Wedding businesses and vendors feel the pinch in coronavirus outbreak

This article is part of a Fortune Special Report: Business in the Coronavirus Economy—a look at the impact of the pandemic on more than 50 industries.

When I reached out to wedding planner and event designer Jung Lee of Fete, she didn’t have time to chat. She was too busy on the phone with couples and their vendors about the status of their upcoming nuptials. It’s a scene that’s increasingly playing out for vendors as their couples rearrange wedding plans amid fears over COVID-19 and travel restrictions.

News reports have focused on how couples can recoup costs for canceled or postponed weddings, but what’s been missing from the headlines is the economic toll on the hundreds of thousands of small businesses that support the $300 billion wedding industry worldwide. Many of them are mom-and-pop organizations that are left scrambling as couples postpone, cancel, or put a halt to planning.

“Weddings are being canceled left and right, and for these small-business owners that means losing a significant amount of their projected income,” says Teissia Treynet of Firefly Events, who also developed the educational platform, the Firefly Method for Planners. She has been fielding daily questions about the virus. “Stress is high.”

Many wedding planners, photographers, and event designers were gearing up for a big spring wedding season in 2020. Destination weddings have been on the rise—especially in the luxury sector in which couples spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their celebration—and destination events now make up about one in four weddings in the United States, according to The Knot. Additionally, the guest list is likely going to have at least a few attendees traveling from other parts of the world.

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But for all the glamour that is The Big Day, the professionals behind it—florists, caterers, bartenders, linen rental companies, cake bakers, photo booths, stationers—are everyday people with jobs to do. They love what they do, but they aren’t running corporations. They run neighborhood shops and bakeries or maybe even work out of their homes. Many are “solo-preneurs” who may have quit the 9-to-5 world job for the dream of their creative pursuits. The stakes are high.

“It’s scary—these mom-and-pop companies that don’t have tons of cash reserves to float on like bigger companies may have,” says Brittany Lo, founder of Beautini, an event-focused hair and makeup company. “Vendors try to be as flexible as we can, but we still have costs to cover, staff to keep afloat, and rent to pay to make sure we do not go out of business.”

Lo admits she initially wasn’t worried about COVID-19 until this week when planners called her asking about her cancellation policy—booked couples had decided to postpone or cancel their nuptials, including one at the Pierre Hotel in New York City set for late March. She says she is offering to apply the money paid for the services for anything in the coming year.

Unsave the date

When a couple books a service for a wedding—say a planner, florist, or a photographer—they often pay a deposit that can be as high as 50% of the total cost. That holds their date in the calendar first and foremost—an important point when most couples plan their celebrations 14 months in advance. It also kicks off the creative process, as much of the wedding industry involves bespoke creations, whether that’s a bouquet of pale pink peonies because it’s a bride’s favorite flower or full buildouts with ceiling installations, drapery, and customized chargers at the place settings. Most vendors don’t ask for the remainder of the payment until closer to the wedding date, typically seven to 14 days ahead. Others don’t require the invoice to be paid until the day of. If an event is canceled, the vendor is not compensated for that expected revenue, even if work had been done. If the event is postponed, the vendor may not be available at the rescheduled date, losing out on a client initially booked a year out.

“As I shoot a very limited number of events per year, losing the additional 50% of those jobs should a client cancel would be a major blow to my bottom line, anywhere from a 5% to 10% reduction of my yearly income per canceled wedding,” says Brian Leahy, a Los Angeles–based photographer who specializes in destination events, both domestically and internationally.

Many destination events are being canceled or postponed. Vendors are losing out on money or having to work harder than expected to rearrange plans for weddings happening later this year.
Brian Leahy Photography

Leahy explains losing the money doesn’t hurt just him but also his team. He sources second shooters—a term for additional photographers who help take pictures during an event—as well as assistants for lighting, image backup, and more, from freelancers. As these team members are largely gig-based, a canceled wedding means they aren’t paid. It goes for other vendor categories, too, as a freelancer labor pool is commonly dipped into by planners, event producers, florists, drapers, and others.

Leahy does absorb that cost as a business owner, as well as the cost of their travel and accommodations, much of which is nonrefundable. But not everyone does. “It falls on myself to cover this,” he says. “The best thing I can do right now is put more income away into my rainy-day coronavirus fund.”

Plenty of vendors are sitting on the edge. Some got the news that weddings for this weekend are canceled, leaving one New York–based photographer with a flight to St. Thomas and no event to shoot. Another photographer says she can manage one cancellation, but her April events that have yet to be paid out concern her if too many call it off. Others are hoping to action. Planner Amy Shey Jacobs of Chandelier Events is having hand sanitizer passed on trays for a wedding that’s still a go, and Madeleine Kojakian of Maddy K Events is requiring staff—from coat checkers to valets—to wear gloves. One destination-focused planner is having all upcoming wedding clients sign an addendum that they will cover any costs, including lodging and food, should her California-based planning team get quarantined while working a wedding overseas.

Some planners are even helping couples move their weddings to other locations. Destination wedding planner Tara Fay, who is based in Ireland, says she’s seeing couples move their celebrations from places like Venice to the castles of the Irish countryside, where COVID-19 is less prevalent.

“You never simply ‘move’ an event,” explains Andrea Eppolito, who runs her namesake event planning company from Las Vegas. “Even if a client wants to keep everything the same in terms of vendors and design, you really need to go back to square one and begin the process from scratch.”

All this extra work has a big effect. Valerie Gernhauser of Sapphire Events explains that any given wedding includes 450 to 500 hours of work for her team. Changes within 90 days of an event have a huge impact on that number. “Often inventory has been committed, labor forces are occupied, and significant changes of scope during this threshold of time require a massive amount of communication,” she says. “We have to see if it’s even possible. It means our team is working around the clock.”

Sonal J. Shah of SJS Events compared the current situation to weddings around the time of Sept. 11, 2001. Her clients are largely hosting destination weddings with hundreds of guests at each—many of them are reaching out for status checks even though their weddings aren’t set to take place until October, November, or December of this year. Shah predicts that much of 2020 will play out like the months after 9/11, with fewer people willing to get on flights or head to far-flung destinations. Her job, like many other planners, has been keeping everyone calm.

It’s also curtailing inquiries for weddings into 2021. Leahy notes there’s been a remarkable slowdown in communication for future events, and even couples amid the planning process are putting a halt to things like venue walk-throughs. Robin Baab Olascoaga of RMBO Collective says couples have “simply stopped booking.” She’s worried about the loss of future revenue, as most of her clients sign eight to 16 months in advance.

Gernhauser added that her couples with weddings up to nine months out have inquired about more robust insurance policies. Planner Aimee Monihan of Tropical Occasions has been seeing the guest lists slowly go down for her upcoming destination weddings, though none have canceled. Even photographer Emilia Schobeiri of Emilia Jane, who has not been directly impacted by cancellations, has thought about COVID-19 and her business. She says she is considering loosening her date change policy to give more flexibility to couples as this all continues.

Brooklyn-based photographer Shawn Connell likened it all to a couple deciding to enact a plan B due to weather. “It feels like when, on a wedding day, a bride is staring at the clouds and waiting to make the call on moving everything to an indoor rain plan,” he says. “Most hope for the best and wait until the last second.”

For the vendors, though, it’s just raining anxiety.

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