In sickness and in health

NJBIZ STAFF//September 20, 2021

In sickness and in health

The state’s wedding industry showed resilience and unity during the pandemic

NJBIZ STAFF//September 20, 2021

wedding, events, love, marriage

Few sectors have been as hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic as the wedding industry. Here in New Jersey, the story of how the wedding industry has adapted and survived is one of grit, flexibility and overcoming enormous challenges. The effects of the lockdowns, which led to mass cancellations and backlogs continuing to be made up, are still very much being felt. In fact, from March 2020 until Gov. Phil Murphy fully lifted restrictions on June 4, the wedding industry encountered lockdowns, capacity limits and mask mandates, which forced venues, vendors and clients to adapt in any number of ways to make ends meet.

But this summer offered a glimpse of normalcy, albeit a new normal with weddings being held on what were once considered off-days, creating more demand and more opportunities for venues and vendors with open calendars.

The Wedding Report estimates that there will be 2.5 million weddings in 2022, which is the most the U.S. has seen since 1984. For context, there were about 2.1 million weddings per year before the pandemic and just 1.2 million weddings in 2020. By the end of this year, 1.9 million weddings are expected.

In New Jersey, an average of 45,000 to 50,000 weddings are held per year. A record number of more than 55,000 weddings is projected for 2022 in the Garden State.

Erik Kent, who runs NJWedding.com, said the New Jersey industry has overcome a lot and has had to be flexible, especially during times of restrictions combined with uncertainty. “I think the wedding industry has learned a lot from our challenging time, how to cope, how to be resilient, how to be resourceful,” Kent said. “We offer lots of help and there’s always solutions and how to just maintain the support of the wedding community, where we’ll figure it out. And that’s all I can hope for.”

In addition to the website, Kent’s NJ Wedding Facebook group boasts more than 8,000 members, which serves as a resource to link together the wedding business community, as well as the couples, in one place. This forum has been particularly useful as the postponements, cancellations and rescheduling of wedding dates has led to a lot of pivoting.

“That [pivot] was a big business word of the year. Just, in general, how you pivot, you figure out what you can offer your clients,” Kent said. “What I experienced with every interaction with engaged couples and also the wedding community, like the wedding vendors and venues, was flexibility and accommodation.”

What I experienced with every interaction with engaged couples and also the wedding community, like the wedding vendors and venues, was flexibility and accommodation.

— Erik Kent, NJWedding.com

Gary Paris, who publishes Contemporary Weddings Magazine, has been around the New Jersey wedding industry for more than 25 years. He compliments all the vendors and venues for how they have handled such a bad situation. “Although we have large banquet facilities and larger vendors, we’re not super corporate, like a GM or an IBM,” Paris explained. “So, we’re basically a group of entrepreneurs, small and large … we’re used to resilience and making changes and working with people on an ongoing basis.”

Paris said the pandemic has been a transitional time that also required many concessions, especially from the venues, who bore the brunt of the scattershot scheduling while maintaining massive overhead costs. “In our industry, we’re planning a year, year and a half out, if not more. So a lot of these halls were booked a year or two years in advance,” Paris said. “I’m sure there were a lot of concessions and a lot of working together and a lot of understanding.”

But, he adds, “I don’t think you could ever really make up for a complete year of loss.”

Brian Lawrence, one of the foremost marketing experts in the wedding industry, credits wedding venues for making tough choices, forming a united front and taking it on the chin for the greater good of the entire industry.

Lawrence explained that as couples were forced to postpone their weddings, venues lost millions of dollars in a flash. And still, in good faith, they would put deposits toward another date. “Well, that other date is likely going to be another prime date in 2021,” Lawrence said. “So, now they’ve lost the cash flow of 2020 of money coming in 2020. And then they’re taking another hit in 2021 by having a prime date that they’re only getting partial payment for. So tremendous devastation to the venue sector.”

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George Truesdale owns the Clarks Landing Group, which operates Clarks Landing and the Mill, two of the premier wedding venues in New Jersey. He confirmed the scenario that Lawrence laid out. In other words, getting hit from all sides. “As soon as COVID hit, immediately everybody started canceling, postponing, and freaking out,” Truesdale said.

And this nightmare scenario played out as venues continued to incur expenses — mortgages, taxes, insurance, wages and more — while also not knowing if or when the restrictions would end. “It was a tremendous cash drain for venues,” Truesdale said. “And it was very upsetting for the brides. You didn’t know when the end was. Nothing was good for anybody.”

Then came the rescheduled weddings, which have been made up throughout this year and will continue until, at least, mid-summer 2022. To do so, venues such as Clarks Landing and the Mill, have held weddings on off-days, like Monday or Tuesday, and doubled up on weekends.

New variables have emerged since the initial lockdowns and cancellations, such as higher costs because of supply chain and manufacturing issues, staffing shortages led to increased labor costs and the spread of the delta variant, which has, thus far, not caused any new restrictions thus far in New Jersey.

So, while a record number of weddings are projected in 2022 across the country, Truesdale points out that venues working through the post-lockdown backlog will not necessarily benefit, at least immediately. “All the way until July of next year, we’re not running anywhere near full capacity because we’re still doing weddings from the time they got moved in 2020 into ’21 and ’22,” Truesdale said. “So, it’s not a bonanza for us.”

Lawrence pointed out that a financial opportunity exists for vendors and venues that have an open calendar. “There’s a big supply shortage of labor that comes up during the week because they’re not used to having weddings during the week,” Lawrence said. “It’s really good opportunity for businesses that may be good at what they do, but maybe they’re just getting started and they didn’t have the reputation. If they have an open calendar, this is an amazing time for them to put themselves out there and start marketing.”

Lawrence believes the normalization of more weekday weddings could be healthy for the industry long-term in terms of creating more opportunities for different weddings to be more spread out during the week.

Venue X is an example. The company was founded as a start-up nearly two years before COVID-19 hit by two childhood friends from Middlesex County, Hassan Mahmoud and Abed Elsamna, who saw a problem in the lack of technology connecting wedding venues and their clients.

The two quit their jobs in the private sector to develop a technology suite that is deployed to venues to help enhance the client collaboration experience. “Everything related to the event you would typically do with the venue: documentation, contracts, everything is all stored in one place,” Elsamna said. “But it’s all branded under the venue. So, they [venues] offer that technology to their clients and we tech-enable them. We power them. Venue X powers it. We’re behind the scenes.”

Venue X had just raised an investment round, secured clients and was hitting its stride as the pandemic hit and ground everything to a halt. Mahmoud and Elsamna were understandably wondering whether their all-in, entrepreneurial gamble had been a mistake. “What’s going to happen,” Elsamna wondered. “How are we going to survive this?”

As they navigated the early parts of the pandemic, they decided to focus not only on how to stay afloat, but how to ride it out side-by-side with their clients while adding value during the unfolding chaos. They focused on contract tracing as a way to help venues reopen safely. They also partnered with industry leaders, such Lawrence and Kent, to hold webinars and thought sessions on wedding/COVID-related topics.

And, perhaps, most important, they turned their attention to digital transformation, building more features and functionality into their platform.

When the economy reopened, venues could be off to the races in a better, more seamless way. They also made the decision to offer their subscription-based product to their clients at no cost in solidarity for several months during the heart of the lockdowns, a particularly grueling time for venues.
While this meant uncertainty in the short term, it earned goodwill and exposed their platform to more clients during a true code red scenario. The result was greater reliance on Venue X and usage in ways they never predicted. “These venues are seeing more and more the importance of having that digital type of technology,” Elsamna said.

Venue X has not only survived the pandemic but has thrived. In addition to working with some of the biggest venues in New Jersey, they are now in 20 states and working on plans to scale and expand their business further.

While they are still early in their journey and still new to the wedding industry, the lifelong friends credit the New Jersey wedding community for banding together during this unprecedented challenge. “There was a big sense of camaraderie,” Hassan explained. “And that was just something that I think was also a really big lesson. At times, I think when you’re building a business, you feel like you’re on an island by yourself. And I think, in most cases that is true. But I think when the pandemic hit, it kind of wasn’t. And that was a really comforting experience.”

Meanwhile, Truesdale’s venues have focused on the guest experience. While it has not been easy during such a rocky and uncertain time, Clarks Landing has maintained its five-star ratings on Google Reviews. Truesdale credits his staff, a unique venue and pent-up demand.

“People were just so happy to be out,” he explained. “And our whole goal in what we do is we’re trying to get every guest that attend a wedding to say, ‘that’s the best wedding we’ve ever been to.’”

Kent said New Jersey’s wedding industry has overcome so much and believes it is in a good position to move forward.

“There’s plenty of business to go around. There’s a lot of people getting married, lots of vendors, lots of different venues, various types of venues to accommodate weddings. It’s just amazing what New Jersey offers.”

This story was updated at 9:15 p.m. EDT on Sept. 21 2021 to correct the name of  Contemporary Weddings Publisher Gary Paris.