Wedding biz woes expected this summer

“It takes a year or two to plan an intricate wedding. It takes an hour to unravel everything”

By Chad J. Reich

After two years of engagement, Darcy Ernat and Jon Vivolo planned to get married this coming July in the Cement Creek Valley. Ernat, who just finished nursing school, had been looking forward to the big day for a long time. “It is going to be the nicest weather, and the wildflowers would be blooming. It would be perfect.” An estimated 100 guests were invited, a local band was on the books and wedding vendors like caterers, photographers and decorators that together make the wedding industry thrive in Gunnison County were ready to make the event another one to remember.

But then the coronavirus hit, and with it came travel and physical distancing restrictions from Gunnison County and from the state. “There is just far too much uncertainty to continue and we have had to make the heartbreaking decision to cancel our dream wedding,” Ernat says, as local officials continue to grapple with a timeline to re-open the economy to both locals and visitors.

Before they cancelled, the couple toyed with whittling down the guest list and keeping the original booking. Under the county’s anticipated regulations, a group size of up to 50 people might be allowed in July. With the vendors being part of that limit of 50, the actual guest list looks more like 35 attendees. “And that is not the wedding we had planned.”

Economic impact

The wedding industry is big business in Gunnison County. Nathan Bilow sits on the board of directors for the industry advocate Gunnison-Crested Butte Wedding Guide and says 157 weddings were registered in the county last year. Weddings can also be registered in other counties, states or even countries; if the ceremony is held in Gunnison County, those don’t make the official count. The overall economic figures are tough to estimate because the ripples can be felt across every sector of the tourism industry, from lodging to retail goods to outdoor or art experiences—and even “the devil’s lettuce.”

For some folks, weddings are a side gig and a good place to pick up money in the summer and fall when big events come to the valley. But for others, it’s their business, it’s their livelihood, it’s their bread-and-butter, their raison d’être.

“We kind of lean on the summer to make hay,” Brian Wickenhauser metaphorically says of his wedding business at the I Bar Ranch. Wick expects about a 33 percent decrease in business this year.

Ciera Freson owns Lucky Penny Events. She initially had 18 weddings on the books for summer 2020. Given the uncertainty around travel, group size and physical distancing restrictions, five have outright cancelled, four have postponed and the rest are still working on their backup plans. “I encourage them to have a plan B, C and D.”

Jamie Booth owns and operates Belleview Weddings & Events. Four of her weddings postponed until 2021. “There was a deep sadness… to give up hope this wasn’t going to happen.” Booth says she discouraged re-booking in the fall. “I’m scared if you do that, we’ll be postponing twice.”

Vendors like Pavol Kasala, a photographer and videographer who owns Kasala Productions, says eight of his clients have postponed until later this year or next year, and one has cancelled altogether—resulting in five-figure losses of revenue.

Local bluegrass band Floodgate Operators had a wedding cancel in June and their July booking is uncertain. According to Scott Stewart, who books events for the band, “We have lost significant income from coronavirus.”

Freson says a postponed wedding is better than a full-on cancellation, because most of the design, décor and infrastructure for the event have already been determined after months of working with her clients. “They’re not buying a wedding. They’re buying a service I provide for over a year… All that’s left to execute is ‘day-of’… It takes a year or two to plan an intricate wedding. It takes an hour to unravel everything.”

“What’s your pandemic clause?”

Force majeure is a legal term used to describe events beyond control that disrupt a business’s ability to deliver goods and/or services as outlined in a contract. These “acts of god” include natural disasters like floods or earthquakes in areas that typically do not experience the phenomena.

Retired Gunnison attorney Luke Danielson says force majeure clauses are typically put into place to protect the business. “My take on it is that neither party is completely relieved from the duty to perform the contract. But the duty to perform is essentially postponed until the circumstances preventing performance goes away. In this situation, whether the company is right to keep the deposit in these circumstances is another issue.”

And Ernat, whose wedding is on hold until next year, says that is a problem. “How can you penalize people when they alter their plans due to government regulations?”

Vendors each have a different approach to refunding deposits: some give back half, some are giving back all and some are retaining the full deposit with the idea that services will be delivered when public health and safety is not on the forefront of everyone’s mind.

Looking forward

One silver lining, Freson says, is that the 2021 season is already booking up with this year’s clients quickly snatching up the weekends next June through September in hopes of celebrating during a summery or autumnal backdrop of color and the associate—and short-lived—mild temperatures. She also says that couples are scrambling to get something on the books while there is still space on the calendar.

For those destination weddings that do fully cancel in favor of a backyard service, Bilow says those folks are also missing out on their perfect day. “My life has been documenting memories for people… They are missing out on artistic representation of their vision.”

As the wedding business takes a dive this summer, entrepreneurs will lose anticipated revenue. You might argue those dollars can be recouped next year, but based on recent trends, those 2021 summer Saturdays would have sold out anyway. And these businesses still have bills due tomorrow—or yesterday.

Author Chad J. Reich operates a wedding DJ business in Crested Butte.

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