Customers slam boss of axed music festival over refusal to refund deposits
- Credit: Tracey Stephenson
A group of festival-goers who lost a court battle with an events organiser after they refused to refund their deposits have said they "treated loyal customers with contempt”.
Caister Soul Weekender in Great Yarmouth, run by Soul Music Enterprises (SME) and held at Parkdean’s Vauxhall Holiday Park for the last 26 years, was due to take place on May 2, 2020.
But despite the pandemic forcing its cancellation, organisers held on to attendees’ deposits - prompting fury from customers expecting full refunds.
According to the organisers, it was made clear in the terms and conditions that the £50 deposit on the £160 ticket was non-refundable - and that attendees should take out their own short break holiday cover or insurance when they book.
However, members of a so-called “Caister Action Group” believed this contradicted Competition and Markets Authority guidance on Covid-19, which said events cancelled due to lockdown should be refunded by the provider in full.
One member took SME and its managing director, Brian Rix, to court over the affair - but the claim was thrown out when it was ruled one person could not claim money “representatively” on behalf of the 49 other action group members involved. Mr Rix was awarded costs of £5,000.
Speaking now in response to the litigation - which SME labelled an unjustified “hate campaign” - “action group” members say they are shocked by the way the company dealt with customers.
Lin Lombardi, 57 and from East London, has attended the event yearly since it began in 1979.
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Though she said she was regretful “everything snowballed”, the group had “no choice” but to take action into their own hands.
Fellow group member Tracey Stephenson, 56, from Suffolk, said it was “completely unreasonable” to expect festival-goers to take out short break cover - and that Mr Rix should refund people himself instead of insisting they claim back money on their own, individual insurance policies.
“It’s a contemptuous way to treat customers who’ve been loyal to you for donkey’s years”, she said.
SME had initially offered ticket “rollovers” when the Weekender was cancelled last April, giving people the option to attend the following year’s event rather than get their money back.
But after "inappropriate" comments made by Mr Rix on Facebook, Parkdean cancelled its contract with SME, obliging the festival organisers to return ticket payments to customers. This did not include deposits.
Mr Rix apologised for his comments on the Black Lives Matter movement, made in June last year, after coming under fire from a range of people including English soul musician Beverley Knight.
Ms Stephenson said: “Some people managed to get a full refund via bank card chargeback, but since SME always encouraged payment by cheque, that option wasn’t available for many of us.”
The original T&Cs Ms Stephenson signed up to in 2019 say SME is not liable if the event is cancelled due to “acts of God” or “force majeure”.
But in these T&Cs, seen by the EDP, pandemic is not mentioned in this clause and was added at a later date.
An SME spokesperson, in response, said it was reasonable to “update” terms and conditions from “time to time”.
They said: “Sometimes insurers feel that people do not fully understand the term "force majeure" and do request that from time to time several examples are shown and updated.
“But in any case, clauses 2, 3 and 4 stated that deposits are non-refundable and that people should take out travel insurance, card insurance or short break holiday cover when they book.”
Denying action group claims that Mr Rix kept the deposits to “make a profit”, he said: “By the time Parkdean decided to arbitrarily take over the event themselves, rename it, but still employ most of the same staff, tens of thousands of pounds had already been spent organising the May event and future events.”
A Parkdean spokesperson said the company “refutes any assertion that we arbitrarily took over the Caister Weekend” and that they terminated the contract with Mr Rix last year as a result of the “abhorrent" comments he made on Facebook.
For many Weekender attendees, however, the event has been irrevocably ruined.
Dave Antony, a 63-year-old from London, has attend the festival for two decades.
He said: “We go to loads of different soul events, and all the others gave us a full refund without question when lockdown was announced. Caister was the only one to dig its heels in.
“We won’t be going back, even under new management.”