The wedding industry reopens as states lift restrictions on social gatherings

June 2, 2021, 6:00 PM UTC
Larger weddings are on the way back, but there are a lot of pandemic precautions that will remain.
Clane Gessel Photography

Grab your toasting flute, it’s time to say “I do” to weddings. The industry has reopened.

One of the first activities to go when the coronavirus forced us to socially distance was weddings. Gone were the days when 150 people could hug, kiss, and get sweaty on a dance floor, all to celebrate the nuptials of their friends and family. While some parts of the country ignored CDC guidelines around social gatherings, states like New York and California imposed strict restrictions on wedding receptions, leading to a stall in revenue for vendors and plenty of disappointed to-be-weds.

It’s estimated that the coronavirus pandemic affected some $47 billion in sales for the wedding industry, according to the Wedding Report, as couples postponed their weddings or opted for simpler affairs, like family-only ceremonies, Zoom weddings with an officiant, and microweddings with fewer than 30 guests. However, some portion of that revenue is expected to be recouped by vendors, who are looking forward to those postponed weddings rescheduling in 2021 and 2022.

The wedding boom is coming. And for places that recently lifted tight restrictions, that boom has already begun.

“The demand is through the roof for weddings right now,” explains New York City–based wedding planner Sonal J. Shah, who has seen a 1,300% increase in inquiries for her team in the past few months. “We’re already booked into 2023.”

Shah specializes in South Asian weddings, which typically include two to three days of events and guest lists that number up to 800. Clients of her type didn’t opt for a microwedding; they held out to have the big Indian wedding of their dreams. So when New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo along with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy upped the cap on indoor wedding receptions to 150 guests, the floodgates opened. Some couples figured 150 would be enough; others assume that by this fall or next year, they can host 600. They started signing vendor contracts.

Wedding planner Sonal J. Shah works with a bride on her big day.
Clane Gessel Photography

Even the average-size wedding, which hovers around 140 guests, makes the cut. Zola polled engaged couples in March, finding eight out of 10 felt comfortable moving forward with wedding plans this year thanks to the vaccine rollout. Similarly, a quarter of vendors who responded said they have no 2021 weddings on the books that have sought to postpone.

It’s such a demand that Shah hired six additional team members and nearly tripled her prices to manage the workload. Just seemingly straightforward tasks required by the state, such as ensuring all guests have a negative COVID test within 72 hours of arrival, has added 60 to 70 additional hours to her planning time. Plus, couples are planning the entire event with lead times in weeks, not months. (By comparison, the average wedding took 14 months to plan in 2019, according to The Knot.)

Shah hosted her first 150-person wedding since the new guidelines were announced on April 2, an event she planned with the couple in just five weeks. In late February, she received a call from the Rockleigh Country Club in Rockleigh, N.J., alerting them to a New York City–based couple, Neethi Dalvi and Varun Dube, who may need planning assistance for their wedding booked at the venue. Like many engaged couples, they didn’t feel they needed a wedding planner. Hearing that the cap on guests would be increased by the state as of March 15, 2021, the venue suspected a professional should lead the charge between the tight deadline and new coronavirus-related protocols.

At first, Shah says, she didn’t want to take on the client. But then she thought about why she is even in the business. “We want to get people married—that’s what we do for a living,” she says. “Our job is to help couples, especially a couple like this. It’s just so emotionally draining for them.”

Dalvi and Dube didn’t have much set beyond the venue, since they had postponed their wedding twice over the course of the past year. Shah’s team jumped into action to book vendors, from the photographer and the DJ to the horse for the traditional baraat processional, and then helped the couple get outfits, jewelry, hair, and makeup. But signing on the vendors proved easier than dealing with the guest list.

The new party favor: hand sanitizer.
Clane Gessel Photography

Pre-pandemic, couples would send out wedding invitations months in advance and would receive RSVPs a month before the big day. Venues typically require the final guest count somewhere between seven and 14 days before the event. Seating assignments at tables would be made, and everything would be ready to go well before the ceremony and reception—no stress for the engaged couple.

With five weeks to plan and restrictions on testing and maximum guests, that tried-and-true routine went out the window. It’s all about maximizing the guests who can come, down to the 24-hour mark. For Dalvi and Dube, Shah says that they had three tiers of guests: If someone from Tier A declined, then someone moved up from Tier B. If that person also declined, there was a Tier C—who were invited literally by text message the week of, given the timing.

Then Shah’s team had to rush to design a seating arrangement, where guests were grouped by family and existing pandemic pods, to minimize interaction among bubbles for everyone’s comfort. From there, 72 hours out, came the most intense rush: requesting, confirming, tracking, reconfirming, and adjusting everything based on the guests’ coronavirus testing results. While it may seem easy, she says, it’s a lot of hounding guests to be sure they provide the proper documentation.

“You have to take it seriously, not just for the guests but for the staff that’s going to be working the event,” Shah says. “I’ve actually taken on more staff whose exclusive jobs are to work on these Excel tracking documents.”

Shah says she feels obligated to keep her staff safe. She gets tested twice a week for COVID-19 and has been vaccinated. Her team wears matching masks that read “Stay Calm, 6 Feet Away” as well as face shields. She sets out mask stations and sanitization stations for guests, and will remind, if she has to, a vendor to put their mask on properly. In fact, a whole cottage industry has erupted with goods for weddings that feel on-brand to a couple’s theme and style. For example, hand sanitizer companies, like Noshinku and Curie, have launched customized options for weddings and bridal showers, and Etsy is a rabbit hole of personalized mask producers. 

No matter how many safety precautions are put in place, some vendors still don’t feel comfortable going back to work. It’s been a hurdle for the wedding industry, Shah says, as many professionals do not want to travel by airplane or endanger family members by working at an event surrounded by so many people. It all adds time, pressure, and stress to the mix.

“I don’t think any of our clients are going to understand why we can’t show up and do something or why we don’t have staff to do something,” Shah says. “It’s really important to be on top of our own health and safety concerns.”

Shah has also spun safety into creative solutions for couples. If a couple wants to invite 300 guests, she’ll suggest hosting 150 for the sangeet, a traditional party the night before the ceremony, and the other 150 to the ceremony and reception. She has also talked couples into hosting smaller affairs where they have a pick of more exclusive, intimate venues, like the Gramercy Park Hotel or 620 Loft and Garden, as well as a more luxurious food and dining experience. Plus, she says, couples end up loving the fact that they can spend more time with each guest when they have fewer of them.

For Dalvi and Dube, the total guest list of 142 ended up being perfect. Many guests were family, which added to the comfort for the groom’s side when conducting the baraat processional, and general accountability: Guests wore their masks. Having half of the original number of guests (300) also meant the couple could create a much nicer event, since the budget was not as stretched.

The comeback for weddings isn’t just about the couples and their guests—it also means a lot of businesses finally have a chance at recovering as well.
Clane Gessel Photography

“The bride came up to me on the wedding day and made me cry, saying there’s no way she ever thought a planner did as much as we do,” Shah says. “I felt a huge sense of accomplishment. There’s definitely a plus to have any of these celebrations, right? I think that’s a positive change.”

Editor’s note: Just as Fortune reported this story, New Jersey’s Gov. Phil Murphy announced that as of May 7, 2021, indoor weddings will increase to 50% capacity, with a cap at 250 guests, so long as social distancing can be maintained.

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