Whitaker Atlantic Event Space

Getting Married in the COVID Age in North Carolina

In Feature Stories, February 2021 by Tracy JonesLeave a Comment

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Going small, south or holding out—couples make tough decisions while navigating wedding planning in a pandemic.

The pandemic may have put a pause on almost everything—but not wedding engagements. In fact, while event venue numbers are down, ring sales are up. “Business has actually been good during COVID,” says Alan Horwitz of Reliable Jewelry & Loan. “Some customers who had to cancel travel plans took that money and got something pretty instead. I’m not certain if more people than normal got engaged, but definitely just as many. I think there are sentiments of not wasting time because life seems even more precious.” So, first comes the ring; then comes… the wedding. Skurttt. For almost a year now, NC couples have had to make tough decisions under state restrictions about whether to scale down, head out of town or postpone. Here, three local brides give their accounts on navigating “I do” in a pandemic.

Philip & Whitney Moore | Photo by f8 Photo Studios

An Intimate Backyard Affair
Whitney (Sorrell) Moore never considered herself a backyard wedding kind of person. Extroverted and gregarious, a small elopement with just her immediate family and her childhood minister wouldn’t have been her plan.
Then a pandemic arrived and plans changed. “It’s funny because, for the longest time, we were convinced that COVID would be over and gone by the time our wedding came around,” says Moore. “We went on planning, but, by midsummer, it became evident that it was not going to be possible to do the big wedding.”

Moore’s original ceremony was supposed to be at The Historic Wakefield Barn on Dec. 5, 2020. After becoming engaged on Christmas Day 2019, a December wedding seemed like the right fit. When it became clear that plans needed to pivot, Moore opted to move their big celebration to July 2021, but to “elope” in their backyard for the actual wedding ceremony.
“We still just really wanted to marry each other—as far as we were concerned, that was the part that mattered,” says Moore. “It was very intimate.”

Just after sunset, family members lit sparklers as Moore and husband Philip had their first dance to Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey,” a song the couple always loved and that felt appropriate for their backyard wedding. She jokes that she’ll probably choose something classier like Frank Sinatra for their large wedding.

Even though plans changed into something she’d never expected, Moore is happy with the way things turned out. After the ceremony, she was even able to surprise her husband with a small Oreo ice cream cake (his favorite), something he’d originally wanted but would have been logistically difficult at a big wedding.

Moore says, in a way, this situation has given them the best of both worlds. “It was intimate and not distracted,” says Moore. “It’s not how we thought it would look or how we planned it, but we thought it was better. In big weddings, you look back on the day and don’t remember the details because it was such a production. This way, you get the big celebration and the special and intimate side of it.”

Regardless of already “eloping,” Moore feels the big ceremony is still important. “The plan for July will be a renewal ceremony and then a reception,” says Moore. “We have several attendants, and we want them to be able to stand there with us. It is important to us to say our vows to each other with all of the people who mean the most to us—in front of God and everybody—and have everybody share in that.”

Moore’s wedding photographer, f8 Photo Studio owner Cara Grace Powell, who provided the “elopement” package as an add-on to her services, says she sees a change in wedding ideology.

“Just from listening to a lot of people, it sounds like this trend of the whole boho cottagey wedding vibe is going to stick around for a bit,” says Powell, who enjoyed shooting the backyard event. “Of course, you’re always going to have the 100- to 250-person wedding, but anytime you have this type of friction, it creates opportunities for great creativity and forces people to think outside the box and offer new options.”

Powell says, in the beginning of the pandemic, many vendors and couples were assuming this would go away in three to four months. The frantic feeling of people scrambling for dates geared clients to take what was available before taking a moment to really think about it. Many got pushed to July, an unpopular wedding month because of the heat, and then had to reschedule or scale down. Those who do not want to change the larger-scale concept and reschedule multiple times, however, can cause a problem in the industry.

“Clients are having 2021 weddings booked at 2019 prices, and it’s hurting the industry,” says Powell. “The loss of revenue is really decimating the industry. I’ve tried to be a really strong advocate for the vendors because you constantly hear these stories about the poor couples. You’ve got to have an industry to come back to. The story of the vendors is not being told.”

Jared & Angel Sabnani | Photo by Live View Studios

Charleston Nuptials
Bride Angel (Sams) Sabnani was able to keep her October date and even the majority of her local vendors in a trimmed-down version of her wedding—but there was a snag. The couple had to go out of state.

Wanting to move forward with her next chapter in life, 39-year-old Sabnani didn’t want to postpone their wedding—and hoped to find a way to safely include family and close friends. Engaged in May 2020, at the time, they thought an October wedding was far enough out that their ceremony would be able to happen locally as planned. Unfortunately, as local restrictions lingered, they had to make a decision. Would they postpone the wedding or move it out of state? They chose the latter.

“We started getting a little worried this summer when restrictions were still in place,” says Sabnani. “In Phase II, we actually heard of people using the restaurant capacity to rent out restaurants and move their weddings indoors to avoid canceling. But we only felt comfortable with an outdoor wedding, and the restrictions didn’t allow for that.”

By August, restrictions on outdoor events varied across states, so the couple began weighing options with their wedding planner, Carrington Buck, lead designer and event producer at McLean Events. When moving their nuptials to South Carolina first came up, “it wasn’t an option for me,” says Sabnani, “but, a couple days later, we started thinking that Charleston is beautiful, and we started looking at venues.”

Sabnani found a large venue that was available on their planned date for a completely outdoor ceremony and reception. Although the space could fit 500 people, the guest list was much smaller, which also allowed for social distancing. Many attendees pre-tested for COVID-19, and those feeling ill or who had encountered anyone feeling ill did not attend. All of her original vendors—except for her cake designer—were able to travel for the ceremony, giving much-needed business to a decimated Raleigh industry.
“It’s been so hard on the wedding industry because everyone is postponing and canceling,” says Sabnani. “The photographer and florist lost so much business this year, so we were so happy to still be able to support our local vendors.”

Although only half of the originally invited guests attended, and aspects of the wedding seemed different—like masks, etc.—Sabnani feels lucky she still was able to have her special day. And no one contracted COVID—thanks to the precautions taken.

“Leading up to it, I don’t think I got quite as excited as I would have in a normal year,” says Sabnani. “But once we were actually there and it actually happened, it was amazing. It was awesome having that moment.”
Sabnani’s wedding planner, Buck, says that, in an unpredictable climate, it’s important for brides to readjust their mindset and determine what changes they are willing to make to achieve their dream wedding amid a pandemic.
“I’ve had several clients who have changed plans entirely, eloped, and called it a day, and they are OK with that,” says Buck. “Some brides really want that big 250-person wedding, and they’re OK with waiting a year, or they’re OK getting married in their parents’ backyard and having their reception later.”

Buck says it’s important to sit down with your fiance and review your guest list, making sure you’re comfortable considering a smaller number if you’re getting married in 2021. If not, she says, maybe start looking into 2022 or 2023. Also, talk to your vendors about their COVID-19 clause and what the date-change process is so you have a good backup plan in place. For some brides, that may mean rethinking what your “ideal” wedding looks like.
“I think the best thing for brides is to try to reimagine that dream,” says Buck. “It doesn’t have to be a bad thing—it’s just the hurdle of adjusting mentally. For many brides, they’ve been thinking about this day for many years. And, for some, it meant a full dance floor, having 250 of your family and friends there, and lots of happy hugs. For many of my clients, once they start to realign their plans to adjust or move their event, then they’re able to get excited all over again. My job is to make sure that even with the ‘detour,’ it’s still a really happy process and they don’t feel like they’re settling.”
Buck adds authentically, “We don’t want their event to feel thrown together—it’s still their wedding day!”

Rachel Simon & Kurt Beyer

We’ll Just Wait
Rachel Simon knows what she would like her wedding to look like and is willing to wait for it. Simon, who moved to Raleigh from New York a few months ago, has so far only booked the venue and photographer. Everything else, she says, can come at its own pace.

“If not for a pandemic, we’d be moving faster,” says Simon. “We know we want to take things slowly and see how the world moves over the next several months.”

Although Simon’s wedding date is not until April 2022, she says the one nuance she’s really noticed in pandemic wedding planning is making sure contracts allow for rescheduling without penalty, something she admits would not have been a big deal before a time when everything might need to be canceled or rescheduled.

“The biggest thing in terms of talking to our vendors is that everything in our contracts has wording on rescheduling and that they allow for that,” says Simon. “Vendors have been really great about recognizing this too. I know of many friends and family that haven’t been as lucky and had to have a lot of hard discussions with their vendors.”

COVID-19 clauses were obviously not part of the contract a year ago, and vendors—as well as clients—need to be protected against changing plans.

An Industry Holding Out Hope
For Coleen Speaks, owner of Whitaker & Atlantic event space near downtown Raleigh, cancellations have been all too common this year. Although she offered to anyone who was booked a chance to do whatever was allowed on their date with the opportunity to come back once the pandemic is over and restrictions are lifted at no charge, not a single person took her up on that. And she is at a 95% cancellation rate since the pandemic for all events—not just weddings.

Speaks, who also owns PoshNosh Catering and Hummingbird, says simple things like menu planning have become difficult. The virus has ruled out buffets, and the safest option is a plated dinner or individual food item. Even when the pandemic dissipates, senses are going to be heightened to germs and how events are planned and hors d’oeuvres are passed.

“One side of me is really ready, and the other side of me is nervous,” Speaks says of events starting back up again. “I do think it’s going to be like the Roaring ’20s when Prohibition was lifted and everyone went crazy.”
Although Hummingbird is doing well with its outside patio space, Speaks’ event space has only had one event since March, she says, “because we are strictly sticking to the governor’s orders.” She does have an upcoming April date booked, however.

“The couple doesn’t care and is going to move forward with whatever numbers are allowed,” says Speaks. “I like that approach because, at the end of the day, it is ultimately about that couple and their love and commitment. I think we’ve all realized through this that our priorities have changed—less is best; we can do with less; and quality versus quantity. It’s been eye-opening and humbling.”

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