Time to party? Events industry still uncertain about COVID

In this photo provided by Gilded Social, a bridal shop in Columbus, Ohio, owner Tanya Rutner Hartman helps customer Cristin Lee try on a gown at the shop on April 2, 2021. Although weddings and other big celebrations are going back on the calendar in the U.S., business owners who make those events happen expect a slow recovery from the impact of COVID-19. Hartman sees a shift in how couples feel about weddings, a change that can affect other businesses in the events industry as well. (Gilded Social via AP)
In this photo provided by Gilded Social, a bridal shop in Columbus, Ohio, owner Tanya Rutner Hartman helps customer Cristin Lee try on a gown at the shop on April 2, 2021. Although weddings and other big celebrations are going back on the calendar in the U.S., business owners who make those events happen expect a slow recovery from the impact of COVID-19. Hartman sees a shift in how couples feel about weddings, a change that can affect other businesses in the events industry as well. (Gilded Social via AP) (Gilded Social)

NEW YORK – Although weddings and other big celebrations are going back on the calendar in the U.S., business owners who make those events happen expect a slow recovery from the impact of COVID-19.

Lauren Schaefer is getting more inquiries about her wedding coordination services now that President Joe Biden has sped up the timetable for all adults to be eligible for vaccinations. Schaefer’s company, The Get Together Events Co., does business in New York, Chicago and Nashville and has booked 60 weddings for this year, close to the 69 she did in 2019.

But Schaefer still sees a lot of caution; couples whose dream is to have a big wedding aren’t sure about booking a date amid continuing restrictions on the size of gatherings in many parts of the country. Some state and local governments also have limits on wedding traditions like cocktail hours and dance floors.

“I tell clients, if you feel comfortable having a wedding under today’s restrictions, let’s move forward hopefully things will get better from there,” Schaefer says.

Even as inquiries and bookings pick up, uncertainty hangs over event planners, caterers and other businesses involved in putting on events. It’s not just government restrictions — many people are still uneasy about large gatherings.

Many of the new bookings at catering halls and other events spaces are for the end of this year and 2022. These businesses may already have a full calendar for the late spring and summer because weddings and other celebrations were postponed from 2020, but with restrictions on the size of gatherings still on the books in many states, the near future remains uncertain.

“The next few months are still a little vague on events. We have a very slight handful in April and May and although the restrictions have been lifted, clients need time to plan,” says Nick Cascio, co-owner of Giorgio’s, an event space in Baiting Hollow, New York, on Long Island’s East End. Weddings in New York can now have up to 150 people since the state government raised the limit from 50 last month.

Giorgio’s did have 20 weddings with under 50 guests after the pandemic began last year, but that was far below its 500-guest capacity. It has about 150 weddings a year, typically with 200 guests. But Cascio says he’s optimistic that with more people being vaccinated and the infection rate lower, his business will eventually return to normal. It’s gotten about 60 bookings since the start of the year.

As interest in weddings and parties has picked up at 42 North, a planning firm based in Ipswich, Massachusetts, co-owner Francie Dorman finds the pandemic is as much a consideration as food, flowers and music. In some venues, the number of guests at a table is limited to six instead of the usual eight or 10. There may be no bar service in many areas, and the usual cocktail hour where people mingle may need to be a sit-down affair.

“We have to be prepared for many different scenarios going into this spring, summer and fall. Our messaging to clients has been, prepare for the worst, but always hope for the best,” Dorman says.

Dorman’s company began getting a pickup in inquiries and bookings around Jan. 20, the day Biden took office. She’s optimistic that business will continue to improve, although coronavirus experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci warn that another surge is possible.

“A lot of us are just a little too scarred to say, no way it could surge again, Dorman says. “It may cause some older guests who are less comfortable from attending. But I’m hopeful we won’t be shut down again.”

The events industry has also shrunk amid the pandemic — government-ordered shutdowns and restrictions forced some events-related companies out of business, among them venues, flower shops and bridal gown manufacturers. Auction websites are selling banquet tables, chairs and other items, either from venues or rental companies that have failed. While it’s not known how many of these companies have shut down, their loss can mean fewer options for people putting on events.

Heidi Hiller, a planner for corporate events as well as weddings and other celebrations, is concerned about the loss of people with lighting and other technical expertise who have found other work during the pandemic.

“Many of our suppliers have had to downsize their staffs significantly and it will take some time to retrain and ramp up,” says Hiller, owner of Innovative Party Planners, based in Owings Mills, Maryland.

Hiller generally hasn’t seen companies and organizations ready to commit — or even plan events. Many are still trying to determine when and how to bring their employees back to their offices. The events Hiller is working on tend to be hybrids of in-person and virtual; the 60 virtual events like weddings and bar mitzvahs she put together in the second half of 2020 helped keep her company in business.

So far, it’s hard to predict what’s ahead. “All in the same week I had a cancellation for a Labor Day weekend live social event — and another client planning to move forward for a bat mitzvah with 150 people,” Hiller says.

Business at Tanya Rutner Hartman’s bridal shop, Gilded Social, in Columbus, Ohio, is still down more than a third even as more brides plan weddings. Brides whose weddings went on hold last year already have their gowns, and those shopping for later this year or 2022 aren’t planning big weddings with 10 bridesmaids. Hartman is selling fewer dresses.

Moreover, Hartman sees a shift in how couples feel about weddings, a change that can affect other businesses in the events industry as well. For instance, while before the pandemic it was a priority to have unique wedding pictures that got a lot of notice on social media, now brides are more interested in a wedding that is more meaningful, Hartman says.

Hartman doesn’t expect to see her business return to pre-pandemic levels until next year, when the backlog of weddings has been worked through.

Smaller events mean less revenue for people like photographers who are paid by the hour. Anji and Pete Martin are seeing an uptick in inquiries and bookings, but demand for full-size weddings has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Smaller weddings they’ve photographed with 25 guests have been much shorter than typical pre-pandemic weddings, many of which had 150 to 200 guests and lasted four or five hours.

The Martins, who are based in Washington, D.C., are seeing a mix of bookings — people who are cautious and want a smaller affair, and those who still want that lavish event.

“They’re saying, OK, we wanted to have a big wedding and we’re going to go ahead with it,” Anji Martin says.