From ‘I do’ to re-do: How to save a wedding in the age of coronavirus

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When Joyce King and Serge Reshetnikov first began planning their April 2020 wedding in Dallas, their living room wasn’t anywhere on the list of potential venues.

The couple envisioned an intimate ceremony in a charming, historic chapel and an evening reception with dancing to follow. The 100-person guest list included a couple from the U.K.; about two-thirds of the guests would be traveling from all over the country.

Photo courtesy of Joyce King
(Photo courtesy of Joyce King)

But by early March, the coronavirus pandemic had become a threat to be reckoned with. “As more information started to roll out for COVID-19,” Joyce told TPG, “our thoughts and plans [for the wedding] kept evolving.”

The couple first thought that the wedding could continue as planned but on a smaller scale, based on guidance at the time from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Local guests would drive to the ceremony and reception and out-of-town guests would only come if they felt safe. A few guests even saved money on previously booked Southwest flights by repricing their tickets after fares were lowered.

But mere days after plans were adjusted, the CDC restricted all social gatherings to groups of 10 or fewer. So Joyce and Serge decided to postpone the reception and host only an intimate ceremony at the chapel for a limited audience. The venue managers were on board, and both photographer and videographer generously offered to re-price the couple’s wedding package at a lower rate, based on the smaller guest list.

Photo courtesy of Joyce King
(Photo courtesy of Joyce King)

All was well — for a few weeks. But one week before the wedding, the City of Dallas closed down all nonessential businesses, including the couple’s wedding chapel. And Joyce’s only brother was stranded in New York City under a citywide lockdown.

At this point, the couple decided that the ceremony would be held in the couple’s backyard, with just Joyce’s parents, the officiant and his wife, and Joyce’s maid of honor in attendance but no photographer and videographer. They would stream the event live; Joyce’s brother would play the violin for the processional from his apartment in New York.

But the couple couldn’t catch a break. A few days before the wedding date, the weather forecast shifted from a 30% chance of rain on the big day to a 100% chance of heavy rain and Texas thunderstorms.

Joyce King live-streamed her coronavirus-quarantine wedding. Image courtesy of Joyce King.
Joyce King live-streamed her coronavirus-quarantine wedding to her original guest list. (Image courtesy of Joyce King)

Once again, the couple made lemonade from lemons by deciding to keep the ceremony in their living room on their original Saturday date, but also host a drive-by car parade with local friends on Friday evening.

Photo courtesy of Joyce King
For the Friday evening drive-by parade, King’s maid of honor surprised the newlyweds by ordering a balloon arch for the front yard. (Photo courtesy of Joyce King)

Love in the time of coronavirus

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has completely upended life around the world and the $74-billion wedding industry is no exception. Modern weddings heavily rely on both travel and social interaction, and the plans of couples and vendors alike were upset almost immediately by non-essential business closures, CDC directions on social distancing and the ever-present threat of infection.

Over the past two months, couples worldwide have had to make difficult decisions with little information or time to spare. In many cases, these couples weren’t just weighing the significant sums of money on the line; they also had to consider the health, plans and costs for all of their guests.

Tuscany. (Photo by Shutterstock)

Destination weddings often are particularly complicated to juggle, although Makena Sage and her fiancé Sunny got lucky. The couple had planned their dream wedding on a Tuscan olive farm this summer. With all that’s transpired in light of the coronavirus pandemic in Italy, Makena and Sunny initially rescheduled for August 2020, but have subsequently canceled the wedding altogether. “That’s too bad,” Makena told TPG, “[but] we will reschedule when this virus passes.”

The couple’s all-inclusive venue, The Lazy Olive, had included flowers and catering in their services, yet the customer service response was “just amazing,” Makena said. The venue’s generous policy offered a full refund for any cancellations made more than two months in advance of the booked date. And when the couple initially rescheduled their wedding for August, the venue even offered up a block of previously unavailable dates to accommodate the unexpected change.

Photo by Katherine Fan.
(Photo by Katherine Fan)

And when Makena and Sunny were forced to cancel their event altogether, The Lazy Olive refunded every penny the couple had paid. “I wrote them a super-nice review,” Makena told TPG. “[I am] so, so sad we couldn’t do it there. I love that place, and the nicest people run it.”

Katie Humphrey Covey, who owns and manages the North Houston wedding venue Magnolia Meadows, said that cancellations and postponements caused by the pandemic have strained her ability to cover operational costs. “Property mortgage and maintenance, as well as employee payroll, are the very real costs to owning and operating a venue,” Katie told TPG.

Magnolia Meadows employs two full-time employees and four contractors on top of its other expenses. The venue must book a minimum of 70 events each year to cover operating costs, and Katie estimated that the 20 events she’s rescheduled so far have cost the business approximately 30% of estimated future income for the rest of 2020 and beginning months of 2021, not including lost revenue from goodwill refunds for couples who need their money back because of layoffs or reduced income.

Image courtesy of Magnolia Meadows.
Image courtesy of Magnolia Meadows.

Despite the financial burden, Magnolia Meadows has worked hard to do right by its clientele. Couples have been offered their first-choice available dates for rescheduling, and those who couldn’t reschedule for financial or health reasons have been given refunds. “Those who have let us know they’ve lost jobs or have reduced income are the ones we’ve let cancel altogether if that’s what they wanted,” Katie told TPG. “We’ve also offered deferred payment to a later day, or pushed the wedding back by six or more months and allowed payments to follow suit as well.”

The pandemic’s disruption goes far beyond mere financials. Katie, whose husband Spencer also owns a small construction company, qualified for the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) but did not qualify for Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance (EIDL) or any other loans or grants. On top of everything else, Katie and Spencer also have four young children. “To be honest,” Katie told TPG, “one of the actual hardest parts of this [time] is having kids home 24/7 while trying to keep my head on straight to run a business!”

Struggling to reach equilibrium

Unfortunately, not every couple’s vendor-client interaction has been as straightforward as Makena’s, nor can every vendor afford to be as generous as The Lazy Olive and Magnolia Meadows. Many brides told TPG that the vast majority of their vendors were very understanding of the situation, but there seemed to be exceptions to the rule.

Tara Schaeffer, whose March 28, 2020, wedding had to be rescheduled because of the lockdown restrictions in Austin, Texas, found herself embroiled in a struggle with multiple wedding vendors during the weeks leading up to the wedding date, at least until initial quarantine orders were clarified by local government officials.

The vendor catering her rehearsal dinner threatened an up-charge for rescheduling, so Tara chose instead to donate the entire meal to a local organization for people coming out of homelessness. “I understand not being able to lose money, but to try to take more money from people in this situation is just not OK to me,” Tara told TPG.

(Photo by Katherine Fan)

All told, Tara said she and her fiancé lost about $7,000 in wedding-related expenses because of the coronavirus quarantine. However, they made the best of the situation by having their officiant privately perform the ceremony on their original wedding date, and rescheduling the reception as a New Year’s party on Jan. 2, 2021.

And Tara told TPG that “there are no hard feelings” over the discussions with any of her vendors. “I’m very grateful for how most people handled [the last-minute changes], and I know initially there was just so much confusion” over what was permissible and safe for all attendees, she said.

We fought really hard to try to make sure that we are still picking a time and place that will be fun for us and our guests,” Tara said. “From the beginning of our planning, we really aimed to work with kind people, and it is really paying off now.” 

The cost of quarantine

From a wedding vendor’s perspective, each cancellation, rescheduled event or diminished package had a ripple effect on the finances of business owners and employees and suppliers. The wedding industry encompasses more than 400,000 businesses, from caterers to venues to photographers and videographers — even bridesmaids for hire.

(Photo by Katherine Fan)

While some major brands in the industry may be household names, like Marriott for hotel venues or David’s Bridal for wedding dresses, many others are small businesses with sole proprietors, or just a handful of employees and contractors on payroll.

And the sudden, complete halt to the economy left many business owners in the lurch, scrambling to offset the unexpected cost of venue mortgages, paychecks that dried up overnight and shipments of fresh goods such as flowers and catering ingredients which couldn’t be canceled in time.

Looking to maximize your points-and-miles earnings on small-business expenses? Join TPG’s Facebook group for SMBs

Photographer Aubre Salas of Austin-based Gypc Girl Photography had 10 clients postpone their spring weddings within two weeks of SXSW’s last-minute cancellation in early March — an event which heralded the beginning of lockdowns in Austin and beyond.

Aubre offered up her available fall dates for her clients who postponed, and refunded money for two canceled weddings — all but the initial deposits, in accordance with her contracts. “It’s been rough,” she said. “[I] had one client give me a hard time about [keeping the nonrefundable deposit], but we have a business to run.”

A socially distanced wedding ceremony in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of Aubre Salas of Gypc Girl Photography.
A socially distanced wedding ceremony in Austin. (Photo courtesy of Aubre Salas of Gypc Girl Photography)

Many vendors have turned to Facebook groups for support and community during this unexpected time of uncertainty. One group for wedding photographers is filled with vendor posts asking for insight on how to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program, or wondering how their peers would suggest handling client requests for refunds, cancellations or contract negotiations in light of coronavirus.

Related: Ultimate guide to CARES Act relief for small businesses

One particularly poignant post stated, “My biggest fall wedding just canceled. Scared … Guess we need to prepare for this?”

Photo by Katherine Fan
(Photo by Katherine Fan)

Major venue policies

Even major hotel chains have offered limited support for their wedding clients; many companies opted to leave issues regarding refunds for venues or room blocks between individual properties and their clients.

A Marriott spokesperson told TPG, “Events like weddings are contracts between the guest(s) and the property. We are advising our properties to be as understanding as possible in rescheduling.”

A Hyatt spokesperson similarly stated that, “We are evaluating events on a case-by-case basis to identify solutions.”

And Hilton declined to share its corporate policy for coronavirus-related wedding cancellations.

Photo by Katherine Fan
(Photo by Katherine Fan)

When insurance fails to offer calamity protection

Most weddings violate the CDC’s guideline to avoid social gatherings of 10 or more individuals. Weddings also don’t qualify as an essential service or activity. Thus, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting shutdowns have forced clients and vendors to consult their contracts.

Many small-business owners have taken the high road of offering what concessions they can, whether through free rescheduling, going the extra mile to accommodate evolving needs and sometimes refunding what cash they could spare. And many couples were extremely understanding and gracious as well, vendors told TPG.

Photo by Shutterstock.
(Photo by Shutterstock)

Inevitably, there have been some conflicts and hard lines drawn — most contracts weren’t written with the coronavirus in mind.

A number of wedding clients and vendors have turned to their insurance plans for financial recourse but the vast majority of insurance plans do not cover pandemics.

Related: Will future insurance plans cover coronavirus?

This unpleasant discovery has added insult to injury for everyone on either side of the business equation, and the question of, “Well, why did I pay for this insurance plan?” has no doubt arisen more than once.

Unfortunately, clients in the wedding industry have had particularly few options for getting their money back, since many wedding vendors request payment via check, cash or direct deposit to avoid paying the high transaction fees that credit cards charge to merchants.

Photo by Katherine Fan
(Photo by Katherine Fan)

How Stella got her wedding back — Tips for would-be wedding parties

So what’s a beleaguered wedding client to do if they need to change or cancel their plans?

First and foremost, wedding vendors stressed the importance of clear, direct communication: Know what you want to accomplish and give your vendor the opportunity to help you reach that goal. As March bride Tara Schaeffer told TPG, “We all have to be patient with each other right now.”

Not sure how to ask a vendor for help? Try the language in TPG’s negotiation strategy guide. And wedding sites like The Knot have also created comprehensive resources supporting brides through these challenging times. One particularly helpful article is titled, “A step-by-step guide on what to do, when.”

The tips from The Knot include:

  • Let your vendor know your decision ASAP. It’s always easier to negotiate favorable terms with more time, whether you’re thinking of rescheduling and want to claim your next-best date or if you need to juggle a number of logistics.
  • Review your wedding insurance policy, just in case. The Knot’s wedding insurance FAQ is comprehensive, although their conclusions are sadly similar to TPG’s for travel insurance: The saddest refrain of 2020 is “most insurance plans don’t cover pandemics.” But hey, you never know, and it doesn’t hurt to check the fine print on your particular plan.
  • Communicate with your guests. From a travel perspective, most of us have probably already had to cancel one or more flights for an anticipated wedding. But in case you haven’t had to do so yet, here’s everything you need to know about canceling your flight or hotel reservation for a corona-canceled event.If you are the person canceling the wedding, The Knot suggests reaching out to your hotel to negotiate a full or partial refund on your room blocks, to help simplify the process for your guests. Remember that a kind word and collaborative attitude go a very long way these days toward getting you the outcome you want, especially in the world of customer service.

Related: Change of plans? Use this negotiation strategy to affect the outcome you want

(Photo by Katherine Fan)
  • Be flexible. Just as you would plan a trip around amazing award tickets, think of your wedding plans with similar flexibility. Focus on your goal — to marry the love of your life in front of your family and friends — and get creative on ways, times and places to accomplish that outcome despite the circumstances.It’s helpful to note that most airlines and hotels are extremely accommodating right now, with fully refundable and changeable policies on most reservations. So brainstorm your best ideas, maybe over Zoom with some friends, wine in hand, and see what memorable stories you can create together. (And if you end up booking the Crystal Skye, by all means, give TPG a heads up.)
  • Let yourself grieve. Be kind to yourself during this time: Letting go of cherished anticipation is always hard, whether it’s your dream wedding or that bucket-list vacation. One episode of Brenê Brown’s new podcast speaks of the importance of finding meaning as part of our grieving process. Amid the hustle and bustle of changing your plans, carve out some time to let yourself experience and validate your emotions. The practice will help you move forward and embrace your new vision.
Photo by Katherine Fan
(Photo by Katherine Fan)
  • Celebrate the day anyway. Just like Joyce and Serge did, make the most of your special day even if it isn’t Facebook-official (or courthouse legal). Even if you opt to postpone the official ceremony or the big reception, the date will always hold significance for you and your partner.The Knot suggests a romantic dinner or some wine; TPG suggests getting together, pooling your points, and running some award searches for the most epic trip you can dream up when this is all over.

Related: Dreaming of Antarctica: The trip of a lifetime I plan to take when this is all over

TPG tips for future weddings

If you’re planning ahead for a post-coronavirus wedding, here are a couple of TPG tips to keep in mind:

  • Negotiate with your vendors to pay all future wedding expenses by credit card. Not only will you be earning all the points, you’ll have more options to ask your bank for help if, knock on wood, you ever need to cancel or reschedule.
  • Book future travel plans now, while airlines are still offering generous cancellation and rescheduling policies. Now is not the time to travel, but flights for late 2020 and early 2021 are at an all-time low, both in cash and for award redemptions.Check out TPG’s deal alerts page and sign up for our newsletter to be notified when something particularly juicy pops up.

All’s well that ends well

Your dream wedding may no longer exist, at least in a pre-coronavirus world. But just like we’re bullish on the future of cruising and confident in the future of points and miles, we here at TPG have no doubt that you’ll be able to pull together an even better, more memorable event in the future.

Photo by Katherine Fan
(Photo by Katherine Fan)

At the end of the day, the connection between you and your partner matters more than anything else. If you can nurture that bond together through this crazy, topsy-turvy time in history, you’ll be well-equipped to handle other turbulence in your future life together.

And if nothing else, your friends and family will never again take for granted the privilege of getting to see and celebrate you in person.

Featured photo courtesy of Aubre Salas of Gypc Girl Photography.