Vaccine news fuels return to lavish weddings, as couples hope to say ‘I don’t’ to Zoom ceremonies

To get a sense of just how disruptive 2020 has been to the nation’s wedding industry, you need look no further than the large storage facility rented in the spring by Kleinfeld, the world-famous bridal gown emporium, not far from its glittering Manhattan store.

The space houses 8,000 wedding gowns that brides from around the nation painstakingly selected, paid for and intended to wear on their 2020 wedding days. Today the custom-altered gowns sit, waiting to be worn, in the wake of scores of wedding postponements and cancellations.

“Most of the weddings from March until now were canceled or rescheduled because of the pandemic,” said Jennette Kruszka, director of marketing and public relations for Kleinfeld Bridal.

The themes to emerge in 2020 are the death of destination weddings, the growing popularity of Covid-19 riders in wedding contracts and the emergence of 2021 as a popular year to wed.

“In March, we had to contact every single bride to find out, ‘Are you postponing? Do you want us to ship you the dress?’”

Many of the brides, uncertain when they will get married, asked Kleinfeld to hold on to their dresses.

“There was so much uncertainty, and so many brides still don’t know what they want to do,” Kruszka said. “We’re probably one of the few companies in New York City that took extra space during the pandemic to house customer dresses whose weddings were postponed until next year.”

A woman looks at wedding dresses while wearing a mask and following preventative Covid-19 measures in Kleinfeld Bridal in New York.Phillip Van Nostrand / Kleinfeld Bridal

As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, the gowns are one of many disappointments for scores of couples who had intended to say “I do.” Coronavirus and strict new mandates limiting travel and public gatherings derailed thousands upon thousands of wedding weekends, placing a once-burgeoning wedding industry into a state of ongoing flux.

NBC News spoke with a half dozen wedding industry insiders who said that among the themes to emerge in 2020 are the rise of micro-weddings, the death of destination weddings, the growing popularity of Covid-19 riders in wedding contracts and the emergence of 2021 as a popular year to wed.

The promise of a vaccine, wedding experts said, has given couples a renewed sense of optimism. Still, they say, 2020 remains a year of industry setbacks.

“2020 is really just one big loss for the wedding industry,” said Steve Sendor, publisher of Sophisticated Weddings Magazine.

“In the New York area alone, the applications for marriage licenses are down 60 percent this year compared to last year, and the wedding industry has lost between $400 and $600 million in revenue.”

Sendor said many couples were forced to postpone their dream weddings not once, but in some cases twice this year, in order to work with Covid-19 restrictions in their respective states and out of a desire to include elderly and immunocompromised guests on their big days.

“A lot of couples are getting married legally in 2020 but they’re putting off the big party and big wedding reception until next year,” Sendor said.

To celebrate their small, legal weddings, Sendor said a growing number of couples are throwing backyard and rooftop weddings, what many in the industry calls “micro-weddings.”

“Brides don’t like the term ‘micro-wedding,’” Sendor noted. “So we’re also calling these scaled-down weddings ‘cozy’ weddings.”

The scaled-down events, which typically include just a few in-person guests and a number of guests who watch the weddings remotely on computer screens, have forced wedding professionals to retool their offerings.

“I’ve been figuring out Zoom calls and how to do online virtual events,” said Preston Bailey, a wedding videographer based in South Carolina. Bailey, not to be mistaken for the celebrity event planner who shares the same name, said he’s seen business plummet by 40 percent since the pandemic began.

“Doing Zoom weddings is something we’ve turned to and it’s keeping us busy,” Bailey said.

Also navigating a new normal: veteran wedding planner Marcy Blum.

Blum said that the promise of a Covid-19 vaccine is giving her clients some hope.

“I think there’s a lot of new optimism,” Blum said. “I was on a call with a bunch of my colleagues right after news of the vaccine broke. They all say couples who were on the cusp of postponing their spring 2021 weddings to the following year are now saying, ‘Let’s not move the wedding date yet’, now that they know the vaccine appears to be imminent.

“If nothing else, it’s a pretty safe bet that the vaccine will be in place by fall and that fall 2021 weddings are going to happen,” she said.

Blum, who has been in the industry 35 years and has overseen scores of high-wattage celebrity weddings, including those of Billy Joel and Lebron James, said the pandemic has forced industry professionals to face unprecedented challenges.

“Financially it’s been difficult,” Blum said of the toll the pandemic has taken on weddings. “I moved out of my very expensive office earlier this year.”

Blum’s next large in-person wedding is not scheduled until the spring. She’s spent the past several months overseeing a handful of small, pandemic-era weddings, and learning to think outside the traditional wedding box.

For in-person guests, Blum has distributed personalized face masks that bear the couple’s initials.

“There’s less razmataz in pandemic weddings,” Blum said. “Usually at a wedding people eat and drink and dance. We don’t have that now. You have to find new and different ways to titillate the guests so that it’s safe — and fun.”

Blum said that to make Zoom weddings more enjoyable, she has sent guests a shaker, bitters, and a recipe for a specific mixed drink that the wedding couple loves. She’s also surprised wedding guests with famous bands who have Zoomed in to virtual wedding receptions and serenaded the wedding couple with a favorite song.

Out of social distancing necessity, big bands are “out” at in-person weddings, and solo pianists who can sing and put on a show are “in,” Blum said.

“If I could make a living doing small events, I’d love to,” said Blum. “They’re heartfelt and sweet — but from a financial perspective, they’re tough.”

Another big casualty of the 2020 pandemic: destination weddings.

In 2019, U.S. couples threw more than 300,000 destination weddings, comprising an estimated 25 percent of all weddings, according to Brides Magazine.

Now, because of Covid-19-related travel restrictions, destination weddings are, for the foreseeable future, a thing of the past.

“I think 2021 is going to be the year of domestic weddings,” said wedding photographer Amy Anaiz, who has traveled the world photographing weddings since 2008.

“Currently, couples are being very cautious and keeping weddings close to home,” she said.

Anaiz said her wedding photography business is down 60 percent this year.

But Anaiz said there are signs of hope. She noted the conclusion of the recent presidential election has enabled many of her clients to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

“My brides and grooms are happy the election is over since it was something that was such a hot item, so much was at stake. I think the conclusion of the election will bring some more order and a little more structure to the Covid-19 fight going forward.”

The pandemic forced Anaiz, like many wedding vendors, to add Covid-19 riders to contracts.

“I did get my contracts fully redone with the help of a lawyer,” Anaiz said. “I had verbiage already in there about ‘an act of God’ if something uncontrollable happens, but I didn’t have the verbiage in there about pandemics until now. Now I use very specific language.”

Sendor said it’s a growing trend among wedding vendors to add Covid-19 riders to contracts, and anticipates all wedding vendors will follow suit.

In Anaiz’s case, she allows couples to postpone a wedding for a year with no penalties, but if they opt to postpone beyond a year, an additional percentage is charged. Anaiz said she’s also raised her rates.

The new Covid-19 contracts, Sendor said, are intended to help wedding vendors through a difficult time, but, for many, it’s too little too late.

Sendor said “many” wedding venues and vendors have gone under since the pandemic began and expects more to be unable to hold on.

“Anybody who wasn’t doing well in January or February were the first to go out,” Sendor said, noting vendors in some cities, like New York, have been particularly hard hit owing to strict new coronavirus-related restrictions, significantly limiting public gatherings.

Many wedding professionals have had to rethink their business models, including wedding cake artists who now make ends meet by baking birthday cakes.

Many brides enter the bridal store not knowing their wedding venue or even their wedding date — something that would have been unheard before Covid-19.

Kruszka said that while Kleinfeld is still filling its books with brides shopping for gowns, it’s only able to accommodate a portion of the brides it saw a year ago, owing to Covid-19 restrictions.

“On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, where we used to have 110 appointments a day, now we can only have 60 appointments a day. During the week we have about 45 appointments a day.”

The reduction in brides that can enter the store means a reduction in revenue. And while the store once attracted brides from all over the world, strict New York state restrictions mean that any bride traveling in from a location in which Covid-19 rates are on the rise must present proof she’s been in the city 14 days prior to trying on dresses.

At the store, Kruszka said there are new safety protocols, including temperature checks at the door, a limit to bridal entourages (brides can now bring no more than two guests to a fitting), and a limit on how many gowns a bride tries on. After each appointment, gowns are put through an extensive decontamination process in a dressing room that’s been converted into a cleaning facility.

“We’re seeing people spend more money per visit than they did before the pandemic,” Kruszka said. “We’re finding that brides are completing their look in one visit, buying not only their dress but also their veil and all of their accessories.”

Though many brides enter the store not knowing their wedding venue or even their wedding date — something that would have been unheard before Covid-19 — they are certain about one thing: They want to get married in 2021.

“2021 is definitely the year of the wedding,” Kruszka said.

However, if there’s another Covid-19 surge in 2021, it will devastate the industry.

“The wedding industry is not dead yet. We’re only one foot in the grave. But if 2021 gets wiped out, we’re all terrified,” Blum said.

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