IT MAY SEEM that contracts raise as many questions as they answer. Here, attorney Joshua Grimes helps event planners avoid common contract quandaries.
SPECIAL EVENTS MAGAZINE: What costly mistakes do you see event planners make most often when signing contracts?
JOSHUA GRIMES: They don't read their contracts carefully. Many people just sign them without reading the fine print, figuring that they don't have time or they can't be bothered. But contracts are not made for when everything goes smoothly — they are made for when bad things happen. That's when you need a good contract. I can't tell you how many times someone calls me with an attrition clause that they think is unreasonable. But you signed a contract, and then you have to explain why you shouldn't be held to it.
Another problem is the failure of planners to put all their requirements in writing. Salespeople change pretty frequently at hotels; there is a lot of turnover. Things you might have been promised might get lost in the changeover. So I tell people, if it's important to you, then get it in writing. Even if it's not a formal contract, you send an e-mail to the other side to confirm what you've agreed on, or you send them a memo or a note. Because you almost have to assume that if it's not in writing, then you're not going to get it.
Q: On the other hand, what mistakes do you see the vendors — hotels, decor suppliers, etc. — making? Do they fail to understand their own contracts?
A: Yes. I've had that with the calculation of attrition, where it's come up that a hotel didn't read its own contract. The hotel had a duty to give a credit to the event host to the extent that the hotel was sold out, and it did sell out, but they didn't give the credit. I don't think it was on purpose — I think it was because they didn't read what their obligation was, or they didn't understand it.
Q: Is this because the current climate puts vendors under tremendous pressure to close sales?
A: I think that's very true. I think that sometimes the salespeople agree to things they don't understand. And I think that hotels don't provide the same training, in terms of contracts and the implications of contracts, that other venues might do.
Q: How do planners become better contract negotiators?
A: Sit down for a few minutes and read what you are agreeing to, what has been proposed. Make sure you understand everything. If it's not understandable, ask that it be rewritten in plain English. You really need to keep up with the latest trends in the industry. Because things are changing, there are a lot of add-on costs with hotels. You have to plan on and anticipate those, and if they are not acceptable to you, you have to discuss them.
Q: Event planners often bring their own vendors in; what are some of the special considerations here?
A: You need to look especially at cancellation provisions. You should be able to get out of it; if your event is cancelled, you should be able to cancel the vendor contract as well.
The other concern is liability. Liability is a big issue these days, and it's important that if your florist messes up — leaves a spill on the floor and it causes a problem — that they take responsibility. Especially if you hire bartenders, they should take responsibility for what happens arising from their improper service of alcohol. These days, this is a big issue. I think it's the emerging big problem.
Q: What else should event pros keep in mind when negotiating contracts?
A: It's especially important to plan for contingencies. The event planner and host organization need to take ownership of risk management; they need to anticipate what could happen and to create a contingency plan if something happens. Not necessarily terrorism, but stuff that happens all the time — someone gets hurt, a theft, a fire. You can't rely on other people. People think, “If someone gets hurt, this is a nice hotel, they must have a plan.” But even places that do this for a living are not necessarily as prepared as they ought to be.
Here, your legal obligation diverges from doing the right thing. When I'm working on behalf of a planner, I will ask the convention center to give the locations of any of their medical devices and a list of all employees trained in CPR and the Heimlich maneuver. Centers are reluctant to do that because they are worried about potential liability. But you've got to do what is good for the guest. There is a good chance that will save someone.
Josh Grimes can be reached at 215/772-5070; his Web site is www.grimeslaw.org.