Bride-to-be Natalie Hooper fusses over the taste of her wedding cake. It's not a case of last-minute jitters before her big day.
The Elk Grove Village woman and her fiancÚ won't actually try the cake until April -- along with the rest of their guests at the reception.
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Consumer advocates and wedding planners say brides- and grooms-to-be can tap several resources to protect their investment in booking a venue.
• Surf reviews on websites like TheKnot.com and the Better Business Bureau's directory of accredited businesses.
• Make payments on a credit card instead of check or cash so you can challenge billing errors.
• If you have the room in your budget, a wedding planner accredited with the Association of Bridal Consultants can have access to trustworthy businesses.
• Take out wedding insurance to cover unexpected emergencies.
It's just one of the snags since the couple learned the Mount Prospect banquet hall they hired abruptly closed, leaving the future of their $5,000 deposit in limbo.
"My heart dropped," Hooper said. "It's the last thing you want to hear a month before your wedding."
Hooper and her fiancÚ, Jim Senne, know they are one of the lucky ones after Bristol Court Banquets unexpectedly shut its doors last week. The couple were able to book another venue that allowed them to keep their wedding date.
But moving the reception means they had to start planning from scratch and come up with the funds for another deposit.
Facing a major time crunch, Hooper chose the courses and cake from pictures off a menu, unable to participate in the time-honored tradition of taste-testing at prospective venues.
Hooper said she's left "trying to pick up the pieces."
Consumer advocates and suburban wedding planners say engaged couples can take several steps to protect their time and investment.
Careful research can help shield brides and grooms from forking over money to unreliable businesses that don't follow through with services.
"Besides ruining your day, it puts a hole in your wallet, too," Chicago Better Business Bureau spokesman Tom Joyce said.
Couples can take out wedding insurance to cover unexpected nightmares like a damaged wedding dress, missing minister or a shuttered venue.
"It's always good to plan for the worst," said Gina Vittorio-Orona, a wedding planner for Downers Grove-based One Fine Day Events.
Vittorio-Orona urges clients to tour a venue when crews are setting up for another event. Keep an eye out for personal attention -- a business that doesn't return your calls or emails within 48 hours raises the alarm, she said.
And read the fine print in contracts. Most locations tack on additional fees for bartending, parking and overtime.
"Looking for a venue is kind of like looking for a home," Vittorio-Orona said. "You just have to kind of go with a gut instinct."
Kelly Bayer saw no red flags when she vetted Bristol Court ahead of her summer wedding. She even raved about the food in weddings she attended at the banquet hall on Rand Road.
"There was just no way to see this coming," the Arlington Heights woman said.
Her parents made more than $5,000 in payments to Bristol Court, with the last one in December.
Her mom, Mary Bayer, hit the phones and reserved an alternative, The Cotillion, a Palatine banquet hall that offered special deals and other incentives to help take the sting out of the closing for her disgruntled daughter and future son-in-law.
"They really are stepping up," Mary Bayer said of the new venue's efforts.
A number of businesses besides The Cotillion have gone out of their way to help Bristol Court victims, said Dawn Fletcher Collins, executive director of the Mount Prospect Chamber of Commerce.
Bristol Court had been tangled in several contract disputes with vendors in recent years, according to court documents. An attorney listed on Secretary of State records for the business did not return calls seeking comment.
For now, people who paid as much as $10,000 appear to be out their deposits, said Kristina Regal, an attorney for a Palatine firm who is representing two Bristol Court clients.
Hooper, who works in logistics, had visited Bristol Court in late February to sample the catering and picked a marble cake with mocha filling. She found out about the closing from her mom's friend after the website and phone numbers were disconnected and a padlock was placed on the doors.
If there's a bright side, Hooper said she and her fiancÚ have grown closer from dealing with the trauma before their ceremony and reception at the new location, the Meridian Banquet and Conference Center in Rolling Meadows.
"I think we are going to cherish this day even more knowing what we've gone through," she said.