Cheers to Change: The New Wis. Stat. 125 – Changes for Wedding Barns & Other Venues

I suppose this blog post could be called “All Good Things Must Come to an End.” As part of our series on the changes to Wis. Stat. 125 under Assembly Bill 304 (“AB304“), today we are focusing on some big changes coming down the pipeline for wedding barns and other wedding venues. Read on for more information. 

Historically, wedding barns and other venues that leased space for events and allowed customers to bring their own alcohol operated under the auspices of being “private” and therefore, not subject to the same municipal licensing requirements other retail establishments (like bars) must comply with.  Basically, this was the same type of model that Airbnb and Uber operated under. Airbnb was not a hotel or motel, just a friend allowing another friend to sleep on a couch for one night.  Uber was not a taxi service, just friends who met each other over a phone application agreeing to drive each other for a fee.  Of course, that is no longer the reality – Airbnb is regulated and taxed like a hotel, and Uber, a taxi service.  The same will be true, for better or worse, for wedding barns and other venues in Wisconsin under AB304 – albeit, delayed for two years, rather than implemented in May 2024.

Like Uber and Airbnb, wedding barns, of course, were akin to holding a wedding in your friend’s very clean, very fancy barn for a small fee; a private event on private property. Under the language adopted by AB304, however, wedding barns will be considered “public” places and therefore subject to municipal licensing requirements, with one very limited exception. To allow the consumption of beer, wine, and spirits at their venues, owners must apply for a municipal Combination Class B license.  Combination Class B licenses, however, are subject to quota and if all a municipality has available is a reserve license, a $10,000 fee.  If a reserve license is not available in a venue owner’s municipality or the $10,000 reserve fee is not feasible, what can an owner do?  There are three potential options to allow at least some type of alcohol to be consumed during events, in descending order of preference. 

Option 1 is to seek an available Reserve Combination Class B license from another municipality.  Under AB304, municipalities within the same county can transfer reserve licenses between them. This is a big change because under prior Chapter 125, reserve license transfers were only allowed between abutting municipalities or those within two miles of each other.  However, the municipality with the license to spare must agree to the transfer and can dictate the price, which may be above $10,000. 

Option 2 is to obtain a municipal Class B Beer and Class C Wine license.  Class B Beer and Class C Wine licenses are inexpensive and are not subject to quota.  Yes, the tradeoff is that spirits will be unavailable, and that may be a dealbreaker for many venues, but if a Combination Class B License is unavailable, at least some kind of alcohol can be offered.

Option 3 is to obtain a “No Sale Event Venue Permit[i]” and allow guests to bring their own beer and wine to the venue, free of charge, but be limited to a total of six days of events per year and no more than one day of events per month. As with Option 2, spirits will be unavailable under Option 3. Given the severe limitation on the number of events that can be held under the No-Sale Event Venue permit and the realities of the Spring and Summer wedding season in Wisconsin, it’s hard to imagine that it will be a viable solution for many venues.  The good news is that the Legislature understood that weddings are booked two years in advance, and rather than upend the business model of many small venues, these particular changes will not be implemented for at least two years.

More changes are coming! Thanks for reading.

[i] Assembly Bill 304 at Page 61