OXFORD — Small businesses in the hospitality and events fields took some serious hits when COVID-19 effectively shut down most of Maine’s wedding season last year. As Maine pulls itself back up, those businesses are using creative ways to support each other and support their customers who had to abandon dates and cancel reservations for weddings, reunions and other family functions.
Krissy Patry, owner of the wedding venue Whitney Farm Estate, launched the season with an open house on May 2 to welcome engaged couples to connect with Oxford Hills-based event services businesses as they plan for their hallmark occasions. She and her husband David converted their 1805 home and barn from private residence to wedding destination in 2018.
“Last year with COVID it was a struggle. We operated to a degree,” said Patry. “We had four or five couples reschedule for this year. Nine of our couples that did go through with their weddings, had to follow the guidelines and have fewer guests.”
Whitney Farm Estate opened in June of 2018. During the Patry’s first year in business it was not events but vacations that dominated bookings.
“Opening in June, we completely missed the wedding booking season,” she explained. “But I listed this place on VRBO and overnight I had three bookings. That was very helpful for our first year. The second year was our first real season; we hosted about 12 weddings. Last year we had 14 planned, until the pandemic, with 16 scheduled for this year.”
The open house was meant to give a boost to other small businesses in similar pandemic recovery.
“There are a lot of wedding shows that happen and it can cost up to $900 to exhibit for a weekend,” Patry said. “What we wanted to do was something local and free. We don’t charge for vendors to be here or for couples to attend.”
The first two hours of the open house were reserved for couples who have already made their reservations and are planning the details, or are considering holding their wedding at the estate.
“It gave the couples a chance to see our different ceremony sites,” Patry said. “We have four and they were all decorated by local florists. We put out chairs so customers can see how the different sites look and decide for themselves where their ceremony will take place.
“The barn was set up with those florists, event planners, photographers and DJs who have worked here before. The couples could walk through and talk to each of them. We had Smokin’ Dave’s from Norway here, we had a baker from Poland. But everyone else…is from this area.”
Patry said that some of the couples who came to the first part brought along family and friends so they can show where they are getting married and see the set-up.
During the afternoon the barn opened up to the public, giving the vendors a chance to network with new prospective customers researching function venues.
After last year’s disruptions, Patry is eager to get her business back on track and support other companies in the wedding business.
“Last year was so hard,” she said. “My husband and I had to do SBA loans for both our businesses. A year later, they’re due. It helped us out of that bind and kept us alive but we’re still recovering.
“Now we’re facing the projects that we want to do here that had to take a back seat. Now it’s hard to find materials. We want to replace the fence [around the yard]. But we’d be lucky to get the ones we want in five to six months and we can’t do that. We’ll have to paint it instead.”
The Patrys will have to do a lot of the site improvements themselves, which is not what they expected to happen.
“You have to try and save somewhere when you’re paying that much more in materials. I’d rather employ people who are trying to get back to work themselves. But we’ll have to do a lot of it ourselves.”
Patry appreciates that Whitney Farm Estate helps attract business for other local proprietors.
“People don’t have to look far to get what they’re looking for. There are a lot of really hard-working small business people here in Oxford Hills,” she said. “The vendors participating in our open house this spring were all local, like DMC Livery Service, a limousine service from South Paris; Hillside Cottages in Norway providing wedding guest accommodations; Smokin Dave’s from Norway, they also do catering; Kruzin DJ Service, South Paris; The Winey Baker from Poland – they make wedding cakes and desserts; Dragonfly Healer in Oxford, which specializes in Reiki therapy; Rev Nutrition from Waterford, a nutritional juice and smoothie bar; Mary Kay Consultant Cheryle Lola of Lewiston and GA Downing from Minot, which provides facilities rental services.”
It is not just wedding vendors who benefit. The estate draws customers year-round, customers who shop and dine at other local establishments.
“We don’t normally hold weddings in July because it’s so hot,” she said. “But it works out okay because we take vacation bookings. With the pool, the views, it’s a nice getaway for people that don’t usually get to enjoy a surrounding like this. In the winter we have groups stay, to cross-country ski, hike, snowmobile. And this summer 2gether We Cook, a private chef service from Portland will hold farm-to-table dinners here.”