Jessie and Kyle Herod planned to get married in 2020, with a 180-guest Catholic ceremony, followed by a New Year’s Eve party with dinner and dancing in a barn outside Portland.
Even when the first wave of the coronavirus crashed into the United States, the Gorham couple imagined it wouldn’t disrupt their plans, nearly a year away. That expectation faded as time wore on.
“We held out hope for so long because maybe it would change, maybe it would change,” Jessie Herod said. “In the end it just wasn’t worth it. We wanted to have that special experience with all our friends and family, so that’s why we decided to push it.”
The couple got married in October with a small group of friends and family on the top of Cadillac Mountain but still wanted a full-scale wedding. They’re trying again this September, with a planned outdoor reception at Bug Light in South Portland.
Given the unpredictable course of the pandemic, the Herods knew unforeseen changes could derail their plans yet again, and they planned to cut guests from the list if they couldn’t fit them in safely.
Then on Thursday, Gov. Janet Mills said the state would lift nearly all physical distancing restrictions at outdoor venues. A day later, the state announced that as of May 24, fully vaccinated people could go unmasked indoors. It also announced plans to lift physical distancing requirements indoors, even where people are eating and drinking, aligning with new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For the Herods, that means they can finally have the wedding they wanted with all the guests they planned.
“I’ll be excited to see what happens in the next months,” Jessie Herod said. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction.”
DOWN THE AISLE TO RECOVERY
Relaxing restrictions could get Maine’s $1 billion wedding industry back on its feet. However, huge losses last year, months of planning disruptions from shifting health and safety rules, postponements and cancellations mean it could be years before wedding businesses recover to pre-pandemic levels.
Until last week, wedding planners and venues worked within Maine rules that required 6 feet between tables, masking when physical distance couldn’t be maintained, and spacing for live performers, even outside, with stricter limits for indoor celebrations. That made it difficult to plan a major wedding, forcing couples to cull their guest lists to stay within limits, rent bigger and more expensive tents, and scramble to change wedding venues or find an outdoor space.
That anxiety lifted last week, said Lani Toscano, a wedding planner and florist in Cumberland.
“This news changes, really, almost everything,” Toscano said.
All her clients had already opted for an outdoor wedding, anticipating it would be safer and easier. Now the events might resemble something close to pre-pandemic normal, even if it means redoing the seating order and table arrangements another time.
“I think for those of us who are in the industry, it might mean we do have to do more layouts, but it allows clients to say, ‘OK, we can have higher guest counts, we don’t have to disinvite people,’” Toscano said. “We, like all industries, are still waiting for our specific guidelines to reflect the change – there could be something in the fine print that I don’t know about this moment.”
A BILLION-DOLLAR INDUSTRY
Maine has become a recognized spot for destination weddings in recent years, spawning dozens of wedding barns, event planners, caterers, photographers and other businesses.
But the economic impact of mass gatherings goes even further. Thousands of guests stay in hotels and vacation rentals, eat at restaurants, pay for transportation and shop in local stores.
A 2019 report estimated the total yearly economic impact of weddings in Maine was about $1 billion. That included more than $200 million spent directly on weddings and almost $350 million in tourism spending because of them.
“In Maine, the tourism industry is worth $6 billion every year, and weddings make up $1 billion – it is not a small footprint we have,” said Reuben Bell, owner of Blue Elephant caterers in Saco.
The company had nearly all its wedding clients cancel or postpone last year. The few events it catered were very small, not sustainable for a business that makes its money per attendee.
“Micro weddings were not great for companies like us who work on guest counts,” he said.
This year, Blue Elephant has 130 events planned – more than in a normal year. But with so much disruption last year, the company and others have spent through the advance payments they received, sometimes more than two years ago. At least eight couples have postponed again on Blue Elephant, hoping to have a “normal” event next year.
That means about $400,000 of work shifted to 2022, and about 12 dates Bell can’t book with new events because they’re filled with weddings originally planned for 2020.
He doesn’t expect the industry to recover for at least two years, maybe more.
“When 2022 rolls around, people will either get tired of waiting, have already gotten married or bought a house or started a family,” Bell said. “It is our job to keep them excited about it through the year, and hopefully they don’t postpone, and hopefully they don’t cancel.”
The Coolidge Family Farm in New Gloucester hosted eight weddings last year, less than one-third of the events it booked for 2020.
“I was really proud of that – most venues had none, or just one or two,” said owner Misty Coolidge.
This season, she has 41 weddings scheduled – a fantastic recovery at first glance, but really only enough to get her back to square one.
“I just lost so much last year that even though it appears that with 41 weddings I am really successful, it just fixes last year,” Coolidge said.
She added year-round accommodations at her property, in an effort to diversify her business, and as a hedge in case weddings don’t return to being the moneymakers they used to be.
“In an area saturated with wedding barns, having something at your venue that sets it apart and brings in other income than weddings is really important right now,” Coolidge said.
DREAMS OF NORMALCY
Essie and Mike Haimes took over as the new owners of The Wedding Barns of Maine, two venues in York County, just 30 days before Maine went into pandemic lockdown.
“It was a pretty rough landing in the wedding industry,” Essie Haimes said.
Thirty-five of their weddings were postponed or canceled last year. Luckily, people kept booking for this year and 2022.
“Because we are usually sought after, people book about a year-and-a-half or two years out,” Haimes said. “That is what allowed us to weather the downturn.”
This year, they have 46 events on the books, but until last week, Haimes worried some might postpone or cancel again because of the state’s restrictions. Most of its couples moved to outdoor events, and now they can feel more comfortable, she said.
“I think your couples will feel much more like they can have the wedding they wanted to have,” Haimes said.
The pandemic rocked Kim Chapman and Dave Dionne’s household. The couple make their living in the wedding industry – she as a photographer and he as a DJ and entertainment booker.
They survived 2020 despite losing nearly all their wedding business and being unable to access financial support from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which offers forgivable loans to struggling small businesses. Chapman opened a photo studio for what little cash it could bring in, to cushion the blow.
This year is much busier, but Chapman is running into another problem: There are now so many bookings, she’s had to turn down work because it conflicted with events she’d already scheduled. And couples still keep postponing or canceling.
“This year is way better, but they are still canceling,” Chapman said. “We have been a forgotten industry, we feel like.”
Dionne said the wedding landscape in 2021 is better than last year – a low bar – but recovery is still a ways off.
“This year doesn’t look like a normal year – it is not normal, it is pretty fractured,” Dionne said. “It is much better than last year, but not back to what you’d expect. I suspect that next year will be a boom that we can’t keep up with.”
Postponements, cancellations and smaller guest lists reduced business for Portland’s The Black Tie Co. caterers, too. In a normal year, Black Tie would cater about 100 weddings. In 2020, it catered 17, each with fewer than 100 guests.
Bookings are back to normal this year, but the guest lists are smaller – 50 to 100 people, instead of 200 or more – and event planner Britta Livonius expects fewer shifts for per-diem caterers and less business for the planning department.
Black Tie diversified, expanding operations at its Portland café, Union Kitchen, and purchasing a specialty food and gift basket company last year.
“I think the pandemic has caused people to rethink things – maybe they don’t need to spend all this money for a 250-person wedding,” Livonius said. “Only time will tell. I have to believe a time will come again when the wedding industry will boom, but I don’t know if it is this year.”
Maureen Kelley, 30, reorganized her wedding at least three times over the past year. First, an inside reception at Black Point Inn last May was scrapped and replaced with an outdoor party this June. Then seating plans changed again when the Connecticut native learned the tent she had would not accommodate all 150 of her desired guests, a live band and a dance floor while staying within the state’s guidelines.
News that Maine would lift its restrictions shortly before her wedding in June was a huge relief.
“I had a handful of people say no on their RSVP, and I’m interested if they reach out and reconsider now,” Kelley said. “All the hours I spent agonizing about the plans now feels a little bit silly. Honestly, I am so done changing things – I’m done changing my mind. I’m just happy to be able to celebrate safely the way we wanted.”