Spending

When guests back out of a $7,500 Vegas bachelor party at the last minute, who pays? Etiquette pros offer advice

"Your obligation depends on how far you're going to leave folks in the lurch."

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In my group of friends, I'm known for my skills as a party planner, partygoer, and all-around cruise director, so back in April, when my buddy asked me to plan his Las Vegas bachelor party, I was delighted. But I was also a little nervous. When it comes to making plans for a big pack of dudes in Sin City, you can be sure of two things: It will be expensive, and everything will require a full-cost deposit.

We had chosen an early September date for the party, so back in April, I sent out an email invitation to get a headcount and outline the general itinerary and cost expectations for the trip. In June, I followed up with everyone who had RSVP'd. "If you're receiving this email, we are assuming you're in," I wrote. "Please let me know, like, immediately if your plans have somehow changed." One guy bowed out for a family obligation, but the others were in, and they agreed to pay me back for the deposit on the Airbnb.

By September, we were ready to roll. In addition to the Airbnb, the groom and I now had deposits down on a cabana at a daytime pool party and a private dining room at a swanky casino restaurant — total cost: $7,500 to be split nine ways. Then, a week before the scheduled trip, two guys backed out. Another two said they'd have to leave early and couldn't make the dinner.

All of a sudden, the seamless vacation I had planned was plagued with questions of who owes who for what. The people who couldn't attend had varying views on the matter. Some were happy to pay even for the events they were missing. Others weren't. As a result, those of us who stayed for the whole weekend were left with a heftier bill than we expected.

I admit I was a little salty, but I wasn't actually sure what the protocol was for these situations. What's more, I realized it was a situation that could easily come up again, what with social calendars rapidly filling up despite continuing uncertainty surrounding travel during the pandemic. So I asked a trio of etiquette experts. Here's what they said I got right and wrong.

Your responsibility as host or planner: Communicate

If you're the kind of person who regularly plans things for you and your friends, chances are you're occasionally putting down money on behalf of the group. And that can make you financially vulnerable, says Thomas Farley, a national etiquette expert also known as Mister Manners. "We do what we do because we love gathering people, but that also means we can be taken advantage of," he says. "You want to be really clear up front about what your expectations are, when you need the money by, and what the repercussions might be."

This is where I perhaps fell a little short. I told everyone they were "locked in" to the itinerary, but the groom and I didn't make the deposit rules clear to everyone.

"You want to put out as much detail as possible," Farley says. "For more complicated events, it might make sense to do a timeline. The day we have to pay our deposit is X. The day we can cancel and get some of our money back is X. The day we cancel and not get any money back is X."

For events where you control the guest list, be realistic about who you're inviting, he adds. "If there are certain members of your circle who are chronic cancelers, maybe you think twice about inviting them to something that you're putting money down for," he says. "Or if they are included, you can let them fend for themselves. They can buy their own ticket, and that way you're not the one having to deal with it if they cancel."

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As a guest: Be prompt and take the initiative

Everyone has to cancel sometimes. Things come up! And given uncertainty around the pandemic, it can feel like more plans are up in the air than ever. But that doesn't mean etiquette rules around canceling plans go out the window.

"The No. 1 rule when it comes to canceling: Be prompt. Do it quickly," says Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas. "We tend to fret and think about it and ask people's opinions. In reality you're wasting time. Let people know as soon as possible," since the earlier you back out, the more time the host or planner has to pivot their plans.

"Perhaps equal to the No. 1 rule: Cancel for the right reasons. Don't 'better deal' somebody," she says. "If you're canceling because of an emergency or financial hardship, that's one thing. It has to be a legitimate reason, not because someone offered you a better deal. That's the wrong reason to cancel."

It's important to note that both of the invitees to my friend's bachelor party had legitimate reasons to cancel. But by backing out at the last minute, when there was no chance to get any money back, they left the rest of us in a tougher financial situation.

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That's bad etiquette, says Elaine Swann, a lifestyle and etiquette expert and founder of The Swann School of Protocol. "Your obligation depends on how far you're going to leave folks in the lurch," she says. "If you're canceling the day of and funds were expected to be shared, it would be prudent to still come through with what's expected. It's fair, gracious, and polite to not leave people hanging."

If you cancel with plenty of time to spare, she says, the calculus changes. "If there's a replacement for you or a price adjustment from the venue, your obligation is to inform the host and then do your best to make that happen," she says.

In the case of a bachelor party, there's little possibility for a replacement. But say you were going to a concert with friends and you can't use your ticket. "I'm not a fan of the canceling friend who says, 'Can you find someone to take my ticket?'" says Farley. "Rather, a canceler can ameliorate the financial sting by finding someone who can step in. Or if they want to obtain a refund, you can put them in touch with the relevant parties. If a planner spent money on the guests' behalf, it's the canceler's obligation. Not the planner's."

Both parties: 'Express understanding and empathy'

Cancellations can inspire emotional responses, and those emotions can become even more difficult to deal with if there is money involved. "It's vital that we express understanding and empathy when people have situations that arise," says Farley. "If your guest found out yesterday that they have Covid, how can I judge them for that? Empathy is vital. A host shouldn't take these things too personally."

That means you may have to take a loss as a host if someone comes to you with difficult circumstances, says Gottsman. "In the perfect world, the guests would uphold their deposit when they cancel last-minute, but we have to take circumstances into consideration," she says. "If someone has a financial hardship — they lost their job, they were in an accident, they have financial obligations they didn't expect — there's not a protocol around forcing someone to pay. It becomes a relationship conversation."

Any conversations around money owed between friends should be honest and communicative, says Gottsman, and you may not reach a conclusion that both parties are satisfied with. "It can be like a loan between friends. If you let someone borrow money, sometimes you just have to consider it a gift," she says. "If you're making reservations and they back out, you may have to pay more or cancel as well. These are real-life situations. Sometimes it won't work out."

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