With its array of elegant wineries and historic inns, nestled in between the picturesque Blue Ridge mountains, Charlottesville has become one of the country’s top wedding destinations. Last year, over 1,500 couples said “I do” in the area, according to The Wedding Report. And in January, brides.com named Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards one of the best wedding venues in the U.S.
But due to the ongoing pandemic and stay-at-home order, hundreds of weddings have been put on hold—right at the beginning of the industry’s busiest season. And that has taken a heavy toll on vendors.
The Catering Outfit has been forced to postpone over $300,000 worth of business so far, says sales director Courtney Hildebrand. And because many of the weddings it was hired to cater have been pushed to next year, it is difficult to take on any new clients at the moment.
Though it has received some relief from its landlord, TCO did not get a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, forcing it to find new ways to bring in revenue.
Since March, it has sold to-go and heat-and-eat meals, as well as meal kits, out of a tent in its parking lot. Offering a new menu every day, the drive-through has been busy, and has received a lot of positive feedback, says Hildebrand.
The company is also operating a food pantry for out-of-work food service employees. “If they bring a pay stub on Mondays and Thursdays, they can get a free bag of groceries,” Hildebrand says. “And we have partnered with a couple of different companies to provide hot meals to first responders and hospital workers.”
For freelance vendors like photographers, the situation can be more complicated. Jen Fariello is used to shooting weddings nearly every weekend from spring to fall. But now all of her weddings up to July 25 have been postponed. And—like many other vendors—she has not received any government aid.
“Three businesses I know in Charlottesville have gotten their PPP loans. A lot of the [others] haven’t heard back,” Fariello says. “A couple of people have been trying to get unemployment. But as self-employed people, it’s complicated…you have to prove that you’re going out and trying to get a job. But we still have jobs. We’re [just] trying to keep our businesses alive.”
With some couples not wanting to wait a year to get married, Fariello has been able to shoot family ceremonies in backyards and gardens, she says. She’s also done a few engagement and maternity shoots, but demand is low overall.
Officiant (and former Charlottesville mayor) Dave Norris is just as frustrated with the lack of assistance wedding vendors, and other small businesses, have received, while multiple wealthy corporations have been bailed out.
Norris has been able to bring in some income by officiating at-home ceremonies. However, he’s lost over 90 percent of his spring wedding business, with most ceremonies being rescheduled for the late summer or fall.
Hedge Fine Blooms has also lost most of its business thanks to postponed weddings, as well as canceled proms, graduations, and other events. To keep the lights on, it’s currently offering contactless flower delivery and curbside pickup every day, and has provided floral arrangements for at-home ceremonies, says owner Karen Walker.
Due to the types of services they provide, other wedding vendors have not been able to adapt alternative business models. Wedding planner Sarah Fay Waller, owner of Day by Fay, has had all of her clients push their weddings to September or later, leaving her without income for several months.
Fortunately, says Waller, her husband’s job is keeping their household afloat. But she recognizes that “for other vendors…to not have that income coming in is a real detriment.”
At Old Metropolitan Hall, “we are just trying to keep the clients we have encouraged and happy, while also trying to book new clients for the end of 2020 and into 2021,” says sales director Sarah Beasley.
Fortunately, “we have seen a ton of inquiries for couples who are needing a new venue after their original wedding date had to be moved,” she adds. “Venues have definitely been teaming up in the last few weeks trying to pass off clients when their dates no longer match the original venue’s availability.”
Still, times have been tough, as nearly everyone Beasley knows in the venue business has been furloughed or laid off.
For Hildebrand and her colleagues, only time will answer the biggest question: What will weddings be like once this is all over? And can vendors survive until then?
She speculates that people will continue to be wary of large gatherings for a while, and that small, intimate weddings at outdoor venues—with plated meals, not buffets—will become a trend. Couples may also choose to elope instead, putting their reception off until they feel safe enough to have it.
“We have to ensure the health of our guests [and] servers,” says Hildebrand. We may “have servers wear masks and always have gloves on, and even have guests and tables spread out more. It’s going to be a very different look I think for a while.”
Smaller ceremonies require fewer vendors, Fariello points out. And with millions of Americans currently out of work, people may not be able to spend a lot of money on weddings.
“It will take a couple years for our industry to come back to the level that it was,” Fariello predicts.
For now, vendors urge clients to postpone, not cancel, their events, and to not fight with vendors over deposits or retainers.
“We’re not trying to take money from our clients, but clients need to realize that those funds [cover] operating expenses…so much of the work that goes into a wedding happens all year, and not just on the wedding day,” says Fariello. Instead, “work with your vendors to figure out how we can have safe weddings.”
Other ways to support the industry include hiring a photographer to take a home portrait, buying food from catering companies, getting a Mother’s Day cake from a local bakery, or treating yourself to some flowers from an area florist.
Couples planning a wedding for 2021 should also book early, Waller adds. Due to all of the weddings currently being rescheduled, vendors may not be available later.
Most important, current and future clients can “meet in the middle” with their vendors, says Beasley. “Everyone is going to unfortunately lose something during this time, and it would really help the industry stay alive if people could be gracious and kind to one another right now, remembering that we’re all in this strange season together.”
Also on c-ville.com, see how three local couples are adapting their wedding plans.