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Getting ordained, rejiggering seating charts and dance floors, and negotiating vendor contracts: How 4 wedding planners are prepping for the future of the events industry

kris turner wedding announcement
  • The billion-dollar wedding planning industry has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the vast majority of the country seeing restrictions on social gatherings.
  • There were 2.2 million weddings in the United States last year, with around 29% of weddings using a wedding planner. 
  • Business Insider spoke to four wedding planners who said that they are getting through by exploring loans and grants, looking at digital options, and even becoming ordained as a wedding celebrant.
  • Wedding planners are also helping their clients adjust their expectations and plans for their big day once lockdown restrictions are eased.
  • Click here for more BI Prime stories.
The biggest day of many people's lives is also a billion-dollar business. In 2019, there were approximately 2.2 million weddings in the United States. Around 29% of weddings engage a wedding planner, though that figure has been in decline for the last decade.
It's estimated that there are some 40,000 wedding planning businesses across the country, and around 300,000 wedding industry vendors such as venues, bands, and photographers.
With weddings generally being postponed until late this year and into 2021 — or being converted into intimate, virtual ceremonies — due to the pandemic, production revenue has been pushed back for existing weddings and new business has dried up completely.
Piper Hatfield, founder and creative director of Houston wedding and event planner Piper & Muse, said that the coronavirus has been "devastating" for her business and vendors.
Piper Hatfield, founder and creative director of Houston wedding and event planner Piper & Muse
"Typically, the way most of the contracts work within the industry is a 50% deposit, due upon booking, and the 50% remaining balance is due about a month out. As events are being postponed, we are pushing out that 50% final balance to a later date," she explained.
Business Insider spoke to Hatfield and three other leading wedding planners about how their business is coping and what strategies they're using to make it through to life after lockdown.

They're applying for small business loans and grants for the time being

"Initially, there was hope that some of the Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and unemployment checks would help cushion the blow to the industry, but most of the people I work with have not been approved for these loans due to the fact that the banks haven't reviewed their application," said Hatfield.
She also shared that given many workers within the wedding industry are independent contractors, there has been little help as they don't count as employees towards payroll for businesses' PPP application.
"I bank with Wells Fargo, so I've been having the same problem most everyone has had with their application process. I submitted my initial query before they closed the link. I finally had the chance to apply the day before they announced the funding for the PPP had dried up. I've yet to hear any kind of follow-up on my application," she explained.
Hatfield said that she recently received the advance of $1,000 on the EIDL loan.
"The initial money will be going to the rent for my office. Any further funds will go toward my salary and to help out my 1099 workers who take on their own weddings. I had a part-time assistant who would relieve me of some of the tedious scheduling tasks, and I miss her terribly. I'm hoping that I get enough money through EIDL to hire her back on," she said.
Kris Turner, owner of Atlanta-based wedding planner Kris Lavender, said that she has already postponed 18 events, with most couples deciding that summer and fall next year looks like a safer option.
Kris Turner, owner of Atlanta-based wedding planner Kris Lavender
She explained that it's an emotional time for her clients, but between working through postponements and home-schooling her four-year-old, she has been researching grants available to small businesses affected by the shutdown.
"On top of the standard SBA forgivable loans that are floating out there, there were also a couple of grants catered to minority groups and women and I have applied to those as well," she said.
Turner applied to SheaMoisture's award for minority-owned businesses with social impact missions, but added that with the number of businesses across the country affected by COVID-19, "I don't have much hope of being awarded funds from any of them."

They're working out how to plan digital events

Hatfield added that, like many other industries, the events community is working out what traditional activities can be continued online.
"One of the planners on my team is working on a baby shower that will be held entirely over Zoom. The guests will be all over the country, so she will be sending them all the elements of the party, such as decorations, favors, and games," she said.
But Hatfield added that it's difficult to turn this into a profitable model for event planners and for vendors such as caterers and florists
"Let's face it, we can't turn a Zoom party into a $200,000 budget event," she said. "Most of my fees are generated by the event budget — I take a percentage of the overall spend — so I need a reasonable budget to justify the amount of work."
Many states have passed legislation to make it legal to apply for marriage licences and get married through online video calls, with a number of couples already tying the knot through Zoom.

They're getting ordained to marry people in remote or small ceremonies

Turner believes that there's a small market for couples who want or need to get married this year.
"I had one of my favorite clients ask me if I could become ordained to marry them this month," she said. "It seems as though this may be a trend, so it's an idea that I am considering."
Turner said that the couple in question decided to have a small "elopement" wedding now with the bride and groom, parents, best man, and maid of honor, before hosting a "big bash" next year.
"In some states, you can literally get approval for just one day to marry a couple as a celebrant. But I'm now going to look into permanent certification — it seems like a good role to have in my pocket just in case an officiant doesn't show on a wedding day," she said.
The rules for temporary and permanent licenses to marry people vary depending on the state and even the county, though some require an ordained minister to actually have a congregation in order to legally marry people. For states that allow quick certification, organizations such as American Marriage Ministries and Universal Life Church Monastery will ordain people quickly online so that they can perform a marriage ceremony.

They're proving their worth by conducting ongoing contract negotiations

Ashley Douglass, owner of Ashley Douglass Events, caters to clients in the New York and Connecticut region. She said that while weddings have come to a complete halt, there is still a tremendous amount of negotiating work for wedding planners to do.
"We're reviewing contracts and having amendments drafted for weddings that are being rescheduled into the future," she said.
Douglass said that it has taken some couples time to come to terms with the fact that their wedding won't be happening this summer. The uncertainty means that she has had to put her negotiating skills to work.
Ashley Douglass, owner of Ashley Douglass Events
"Right now, there are a lot of hypotheticals playing out, such as restrictions on gatherings, meaning reducing the number of wedding guests they may be able to have," she explained. "In reality, if you say 50 people, that really means 30 guests, because 20 people need to be vendors. To help our clients feel better, we are reaching out to these vendors to negotiate all of these different types of scenarios."
In some respects, she said that this means she is busier than ever because she is effectively scheduling every wedding at least twice. While she said this may cost her financially, a reputation for getting things done is more important.
"I've been negotiating new contracts for my clients who are rescheduling their weddings that if it comes to 60 days ahead of the date and you can't have more than 50 people, then you reserve the right to cancel or reschedule it — and if you cancel, you get a refund," she shared.
Douglass said she expects vendors to start rewording force majeure clauses in their contracts — usually defined as acts of god, natural disasters, government orders or laws, or strikes — to include pandemics. Force majeure events usually stipulate a non-refundable retainer for cancelling or rescheduling an event.
On the East Coast, Douglass predicts that a lot of weddings will be rescheduled for next year's wedding season, which typically runs from the Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day.
"People don't want to lose their deposits, so I think we'll see a lot of Friday and Sunday weddings in 2021."

They're planning what weddings will look like after lockdown

In a similar vein, fellow New York planner Tzo Ai Ang of Ang Weddings and Events said that her focus is not only on rescheduling weddings, but thinking about how they're going to look after lockdown restrictions are lifted.
Tzo Ai Ang of Ang Weddings and Events
"I'm already starting to think about how weddings will work when they start to come back. It's not going to be an immediate free for all, it's going to be a gradual process like everything in the hospitality business," she said.
She's beginning to plan scenarios where tables have to be spaced a certain distance apart, and providing things such as face masks and gloves for the staff working at weddings.
"Weddings are all about gathering all your loved ones together in one room, and it's hard to socially distance. We might have to do seating plans for individual families and larger dance floors. And I would imagine that any sort of buffet or food stations will definitely be a no-go for now," she said.
Ang said that the best guide for weddings will likely be how the restaurant industry adapts, both in innovation and the time it takes to return to stages of normality.
"Ultimately, couples really have to think about whether they're okay with a different sort of celebration than they originally planned for if they want to have something imminently," she said. "If they want to have something more in line with their original vision, I think they need to look at moving things a significant way out."
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