Expected wave of I do's means wedding bliss for industry

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An outdoor microwedding at the JW Marriott Anaheim Resort in California.
An outdoor microwedding at the JW Marriott Anaheim Resort in California. Photo Credit: @GreycardPhotography

With many couples forced to postpone or scale down their nuptial celebrations in 2020, some within the travel industry are predicting that pent-up demand will fuel a wedding boom in the latter part of 2021 and into 2022.

"After the vaccine news came out, we started to receive a lot of inquiries about events," said Chrissy Denihan, managing director of Denihan Hospitality. "People are still being extremely cautious, but they really want to plan social events and weddings. We think and hope we'll see a surge in that type of business in 2021."

Prospective brides and grooms contacting Denihan Hospitality's Benjamin hotel in New York have been somewhat evenly split between couples wanting a large wedding, who are willing to wait until prospective guests might feel more comfortable traveling, and "couples who are ready to pivot and have a more intimate wedding," despite their desire for a big bash, Denihan said.

"We're hearing from couples that want to have some type of micro event now and then want to have a larger celebration when circumstances allow," Denihan said.

At the JW Marriott Anaheim Resort in California, wedding-related queries are also on the rise.

"Weddings are probably the one segment right now that keeps moving for me," said Maribel Denner, director of sales and marketing for the JW Marriott Anaheim Resort. "We've been doing tours for couples since May, with interest picking up through October and November."

The property, which features over 43,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space, was originally scheduled to open in March, with its first wedding scheduled for May. Due to the pandemic, however, the property was forced to delay its opening until mid-August. Consequently, spring and summer weddings were canceled. 

"One couple just got married in their backyard, but we're still finding them dates for [a bigger event] once things are more settled," said Denner. "It isn't really a question about whether or not our couples will rebook. For many, it's their lifelong dream."

Though many twosomes are still hesitant to move forward with a date and deposit, Denner said she has seen booking activity, as well as guest counts, gradually start to ramp up, going from 25 people at the property's first "microwedding" in October to a 300-person wedding on the books for this November.

"People are becoming open to booking for next year or the following year, as long as you're willing to work with them should things change," Denner said.

Indeed, flexibility has become paramount for couples looking to move forward with plans.

At the Belmond el Encanto in Santa Barbara, Calif., for example, couples are currently able to "carry forward" their deposit and reschedule weddings without penalty. The property, which plans to extend this policy into 2021, has seen the adaptability translate into business. 

"Demand for weddings for June to December 2021 and in 2022 is robust," confirmed Irene Robles, the Belmond El Encanto's catering sales manager. "[Couples] are okay with having to lower guest counts or move dates should they need to."

The Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines in San Diego County has similarly remained nimble, coming up with creative approaches to crafting socially distant seating charts and integrating digital solutions for guests wanting to attend virtually. 

"People want to know what the future is going to look like, but all we can do is take it day by day and come up with different plans based on what may or may not be allowed at that time," said Brittani Libring, senior sales manager for the Hilton San Diego Commercial Services Complex.

Meanwhile, for travel advisors specializing in destination weddings, business is also starting to bounce back.
After being forced to cancel seven destination weddings for 2020, each of which took over a year to plan, Jesse Cisneros, an advisor with Virtuoso-affiliated agency Ovation Travel Group, is slowly getting some weddings back on the roster for 2021, albeit with smaller guest counts.

"I've booked two [wedding] groups and one honeymoon for 2021," said Cisneros. "The light at the end of the tunnel is looking brighter."

Many of the destination weddings Amy Vecchione of New Jersey-based Aventina Romance Travel had planned for 2020 and early 2021 have now been pushed to latter part of 2021 and into 2022. All that rescheduling, however, has come with logistical challenges.

"If a wedding date is changed, I'm now charging a fee. And I also charge a hefty cancellation fee, which is written into the contract," said Vecchione. "Because it's a ton of work to plan or move a wedding."

Some of Vecchione's clients have changed the direction of their plans completely, opting for an elopement to a more exotic destination, for example. 

Brandi Brister, director of meetings, incentives and fulfillment at Valerie Wilson Travel, another Virtuoso-member agency, has seen a similar trend toward smaller-scale celebrations and predicts it'll take until 2022 to see a full return to prepandemic-size weddings. 

Still, Brister said she's bullish on the wedding business coming back strong post-pandemic, in line with the quick comeback she witnessed after the financial crash of 2008.

"We've fielded more inquiries for weddings over the past few months than any other type of group," said Brister. "People are still going to find a way to get married -- they'll just do it differently. Love always finds a way." 

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