Betrayed brides squeezed for cash before venue shuts up shop
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Betrayed brides squeezed for cash before venue shuts up shop

Wedding reception managers who shut up shop and left dozens of couples without a venue at the last minute were asking clients to deposit thousands of dollars as recently as three weeks ago.

Documents reveal the owners of Melbourne wedding venue The Willows borrowed $134,250 early last month, which they secured against a personal property in Mount Eliza that has since been put on the market.

The loan, at an interest rate of 4.95 per cent a month, was lodged by Brisbane-based solicitors Elliott May Lawyers and lists the guarantors as Aaron and Estelle Lewis.

Bradley Sommers and Andrea Richards have been left high and dry by the company that manages The Willows reception centre.

Bradley Sommers and Andrea Richards have been left high and dry by the company that manages The Willows reception centre.Credit:Joe Armao

Receivers are set to look into the company that traded as Lewis Hospitality Management Pty Ltd and examine whether it continued to trade while insolvent.

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Couples who booked at the venue were recently told they would get discounts if they doubled their deposits by June 10.

On May 30, the venue contacted the would-be newlyweds to say “as valued customers, we would like to take this opportunity to offer you an early payment discount”.

The venue’s website has since been shut down, its phones go unanswered and all its social media channels have been pulled. Mr Lewis has deleted his LinkedIn profile.

Jennifer Stevens-Ballenger and her fiance Simon agreed to pay $2500 on top of their $2500 deposit after an email from the venue with an “end of financial year offer” ending on June 8.

“We appreciate that weddings are expensive and some couples welcome the opportunity for more flexible payment terms & discounts,” the email said.

Ms Stevens-Ballenger, who booked in May for a peak-season wedding in January 2019, has not heard from the company and fears she and her fiance will lose thousands in deposits and cancellation fees for the florist, celebrant and photographer.

“We’re trying to find somewhere on the same date because we have a number of other suppliers booked,” Ms Stevens-Ballenger said.

“The main thing for us is the dodginess of asking for more money so close to this happening.”

Bradley Sommers and Andrea Richards were also offered a discount for early payment and now can't contact the company.

“We have received an email on April 11, offering us a discount of $600 from the total bill if we [were] able to make our next payment of $5000 by April 30," he said.

The Willows, an heritage-listed 1890 Victorian mansion, has been managed by Aaron and Estelle Lewis since 2002. Mr Lewis is a chef by trade, while Ms Lewis has a background in sales and corporate HR.

Company documents list Mr Lewis as the director and sole shareholder of Lewis Hospitality Management.

The company lodged documents with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission three times in the past week including to change company details, company address and principal place of business.

In recent days, the couple listed their four-bedroom, two-bathroom Mount Eliza home for sale with an expected price of $1.5 million.

A number of  venues contacted The Age to offer alternatives to those left stranded. Rockpool Dining Group manager Joshua Hillary offered to help host the displaced weddings and work with any budget.

Paul Bellotti, manager at 333 Collins Street also urged any of the soon-to-be newlyweds to be in touch.