Weddings Are Their Job. What Happens When Everyone Postpones?

One month into the pandemic, checking in with event planners, venues, photographers and florists who make up the multibillion dollar wedding industry.

Spike Gillespie, the owner of Tiny T Ranch, an events space in Garfield, Texas, has allowed couples to have intimate ceremonies on the property.
Credit...Andrea Reesing of Wild Rose Photo Studio

This was supposed to be the start of the busy season for wedding vendors — a time to freshen floral bouquets, ask guests to take their seats and wrangle wayward bridesmaids into picture-perfect arrangements.

Instead these florists, event planners, photographers and officiants are staying home. So are the DJs, caterers and, most critically, the brides and grooms.

It’s been about a month since the coronavirus was declared a worldwide pandemic and couples throughout the United States began postponing their spring weddings en masse.

Some couples, though, are eloping, getting married on Zoom or hosting small, socially distant ceremonies in their backyards and front porches.

But for the workers whose livelihoods depend on weddings happening as scheduled, there is no Plan B. The $74 billion wedding industry has been upended by Covid-19, with more than 400,000 businesses jerking to a halt, according to the market research firm IBISWorld.

Wedding vendors now spend their weekends navigating the mechanics of a postponement. They’re playing complicated guessing games about safe rescheduling dates; calculating how long they can last without their typical revenue stream; applying for financial assistance that they worry will never come; and thinking about how this pandemic may change weddings for years to come

Credit...Edward Winter/Readyluck

“Everybody just wants someone to tell them what to do,” said Jove Meyer, a Brooklyn-based wedding planner.

Knowing what to do was easier when it came to his scheduled spring events. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has warned that restrictions promoting social distancing could be extended until June. One of Mr. Meyer’s lush, colorful weddings — or any wedding requiring a planner — wasn’t going to happen in May.

But for summer and fall weddings, the path forward is less clear.

“When you’re seeing these major world events being postponed — the Olympics, or the Pride Parade, or the Met Gala — couples really start to think: ‘If they’re postponing, why am I not postponing?’” Mr. Meyer said. “They’re nervous and they have all this free time to worry about it.”

His next scheduled wedding is July 24, though he said it will likely be postponed. Two June weddings were postponed by one year, and another to December. An August wedding in Lake Como was canceled after the bride contracted Covid-19, Mr. Meyer said; she’s since recovered, but she’s worried about family members traveling for the wedding.

Mr. Meyer, who has been a full-time event planner for eight years, takes on six to 10 weddings a year. His events are typically large-scale affairs, and he has two part-time employees. (About 60 percent of his business is weddings, while the rest is corporate events.)

In the next month or so, Mr. Meyer was expecting to make 30 percent of his annual income from final payments, he said. (Most wedding vendors break up their payments into two to four installments, with the final payment coming right before the wedding.)

Last month he applied for a loan from the United States Small Business Administration, which is providing up to $10,000 for businesses experiencing temporary difficulties, but he’s increasingly skeptical of the program and, like other small business owners, frustrated by a lack of communication.

In the meantime, Mr. Meyer isn’t charging couples a fee for postponements, though contractually he could if needed. Working in weddings is a balancing act, he said: “Being a human with a heart and compassion but also business that has to stay afloat.”

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On the outskirts of Austin, Texas, there is a small chapel — less than 250 square feet — painted white with dark gray trimming, sitting on acres of greenery.

Spike Gillespie, the owner of Tiny T Ranch, has been hosting weddings there since 2016, after a decade of performing officiant duties around Austin. She also has a ranch house and a reception hall on the property. About 30 times a year, she rents out the land for three-day wedding weekends, welcoming up to 150 guests. Much more often, she performs ceremonies for elopers on the bucolic chapel’s front steps, framed by stained-glass windows.

“I’m very grateful the word ‘rustic’ is still popular on Pinterest,” she said.

As of last week, she was still allowing eloping couples to visit the ranch with a photographer or someone equipped for live-streaming (or both). During the ceremony she stands 10 feet away from couples, warning in advance that she’ll be wearing a mask.

“I do question the wisdom in it a little bit,” Ms. Gillespie said, acknowledging that while she’s firm about safety measures, she still feels uncertain about how the virus works. “When they hand me their wedding license, I’m thinking: ‘Oh, is this crawling with coronavirus?’”

All of Ms. Gillespie’s upcoming weekend weddings have been rescheduled for the fall or 2021, she said. This doesn’t just mean her anticipated spring revenue will be delayed, but that she’s forgoing incoming bookings from new couples who would have otherwise taken those prime autumn dates — a potential loss of about $21,000. (Renting the property for the weekend costs around $3,000.)

Ms. Gillespie said she’s applied for assistance from the Knot Worldwide, a wedding website conglomerate offering $10 million to assist local advertising partners. Tiny T Ranch spends $300 a month to partner with the Knot, though Ms. Gillespie has been considering canceling advertising to save cash in the short term.

In the long term, she’s thinking about how she’ll fare in a post-pandemic economy. “Not that this pleases me given all the suffering people are enduring, but oddly this might help my business in the long run,” she said. “Because my prices for the venue are so low, it’s possible that people who want to marry in 2021 but who have to scale way back will choose the ranch over a high-end venue.”

The last wedding Kesha Lambert shot was on March 13 — a destination wedding on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. Just before she left her home in Westport, Conn., her children’s school had announced it was closing.

Still, while her flight to the Caribbean seemed lighter than usual, there were only a few people around her wearing masks, Ms. Lambert said. At the wedding, the pandemic only came up once in conversation.

“It was like we were in a bubble,” she said. “The wedding was beautiful. No one seemed to be thinking about it.”

By the end of March, all 12 weddings she had booked in April, her busiest month, were postponed. (Ms. Lambert employs three seasonal associate photographers, and together they shoot about 60 to 70 weddings annually.)

“I’m coming out of my slow season expecting to get started up again, and then we get hit like a brick,” she said.

For Ms. Lambert, it’s helpful to know that the invoices she expected to be paid this month will be paid eventually — all of the couples aren’t canceling outright and asking for refunds. She’s already submitted an application for the federal small business loan, though she’s not optimistic about it.

“You don’t stay in business for long unless you’re a fighter,” she said. “I do have that in me, but I also understand that I can only control the things that I can control.”

Her next wedding is scheduled for May 25, though she expects it will also be pushed back. So far, 80 percent of her June weddings have been postponed, she said. Some couples had no choice. A wedding in St. Lucia was canceled after the government closed its borders indefinitely. That couple plans to keep their date but get married in a courthouse instead, and they’ve asked Ms. Lambert to still photograph the day.

“A lot hinges on what’s happening in the world,” Ms. Lambert said. “I’m not fearful of passing on a financial opportunity when it comes to the safety of myself and my family.”

Credit...Brumley & Wells

Last fall, after Sammy Go attended a wedding that had to be evacuated because of the California coastline’s wildfires, the florist began thinking about how volatile environmental conditions might change weddings. Then the pandemic happened.

“Will people be willing to put so much on the line for something we’re realizing more and more that we are less in control of than we thought?” said Mr. Go, the owner of Lambert Floral Studio in San Francisco, which handles arrangements for about 15 weddings a year.

Until the cancellations began rolling in, this March was supposed to be particularly busy for Mr. Go. Three weeks before Governor Gavin Newsom ordered California residents to stay home, Lambert Floral Studio was included on Harper Bazaar’s list of top wedding florists in the world.

Now Mr. Go is filing for unemployment, applying for loans and thinking about how to adjust his business model, while also co-parenting an infant son. He’s not charging couples for postponing, he said. All deposits and retainers are transferable to later dates.

His clients have been “very pleasant and even apologetic to me as a vendor, knowing I will have to go without a paycheck until the actual event date,” he said. “The pandemic is a great equalizer.”

While Mr. Go has no employees, he works with a network of freelance floral designers — and he values this camaraderie in an industry where colleagues don’t share an office or break room. In his free time, he’s been leaving several supportive Yelp reviews for peers. (Though at one point, Yelp flagged this as suspicious behavior, Mr. Go said.) And he’s still thinking about what weddings will look like when everyday life normalizes.

“There’s two ways to think about it,” Mr. Go said. Either the economic hardship of the pandemic will result in simpler gatherings next year, with less expense and less risk. Or these months of isolation will underscore the importance of gathering, creating a hunger for meaningful shared events.

“Humans will either invest or divest from celebrating with one another,” he said.

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