Bad vibes for spirituality festival as ticket holders refused refunds due to Covid

Covid-19 restrictions have forced a postponement for the NZ Spirit Festival, an alternative lifestyle event due to begin this week. Now some ticket-holders are angry that organisers are refusing to refund if they can’t make the new date – even for those who’d bought Covid ‘refundable’ tickets. Jihee Junn reports.

Set to take place this week in Auckland, NZ Spirit Festival promised four days of live musical performances, interactions with “healers” and workshops on everything from meditation and yoga to hair brushing and cuddling. When the Auckland lockdown was announced on Saturday, it was immediately clear the festival could no longer go ahead as planned. On Sunday, organisers took to social media to announce their plans: a new date had been secured for April, but: “This is a postponement and not a cancellation, so no refunds will be offered”.

NZ Spirit’s announcement on Facebook

While many commenters were supportive of the news, the response was swiftly met with questions about its decision not to offer refunds, even for those who’d purchased tickets “fully refundable in the event of a cancellation due to Covid”. Some pointed out that several comments challenging the decision had since been removed. 

One of these “fully refundable” ticket holders, Sian O’Gorman, says she bought three one-day passes for herself and two friends for $149 each (an additional $30 carpark pass and $5 booking fee for each ticket were also required upon purchase). While “supporter” passes cost $139 each, the tickets were described as “non-refundable”, which prompted O’Gorman to purchase the slightly more expensive option. 

Social media comments critical of the event’s stance on refunds

“I booked those tickets thinking if anything goes wrong at least we’ll get our money back,” she says, adding that she’s unable to make the new date as she’s due to leave the country at the end of this month. She says she “assumed cancellation also meant significant date change” and that if it had been made explicitly clear that the refund would only cover cancellation, she might have changed her mind.

“Obviously I feel really bad for any festival at the moment with how much admin and stress they have to deal with, but I think it’s really deceptive to charge people extra money for a ‘fully refundable’ ticket if, in its essence, it isn’t actually fully refundable. It’s pretty ironic they’re called NZ Spirit Festival when it feels very out of the New Zealand spirit to do this, because it’s actually quite a hidden thing … I know Splore offered refunds to anyone who couldn’t make the new date, so it just seems a little bit unfair in my opinion.”

The two-tiered options offered to festival-goers

Jon Duffy, chief executive of Consumer NZ, says sellers can’t exempt themselves from their obligations under the Consumer Guarantees Act. “The general rule is if the terms and conditions are silent to there being a postponement date, you should get a refund if the date doesn’t suit,” he says. 

“If you purchase the ticket and the postponement date is outlined as being X date in the future and you still go ahead with that purchase, that’s a different story from when a promoter is completely silent and then chooses to postpone instead of cancel. You have no idea as a consumer that the postponement will be set at X date in the future so you then have the option of a refund.”

According to O’Gorman, no terms and conditions were included in either the confirmation email or the tickets themselves. On the NZ Spirit Festival website, it currently states no refunds for festival passes would be offered if “a postponement date within three months of the original date of the festival is provided”. However, a Google cached version of the same page shows this statement wasn’t originally included prior to the postponement. 

In an email sent to ticket-holders on Monday and provided to The Spinoff after organisers were contacted for comment, the festival offered alternatives for those seeking refunds, including transferring the ticket to NZ Spirit Festival 2022 or Resolution New Year’s Eve Festival 2021, which is also run by NZ Spirit founders Nikki Rhodes and Franko Heke. In addition to running NZ Spirit (which is currently registered as NZ Wairua Limited), Rhodes is a self-described “sex, intimacy and relationship coach” while Heke, her partner, is a former rock musician who now teaches yoga and meditation.

Top: FAQ page via Google cache / Bottom: FAQ page as of February 3, 2020

Another alternative offered by NZ Spirit is to set up a verified reselling channel so ticket-holders can offload their passes to a third party. However, regardless of these options, Duffy says the Consumer Guarantees Act still applies. “People can choose to accept any kind of offer from promoters but it doesn’t negate the fact that the promoters have a legal obligation to provide a refund if the postponement date doesn’t suit,” he says. 

O’Gorman says she’s unconvinced by the offer to resell as “no one will buy these if the event doesn’t sell out”. In its initial announcement, NZ Spirit Festival also noted more tickets would be released due to the postponement “so more people can join us for less”. A number of people have now taken to social media looking to sell their tickets at a discounted price.

If organisers continue to refuse a refund, Duffy says the easiest option would be for consumers to request a chargeback through their bank, which would see their funds returned if the payment was made via credit card. The level of evidence required for a chargeback is up to each individual bank, but “typically it’s quite a simple process”, he says. The other option would be to take the organisers to the Disputes Tribunal – which should ideally only be used as a last resort. 

A selection workshops at NZ Spirit festival, including one by Rachel Hunter

In the email sent by NZ Spirit, Rhodes and Heke further explained their decision not to offer refunds. “We [took] some precautions this year for the eventuality of Covid impacting the festival by offering tickets in a two-tier price structure. The tickets at the standard price were covered against the possibility of the festival not going ahead, with the guarantee, ‘This Full Festival Pass is fully refundable in the event of a cancellation due to Covid. Had the Festival been abandoned, these tickets would have been fully refunded,” they said.

“Unfortunately for us, cancelling an event does not mean the organisers incur no costs. There are many fixed costs for a festival that still need to be paid – whether the event goes ahead or not. In the case of this year’s Spirit Festival because we were less than a week away from starting, the production and set up crews were already a few days in to the stage and facility builds. It is devastating to see it all coming down now. But, of course, they still need to be paid for the work they have done.”

One cost that won’t be incurred due to the postponement, however, is venue hire. Earlier on Monday, Tanglewood Retreat posted on Instagram it would be “fully refunding NZ Spirit to ensure Franko and Nikki can meet their obligations”. NZ Spirit Festival will now be held at Kumeu Showgrounds as Tanglewood was unable to “offer any alternate dates this year”. 

Tanglewood retreat’s announcement on Instagram

“The thing is, I want to go, and it’s not like people complaining to them are trying to make their lives difficult,” says O’Gorman. “Obviously they’re going to lose a bit of money in the change but their [social media pages] are full of hundreds of comments of people being like ‘yay, now I can finally come with this new date’, so I feel like they would’ve lost a few but they would’ve definitely gained a few as well.

“I think my main issue is the complete lack of transparency considering it’s supposed to be a community and spiritual festival. It’s like being that classic thing of being all peace, love and harmony until money gets involved,” she says. “I’m not trying to say it’s not stressful for them, but I just feel they could’ve done this in a much more decent, authentic and clear way.”

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