By Sarah Panitch
If there’s one thing COVID-19 has taught engaged couples, it’s that front porches make good wedding altars. Stay-at-home weddings or no weddings at all became the new normal this past summer. Consequently, businesses within the wedding industry have been scrambling to stay afloat.
Jessica Serrano is the sales director of Elms Mansion, a wedding venue in the Garden District of New Orleans. The venue has only been able to host five weddings since the pandemic broke out in the United States. “Normally we would have had somewhere in the range of 25 to 40 events between March and now, so you can see what a drastic decrease that is,” she said. In a pre-pandemic world, the quarters of Elms Mansion looked like rooms full of people dancing and socializing, but since March, the venue has been empty enough to hear the echoes of one’s footsteps.
The mansion significantly cut back on employees’ hours. “There are only two of us here, where normally we have two more people that are pretty full time, so it’s kind of bare-bones,” Jessica said. Jessica and the mansion’s property manager have been holding down the 26,000 square foot fort on their own. “To keep ourselves busy, we’ve been doing a lot of marketing opportunities. We’ve also done a lot of community involvement,” Jessica said. The venue recently hosted a movie event for the organization Son of a Saint and held a painting class in their back lot. “We’ve done some proposals or let people come in to take photos. Different wedding planners have used our property to take photos, so we’ve kept ourselves busy. Unfortunately, there haven’t been these huge money-making ventures, but hopefully at least some of the photos or marketing will pay off in the future,” she said. The financial compensation for the lack of weddings proved to be challenging, yet it also provided unexpected ways to bring the New Orleans community together.
In terms of planning their weddings in the midst of a pandemic, there have been three main routes that engaged couples have chosen between. On the one hand, some prioritized the act of getting married and did so when they originally planned to, but they had to significantly cut the length of the guest list. Meanwhile, other couples weighed more value towards being able to have their dream wedding, so they decided to postpone their wedding until further notice. For those who wanted to get the best of both worlds, they got legally married at their originally planned date and are now holding off on hosting a reception until it is safe to do so.
Jessica noticed that more couples took the route of postponing their wedding. “A lot of the time it’s because people are making this investment, so if you’re making this large investment in a wedding, you want it to look like what you originally pictured,” she said. However, for some couples it’s been more important to simply get married than to have their big, dream wedding. “There are quite a few people that just want to get married. They want to be together, and a lot of times those are our more mature brides… people in their thirties who want to start a family,” Jessica said.
Stephen Deaderick and Tyler Hackmann have been engaged since May 2019 and were planning on getting married in the French Quarter this past summer. At this point, they’re settling on the “best of both worlds” route. “It’s funny to look back at some of the emails that we sent to friends and family… We were like ‘Oh yeah, don’t worry. We’ll see what happens in a month… And then we said, ‘Oh, I’m sure we’ll still be able to do it in September – that’s so far away… But here we are,” Stephen said. “A huge part of it [their decision] was financial,” he added. They had to work within the limitations of the venues that they’d already booked. “We couldn’t really cancel necessarily, and so we decided we would just ask if we could transfer that, and they were fine with it,” Stephen said. The couple is currently planning on getting legally married this year and having a larger ceremony in November 2021. “Everything will be pretty much what it was supposed to be this year – just next year now,” Stephen said.
New Orleans resident Lisa Karlin has two children who had weddings planned in the city this past summer. Her son and his bride took the path of sacrificing their wedding venue and guest list size, so they could still get married over the summer. The couple originally planned to have a wedding on May 25 but postponed it to September 26 and got married at the bride’s childhood home. The guest list shrunk from 200 people to 70. “They were more focused on getting married but having some kind of ceremony and reception. They knew it wasn’t gonna be the one of their dreams, but in the end… Everyone who was at the wedding said it was one of the nicest weddings they’d been to,” Lisa said.
“Our daughter though – she has had her mind set on a blowout wedding,” Lisa said. There remains a great deal of uncertainty in terms of planning her daughter’s wedding. “If we get to mid-November and are still at 50 people in a room… I’m not sure what we would do. I know she would like to move it, but we are locked in with the venue,” Lisa said. Rescheduling and cancellations have been creating immense stress for both businesses in the wedding industry and their clients.
“We’ve just been trying to keep everyone’s best interest in mind… In a non-pandemic world, they [clients] will be contractually obligated to pay us a percentage of the event, depending on how many days out they are from the event… but obviously we haven’t been holding people to that,” Jessica said about Elms Mansion’s protocol. Rescheduling with the venue for Lisa’s son’s wedding worked out relatively smoothly, but her daughter’s venue is already booked throughout next year. “They’re not letting us out… We are committed to the money we’ve already put into it,” Lisa said. Stephen and Tyler already put deposits down at two venues, but “Luckily they worked with us, and it was fine. They were able to move everything very easily – without having to pay more… We wanted to move it at least a year later, just so that there was the highest chance that things will maybe be safe again in the world,” Stephen said.
Scheduling difficulties were only the tip of the iceberg though. Several regulations have been put in place for special event venues during the pandemic. At this point, indoor events are limited to 50 people, while outdoor ones are permitted to have 100 people. Guests must wear face masks unless they’re sitting at a table or eating/drinking. Food cannot be self-served; it must be served by buffet attendants, and there must be a glass barrier between the attendants and the wedding guests. Perhaps the biggest deal-breaker for some engaged couples was the rule that prohibited dancing.
“Another significant thing is that we weren’t allowed to have second lines… and that is a huge part of weddings these days, as well as to-go drinks. Usually we’ll pour a cocktail for the guests, and they’ll go on a little parade around the neighborhood, and we haven’t been able to do that,” Jessica said. Second lines are just one of the many unique aspects of New Orleans that make people want to get married in the city. Both of Lisa’s kids wanted to incorporate New Orleans culture into their weddings. “With our son’s wedding, they did a second line. They had the umbrellas. They had New Orleans food. They had what was their [New Orleans’s] signature cocktail – Sazerac,” Lisa said. “Our daughter is also planning a second line… with the umbrellas and the little handkerchief things. And the food at our daughter’s wedding too is gonna be more of classic New Orleans rather than traditional wedding kind of food,” she went on.
Stephen and Tyler also plan on incorporating some New Orleans traditions into their wedding, such as a second line. “Our venue is on the fourth floor of a building where Cafe Beignet is on the first floor, so we’ve talked about having beignets to go at the end of the night, since it’s just downstairs,” Stephen said. However, whether or not there will be beignets at the couple’s wedding isn’t their biggest concern. The decision to postpone was an emotional experience for many reasons.
“The first time we called both of our parents together and said it out loud – I was a wreck. It was hard to admit, ‘Okay, this is not happening this year,’ even though we know it’s the right decision. It was still really hard,” Stephen said. “The week we decided all of that and postponed and sent out an announcement – it was also the week of George Floyd’s murder… There was a lot going on in the world, and we made sure to incorporate that in our announcement actually. So we emailed all of our guests to say, ‘This is being postponed until next year, and here’s a bunch of resources and action items…’ We got a lot of nice messages back, and hopefully people donated, took action, or something. So that was challenging, but also some positive things came out of that,” Stephen said.
The future of weddings in New Orleans remains up in the air. “I’m very optimistic about the future of the Elms… I think we’re going to see a shift to more outdoor events… I think things are going to look different. I think weddings are possibly going to be smaller – maybe focus a little more on the experience for a smaller group of people,” Jessica said. Meanwhile, Stephen and Tyler are still rolling with the punches. Lisa experienced both sides of the COVID weddings spectrum. While her son and his fiancé managed to organize a small, at-home wedding that exceeded their expectations, her family remains concerned about fulfilling her daughter’s dream wedding in the midst of COVID. In any case, flexibility and adaptivity are key when planning a COVID wedding.