Maryland’s wedding industry faces unique challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. Statewide social distancing guidelines still prohibit large gatherings, and, unlike restaurateurs and retailers, wedding vendors and venues must schedule everything around a specific date.
Venues say they have used their space in new ways and hosted smaller weddings at partial capacity. And they say they are doing their best to innovate while struggling to make ends meet in an era of uncertainty, where weddings could be canceled on a day’s notice.
Lana Brown is the owner and designer of Fleur De Lis, a floral design company based in Baltimore that provides wedding arrangements. Brown said she was completely booked in March, but many of her spring weddings were rescheduled to this fall. She expects these will likely be moved yet again due to social distancing guidelines.
Even though her weddings are being rescheduled, Brown said, she likely will not have any deposits for new weddings next year. Her calendar will be occupied by weddings that were supposed to happen this year.
“I will get final payments, and it’s not going to be profit if it makes sense because they’ll be used up for supplies, flowers, and labor,” Brown said. “And I will probably go in negative, because 50 percent I get now, and basically, I will have to execute my weddings on a 50 percent budget if it makes sense. I have to survive on deposits throughout this year.”
Brown recently supplied arrangements for some weddings that were supposed to be large but downsized to intimate ceremonies. Many couples still choose to postpone weddings, said Brown, because of family members who must travel from long distances.
Brown was supposed to supply arrangements this year for a bride from Lebanon and a bride with international in-laws.
“Their wedding is postponed indefinitely because the fiancée is an Indian. And his family is in India, and they can’t even fly here. So, his family can’t come. So, basically they don’t know when they will do it – is it 2021 or 2022?” Brown said. “I actually had this (different) wedding rescheduled to 2022 because my bride’s family is from different state. And she decided to just for sure move to 2022 spring, just to make sure at that time people can travel.”
Others struggling, too
Florists are not the only vendors struggling. DJs, photographers, caterers and others are engaging with frustrated clients who want refunds and flexibility as they reschedule multiple times.
Many couples want their wedding on an exact date and have strict expectations for “the best day of their lives.” This sets weddings apart from other large gatherings also restricted by social distancing guidelines, such as concerts, panels and religious services.
Multiple vendors said they expected catering businesses were hit harder than most. Pairings Bistro, a Bel Air-based catering company with a wine shop on its premises, has not suffered extreme losses since the company is relatively small, said chef and owner Jon Kohler.
Kohler said most of the company’s weddings have been postponed, and many were downsized. One of his weddings was supposed to host 200 people – now it is hosting 40. This downsizing means some initial deposits may be worth more than money received from wedding, said Kohler.
“We’re in the hospitality business, so we’re here for our guests. And in these times you have to be flexible,” Kohler said. “I mean for us, normally if somebody cancels a wedding they would probably lose their deposit. But, in one instance somebody has really canceled a wedding this year, and we just gave them their deposit back. I just didn’t feel like it was right under these circumstances to take somebody’s deposit.”
Pairings Bistro has also adjusted its food plating process, since buffet-style meals create a higher risk of COVID-19 contraction.
“The station is behind the server. So, you have a table decorated. You have your servers behind that table, and then you have the station set up behind the server. So, the server is actually plating up the food and handing it to the guests,” Kohler said. “So, we’re doing all the plating, so that the guest isn’t handling the utensils, you know, multiple people handling the same utensils.”
Pairings Bistro will soon be working its first wedding since March. In the meantime, the company has started up carryout, opened a market in its wine shop and placed a food truck in the parking lot to create new streams of revenue.
Tapping into technology
Innovative vendors are using technology to enhance their customers’ experiences, like Bradley Zisow, who owns Bradley Images, a premiere photo and video studio that specializes in wedding and Mitzvah pictures.
Bradley Images, which is based in Pikesville, has used additional technology to enhance Zoom live streams of weddings and create a personalized final product for customers.
“We can run your live ceremony. We can stream it. We can get guests in there. We’re doing rentals with wireless microphones. We’re doing multiple camera angles,” Zisow said. “We just did one Saturday with five camera angles. And we’re able to basically make a live television show, so your guests can watch the bride walking down the aisle and get the groom watching. So, we’re able to really deliver something that is way different than you just setting up the computer in the corner and turning on Zoom.”
Photography studios differ in terms of how they take payments, Zisow said. Many studios take two payments and receive all of their money upfront, which has upset clients with canceled or postponed weddings. Bradley Images takes three payments, with the final one due after someone’s event.
“So, when COVID really just came full force in March, a lot of people already had all their money — a lot of photographers – so clients were upset about that: ‘Hey you know we paid you in full, and we’re not having a wedding now until next year, can we get some of our money back?’” Zisow said.
Although Bradley Images does not charge people for changing dates, said Zisow, some couples are double- and triple-changing, which is stressful. Zisow recommends couples be proactive, reach out to their vendors and check their available dates instead of just saying, ‘Here’s our new date.’ Photography is typically one of the most expensive portions of a wedding.
Zisow recently worked a wedding where couples and guests were not wearing masks, even though this violated social distancing guidelines. He said this is common, but there are also many brides who insist that everyone wear masks.
“We have another coming up next weekend after that, nobody’s wearing masks, and the bride doesn’t want them to wear masks,” Zisow said. “And she’s like, ‘If anyone’s wearing a mask, please don’t photograph it.’”
Staff at venues said they were adhering to social distancing guidelines and, in some instances, being more precautious than legally required.
Historic Oakland, a wedding, event, and meeting venue in Columbia, has just started hosting events again after business stopped in March, according to Jeryl Baker, the village manager and executive director. She said officials have purchased new equipment, including masks, shields and air filters, to keep residents safe.
“We are keeping actually a little below what the governor suggests. What the governor said we have to do is 50 percent of capacity, and we’re a big old building, so we have six different rooms. But we’re only doing half of the main ballroom,” Baker said. “Because even if you put different people in different rooms, we know they’re all going to congregate at a wedding, and we don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt the health of any of our guests.”
Historic Oakland gave out refunds for canceled weddings, according to Baker, but most people simply rescheduled weddings. The venue is not charging for rescheduling.
“We understand it’s not people’s fault, and we are making sure that everybody understands if the governor changes his mind tomorrow and says, ‘Oops – no more than 10 people,’ then we have to cancel weddings of people that are going on in August and September and into the fall,” Baker said. “So, we have that written very clearly in every contract that it can change tomorrow.”
Padonia Park Club, a swim and social club in Cockeysville that hosts weddings, also remained flexible as couples managed deposits, postponed and rescheduled weddings, according to president and CEO Matt Musgrove.
“Some families or some couples had financial struggles because they lost their job, so of course we worked with everyone we possibly could to be sure that we were doing our part,” Musgrove said.
The club usually hosts 35 or more weddings yearly, but they are not hosting any more this year. Musgrove said the club is still running its child care center, and they’ve extended their food and beverage program.
Offerings like steak, salmon and lobster rolls, which normally would just be on the club’s more formal dining menu, are now available outdoors at the Chateau Terrace and Bar Chateau.