How to avoid a wedding day disaster
Kim Cegielski couldn’t wait to marry her high school sweetheart, Justin. The Houston bride had dreamt of her wedding for as long as she could remember and had every detail nailed down, including the perfect reception site — The Tuscan Villa of Garden Oaks. “It was gorgeous,” Cegielski says. “When we booked, they were offering a 15 percent discount if we paid in full.”
So the couple forked over nearly $54,000 for the venue, food and liquor, only to have the “Tuscany” close its doors two weeks before her Sept. 27, 2008, nuptials. “I was devastated,” Cegielski says.
Dozens of other couples were also left in the lurch after Tuscany's parent company Titus Inc., owned by Carolyn James, filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 8, 2008. The Better Business Bureau fielded 147 complaints from jilted clients and vendors alike. Neither James nor her lawyer returned calls from Angie's List Magazine, but James told the The Houston Chronicle in September 2008 that she was two weeks behind on her payroll and wasn't able to pay vendors. James said Titus had been suffering financially for some time and construction of the Tuscany was behind schedule and over budget.
"The brides will be the first to be reimbursed when I do sell Tuscany," she reportedly said. The $4.5 million venue remains on the market. Vivian Tu, who owns the Sweeter than Roses floral shop in Houston, had her own reception scheduled at the Tuscany for March 2009 and lost a $6,000 deposit when it closed. Despite her loss, she offered deep discounts to others going through the same experience.
"I was so shocked somebody would have the audacity to rip off brides," she says. "I've never even thought about giving less than 110 percent to every wedding. Most brides save for a long time to afford their dream wedding and to find out all their money is gone is heartbreaking."
Weddings are big business - accounting for $60 billion in the U.S. alone last year, according to The Wedding Report, a market research firm. And like any business, they can have their fair share of nightmare situations. Nuptials just tend to hit closer to the heart.
Both Cegielski and Tu now tout the virtues of buying wedding insurance. This type of insurance is gaining in popularity, which isn't surprising when you consider that the average couple spends more than $20,000 on their big day. Typical policies can cover a lot - everything from a torn wedding dress, to a no-show photographer, to a family member stuck at the airport. Travelers reports that more than 40 percent of its wedding claims in the past two years involved unforeseen problems with vendors and venues, some of which went bankrupt in the worsening economy. "What do you have worth more than $20,000 that you don't have insurance for?" said Alan Tuvin, vice president of product management for Travelers.
R.V. Nuccio and Associates Inc. was the first in 1991 to offer wedding insurance in the U.S., acting as the exclusive program manager for Fireman's Fund. Coverage can be purchased Ã¡ la carte for as little as $95, and the average wedding policy ranges from $150 to $200. "We've seen more facilities go down recently than ever before," says president Robert Nuccio. "They might have a year's worth of deposits but just can't make it."
In a recent online poll, 20 percent of Angie's List members said they've had a bad experience with a wedding professional. Angie's List Magazine spoke with a number of A-rated service providers and longtime industry experts, all of whom offered this common piece of advice - do your research. "Someone brand new to the industry has nothing invested in their reputation," says Kyle Brown, executive director for the Bridal Association of America. "You're going to pay a little more for experience, but how can you put a price on peace of mind?"
Securing credible vendors is of the utmost importance for anyone planning a wedding in order to avoid a nightmare situation.
Dena Davey, spokesperson for The Association of Bridal Consultants, says wedding industry professionals are a tight-knit group and word gets around fast about shady vendors. "You can enjoy your wedding because a professional with the proper credentials will be able to see something coming that a bride might not," Davey says.
Honesty about your desires, style and budget is also important. "If you're up front about all your parameters, your wedding design will go much more smoothly," says Lynn Jawitz, owner of Florisan LLC in New York City.
Several Indianapolis-area brides felt the sting of a wedding planner gone awry. In July 2006, James "Von" Belk was arrested on 16 counts of felony theft for accepting deposits at his Wedding Wonderland store for dresses and consultation services that never materialized. Belk pleaded guilty to one count of felony theft and agreed to pay more than $25,000 in restitution. He also was sentenced to one year of probation and ordered to complete 40 hours of community service.
Tamyra Hill's parents paid Belk more than $12,000 to coordinate her wedding. Despite Belk abandoning her 10 days before the big day, Hill says she had the perfect day nonetheless. "It was probably better without him," she says. Belk's case was closed in April 2008 after the stipulations of his sentence were fulfilled.
Angie's List member Erik Hoet of West Chester, Pa., thought his wedding to Jennifer Domal went off without a hitch but was left with only his memories of the big day. After paying photographer Brian Benjamin, owner of Visual Graphix, $2,600 to shoot his wedding on April 19, 2008, Hoet says he's yet to see a single image from him.
"I filed my complaint with the Pennsylvania Attorney General, but they didn't think it was a big enough complaint to pursue," Hoet says.
After filing a civil suit, Hoet was awarded nearly $3,000 in a default judgment but is uncertain if he'll get any money. "[Benjamin's] house is in foreclosure and up for auction," he says. "I may not get any money if it sells. Maybe it's a 'guy thing' but I've had 3,000 reasons to be compulsive about finding a resolution."
In October 2008, San Antonio photographer Randy "Duke" Ellington was indicted on three felony theft charges after allegedly taking deposits, but failing to deliver the product. As owner of Duke's Photography, Ellington marketed his wedding photography and video packages with online advertising and offered brides free albums to recruit new clients. But after the San Antonio Police Department received complaints from 46 couples who never received their photos, they issued a warrant for his arrest. Detective Bob Sholund says they confiscated hundreds of photos and videos from his computer. A trial date for Ellington is pending.
When Cecilia Webb of Kyle, Texas, paid Ellington $2,500 to capture her wedding day, she never dreamed she'd have to wait nearly three years to see the images. Nor did she imagine the police would deliver them. "He always had some kind of excuse," Webb says.
Fresh from her honeymoon, Joy Widener had one last wedding task to tend to before settling in as a newlywed in Charlotte, N.C. In March 2008, she took her $4,000 bridal ensemble to La Bella Sposa for everything to be cleaned and preserved. Widener didn't suspect a thing when owner Shannon Starcher said it would take a couple months before everything would be ready. "It seemed to be a very nice bridal shop," she says. Three months later, Widener received a panicked call from her mother, Joanne Mills. "She saw a news report where all these women were storming out of La Bella Sposa carrying gowns," she says. "I knew something was wrong."
Starcher suddenly closed La Bella Sposa in June 2008, leaving dozens of brides empty-handed. Even those who were fortunate enough to walk away with their dress may have unknowingly paid full price for a used gown as Starcher was allegedly reselling those she was supposed to be preserving, according to several brides who shared their stories on GownJustice.blogspot.com. "The store was having financial difficulties," says Rick Mitchell, attorney for Starcher and her husband, Brian. "Their inventory was too high. These people mismanaged." The couple filed for bankruptcy in February 2009.
Widener's parents successfully sued the Starchers in civil court in July 2008 but doubt they'll ever see the $4,000 awarded them. "It's very disturbing," Widener says. "They have no accountability because they declared bankruptcy. The thing I'd hate to see happen is them leaving the state and opening another bridal shop somewhere."
Criminal charges against the Starchers are still pending. "I've never seen anything like this," says Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Detective Joe Curlee. "But you have to take the emotion out of it. I can't handle it any differently just because it's a wedding dress shop."
Keeping emotion out of it might be part of the job for police, but it's a near impossible task for the brides and grooms affected. For Cegielski, the sudden closing of the Tuscany sent her scrambling for another place to host the 400 guests invited to her reception. "I was freaking out," she says. One of the first calls she made was to the aquarium in downtown Houston, which, after some rearranging with another wedding party, was able to accommodate her. "I was so incredibly lucky," she says.