KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. (WAVY) – The Outer Banks is one of the most popular backdrops for a wedding. But one wedding planner who tried to break into the business there says she’s being denied a chance to compete on a level playing field.
Christy Ethridge moved to Kill Devil Hills last year with eight years’ experience under her belt as a wedding planner in Atlanta and St. Thomas Virgin Islands. When she arrived, she heard about the Outer Banks Wedding Association (OBWA), a 300-member organization that promotes the Outer Banks (OBX) as a wedding destination, as well as the services of its members to perspective brides.
As it happened, when Ethridge arrived on the OBX, the OBWA had an opening for executive director. In an email she provided to WAVY.com, the organization told Ethridge she “might be the perfect fit” for the job. The email, with a “From” line naming the group’s outgoing board president, said Ethridge was a strong candidate and group leaders “[had] all been very impressed with [her] vigor, enthusiasm and professionalism.”
Ethridge was invited to interview for the position, but said it didn’t go well.
“I would like to know where we went from ‘we feel you are perfect for the job’ to ‘we have reservations of hiring you,’” Ethridge said.
Not only did she not get the job, the woman who interviewed her – incoming board president Kim Stetson – did.
“Why is the person interviewing me for the job also an applicant for the job?” Ethridge asked.
So Ethridge turned to Plan B: she would start her own wedding planning business, become an OBWA member, and leverage the group’s considerable marketing power to get off the ground. In December, she filled out a membership application and waited.
In February, Stetson wrote Ethridge to inform her that her application for membership was declined. The letter stated Ethridge had “intercepted leads intended for OBWA members only and used them for personal gain” – a violation of the group’s code of ethics.
Stetson declined to comment to WAVY.com about this decision, but the group’s attorney sent a written statement to 10 On Your Side that makes three references to the OBWA’s “established membership standards” and “code of ethics,” but says nothing about why the group rejected Ethridge as a member. It extended her “the opportunity to participate in a hearing before the OBWA Board of Directors to reconsider her application.” The OBWA had no further comment.
According to Deborah Sawyer, a professional photographer, OBWA member and past president of the board, it was she who shared job leads with Ethridge and asked her to follow up on them.
“If [the OBWA] had told her from the beginning that that was the reason they were denying her membership, I could have easily cleared that up,” Sawyer said. “There was just no call for it … it’s just sad.”
Ethridge also denies that she intercepted job leads for her own gain.
‘Part of me was shocked and part of me said, typical’
Deborah Sawyer remembers when the OBWA was a fledgling organization of around two dozen members. Twelve years ago when she was board president, she said the group was close-knit and friendly.
Sawyer said some members still try to help those who are new to the area.
“But some people aren’t that way,” Sawyer said. “You never seem to go six months without hearing a story of someone with something happened.”
Until now, Deborah Sawyer’s opinion is that no one has wanted to make waves.
“I think it’s time to do it,” Sawyer said. “What’s happened to this poor girl, it just shouldn’t happen. Part of me was shocked and part of me frankly said, typical of a lot of things that happen with this organization now. “
Sawyer, who has been a professional photographer for 37 years, calls Ethridge “not only the best wedding planner [she's] ever worked with, she’s also the most qualified.”
“I feel like I have returned to my freshman days of high school,” Ethridge said. “I feel like I’m not in the clique.”
Ethridge is awaiting her hearing for reconsideration of her application.
Last month she filed a formal complaint with the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, contending that denial of membership in the OBWA has denied her the same business advantage as her competitors.
“If you don’t have those same opportunities that your competitors have, you have a challenge in trying to book business,” Ethridge said.
After reviewing the case, the Antitrust Division’s Citizen Complaint Center concluded “that the information provided does not raise antitrust issues that warrant further review.” In a letter to Ethridge, the government office also stated: “we are prohibited from providing legal advice or offering opinions on whether conduct may violate the law.”
Sawyer shared her opinion that if brides and even bridesmaids see conflict among vendors, they might be reluctant to recommend the area as a wedding destination — essentially, this dispute could affect future wedding business on the Outer Banks.