Wedding planners are finding their businesses at the mercy of government restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings, as constantly changing rules have resulted in engaged couples to postponing their nuptials or getting hitched virtually.
“We have some members that have told us they're completely leaving the wedding industry and not coming back,” said Kevin Dennis, president of the Wedding International Professionals Association, which has a New York chapter.
For some, it’s been financially devastating; according to Dennis, most are entrepreneurs and didn’t have stable income prior to the pandemic. They “weren't able to withstand everything that's going on.”
He said many of those who have managed to stay in business have done so by reinventing themselves.
Dennis, who is based in California, said he knows of one wedding furniture company that is now renting out chairs and tables to a flu clinic. And Dennis, whose own wedding planning company specializes in lighting, “started decorating houses this year for the holidays.”
Brooklyn wedding planner Debbie Cesar launched A La Mode Experience 11 years ago. After the first lockdown in March, she saw a 70% drop in revenue.
“Everything was either canceled, postponed, and then we just had to shut down,” said Cesar. “We lost about 70 percent of our clients and business until it became really, really tough.”
She kept her business afloat by taking on corporate and non-profit project management jobs that she could handle virtually.
“The first event that we were able to do online was a Mother's Day event for 50 single mothers” at local shelters,” she said. “We weren't going to be able to survive losing 70% percent of the business and technically, potentially almost 90% percent, because out of 10 weddings, only one or two people want to do Zoom.”
And virtual wedding brings in far less revenue compared to an in-person affair. A wedding on Zoom nets Cesar about $1,000. An in-person affair: $7,000 profit.
Cesar said she has seen a shift in thinking among couples; earlier in the pandemic, many were willing to take a risk and have an in-person wedding. Now, she said, they’re thinking about elderly family members.
“They are thinking, ‘I don't want to put my family at risk,’” she said. “ ‘Do I really want my mom to be a part of this? Am I willing to put her at risk?’ “I think that’s applaudable,” Cesar said.
Of the three weddings she has this month, she expects one to be postponed, and a second, with 50 people, to be canceled; that one had 50 people. Cesar said the third will be held in the couple’s living room, within the 10-person limit.
The couple, six guests, a caterer and Cesar will participate.
Cesar said Zoom weddings still need a planner to make sure the day goes off without a hitch, because the guests don’t always remember wedding etiquette still stands— - even in a virtual space.
“People come on in T-shirts. They come to hang out. They're driving. The background is loud. They forget to mute themselves,” she said, laughing.
“It gets distracting … so there has to be someone that makes sure everyone is muted” when the ceremony starts.
She also adds personal touches—like a virtual waiting room with music, or a slide show of the couple.
“Someone has to manage that.”
Also working against the $55 billion industry is the reputation weddings have developed as super-spreading events.
A 55-person wedding in rural Maine has now been linked to 177 COVID-19 cases, including seven deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And just this week, the Washington Post reported that nursing home staffers were among the 300 people that attended a wedding in Washington State linked to a COVID-19 outbreak. Six residents of nursing homes where those staffers worked have since died.
Couples that do move forward with big plans risk a backlash. A Chicago-area hotel was cited by the Cook County Department of Health for hosting a wedding reception with about 150 people. Officials called the bride and groom “reckless and irresponsible.”
But most planners are trying to work within the limits the pandemic has placed on them.
Across the Hudson River, in Paterson, New Jersey, Mimi Weaver is the owner of Nevaeh-Leh, a wedding and events planning business. She’s planned virtual weddings for couples, and agrees—the revenue is far lower.
She said she has been able to stay open by relying on income from her second job as a legal assistant.
“One thing this pandemic has taught us is nothing is safe,” Weaver said. “Having your own business cannot be your only source of income.”
She said wedding planners—and engaged couples—have to be prepared for conditions to change their plans, but that’s not easy when flowers, cakes, and dresses need to be ordered in advance.
“Everyone's scared now,” Weaver said. “They’re saying, ‘I can't put a date in concrete.’”
The economic climate has prompted Weaver to change her practices. She used to pay vendors quickly after couples made a deposit. Now, she holds onto the payment longer because most vendors will only give a credit, not a refund, which the couples don’t like.
“They want their money,” she said, “so that's something that I've implemented where I just hold onto the money.”
One bride who knows very well about changing plans is Latoya Bartlett, 35, who married DeJon Bartlett, 29, this summer.
They started planning a year ago for an 85-person traditional wedding ceremony, including a bridal party of 10. The date was set for June 27th.
“That's when he asked me to be his girlfriend,” she said. “That's when he proposed. And we were holding on to the date because it was kind of like bringing our relationship full circle.”
By April—with the region in a lockdown and cases worsening—Bartlett realized an in-person event could not happen.
“It was very hard,” she recalled. “It was very emotional for me because I had this picture in my head of what I wanted.”
But they decided to focus on what was most important to both of them—that they were getting married.
The actual ceremony had 25 people, all of them in masks—except Bartlett. She had just had her makeup done for the occasion.
The rest of her family watched online.
Later, when Bartlett viewed the wedding video, she was delighted. Some family members were elegantly dressed, and holding a champagne glass, as they watched the ceremony play out a laptop propped up in their living room. Another relative watched while driving in her car.
“It was hilarious,” Bartlett said. “They were having their own party.”
When the video shows the officiant announcing them husband and wife, the camera darts from screen to screen, showing family members across the country cheering.
“It's not what I envisioned, you know, my dad having to wear a mask, walking me down the aisle,” she said. But she said the day was perfect.
“I wouldn't change anything. You know what? I'm grateful.”