‘Love isn’t canceled’: Oregon wedding industry endures ongoing pandemic

Special Reports

Many were hoping 2021 would be the year of weddings, but that might not be the case.

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As the pandemic forced couple after couple to postpone their weddings in 2020, many felt certain 2021 would be the year they tied the knot. But as the pandemic drags on, and vaccines take longer than expected to distribute, many are rescheduling again, leaving wedding vendors in limbo. 

According to Rock Paper Coin, a Portland-based company that works with events industry businesses, 71% of weddings in the Pacific Northwest were postponed in 2020. This data was collected by surveying 50 wedding planners.  

Johannah Zuniga, owner of Dream Cakes in Portland, said about a quarter of the weddings she was hired for in 2020 were canceled. Kari Ramey, owner of Zenith Vineyard, a venue west of Keizer, said they had to reschedule about 50 weddings. 

Zuniga kept her business open, but said she didn’t make any profit in 2020. “Do you close and just be closed until you weather the storm? or do you try to hustle?” she said. 

Ramey also chose to hustle. 

“When you’ve got a life or death situation for your business. You’re definitely going to just do what you need to do,” she said. 

Although the pandemic made weddings more stressful to plan, it didn’t cancel them altogether. Vendors and venues made adjustments and sacrifices to ensure their couples could still say “I do.” 

Adapting to keep their businesses alive

When the initial COVID-19 shutdown impacted Oregon in March 2020, the wedding and events industry came to a screeching halt. 

“The pandemic, when it hit, it was scary for everyone, right? because… you’ve never been able to plan for something like that,” said Casi Yost, an Oregon-based wedding photographer.  

Casi Yost, left, takes photos while Chas Thomas arranges a flowers on a table during a styled shoot. Both women work in the wedding industry in Oregon and have been adjusting their businesses during the pandemic. Photo taken Jan. 30. 2021. (KOIN)

Yost said she started sending emails to her clients suggesting they come up with backup plans. Some went forward with a small elopement or micro wedding, which Yost could still photograph.

Cindy Lindsley, the owner of Peachy Keen Coordination, said she worked on 10 weddings that took place during the pandemic in 2020. While some couples cut their guest list down to two people, others still were able to have a wedding 100 guests. Lindsley said she paid close attention to what rules were in place in each county and moved some weddings to new locations where the restrictions weren’t as strict. 

She said the wedding with 100 people was COVID-19 compliant.

“People were sanitizing, people were wearing masks during the appropriate times. We had social distance signs up,” Lindsley described. 

She said she coordinated another wedding that worked with the guidelines by splitting its guest list into groups and allowing only 30 people at a time to visit with the bride and groom. 

In Polk County, where COVID-19 rules weren’t as strict over the summer, Kari Ramey said Zenith Vineyard could still hold outdoor weddings and became a good backup plan for some people who needed to find a new venue. As of January 2021, Ramey said their outdoor veranda could accommodate an event of 60 people.

By now, Lindsley said most wedding coordinators are well-versed on the regulations in place in each county and can serve as great resources for couples. She said she’s constantly communicating with her couples so they know their options. She knows planning during the pandemic is stressful and said she just wants to give them as normal of an experience as possible. 

Have a plan B, and maybe even a plan C 

Even the people who work in the wedding industry don’t know when all restrictions for large gatherings will be lifted in Oregon. They recommend couples come up with a plan B, but said that plan needs to be realistic. 

“There are a lot of people that are inquiring now for 2021 for like early June, early July and they’re like 200 guest count, which I would love to do, but… you’re probably not going to have a 200-person wedding in June or July,” said Johannah Zuniga, owner of Dream Cakes. 

For Zuniga, planning to create a cake for a 200-person wedding could prevent her from taking on any other orders for the weekend. If the 200-person wedding is canceled, or the cake order is downsized, she said she’s losing out on other clients she could have booked. 

Yost said many couples are opting for elopements because to them, getting married is more important than having a big reception. 

Farah and Muntaser’s wedding cake. The wedding took place in Beaverton on Oct. 17, 2020. Photo by Casi Yost

She suggests couples reach out to their wedding venue while planning so they have an idea what their Plan B would look like if the big Plan A wedding doesn’t work out. That way they aren’t caught off guard when or if they need to pivot. 

Chas Thomas owns Wildflower Portland and does floral arrangements for weddings. Her advice for couples is to be equally excited about both Plan A and Plan B. 

“I think a lot of times people have their idea – this is what the day needs to look like – and are getting their dreams crushed, some multiple times, when you don’t have to,” Thomas said. 

She said there are a lot of options that allow couples to be flexible and there’s plenty of time right now to form backup plans. 

Ramey, from Zenith Vineyards, said she’s seen couples increase their wedding budgets when they cut their guest lists. Once they realize they don’t need to pay for so much food, hotel stays, or transportation, they’re investing in making their wedding a more intimate and memorable experience. 

Data from the Rock Paper Coin study showed that 25% of weddings in the Pacific Northwest did increase their budgets in 2020, 60% kept their budget the same, and 15% lowered their budgets. 

Lack of guidance 

After months of finding ways to navigate the wedding world, Oregon vendors and venues say they’re still frustrated with the lack of guidance they’ve received from the state. 

Washington has outlined specific rules for weddings in Phase 2 and Phase 3 of its reopening plan, but Oregon has not given any clear directions for the industry. With the state’s latest guidance based on risk level, venues say it’s difficult to know whether they fall under the category of an eating and drinking establishment, an indoor entertainment establishment, an outdoor entertainment establishment, or a faith institution. 

“There is no address to events and weddings and it forces us to interpret it differently,” Lindsley, the wedding coordinator, said. “There’s been a lot of confusion in the industry on where exactly we fall and we’re trying to better read into that and get understandings of each of our counties.”

This is partly what prompted Kimberly Morrill, owner of Your Perfect Bridesmaid, a wedding coordinating business, to band together with other business owners throughout the state to form the Live Events Industry of Oregon. 

The coalition’s goal is to work with state leaders to get clearer guidelines for their industry. 

Individually-wrapped desserts at a COVID-compliant wedding in Beaverton on Oct. 17, 2020. Photo by Casi Yost

So far, they’ve established some direct communication lines and have a go-to person in state politics who can help get answers for workers in the live events industry. However, Morrill said there’s still room for improvement. 

“We’re hopeful that as Oregon sees that hey, these professionals know what they’re doing. They know how to keep people safe, that we’ll see a lot of the same improvements,” Morrill said. 

As a wedding coordinator, Morrill said she’s had clients move their weddings to Skamania County in Washington, which is currently in Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan. This means indoor and outdoor occupancy at weddings is limited to 50 guests or 25% of building capacity, whichever is less. 

Even though this restriction limits a guest list, Morrill said it’s at least nice to know specifically what her limitations are. 

“Love isn’t canceled” 

Wedding vendors say they know their clients are experiencing a lot of guilt and pressure from family members to make plans and see them through, but that’s not the best option for everyone right now. 

Lindsley feels couples with a wedding date set for fall 2021 can rest a bit easier. She’s recently had a lot of couples book dates in October. 

“I think couples are looking out further and are feeling enthusiastic about the vaccination being more readily available and the mandates to maybe be a little bit more flexible by then and so I think we’re going to start to see, perhaps, us heading in the right direction,” she said. 

Zuniga, from Dream Cakes, thinks 2022 will be the year of big weddings. Until then, she thinks it’s a good idea for people in the industry to relax and prepare for the excitement that’s to come. 

Thomas, the florist, said she’s been using her down time to get creative and come up with dozens of floral arrangements her couples might be interested in. 

Casi Yost, left, takes photos while Chas Thomas arranges a flowers on a table during a styled shoot. Both women work in the wedding industry in Oregon and have been adjusting their businesses during the pandemic. Photo taken Jan. 30. 2021. (KOIN)

Overall, vendors say they’re feeling optimistic. Those who spoke to KOIN 6 News said they aren’t throwing in the towel yet. They’re budgeting, applying for grants, and using the Paycheck Protection Program loan to keep their workers employed. 

“Our [COVID-19] numbers are going down right now. That’s today’s news. Who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, but every time I hear a bit of good news I just hope that that’s the trend.” Ramey from Zenith Vineyard said. 

Vendors said one thing they’re noticing is that slowing down plans has allowed more people to focus more on their expectations for their marriage and less on the expectations for their wedding day. 

“Love isn’t canceled. If you really want to get married to the person that means the most to you, then you can talk to your vendors and you can make it happen,” photographer Casi Yost said. “You should do what is important to you because this is one day that’s supposed to celebrate your love.”

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