Photograph by f8 Photo Studios

Wedding Industry Woes

In Buzz, July/August 2020, Web Exclusive by Jane PorterLeave a Comment

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WEB EXCLUSIVE Most of us find it easy to empathize with brides and grooms whose wedding plans have been upended due to the coronavirus pandemic. But we should spare a thought, too, for the wedding vendors—venue hosts, florists, photographers, caterers, DJs, wedding planners—whose (mostly small) businesses are being laid to waste by an almost total loss of revenue.

“I don’t know if any other industry has been as decimated as much as the special events industry,” says Dean Ogan, owner of Raleigh-based Rocky Top Catering, which provides food and bar service options at weddings, special events and corporate functions across the Triangle. “It is hard to make it.”

Gov. Cooper’s stay at home orders in March shut down weddings immediately, until May, when gatherings were allowed but capped in phase 2 at 25 people outdoors and 10 people inside. Vendors had hoped that, as the summer and traditional wedding season months rolled on, they’d see some relief. But rising COVID case numbers and limited reopenings meant many couples decided to postpone their weddings or even cancel them outright. 

“I estimate we have about a 75 percent reschedule rate and about 25 percent outright cancellation rate,” says Ogan. “And the events that we do in phase 3, if we get them, are going to be much, much smaller than anticipated.”

With 2020 largely a wash for vendors, maintaining cash flow has been a major challenge. And with some weddings being postponed until as late as next year, many will spend 2021 playing catch up on already-negotiated contracts rather than generating new business. 

Photograph by f8 Photo Studios

“[With rescheduling], the final payments are going to be delayed by anything from a couple of months to a year, so that’s a complete loss of revenue for this year,” says Nathan Morris, the owner of wedding videography company Oak City Films. “So, next year, since we only have so many people that can service these weddings on any given day, those dates are being taken up by weddings from this year. In effect, it has split our revenues, for two years, in half.”

For couples, the pandemonium of the pandemic has clearly been disappointing; some, vendors say, who have decided to cancel events outright have insisted on being refunded their retainer fees for services which, contractually, are spelled out to be non-refundable, no matter the circumstances. 

“Ultimately, we have to be able to keep the business running, up until the date that we’re contracted to be there, keep all the overhead expenses going, keep the equipment up,” says Morris. “Even if [a couple] chooses to cancel, there were other people who asked about that date, and we couldn’t do it and had to turn that business away. So we lost money there as well. The wedding industry is one of the most misunderstood on the planet. Frankly, there are no big businesses in the wedding industry. Most are small, mom and pop and maybe one other person type operations, and contractors.”

Cara Powell, the owner of f8 Photo Studios, says in one extreme case, a couple reported her business to the state attorney general’s office for not returning a non-refundable retainer for a canceled event. 

“You’re asking us to return this non-refundable retainer that we have already spent, in most cases, on business expenses,” says Powell. “There is a perception that, because of our lifestyle, and looking glamorous in some sense, people assume we are are balling. But actually, there are not a lot of rich vendors. A lot live paycheck to paycheck and it is feast or famine.”

With little to no official enforcement of phase 2 mandates, such as limits on gatherings, there are also vendors who choose to operate at will, creating an uneven playing field for vendors who want to follow the rules, feel they have to due to their own health concerns and don’t want the liability of participating in events where they could put others at risk. This creates an environment, vendors say, where they fear being blacklisted by venue hosts, clients or other vendors for expressing an unwillingness to participate in certain events where they have concerns over safety.

“There are venues blatantly defying the governor’s mandate,” says Powell. “They’re basically interpreting it to what serves their narrative. Places are saying they are a private club so do not have to follow the rules, so it’s a difficult position. The wedding industry is a top-down hierarchy, where venues are the head of the pack and a lot of people don’t feel like they have a voice to speak up.”

Photograph by f8 Photo Studios

“This is a referral-centric business,” says Morris. “There are complications and negative consequences that fall on us immediately if we choose not to participate [in certain events]. It is something we have to keep in mind and it is troublesome.”

But both Morris and Powell say the majority of their clients have been gracious, patient and understanding. 

Morris says, in order for wedding vendors to survive, couples will need to extend that grace to them in the coming year, to educate themselves on the governor’s mandates, to take the rules seriously and to streamline communications with vendors, as they’ll be overwhelmed once things return to something resembling normal again.

According to Ogan, if wedding venues are allowed in phase 3 to operate as restaurants do—at 50 percent capacity, with guests wearing masks except for when they’re eating—businesses will have a better shot at surviving the pandemic. 

“Instead of a traditional wedding, we want to offer brides the opportunity to get married and have a reception that includes a nice dinner, speeches, the first dance, father-daughter, mother-son dances, and stop there,” Ogan says. “The thing we have to get through to people is that the vision they may have had for their wedding will be different.”

Notably, the vendors Raleigh Magazine spoke to for this story have been able to adapt during this period and expect to stay afloat. Oak City Films has pivoted to live streaming wedding ceremonies and renting out equipment to households to host socially distanced movie nights in their backyards. Rocky Top has partnered with nonprofits such as Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and World Central Kitchen to provide meals for communities in need and Powell says she had begun paring down her photography business before the pandemic took hold in order to move forward with plans to open a wedding venue in a historic property in Apex next year. 

All say they are optimistic about the future, grateful for flexibility from their employees and for support from their understanding clients. 

“Yes, sales are down this year,” Morris says. “It is frustrating but the good news is, this will end, we will be back to normal. Once we get past a little bit of scheduling voodoo next year, we will still be here. [Our team] has done a great job of rolling with punches and my job has been to make sure they can still work and stick with me into the future.”

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