clientele.”
They ask everyone to remember they’re human too and are trying their best to give Michiana couples a dream wedding.
“Yes, we do have a handful of couples who are not happy. We tried to move their dates, we tried to get them to stay here with us and get married,” said Amy, “We want them here; they chose to cancel. We feel like they’re leaving us, we need them.”
The Briske’s have also authored The Michigan Wedding Barn Coalition. 24 other open-air wedding venues – statewide – have signed on to these re-opening guidelines, including social distancing and health screenings, which have been mailed to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in hopes that all of these venues will be able to hold weddings with less restrictions.