As retail sales drop precipitously, designers and fashion brands have started producing masks and hand sanitizer in lieu of couture and perfume, to support their businesses and essential workers. Some bridal boutiques have taken a cue from the rest of the industry, refashioning their Chantilly lace scraps into pandemic-chic masks that evoke The Handmaid’s Tale. For $45 or less, you can don a mask dotted with pink sequins or black lace trim from Los Angeles bridal shop Katie May, which is donating utility masks to essential workers for each purchase. (“Hiding from rona or a chin breakout? No one has to know,” reads a recent Instagram post.) And some designers are still trying to court customers through social media and virtual showrooms.
But for countless small businesses that make up the $78 billion wedding industry, there is little relief amid the fallout from the coronavirus. As stay-at-home orders rolled out across the U.S., many couples who were planning to get married this year had no choice but to call off their weddings—slowly, and then all at once. In a survey of more than 470 couples by the Knot, 96% said they were rescheduling their weddings; of those couples, 65% are pushing their weddings to later in 2020, while the rest are undecided or opting for a 2021 date.
Photographer Leila Brewster had committed to a wedding in Wyoming that was slated for late March, when many Americans were already sheltering in place. “I had to go on an airplane with five people on it,” she says. “Because of my contract, I have to be ready, willing, and able to perform my duties—otherwise I have to return all payments.” After her flight touched down, Brewster got a call from the planner telling her the wedding had been canceled because of statewide restrictions.
Though startups like Zola have attracted gobs of money, small-business owners like Brewster account for the bulk of the wedding industry, which is composed of more than 400,000 mom-and-pop vendors. The impact of the coronavirus has been almost immediate. “It’s a screeching halt, to put it mildly,” says Lindsay Landman, who runs an eponymous event planning business in New York City. “Last year was our biggest year ever—the most events and highest budgets. So this has really been a full stop.”
Most vendors have encouraged couples to postpone rather than cancel their weddings, so they don’t lose their business altogether. But there’s no way for vendors to recover the final payments they would have pocketed after their spring and summer calendars. Yumiko Fletcher, a florist in Connecticut, typically does up to 75 weddings between the months of May and October. With the spread of the coronavirus, all the weddings she had booked from April to June have been postponed or canceled. “It’s virtually a whole season of weddings, which is really disruptive to the industry financially, across the board,” Fletcher says.
Even if social distancing restrictions ease up in the coming months, social gatherings will likely be limited by head count or subject to exacting restrictions.”
“When you’re a small business, you rely on monthly income and cash flow,” says Jove Meyer, who runs an event planning and design firm in New York City. “And your cash flow comes from the client—their deposit, second payment, and final payment. But if you’re not having events, you’re not getting your final payments. And a lot of us don’t feel comfortable upcharging or adding a fee because it’s not a normal situation. This is not within anyone’s control.”
The domino effect of wedding cancellations
The average wedding books about 15 vendors, according to WeddingWire, from photographers to florists to caterers. Each vendor, in turn, brings other staff to support them. “Weddings employ so many people,” Brewster says. “It’s an entire chain system. You hire me as your photographer, but I hire another person to come assist me. I hire a lab. I hire my album and print company.”
As many vendors point out, the entire industry relies on the labor of 1099-workers, or independent contractors, which means their livelihood is contingent on vendors being able to hire them. “There are four full-time people who work for me that are regular salaried employees—a combination of planners and designers,” says Landman. “I also employ anywhere between 20 and 30 freelancers and contractors that do different things for my business.” That can include anyone from illustrators or set designers to the people who drive Landman’s trucks or stock her warehouses. And much like the farms that sell to restaurants and other businesses, those that serve the floral industry are now left with flowers that nobody wants to buy. “Think of all the farms that can no longer cut their flowers to send to us,” Fletcher says. “The domino effect is significant in the floral industry.”
Meyer has a small operation with just two other hourly employees, which means he can only book one wedding each weekend and does corporate events to bring in revenue during off-peak season. (Weddings only account for about 60% of his business.) For now, Meyer has been able to retain his employees, though he has cut back on their hours. But Meyer says many of his vendor partners—he exclusively works with fellow small businesses that are owned and operated by women, people of color, and queer people—have been forced to furlough their employees.
“It’s been an emotional journey,” he says. “Their employees are not just a number. We all started our own business and left corporate America for a reason, to build something different and make our own impact in the way that we approach events and also the way we hire and work with employees.” One vendor considered forgoing her own compensation and dipping into her savings so she could pay employees through May. “We had to look at her and say, ‘That’s so sweet of you, but then in June, you’re over,'” Meyer says. “It was heartbreaking, but she had to furlough everyone.”
Anjali Chatwani, a bridal makeup artist in California who now splits her time between South Asian wedding gigs and a venture-backed wedding rental startup called Riya Collective, says she’s lucky to be in a different position than she was just last summer, when the majority of her income came from booking makeup jobs. “Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done,” she says. “It would have been financially so much more devastating. My actual livelihood would have been very much impacted. And I’m seeing that’s the case for a lot of my other wedding vendor friends.”
Working part-time for a company backed by Y Combinator has meant that Chatwani is still getting paid. “It’s very interesting to see how differently Riya Collective is able to handle [this] versus traditional vendors,” she says. “Funding is really important because we all have jobs. We’re getting that steady income even throughout this time. Especially in the South Asian wedding industry, it’s very rare for a company to be structured like this.”
Vendors like Fletcher are saddled with particularly steep overhead costs, since she operates a business that necessitates studio space. For now, she has managed to reschedule most weddings that were originally slated for April through June, and in some cases, she’s holding two dates for clients. But that won’t make up for her losses in 2020, particularly if those clients opt for a date next year. And when wedding planners and designers move a wedding that is almost fully planned, they may also have to redesign the event depending on the season or availability of other vendors. “We had basically completed all the design work for our April wedding—choosing the flowers and placing orders for light spring colors that were specific to the season,” Landman says. “Redoing a lot of that is just par for the course, I think.”
Many of the vendors I spoke with still have July weddings on the calendar and are trying to move forward with planning, at least for the time being. Landman is encouraging clients to reevaluate their wedding date eight weeks out, when invitations would typically go out. But Landman and others understand their business could be upended for the foreseeable future, if some measure of social distancing remains intact. “We actually have to assume that we could be out for six months,” she says. (When I checked in with Landman last week, she told me she was “bracing for no events until 2021.”)
Amrit Dhillon-Bains, who runs a South Asian planning and design company in California, is also trying to be pragmatic about what the future might hold. “I see a lot of people in the industry who are very upbeat and chipper,” she says. “I tend to be a little bit of a realist. I don’t think things will improve quite as quickly as people say they will. Most of my clients tend to be people in the healthcare industry, so I’m listening to what they’re saying and learning, and it doesn’t look too good. I’m trying to be the voice of reason and project the facts as they are and trying to keep emotions out of it.” (Full disclosure: I hired Dhillon-Bains, Chatwani, and Brewster when I got married last year.)
A major concern for many vendors is the ripple effect on their future earnings potential. By pushing weddings into 2021 or holding dates for clients, they aren’t just ceding income this year; they’re also giving up potential clients for next year. “We’re all doing our best to try to just navigate through the crisis, being as sympathetic as we can to our clients, but we’re also trying to tell the world that this is our income we’re losing,” Fletcher says. “This is not a cottage industry for me. This is my mortgage. This is my child’s education.”
What will weddings look like after the coronavirus?
Some couples have, of course, chosen to move forward with their nuptials, canceling their weddings in favor of an elopement or socially distanced ceremony. But for many couples, that’s simply out of the question. “These clients have spent a year planning a gorgeous, elaborate affair,” Fletcher says, “They want to have that party.” A guest list under 300 might be unimaginable to couples planning a South Asian wedding, for example. “I have suggested to couples that they have a smaller ceremony in 2020 and then have a larger reception,” Dhillon-Bains says. “From my experience, that hasn’t gone too well. They want to do it all in one go—or cancel it.”
But even when social distancing restrictions relax, weddings might not look quite the same. Between seasonality and potential supply chain issues, Landman says couples may have to give their planners and designers greater creative freedom. The impact on the floral industry, for instance, could be significant if farms can’t survive this period.
“We hope this will change the priorities of brides and grooms,” Landman says. “There’s going to be a major supply chain disruption for us. Most of our decor and goods come from China. So the certain candleholder you fell in love with, or the charger plate you wanted with the painted rim—I’m very hopeful we’re going to get them, but we may not.” Some planners are also suggesting that couples consider other days for their new wedding date, rather than limiting themselves to Saturdays—a shift that vendors hope catches on, so they can shore up more business next year.
Though couples may still have their sights set on a big bash, many in the industry believe weddings will shrink in size. “People don’t travel as much in the winter, just historically, and obviously those who are older may not feel comfortable traveling,” Landman says.
In the restaurant industry, vendors might need to rethink things such as food service to reduce contact between guests: For a March 14 wedding, Dhillon-Bains opted for plated table service instead of a buffet. “I’m using my free time to think about how we’re going to be able to adapt,” Landman says. “Will we be putting fewer people at a table? Will we change the capacity for ballrooms and dining rooms so they’re not as full? Will we make dance floors bigger?”
One way the industry will indeed change is with respect to contracts. All the vendors I spoke to say people across the industry have been sharing information about their contracts and payment structures and reevaluating how to better protect themselves going forward. “There are people who are really hurting,” Dhillon-Bains says. “So I’m doing my best to be there for vendors who are newer, helping people shore up their contracts with common sense items—things like updating your force majeure clause.” (This clause may help protect businesses against an unprecedented event, if it becomes impossible for them to fulfill the terms of their contract.) Meyer thinks couples who move their wedding to, say, next year should be open to a different payment plan structure, to help their vendors stay afloat.
“I think we’re going to see a huge change in how vendors who are date-based manage contracts and legal relationships,” Landman says. “But we have to build the clients’ confidence. So how do we allow them to feel comfortable that if, in six months, we’re in a resurgence period, that they will be covered and supported—but that we have also created an environment where our businesses can be strong and supported as well? Obviously we all have to stay in business if we want to serve them down the line.”
Though vendors have applied for the Paycheck Protection Program, the economic relief promised by the stimulus plan—which set aside $349 billion for small businesses—isn’t nearly enough. On Thursday, the Small Business Administration said it had maxed out on loans, after approving more than 1.4 million loans, and was no longer accepting applications for the program. (Landman had applied but wasn’t able to get approved before the money ran out.)
“There isn’t a part of our world—our event family—that hasn’t been impacted,” Meyer says. “In the world of bailouts, the government is thinking big. But all of us small businesses add up to big.”