With a 10-person maximum set for gatherings and all non-essential travel and business put to a stop, in a matter of weeks the COVID-19 outbreak ground southeastern Connecticut’s wedding industry to a halt.
“When you work in this type of world, if you don’t work you don’t get paid,” said Denita Phillips, a makeup artist based out of Hartford. “A week or two before the governor shut everything down people started canceling. A lot of people are thinking it might take a lot longer than a couple of weeks or months, brides in June, July or August might reschedule too. This is causing the whole industry to take a deep dive.”
In 2019, more than 18,000 couples were married in Connecticut, according to The Wedding Report. Most of those between May and October. Now, all April weddings have been called off and many May brides, grooms and vendors have followed suit – although not all.
“A lot of venues, especially very popular venues, are holding out on May and later brides and not allowing them to push back until there is official word,” said Jessica Dewitt, a wedding planner and owner of Dewitt Planning. “You don’t want to be too cautious because if everything is back to normal that’s a lot of money lost.”
For weddings coming later in the season, everyone involved is holding their breath and trying to figure out how to plan in such an uncertain time.
“We rescheduled all our May dates and are working on the June ones. We have given people the option, but they’re not mandated yet,” said Andrea Isaacs, the owner of The Lace Factory wedding venue in Deep River. “It’s hard for us though. It has put a big cloud over everything. For weddings, you plan so far out it’s not easy to rebook.”
Some couples, according to Dewitt, are opting for a smaller ceremony and reception rather than postponing.
“I have a lot of brides who would rather not cancel, but just downsize,” Dewitt said. “They are sending out cancel invitations.”
The financial hardship
Even just with four to six weeks of events canceled or postponed, many vendors are already feeling the financial hurt.
“January until end of March is the slowest time of year for me so I am at the lowest earning point of the year already,” said Lisa Argilagos, the owner of You Take the Cake bakery in New London. “I am worried that with less money to spend a lot of weddings we’ll downsize. All catering and restaurants are on thin margins already. I will hang on for as long as I can.”
Argilagos, like Phillips and most wedding vendors, are paid a retainer prior to the wedding date, but often do not get paid in full until the day of. When events are canceled or postponed, their income is delayed a few months or even a year for some weddings.
The average Connecticut wedding in 2019 cost more than $35,000 – and right now all that money is on hold.
In order to stay afloat during this time, The Lace Factory – and many other area venues – have laid off employees.
The refund and rescheduling dilemma
The hardest part of the whole situation, according to most vendors, is that there is no blueprint for what to do. To reschedule or not to reschedule, to refund or not to refund – all those decisions are on the table and the chances that a global pandemic was included in their contract is slim.
“Some people are doing full refunds, some are doing rescheduling with transfer and some are doing no refunds at all. Nobody is the same,” said Ashley Abel, a Connecticut-based wedding photographer. “Originally I had in my policy that if you cancelled your wedding you owed the money no matter what. Now I will have to revise that.”
Phillips, who has decided to completely refund her clients who cannot reschedule – said that she feels everyone needs the money a little bit more right now.
“Everybody is going through the same thing, so I am refunding people because they need it,” she said. “It’s hard for me, but it would be hard for me to keep their money too.”
Abel herself is working to reschedule most of her events at no charge to her clients. Of her nine May weddings, five have already rescheduled. But rescheduling poses another enormous challenge – can all the vendors and the venue make the same day work.
“I keep telling brides don’t just book a date without talking to all your vendors,” Abel said.
Dewitt said she is urging brides to keep a line of communication open with all vendors.
“I have to try to get brides to understand why some vendors need you to move it; they can’t just refund it,” Dewitt said. “It’s not just your wedding they would be refunding. They’re refunding months at this point and that’s a lot of money to expect them to have lying around.”
When it comes to rescheduling – dates are hard to come by as most weddings are now booked one to two years in advance. Several vendors have had to say no to rescheduling because they already have events booked for the new date.
“We were getting lots of inquiries for 2021, so for couples getting engaged availability for next year is going to be really tough,” Dewitt said.
In the coming months and years, many vendors said, they expect to see smaller weddings and elopements become more popular.
“Are people really going to feel comfortable enough gathering in large groups? Are people going to feel comfortable to leave their house and go to your wedding?” Dewitt said. “People want to have a no-issue wedding.”
Dewitt said that she expects couples who have their eyes set on large events will be considering dates past 2021.
“I tell clients, always remember what you’re doing the event for. It’s the who, what, when, where, why. Never lose sight of that. If you’re feeling like you have to string everything together and put it back together quickly, it’s okay to just postpone, take a moment, and breathe,” she said. “The best thing for everyone is just to make sure you are 100 percent comfortable. The guests being 100 percent comfortable is key. The ‘I need to get married in 2020, so I’ll take a Monday or a Wednesday,’ is silly. Don’t give up what you want.”