Singapore's consumer watchdog is urging hotels to be more transparent about cancellation charges for wedding packages instead of leaving it to the "management's discretion" in some cases.
Certain hotels, such as Carlton Hotel, charge as much as the entire price of a package if the cancellation comes within six months of the wedding date.
Others refuse to allow a package, which typically ranges from $1,000 to $1,700 for a table of 10, to be transferred to another couple. The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) believes such practices need to be changed.
That is why it sent a two-page letter to the Singapore Hotel Association (SHA) in June, asking it to "encourage its members to have a fairer contract with regards to cancellation".
In it, Case pointed out that hotels are not legally required to allow the cancelling party to pass the package to another couple. It also noted that cancellation terms vary greatly between hotels.
The watchdog wants hotels to adopt more standardised contracts which clearly spell out when a refund will be given.
When contacted, SHA executive director Margaret Heng declined to say if the 132-hotel association would be heeding Case's plea. However, she explained that hotels already exercise flexibility on a case-by-case basis.
The issue, said Case's executive director Seah Seng Choon, is that this "flexibility" is usually not spelt out in the contracts.
"Consumers are disadvantaged from the start. It is important to make it clear in the contract that under certain circumstances, refunds will be given."
He added that couples who managed to get a replacement for the same date should not be charged as the hotel "would not be suffering any loss".
Case, which is in the midst of surveying hotels on their policies and will work with them to make changes, said it received 13 complaints on cancellation charges between the beginning of last year and last month. There were two complaints in 2011.
One of the 13 cases involved a customer who bought a $43,330 package at The Regent in February last year for a wedding this July. But he cancelled in December after he and his fiancee broke up.
The hotel told the 28-year-old, who declined to be named, to pay 70 per cent of the banquet cost, which worked out to $27,000.
He tried to negotiate for another couple to take up the package but was unsuccessful.
After Case wrote to the hotel, it allowed him to transfer the package to another couple for any date this year.
"The hotel said the contract was clear about the charges, which is true. But who would argue against a cancellation policy when you are making a booking?" said the customer, who lost his $8,560 deposit, but was happy with the final outcome.
Hotels usually face fewer than five cancellations a year, said Mr Jonathan Goh, country president of the wedding-planners group Association of Bridal Consultants.
Singapore Marriott Hotel general manager Antony Page said hotels needed to charge cancellation fees as ballrooms and function rooms have already been reserved for the required dates.
They serve "to cover any possible loss that might occur due to the last-minute cancellation by clients".
His hotel charges 25 per cent if a package is cancelled early enough, but withdrawals 29 days or fewer before the wedding date are charged in full.
Only two weddings were cancelled at the hotel last year, out of the 220 it hosted, added Mr Page.