I recently examined signed contracts for 12 unconventional venues across Canada. The venues included a cultural centre, city-owned sport facility, entertainment complex, music hall, high-risk recreational facility, heritage facility, aquarium, brewery, and museums.
The results of my side-by-side comparison were distressing.
Some of the contracts (six) had Indemnification for the venue and some lacked Indemnification entirely (five). This means 11 event organizers signed contracts without any protection for losses or damages sustained.
In some cases, contracts had Force Majeure clauses protecting only the venue (six) or lacked a Force Majeure clause entirely (three). This means nine of 12 event organizers signed contracts that offered them no protection in the case of unnatural occurrences, travel advisories or government warnings.
All 12 contracts had a Cancellation by CLIENT clause with fees to compensate the venue. None of the contracts had a Cancellation by VENUE clause with fees to compensate the client. This means none of the 12 event organizers expected that, at minimum, the venues should return their deposits if the venue chose to cancel.
I highlight these unconventional venue contracts to make a point. Non-standard contracts reveal the limitations of our professional body of knowledge. Many event planners negotiate only what the venue presents. But when a venue fails to provide a balanced, complete contract, it’s our job to negotiate one!
I once received the following email from an experienced meeting planner at a reputable Canadian organization: “I’ve been brought up in this industry to reduce the rental and food and beverage minimums, add your concessions, sign and send.”
I was taken aback that a respected meeting professional could take such a cavalier approach to venue contracts. But her attitude makes sense when you consider the context we operate in.
- As a professional body, we (Canadian event professionals) have low expectations for contract expertise. We accept basic literacy as sufficient rather than demanding contract expertise as a core competency. In Canada, there’s a dearth of planner-centric education on venue contracts.
- There are no formal or publicized standards of practice in our industry. We have no templates, best practices, or benchmarks against which to compare our individual contract experiences. Without visible goal posts, how can we know we’re running the right direction?
- There’s no “fear factor” overshadowing our work. In the litigious culture of the United States, individuals and organizations sue each other regularly over event cancellations and breach of contract. While lawsuits are less common in Canada, contract problems are just as prevalent. But many Canadian contract issues go to arbitration or get settled out of court. We should watch our neighbours to the south with a wary eye. As the United States goes, so goes Canada a few years later. When lawsuits enter the picture, Canadian planners will be woefully unprepared.
- There’s a perception among many planners that we shouldn’t—or can’t—push back on venue contracts. Asking questions and asserting our rights might be perceived as rude or overly aggressive. We must dispel this myth.
- Sometimes we’re afraid to acknowledge our own limitations. It’s never fun admitting we don’t know or understand something. But admitting now is better than getting burned later.
A rallying cry for Canadian planners
I encourage every event professional to commit to the following contract practices:
1 | Agree that contract negotiation is critical to our profession, accept responsibility for doing it well, and acknowledging what we don’t know.
2 | Educate ourselves specifically on venue contracts.
3 | Consider and then collegially negotiate every clause in every venue contract.
It would be great if, in the not-too-distant future, my colleague could confidently write: “I have been brought up in this industry to read, understand and negotiate every clause in a venue contract. My venue contracts protect the venue and our event, while creating beneficial business outcomes for both.”
–Heather Reid is the founder and owner of Planner Protect, a boutique contract review agency that negotiates venue contracts for independent and in-house event planners and event hosts.