Hannah Tomlin Davies had largely remained optimistic about her upcoming wedding, but the day she picked up her wedding dress was the day Williamson County reported their first COVID-19 case, and the area’s wedding industry has struggled to stay afloat under strict pandemic regulations ever since.
In 2018, Davidson County alone hosted 5,618 marriages, according to the state. Around 72 percent of Tennessee couples have a formal wedding and spend an average of $22,657, potentially meaning around $90 million is spent in the wedding industry according to Theknot.com.
Faced with multiple complications, couples have had to make the difficult decision to cancel or postpone upcoming weddings. Combined with fear of illness and adaptation to strict regulations, couples have also contended with pandemic-related job losses that made it financially impossible to continue with lavish weddings.
With caterers, wedding planners, photographers, and many other livelihoods tied to the wedding industry, months with no weddings meant businesses have been financially devastated. For those couples who had already signed contracts and shelled out deposits, this left businesses with difficult questions to answer.
Devon McNeill, owner of Meet Cute Event Planning, was largely sympathetic to her clients. She became used to having back up scenarios for weddings with each executive order from Gov. Bill Lee, but eventually wedding dates came and went due to continued city shutdowns.
“My job was to plan for the unexpected but the only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t know what was going to happen,” said McNeill.
Couples who could no longer afford wedding expenses asked to be let out of their contracts, and McNeill stopped charging the extra fees normal for cancellations and postponements “because everybody is dealing with this,” she said. She kept deposits and had another job so she could afford to be flexible.
Meanwhile, she and other small business owners leaned on each other for advice. Often small wedding business owners had Zoom calls and served as an emotional support system for each other. McNeill often found herself telling others “you’re not wrong in keeping the deposit,” as business owners reported being berated by customers asking for their money back.
“It’s not wrong to keep what you need to survive,” she would tell colleagues.
Patrice Armstrong, owner of PLS Coordinate, also saw her income disappear, half in postponements and half in cancellations.
“It’s just been madness,” said Armstrong.
Friday, Nashville increased their maximum event capacity to 500 or less after previously being capped at 125, making weddings that were previously postponed possible again. Business owners report the last few weekends have been busy, and the wedding industry has started to recover. And the timing is perfect, since Nashville is one of the top 50 cities in the country to hold weddings, with September and October being popular dates according to Wallethub.com.
“We’re back,” said McNeill.
Despite the change, weddings have started to adjust to surviving the pandemic, turning from showy events to smaller, more intimate occasions.
Couples have been spending $10,000 to $15,000 on half the average amount of guests, according Armstrong. One of Armstrong’s clients had fewer than 20 guests who “basically sat at a dinner table.” Now Armstrong’s business is booked solid for September and October.
After consulting a doctor, Tomlin-Davies knew she’d have to give up the idea of her original wedding. She had originally planned to have 200 guests, but the city-owned venue she selected had restricted guests to 25. Although many of her friends postponed their weddings until 2021, Tomlin Davies decided to change plans but keep the date. Eventually she was able to make a last-minute booking change to a private venue with a small group of 50 people. She could have invited more, but she and her husband chose to consider the safety of their guests and themselves.
Thankfully, she said, the process of uninviting guests wasn’t difficult since people understood the challenges faced planning a wedding during a pandemic.
And Tomlin-Davies’ wedding turned out to be better than she imagined. She had always been told that her wedding would be a “whirlwind of a day,” with her time and attention being spent on numerous guests.
“I think because we did it on such a smaller scale, we were really able to enjoy those around us and enjoy the day and it felt less overwhelming,” she said.
If she had been told ahead of time a pandemic was right around the corner, Tomlin Davies said she would have eloped, but her wedding “really turned out to be a perfect day.”
For their honeymoon, the couple drove down to Alabama for the beach since the pandemic had postponed their plans to go to Europe until next year. Once the pandemic is over, she’ll hold the reception and have a large party for her remaining family and friends, she said.
Since small weddings have become the new normal, Armstrong now takes the time to personally know her client’s guests. But smaller scale weddings mean Armstrong will have to do more weddings to stay at the same finances, which is “more work, but the process is the same.”
COVID safety procedures also play a part in the new normal. McNeill and many others have adapted to state and city COVID regulations along with their own policies to ensure the safety of everyone involved. McNeill was upfront with her clients, stating “I don’t care about your political stance,” adding that with hundreds of jobs needed for each wedding, the industry had to do whatever it could to avoid getting shut down.
For Armstrong, ensuring the safety of her guests meant ensuring the safety of herself and her family. Along with city mask guidelines, Armstrong made gloves mandatory for caterers and asked guests to keep their distance from the food unless serving themselves. In her contracts she now provides an add-on fee for an optional sanitation employee — someone who checks temperatures, enforces masks and keeps an eye out for guests who appear ill. For example, if a sanitation employee spots a guest coughing, they report to Armstrong, who makes the final decision on what to do with. Sometimes, the venue provides a staff person for this role.
Armstrong makes sure to keep her mask on at all times. She may oversee several weddings in one day and could potentially infect hundreds of people if not careful. According to the Tennessean, COVID clusters have been associated with weddings, and Davidson County reported 15 cases were traced back to one wedding gathering held at The Farm at Cedar Springs in Lebanon.
Despite all these complications, people seem eager to move forward, said McNeill.
“People aren’t afraid of getting sick. They’re ready to get out of their homes and it’s generally with people that they know very well or with families they’ve been quarantined with. In general there are so many people who are not only ready to have their weddings but to attend [weddings] They’re ready to party.”