US wedding industry hit as couples say ‘I don’t’ amid pandemic

United States wedding industry – valued at $74bn – faces uncertainty as ceremonies are cancelled.

Kealyn Forde
Samantha Wellner and Sean Bernson are among the thousands of US couples who have had to postpone their weddings due to the COVID-19 crisis [Credit: courtesy Samantha Wellner]

Samantha Wellner’s dream wedding was a black-tie affair at a country club near where she grew up on Long Island, New York – a 150-guest bash filled with family, friends and food.

She and her fiance, Sean Bernson, had planned a whole weekend of events for their out-of-town guests that included yoga, wine tasting and brunch. June 19, 2020 seemed like the perfect time to tie the knot – until New York became the epicentre of the United States coronavirus outbreak.

Wellner and Bernson booked their original venue a year in advance, and planned to spend $35,000 for the space, food and drinks. Now, they fear mid-June is still too soon for people to gather safely – and the delay could affect more than just the big day.

“Our plan was always to be engaged for a year and to start a family right after getting married. Part of our plan was also to kick off our marriage with a big party, but we’re realising now that may not be in the cards for us,” Wellner, 34, told Al Jazeera. “It’s important to us to get married this year because we’re in our mid-30s and want to start building a family.”

Because New York State has already started lifting some coronavirus restrictions, Wellner and Bernson said they may lose their $6,000 deposit. Under the contract they signed, they say, unless the venue can book a comparably-sized event for June 19, the couple is on the hook. They said they’re also fighting to get back the $7,000 they paid to reserve a block of hotel rooms nearby.

“This is supposed to be a joyous, fun time, and it’s impossible to be joyous when we’re spending our time arguing with people over the phone and worrying about if we are going to get our loved ones sick,” Bernson, 34, told Al Jazeera. 

The couple is far from alone.

Thousands of postponed weddings

Nearly 450,000 US weddings were originally planned for March, April and May of 2020, according to data from wedding-planning websites WeddingWire and The Knot.

And while only four percent of couples have cancelled their weddings rather than postponed them, it still has a huge impact on vendors in the short term, Kristen Maxwell Cooper, The Knot’s editor-in-chief, told Al Jazeera.

“Many of our small business partners, the wedding professionals that make weddings happen, are feeling a strain on their bottom line as couples look to postpone and reschedule their weddings for later this year or into 2021,” Maxwell Cooper explained.

The average US wedding costs $33,900 for the ceremony, reception and engagement ring, according to a WeddingWire survey of more than 27,000 couples. As a whole, the industry is valued at $74bn and employs more than 1.2 million people, according to a report from IBISWorld.

Nicole Marie Zillman, 32, is one of them. She owns a small wedding and vacation-planning company based in California and Colorado. For weddings, she is paid per event, and after taking a deposit, she only collects the remaining balance a week before a couple’s big day. For honeymoons and travel, she receives her commission only after the trip is complete.

“With weddings and travel being as up in the air as I’ve ever seen, our job security at an all-time low,” Zillman told Al Jazeera. “A lot of wedding planners and travel agents just flat-out won’t make an income on events in the next few months and will have to live off of deposits for events far in the future, if they’ve booked them.”

Zillman estimates she’s already lost $5,000 directly in wedding coordination fees and travel commissions since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, but “indirectly, I’ve lost anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000 in weddings that are now not booking services or vendors,” she said. “People are indefinitely postponing or cancelling their weddings out of fear and the unknown. This will continue to affect the wedding industry well into 2022.”

I never expected to have a guy in a medical mask and gloves handing out hand sanitiser to our wedding guests.

by Sean Bernson, engaged to be married

That’s partly because even as businesses are allowed to reopen, planners and couples don’t really know what weddings under social-distancing guidelines will look like.

Under the White House’s three-phased plan, wedding venues could reopen with “strict” physical distancing during phase one and “moderate” physical distancing during phase two.

“However, these terms are so vague, it is really hard for us as planners and venue operators – as well as brides and grooms – to picture how that would work, or what that would look like,” Zillman explained. “Will there need to be empty chairs between guests? Will dance floors be banned? What about dinner service?”

“Weddings are basically a combination of a church service, a bar, a restaurant and a dance club – all things that are still closed – so there is a lot of uncertainty of what weddings will look like in the very near future,” she added.

Zillman said she qualified for the $1,200 stimulus cheque that most Americans were eligible for under he government’s virus relief aid package. But she hasn’t received any small business loans and “not one of my fellow colleagues in the wedding industry – photographers, rentals companies, other planners – qualified for small business assistance.”

To try to keep vendors afloat, The Knot has set up a $10m vendor-assistance programme. But whether couples will be able to afford to shell out what they did pre-pandemic for their weddings also remains to be seen.

Nearly 39 million Americans have filed for jobless benefits since mid-March, and many economists are warning that the US unemployment rate could peak around Great Depression levels. 

The average couple pays for about half of their wedding, with parents footing the other half of the bill, according to the WeddingWire survey. And 45 percent of families use savings to pay, which could be diminished after being out of work for months.

Canceled honeymoons

The COVID-19 crisis has also hit the travel industry hard. The same survey found 70 percent of US couples take a honeymoon after their wedding – with 61 percent going abroad. But travel restrictions and uncertainty have postponed those trips indefinitely, and hit the travel agents who rely on those commissions hard.

Kristen Lowrey Larson, 39, is a travel advisor with Artistico Travel Consultants in California who books luxury four-star honeymoons and vacations, many of them international getaways like safaris, cruises or tours. She estimates she’s lost between $15,000 and $20,000 in commissions due to COVID-19.

“My business was impacted immediately, as I had clients due to travel abroad in April, so their trips were cancelled as soon as the shelter-in-place order went into effect in California,” Lowrey Larson told Al Jazeera. “Now, all of my bookings through June have been cancelled, and I anticipate the bookings for July will cancel next week as our partners extend their own cancellations on tours and cruises.”

Like Zillman, Lowrey Larson is only paid after a client travels, so it could be a while before she sees any income at all. Her family of four is surviving off her husband’s income in the meantime, but the uncertainty of how long the crisis will last makes booking future weddings and travel tough.

That’s why some couples have opted to get married during the pandemic – holding socially distant ceremonies with just an officiant and celebrating with loved ones over Zoom. But many others, like Wellner and Bernson, still hope to have an in-person celebration.

The couple has rescheduled their wedding for September 3, but that requires changing venues, slashing the guest list by a third and moving the event to a Thursday. Wellner and Bernson’s reception will look very different from what they imagined – no passed hors d’oeuvres or self-service buffets, guests separated from food by plexiglass partitions and servers wearing gloves and masks.

“I never expected to have a guy in a medical mask and gloves handing out hand sanitiser to our wedding guests,” Bernson said. “But this is such an ugly year, and to be able to provide some fun, to be able to provide one night of dancing, that’s what we want. We miss our friends, and our friends and family are important to us.”

The couple also worries that infections could spike again before September, potentially putting vulnerable guests at risk.

“I know my grandfather wants to be there, but I don’t want him risking his life to see us get married,” Bernson said. “Both of us have relatives who are elderly or who have other health issues, and that’s our biggest concern.”

Wellner said it might end up being a smaller ceremony with a big party down the road. “We all may need to still be wearing masks,” she said, adding she would try to find matching ones for the bridesmaids and groomsmen. “We’re starting to ask ourselves if we should just get married with our immediate family and hold the reception we always envisioned when there’s more certainty in the world.”

Source: Al Jazeera