One of the last weddings performed in public in Las Vegas was on St. Patrick’s Day. The groom wore a dark suit. The bride wore a rockabilly-style black halter dress. The minister was Slash from Guns N’ Roses — or, rather, a licensed officiant performing as the shaggy-maned, top-hatted guitarist. As ceremonies go at the Rock & Roll Wedding Chapel in the Rio Hotel & Casino, it was fairly traditional.
“They had an amazing time,” says Alexis Lopez, the chapel’s wedding coordinator. “And then we got kicked out.”
That day, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak had ordered a lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, closing casinos and dozens of other types of businesses deemed nonessential, from bars and gyms to hair and nail salons. “All gatherings should be postponed or canceled,” he wrote on Twitter.
For Vegas’s wedding professionals-planners and coordinators, venue owners and managers, beauticians and barbers, photographers, florists, DJs, bands, officiants, and on — this was brutally bad timing. Mid-March marks the start of Sin City’s spring high season, when couples and their friends and families travel in from all over the world to get hitched in ceremonies by turns goofy and glorious. (High season repeats in the fall.)
Of the roughly 2.2 million weddings performed in the U.S. every year, Las Vegas handled 74,000 in 2019, generating almost $2 billion in economic activity, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Even more were expected this year because many couples want “2020” in their wedding date. Now, it seemed, that season would be canceled — or at least postponed.
Nor is Vegas alone. With more than 265 million Americans, about 80 percent of the country, now under some sort of lockdown order, the $54.4 billion wedding industry is reeling.
Weddings represent the antithesis of social distancing. They’re gatherings of intimate friends and mysterious personages (on average 125 people in 2019), many of whom arrive via a complex network of travel options, and are attended to by a phalanx of strangers (ushers, caterers, manicurists). When every element of this ecosystem is disrupted, what are wedding professionals to do?
“We’re not canceling weddings-we’re postponing weddings,” says Amelia Cooper, whose hair and makeup company, Amelia C., does about 700 in Las Vegas each year. In 2019 her company took in $134,000 from March through May and booked $150,000 in new jobs in the same period. In 2020 all that has dropped essentially to zero.
As president of the local chapter of the Wedding Industry Professionals Association, Cooper says her agenda is to encourage couples who may have already spent 12 to 18 months planning their nuptials to take an even longer view.
“The first thing we do is apologize, because a lot of these brides are crying,” Cooper says. Once they know the wedding isn’t happening when they’d hoped, they get the option of canceling or postponing. If they cancel, she and other Vegas wedding professionals say, they’ll likely receive a refund of their deposits.
“We don’t know when it’s going to end, and that’s the biggest thing”
If they postpone, Cooper says, the tightknit Vegas wedding community will “come together to fight to save our bride’s wedding day.” This may mean some significant logistical adjustments, because the fall high season is long since booked as well. A Saturday in May may become a Tuesday in October at a sister hotel-casino, with different seasonal flowers and a buffet by your former caterer’s ex-partner, who used to cook at Joel Robuchon.
“Making the dream come true while living in the nightmare is kind of tricky, but through that camaraderie we’re making that happen,” Cooper says.
How to handle this dismal situation was the subject of a March 30 webinar featuring WIPA representatives from around the country who delved deep into the issues facing the industry. Topics included how to deal with clients (phone is better than email), force majeure clauses in contracts (read them carefully; they’re not uniform), and, of course, horror stories (a Utah country club canceled on the wedding day!).
Dennis, the WIPA president, several times mentioned the elephant in the room: “We don’t know when it’s going to end,” he said, “and that’s the biggest thing.”
That uncertainty certainly complicates postponements. Putting an April wedding off till late June seems OK — but what if stay-at-home orders remain in place into the summer? Is the fall still too early? Should couples delay a full year?
For that reason, Jason Rhee, whose West Hollywood-based events company, Rheefined, handles about 10 weddings a year, is suggesting cancellations.
“I want to have the confidence to say, ‘Hey, if we’re going to put all this work and resources into a specific date, we’re able to pull it off,’ ” says Rhee, whose weddings typically have budgets from $80,000 to $200,000 and take place anywhere from California’s Central Coast to Scotland. “And I think, as of right now, no one’s really able to answer that.”
Canceling is not only professional, says Rhee, who says he’s lost more than $50,000 in business so far, but it also can help mitigate the emotional toll on professionals and clients of planning weddings.
“We don’t know when it’s going to end, and that’s the biggest thing”
But cancellations can come with a cost. Most wedding insurance policies don’t cover pandemic interruptions. And while some vendors may waive fees and refund deposits and retainers, others may not because they, too, need income to survive this dry spell. Participants on the WIPA webinar hoped that by treating their clients with respect-by patiently explaining the situation and revealing “what’s behind the curtain,” Wizard of Oz-style, to their businesses — they’ll be treated that way in kind.
Still, weddings are the ultimate exercise in optimism, and most wedding professionals Bloomberg heard from are looking forward to a future when things return to normal — probably in 2021. The difference, several say, is that budgets may shrink, not only because of the likely recession.
“If you look at what happened in the (2008) recession, from my opinion, and what I have seen in the numbers, people became a little more questionable about ‘what are we spending money on?’” says McMurray, of the Wedding Report.
The average cost of a wedding in 2019 remains a bit more than $24,000 — almost exactly what it was in 2008, despite inflation. While spending on dresses increased from an average $916 in 2008 to $1,217 in 2019, according to his latest analysis, spending on DJs and photography stayed essentially flat, at about $700 and a little more than $4,300, respectively. “This device right here actually takes a really good photo, right?” he says, holding his iPhone 11 up during a video interview over Zoom.
And when couples are forced to do without, whether because of coronavirus or a stock market crash (or both), they realize they didn’t need those things anyway.
“You don’t see the normal venues anymore, right?” McMurray says. “People who were having banquet halls and hotels and resorts aren’t so much, because there’s all these other things that are happening and people want different stuff.”
In this shifting climate, Victoria Hogan may be ideally positioned. She runs Flora Pop, a Las Vegas-based “pop-up wedding” business that stages nuptials in surrounding desert landscapes such as the Valley of Fire or the El Dorado Dry Lake Bed.
Her weddings — often elopements — are typically small. Even before the Nevada lockdown, they were limited to 15 people and priced from $550 to $2,200, depending on the destination and services. “I’m the officiant. I’m also the florist,” she says, adding that she’ll host a doughnuts-and-Champagne mini-reception from her neon-adorned teardrop trailer. “I’m sort of the one-stop shop for it all, anyway, and that’s the way it’s always been for us.”
In a post-coronavirus world, Hogan says, “I feel like eloping is going to be very in vogue, in a sense, because it’s already the affordable option.” And if restrictions on large gatherings remain in place, she says that could be a plus, too-”so couples don’t feel the pressure of having to invite people that they didn’t want at their wedding in the first place.